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JEWISH JOURNEYS

Atlanta is Exemplary

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, Shinshinim Atlanta

Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) was in Atlanta last week to update an enthusiastic crowd at Federation on the current priorities of the Jewish Agency. In this time of resurgent antisemitism, Bougie shared what keeps him up at night. It’s the relentless attempt to delegitimize Israel on American college campuses. It’s the rise of white nationalism in the United States. It’s the popularity of Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain. It’s the instability of life for Jews in Latin America. It’s the attacks on synagogues and individuals in the U.S. and Europe.

But underlying all of this, Herzog worries that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are growing apart, and that without more exposure to each other, more opportunities to learn from each other, the Jewish people could experience a devastating rift. Herzog’s priority, as the leader of the agency that helped resettle 35,000 Jews in Israel last year, is to safeguard Israel as a home for world Jewry, and also to build bridges. He actually thinks Atlanta is doing a remarkably good job doing both.

In meetings with local rabbis, and the organizations that work with our Shinshinim, Herzog lauded Atlanta’s partnership with Yokneam and Megiddo calling it “one of the most successful Federation partnerships in Israel.” He singled out the Shinshinim program — a program created by the Jewish Agency for Israel — for the way it brings the positive message of modern Israel around the world.

As the forward face of the Jewish People, and an agency not controlled by the government of Israel, JAFI, plays a unique role telling Israel’s story. The agency is represented by three pillars: Global Aliyah, the Impact of the Jewish People, and Connecting Jews Worldwide.

The secret sauce of the Jewish people, he muses, is our ability to rally for each other. “Even Winston Churchill was impressed by the Jewish idea of the collective, the idea he believed helped keep the Jewish people together through the ages,” Herzog said.

Camp Szarvas

By COMMUNITY, GLOBAL JEWRY, Jewish Camp Initiative, JEWISH JOURNEYS

They’ll Never Take Being Jewish for Granted After Camp Szarvas

Gefen Beldie, who is a junior this year at Atlanta Jewish Academy, has spent most of her life in Israel and in the security of her Toco Hills community, where there are six synagogues within a mile of her house and where being Jewish is as easy as breathing.  Gefen never imagined the kinds of conversations she’d have as one of 19 U.S. teenagers accepted to attend Camp Szarvas, an international Jewish summer camp run by the JDC in Hungary and supported by Federation. Campers attend Szarvas from all over the world and for most of them it’s the most Jewish experience they’ve ever had.

“At Szarvas I found myself getting into intense conversations about identity, and I was up for it. I became friendly with a Czech girl who had very little exposure to Judaism. There are only two kosher restaurants in her whole country and her parents were actually reluctant to reveal their Jewish identity to her.  I could see that it was powerful for her to have an opportunity to live in a community of Jews for the first time in her life.”

For Shani Shapiro, one of this year’s Shinshinim from Zichron Yaakov, Israel, the experience of attending Camp Szarvas several years ago motivated her to apply for the Shinshinim program. At camp, where so many kids were getting their first taste of Judaism, she began introducing herself by saying, “Hi, I’m Shani, I’m Jewish.” Shani told of meeting a girl from Turkey who was sent to Szarvas by her parents. “She didn’t even know she was Jewish until she called them up and asked, ‘Why are things written in Hebrew here?’ This girl was shocked to learn about her identity. In Turkey it’s dangerous to be Jewish, she was literally starting from scratch.”

By contrast, Shani met kids from Moldova, a tiny country between Romania and Ukraine, who were strong in their Judaism and proud of it. That made an impression on her, too. “No one needs to tell me I am Jewish, but now I appreciate that some kids are afraid. I always dreamed of doing something bigger outside of Israel after high school,” Shani said. “Being part of Shinshinim Atlanta is opening my eyes to the American way of being Jewish.”

PJ Library Welcomes All

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

What’s a “typical Jewish family?” PJ Library understands that’s not a simple question. According to Sarah Bernstein, Federation’s Family Impact Associate, “Atlanta’s PJ Library families live ITP and OTP. They come from at least seven different countries, speak many languages, and represent LGBTQ+, interracial and interfaith households.” While free Jewish book subscriptions remain the centerpiece of the program, there’s a growing focus in Atlanta on PJ Library as a community-building tool. Both PJ Library and PJ Baby create community programs that connect young Jewish families, right in their neighborhoods. Ana Rodriguez, who is a PJ Baby Connector in Smyrna/Vinings, exemplifies family diversity. Born in Guatemala, Ana is a Jew by choice and is married to Andrew. Together they are raising Melanie, who is now three. In her role as a PJ Baby Connector, Ana has met and befriended many Jewish families. “PJ Library has helped me to create a strong Jewish community around the area where we live. I’m finding Jewish friends for Melanie, and for me.”

