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What Binds Us is Bigger Than What Divides Us

By Eric's Blog

I’m writing this month’s blog from Israel where Mark and Linda Silberman, Renee Evans, Margo and Larry Gold, Seth Greenberg and I are attending the 70th annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations, better known as The GA. It’s my third trip to Israel this year and, as always, it’s great to be home. I arrived feeling buoyed by all the ways our Atlanta community has built stronger bridges to Israel this year and how we are moving towards what our Front Porch work calls Global Jewish Peoplehood.

But I wouldn’t be an honest reporter if I didn’t acknowledge that this year’s GA has generated some controversy. For one thing, there’s the conference theme, Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk. Some feel it focuses only on a liberal critique of what divides us, ignoring the attitudes and realities of life in Israel today. And there’s unhappiness about the conference location, Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem. We are in Israel to honor 70 years of Israeli independence. However, this is the first time in many years that the GA has convened Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. Now that the current U.S. administration has officially moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some feel it’s an insult.

I’ll reserve judgement until the GA is over, but I believe deeper dialogue is precisely what we need.

Before we left for Israel I heard from some of you about a provocative  Op Ed in The Jerusalem Post by Caroline Glick, a journalist, author, and former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As if the divide in American politics isn’t painful enough, her sharp critique of the GA was aimed directly at the Jewish communal world, and it hurt.

Politics aside, I often worry that the biggest challenge facing our community is simply getting folks to pay attention. The fact that Jews in Atlanta read, question and are immersed in the current events of our discourse makes me proud, and it undoubtedly makes our community stronger.

It brings to mind the many initiatives we’ve undertaken to deepen our ties with Israel — the Israeli Innovation Accelerator program for women, the English language Kefiada day camp we ran in Yokneam and Megiddo this past summer, our Israel@70 Celebration, our five successful missions to Israel, and the remarkable Shinshinim program which has exploded from two post-high school Israelis educators who lived here in 2018-19, to eight young Israelis this year! These young Israelis taught our kids in our day schools and preschools, in our camps and at community events. They shared so much about life in Israel, about their commitment to the IDF when they return, and their pride in Israeli resilience and innovation.

But it’s a two-way street. Atlanta taught the Shinshinim so much about American Judaism. Last weekend at a barbecue to welcome our eight new Shinshinim. Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, asked them, what was the most surprising thing about life in Atlanta. It wasn’t the comforts of Atlanta suburbs or the abundance of American supermarkets. “We had no idea there were so many ways to be Jewish!” they said. Let that sink in for a minute.

I know in my heart and in my soul that what binds us is much stronger than what divides us. So yes, if it was up to me, I would have chosen a different title for this year’s GA. But in the end, the meeting will succeed or fail based on the willingness of Israelis and Diaspora Jews to engage, to open their minds and to widen their perspectives. We have a long “to do” list here at home, but getting the relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jews right for the next hundred years will have a defining impact on the collective future. Let’s keep talking!

Give Us Shelter

By Eric's Blog

It’s just about impossible not to love Sukkot. The seven-day Jewish “festival of booths” which comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, celebrates the harvest and the miraculous protection G-d provided for our people when we left Egypt. We celebrate by building, decorating, and dwelling in shelters called sukkahs, fragile little huts whose roofs are made of natural vegetation and deliberately open to the sky. Here in Atlanta, the weather is incredible and we’re still harvesting the last tomatoes, peppers, and herbs that will be on our Sukkot menu. Ana, Sasha, and I enjoy having friends and family over for meals in our sukkah and we love to go sukkah hopping — filling our dance card all week at the homes of friends. Sukkot is glorious, but the fragility of the sukkah also illuminates the ups and downs of life. And nobody knows that better than Atlanta’s homeless population. For them, late September means it will soon be shelter season, as most Atlanta shelters open to the homeless October through April.

Shelter is elemental. Hurricane Florence showed last week how vulnerable our homes are to extreme weather. That’s why I’m especially proud of our Jewish community’s work to rise up around homelessness in Atlanta and the way we responded again to people displaced by the hurricane. My congregation, Shearith Israel, has run a women’s shelter, now called Rebecca’s Tent, for the past 32 years. It began in 1983 during a frigid winter in Atlanta when Shearith Israel’s rabbi realized that homeless women needed help. He approached Helen Spiegel, a member of the congregation whose family had fled to the United States in the wake of the Holocaust. Helen’s intimate experience with displacement helped establish a safe home with beds for seven “guests.” Today, Rebecca’s Tent supports thirteen women and provides ongoing supportive services and job training for them to build independent lives. Last season the shelter helped 60% of their guests transition to employment and more stable housing.

It takes more than 400 volunteers a year to keep Rebecca’s Tent running. Volunteers serve meals, prepare sack lunches, clean the kitchen and prepare the evening meal for residents. My daughter Sasha and I have done it together and it’s always a meaningful experience. Volunteer by calling Tasho Wesley, 404-873-3147, and Rebecca’s Tent will find a way for you to get involved.

The Temple’s Zaban Paradies Center (ZPC) on Peachtree Street also fills an important niche by helping Atlanta’s homeless couples find shelter. Founded in 1984 as the Temple Zaban Night Shelter, it was the first and only shelter that did not separate homeless couples, whether married or not. Today the ZPC assists couples who want to transition from homelessness to resettlement, providing case management services, laundry, financial management training, a well-stocked clothing closet, and more. Here too, there are many ways to help — volunteers can teach computer skills, they cook and/or serve evening meals, mentor residents on financial literacy, and help find employment opportunities. These are beautiful opportunities to perform a mitzvah. Sign up to volunteer here.

While Atlanta’s overall homeless population has dropped, high poverty and income inequality make our city one of the neediest in America, especially for veterans and families. Gentrification and rising Intown rents are driving people into extended stay motels and the shelter system. Life is fragile!

The rabbis tell us that a sukkah must be stable enough to live in for a week, but sufficiently unstable so that it will not be mistaken for a permanent home. Permanence, according to the Talmud, is conveyed by the ability to live a full and dignified life year-round, not just for a week. This season as we celebrate G-d’s bounty and share our good fortune under the sukkah, let us never forget the cry of Isaiah to “take the poor into your homes.” Dignity. Permanence. Independence. Let these values inform the prayers we say during Sukkot and all year long.

Becoming Our Best Selves

By Eric's Blog

These waning days of the month of Elul signal that Rosh Hashanah and 5779 will soon be here. I look forward to this season of introspection that runs up until Yom Kippur. And I love when after midnight, on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, Jews begin reciting Selichot, Hebrew prayers of forgiveness, putting us collectively into a mindset of setting intentions for the coming year. Notice that I said, intentions.  I make a distinction between the resolutions we make on December 31, and the authentically Jewish way of embracing change at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As Jews we commit to change and the repair of relationships through tshuvah, which is not simply repentance, but also the revelatory idea of returning to our true and best selves. This is how Iframe my soul work for the high holidays.

What does tshuvah and repair mean for our wider Jewish community? How does our collective work this past year on The Front Porch reveal where we can grow and how we must also return and be faithful to our core values? Here’s my sense of what we can build on, using our strengths to become an even more vibrant and relevant Jewish Atlanta.

  • Keep our commitments to strengthen each other.
    How to build on it: The Community Campaign is the engine that powers all of Jewish Atlanta. It’s how we engage, care for, connect and strengthen each other. So, we must prioritize the unrestricted campaign and widen our donor base, but we also need bigger vision for generating generosity. I want to see us grow Jewish philanthropy in Atlanta through legacy giving and investments in Atlanta Jewish Foundation. We’ll keep diversifying ways for donors to support their personal interests in the Jewish community. This is what it means for Federation to become a Philanthropic Champion for the whole community.

Our institutional infrastructure is impressive, but we must be open to using brick and mortar spaces in new ways — what programs can we locate in our synagogues during the week, in our day schools after 3:00 pm? Let’s think about redistributing Jewish services to bring them closer to where people already are. How can we leverage technology to bring people together and strengthen neighborhood connections where people already live? How can we deploy more people as warm connectors and “concierges” who can expand our outreach. We have amazing camps — let’s send more kids there, and while we’re at it, let’s create more camp options for immersive Jewish summers.

  • Open our minds to innovation.
    How to build on it: Atlanta already has an innovative culture. Our Jewish community has caught the spirit and is becoming a laboratory for the new ideas and initiatives Jewish Atlanta needs. Let’s keep nourishing promising prototypes and awarding startup grants to local innovators. Here at Federation we hold a monthly FedLab to generate new ideas, we’ve hired our first ever VP of Innovation, and we’ve created two elementATL co-working spaces on the BeltLine and in Dunwoody to foster collaboration and idea generation.

We must turn up the juice on how we welcome people and become a radically welcoming Jewish community! I want to see openness and welcome become the prevailing culture in all our organizations. It means moving from thinking there is just one way to be Jewish, or that affiliation and membership are the only ways to measure engagement, to new options. Let’s explore pay-as-you-go models for engagement to put living Jewishly in reach for everyone. I’d love to see more families find scholarship support for our day schools, and more families gaining access to supplemental Jewish education. Let’s also change our language so we’re not just talking to ourselves, but instead inviting all Jews and their loved ones to learn, participate and feel part of our community.

  • Deepen our connections with Israel and Jews around the world.
    How to build on it: In the coming year we’ll see more people-to-people partnerships with our global Jewish community affirming that Jews are all one people, one family. We’re committed to care for our people, wherever they live. We’re taking our second Atlanta mission to Cuba and Atlanta students volunteer to be summer counselors in Eastern European Jewish camps that build Jewish identity. We’ll use Israeli innovation and resilience to inspire us. Starting in October a new Atlanta/Israel Accelerator is helping a select group of women launch startups for the good of the whole community, using Israeli style tactics, and business models. We’ve expanded the Shinshinim (young educators) program from two students last year, to eight students. They’ve just arrived in Atlanta to connect our schools and camps with the vibrant culture and spirit of Israel. They’re living with host families all around town and their enthusiasm is infectious. And how cool is it that the Maccabi Games will be hosted at our own MJCCA at the end of July 2019.

These are not “resolutions,” they are intentions for how I want to make 5779 a year of Jewish community health, fulfillment, prosperity and growth. Our Jewish Atlanta is magnificent — brimming with opportunities for spiritual growth, service and connection. For these coming holy days, my hope is that every one of us finds a pathway and a place for nourishment, wholeness, and renewal right here in this community.

Ana, Sasha and I wish you, shanah tovah — all the sweetness the new year can bring!

The Front Porch Era

By Eric's Blog

Michael Jacobs, editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, paid our community a great compliment when he wrote that Israel@70 heralded the beginning of “The Front Porch Era.” I believe that Michael was acknowledging a spirit of fresh thinking, innovation and collaboration that really seems to be taking hold in Jewish Atlanta.

Federation is still focused on its core mission to develop financial resources, build the Jewish community and address critical human needs, but we are changing. I believe we’re “showing up differently” around town. You can see it in an unprecedented number of partnerships where agencies, schools and synagogues are sharing resources, physical space and professional talents. You can feel it in the way we are investing in innovation. We’re also working very hard to become a warmer, more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. Judaism is our treasure and we want to open new doors that inspire Jewish learning, connect people and engage them in meaningful experiences across the entire community.

Our Director of Community Planning and Impact, Amy Glass, recently attended a meeting at Temple Sinai which has been doing pioneering work on inclusion for people with disabilities. She was thrilled that Sinai and the Jewish Abilities Alliance had convened the meeting for all our synagogues, schools and organizations to share best practices.

Atlanta’s PJ Library Program, which sends 2,500 free Jewish books each month to Atlanta families, understands that PJ is about more than books, it’s about family impact. They’ve now engaged three “PJ Baby Connectors” who reach out to young families with children ages 0-3 in Smyrna-Vinings and North Metro. Connectors set up gatherings and playdates, introducing Jewish and interfaith moms and dads to other moms and dads, building Jewish community, neighborhood by neighborhood.

New Jewish ideas are bubbling up all over town through the Jewish Innovation Fund and The Front Porch Prototype Boot Camp process. We now have five “coaches” who are helping about 20 prototype groups move their ideas forward on a small scale and potentially scale them up. It’s a fresh new mindset that makes space for innovation, and honors the idea that even if prototypes are unsuccessful we learn from them.

Did you know that there are now two Jewish co-working spaces and collaboration spaces on the BeltLine? ElementATL, located at 691 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, offers day passes and monthly desk space, as well as space for meetings and events. Reserve a spot at bookings@elementatl.com. Chabad Intown’s Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman is also developing a co-working and event space at 730 Ponce de Leon Place, targeting young Jewish professionals. We’re having great conversations with Chabad about joining forces to maximize our Jewish impact Intown.

Other communities are noticing what Atlanta is doing. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it was very cool to learn that Pittsburgh’s Federation joked about launching an initiative called The Front Stoop, and a Federation in Florida is playing around with “The Lanai” as a community transformation platform.

I hope you’ll join us on June 13 at Federation’s 112th Annual meeting, at Atlanta Jewish Academy. You’ll hear more about change and possibility, and we’ll formally share The Front Porch vision for a more connected 21st century Jewish Atlanta. Everyone’s invited! The Front Porch era is just beginning and it’s exciting. Come and be part of it!

Israel@70 – Why We Need Israel

By Eric's Blog

Growing up in Pittsburgh’s most Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, Israel always made my heart swell. When I sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, there was a catch in my throat at the words, “lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu…” to be a free people in our land. My pride was rooted in Israel’s inspiring story of nation-building, resilience, and creativity. And it still is.

So as Israel’s 70th birthday approaches, I have a radical thought. Maybe, just maybe, Atlanta needs Israel more than Israel needs us. Here’s what I mean.

I mean that we all need to put Israel on our destination travel list. If you haven’t been to Israel in 10 years or more, you really haven’t been to Israel. So much has changed. Federation offers incredible opportunities to see Israel with fresh eyes. See our mission list at www.jewishatlanta.org/missions and come to Israel with us. You will be powerfully moved and impressed by what you see and the people you meet.

I mean that all of us can be uplifted by Israel’s innovation mindset that refuses to say “no,” to big challenges. That mindset turned sea water into drinking water, invented drip irrigation, created the first USB flash drive, and the WAZE app. Let’s build more reciprocal relationships with Israeli innovators and change makers so we can collaborate on big ideas that make the world better.

I mean that we can all be inspired by the prosperous, successful and capable Israel I have now visited so many times since becoming CEO of Federation. It’s an Israel still grateful for our support, but less reliant on us than ever before, solving problems with its own resources and ingenuity. We are moving to a peer relationship, not a purely philanthropic one, and it feels good!

I mean that we must reach out and build stronger relationships with Atlanta’s Israeli community, estimated at 10,000 and still growing. Let’s find more ways for Israelis and Atlantans to interact and truly know each other. This year we welcomed two young Israelis, Or Shahan and Lior Bar, to our community as Shinshinim – service volunteers. In just 7 months they’ve interacted with 1,000 kids in our camps, preschools and day schools. They’ve had real impact. Next year we’re welcoming eight Shinshinim to Atlanta.

I mean that everyone can take a lesson in resilience from Israel. This tiny nation has mastered the ability to rebound from terrorism and live with the constant threat of attack, and now teaches the world how to do the same. The Israel Trauma Center, which our Community Leadership trip visited in February, has helped tsunami and earthquake victims, even the Las Vegas and Parkland shooting survivors.

I mean that there’s tremendous wisdom for all of us in the Torah texts and bible stories that every Israeli school child knows, even the secular ones. Torah is not just for “the Orthodox.” Let’s build our Jewish literacy. One pillar of our work on The Front Porch is that Torah can be a manual for living for every Jew, no matter what their level of observance or literacy.

I mean that we should all take pride in the progress our partnership cities Yokneam and Megiddo have made in assimilating Ethiopian refugees since the early 1990’s. Yes, Federation support played a part, but the bigger story is Yokneam’s attitude of acceptance and commitment to a better future for Ethiopians. We’re excited to share that story in a new film about the Ethiopian Aliyah in Yokneam and Megiddo that Federation will preview this summer.

I mean that we must make it a priority help young Jews have an authentic and unique relationship with Israel. Let’s create safe spaces where we can have dialogue about Israel respecting all points of view. Let’s do it through immersive exchange programs, through Birthright Israel offshoots like Honeymoon Israel and through internships for college students like Hillel’s Onward program.

I write all this as our Atlanta Jewish community gets ready to throw a big, bold and beautiful 70th birthday bash for Israel on Sunday, April 29 at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park from 10:30 am to 4 pm. There will be food, music, technology, art projects, exhibits and sports — something for everyone! More than 70 organizations have planned Israel@70. What a great opportunity to come together and celebrate the miracle, and the complexity, that is the modern State of Israel. Tickets are priced so everyone can come, including a flat $18 for family groups with kids. You can buy tickets online at https://jewishatlanta.org/israel70.

Don’t miss the party! I look forward to seeing you at Park Tavern on Sunday.

A Crucial Doorway

By Eric's Blog

I’ve always believed that volunteerism and service are powerful pathways to Jewish engagement. Our learning from The Front Porch affirms it, too — Torah is the birthright of all Jews, and it comes alive for people when they engage in meaningful volunteer service that’s infused with Jewish learning and values. This is why we’ve been in collaborative discussions with Repair the World, a nonprofit dedicated meaningful service for young adults. We want to bring their model of immersive, impactful volunteering to Atlanta. Repair recruits courageous and compassionate young leaders to become Fellows who spend a year embedded in high-need communities. They address social inequity through sustained local service and developing partnerships with local organizations around issues like education and food justice. So I’m beyond thrilled to say that Repair the World is opening an Atlanta office. (And also looking for a full time Director).

Repair is already on the ground serving Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Miami and New York. They’re just what we need in Atlanta, and their partnership model aligns perfectly with what The Front Porch is process is telling us to do — make more transformative Jewish experiences available to people who are ready to re-engage through value-driven Jewish service.  Jodi Mansbach and Michael Kay are Repair the World board members, and they’ve been champions for bringing Repair to Atlanta. Thanks to both!

Repair’s Board Chair, Larry Brooks, recently shared news about the organization’s impact in eJewishPhilanthropy.  “In the 2013-14 program year, RTW Fellows engaged 3,600 unique participants in their communities. By 2016-17, the number of unique participants grew to 25,000 – of whom a strong majority are coming back repeatedly and reporting increased understanding of Jewish values, while 80% of local partners report increasing their capacity through the volunteers. Repair achieved this level of growth and impact not only by measuring and assessing results at the end of each year, but, more importantly, by aggressively targeting and testing the future potential of the Communities program. By 2022 Repair now aims to engage 180,000 unique volunteers – while growing the power of the program on both volunteers and partners. This is measurable impact.”

Can you see why I’m excited? In Repair, we’ve found a perfect partner to make meaningful and impactful community service available to more young adults.

No matter where you live in Jewish Atlanta, no matter how Jewishly connected (or unconnected) you feel, I deeply believe that community service is a crucial doorway to Jewish meaning. I hope you will consider engaging with Repair the World in the coming year. Ana, Sasha and I wish you all a chag kasher v’sameach – a Passover that is celebrated with intention, meaning, and joy.

The Ultimate Learning Journey – Israel

By Eric's Blog

In just a few days, a diverse group of 70 Atlanta Jewish community leaders, representing more than 30 organizations, big and small, will have arrived in Tel Aviv for the ultimate Front Porch Learning Journey — an immersive week in Israel. It’s a challenge to simply get 70 busy Atlantans together in one room, so bringing this group to Israel is nothing short of a miracle. Individually, we are a mixed multitude of community volunteers, rabbis, program directors, and change makers from every stream of Judaism. Collectively, we are The Front Porch in Israel — #TFPinIsrael if you want to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and I hope you will.

We are traveling to Israel with a unique kavannah(intention), not as tourists, but as curious and committed partners. We have a mindset to build bonds as a community of leaders, affirm and deepen our ties to Israel, and immerse ourselves in Israeli innovation. Our trip has no time allotted for shopping or sightseeing, but it does include time for difficult conversations, for small group work and personal reflection. As we coalesce as a group, we’ll be creating a precious infrastructure of human capital and relationships, so that when we come home, we’ll be primed and ready to co-create the 21st century Jewish community Atlanta needs to become.

In my view, this is the most consequential trip Jewish Atlanta has ever undertaken. We’re going to Tel Aviv, Lod, Yokneam, Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, the Belz Synagogue, meeting with Palestinian peace activitists, and touring an IDF field hospital. Our itinerary plows new ground, connecting us with latest Israeli experiences on immigrant absorption, urban renewal, technology, senior care, LGBTQ communities, and the challenge of religious pluralism. Every day we’ll be reflecting on what we’ve seen and extracting big insights — what are the big shifts from 20th to 21st century Israel? What is our responsibility to each other? What would a “living bridge” between Atlanta and Israel look like?

Here’s a sample day from our itinerary:

Monday, January 29:
VisitTaglit Innovation Center, a major player in Israeli research and development and entrepreneurship. Stop at Impact Labs to understand how the outsized impact of Israeli innovation has met human needs around the world.
Exploration ofJindas Urban Regeneration, a project in the multi-cultural city of Lod to promote the city’s vitality as a model for success in Israel and its influence on surrounding neighborhoods.

And that’s just the first day!

As Atlantans, we’re tremendously proud to be the home of one of the most vibrant, and diverse communities in North America – just ask any of the 10,000 Israelis who have moved here to study or work and experience our way of life. Now it is our chance to turn the camera on Israel, to travel with hearts and eyes wide open, and bring our insights home. We can’t wait to report back to you and share what we’ve seen, what we’ve felt, and how it has changed us.