PJ Library has an institutional commitment to honor family diversity. Every event they offer bears this message:  All events are open to interfaith, LGBTQ+, multiracial and families and children of all abilities. “We want to make it possible for anyone to participate and find Jewish connections,” Sarah Bernstein says. “If you’re an observant family, we’ll tailor an event in your neighborhood that respects your needs. Recently we’ve been partnering with the Jewish Abilities Alliance and have adapted events for children with disabilities.”

Andrea Waldman appreciates the openness. “I wanted to have additional ways of connecting to Judaism in our home since we are not members of a synagogue. As same sex parents we potentially have more obstacles as my partner’s parents practice a different faith/religion. I have a solid Jewish background however, through PJ Library we have actually become even more open and understanding to all perspectives.”

PJ Library also honors family diversity with books published in Hebrew, Russian and Spanish. “I wanted my daughter to have the opportunity to read and know more about Jewish values, traditions, and holidays in a way that make sense to her,” Ana Rodriguez remembers. “I am raising Melanie bilingually, so when I first signed up for PJ Library, I asked if there were any books in Spanish and Nathan Brodsky, Federation’s Family Impact Manager, mailed me three books! I was so touched by that.”

Keeping Judaism Alive in Our Little Family

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

By the time my twins Megan and Brett were 14 months old, my marriage to their father was over. Their Dad isn’t Jewish, and after the divorce he was pretty detached from the kids. Suddenly, I was their everything. I realized it was up to me to keep Judaism alive in my little family.

Even before my divorce, I signed the twins up for PJ Library, and took them to Tot Shabbat at Kol Emeth. Later on I started looking into Big Brother programs for my son. You had to be at poverty level to qualify for these mentoring programs – but luckily, not for PAL, Atlanta’s only Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister program.

Amazing things happened the minute I met the PAL Program Manager, Carly Sonenshine, at JF&CS. She encouraged me to put both kids in the program and then matched us with our Big PALS — Bennett Ginburg for Brett, and Marni Bronstein for Megan. They take the kids to events, out for ice cream, and just have fun with them. To say my twins have bonded with them is an understatement.

A Big PAL fills in huge gaps for a single parent. They are friends in a way a parent can never be. Brett has ADHD and dyslexia and Bennett really understands it. Megan was nervous about going to Camp Coleman next summer, and Marni handled her anxiety beautifully.

Megan and Brett’s PALS give them one-on-one time I can never provide enough of. After three years with Bennett and Marni, they’ve found friends, role models and Jewish mentors for life.

If you think your family would benefit from the PAL program, learn more here.

By: Karen Bowen

Federation is proud to support the JF&CS PAL Program, which provides one-on-one mentoring relationships for children with trusted adults.

Finally Doing “Mommy” Things

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

Discovering A Jewish Life in Atlanta
by Rachel Sigman

Living in the south and being Jewish can make one feel a bit disconnected at times. I live in the diaspora of Woodstock, and if you are Jewish up here, you won’t have everyone you meet inviting you over for Shabbat dinner.  That’s what I was able to expect in Miami and in New York, but here, not so much. Here, I am lucky if I can find Hanukkah candles when Hanukkah rolls around. Here, there is no synagogue nearby.

So it’s a miracle that adopting our son Jack was the best Jewish thing that my husband, Darryl and I have ever done.  He is a perfect little baby boy and has brought us immeasurable joy already.  Jack will turn one in March and watching him grow and achieve milestones brings our little family so much nachas (joy). As an older mother, it has also been a small miracle to finally meet other Jewish moms and build a Jewish life with this beautiful boy. PJ Library helped make that happen. I knew very little about PJ Library until a friend of mine signed me up for free Jewish books, just after we were matched with a birthmother. PJ Library brings Jewish families together and gives our kids a sense of Jewish community. Now I know I don’t have to move back to New York or Boca Raton. I can live in Woodstock and still be part of a large Jewish network.

I met my husband Darryl on JDate. He was also from New York and our families lived less than an hour away from each other in Florida. Darryl was raised in a Conservative family. I had gone to Hebrew school, had been to Israel, and even attended a seminary in Crown Heights. Darryl was working in the corporate office in Home Depot for 15 years already when we met. I was an elementary school teacher. Neither of us were practicing much at the time, but we both identified as Jewish.  We fell in love and got married.  It was bashert (pre-ordained).

Like many older couples, shortly after we married we discovered that we had some fertility issues.  We considered in vitro fertilization, but failed attempts at pregnancy and heartbreak sounded so bleary to me. Darryl’s father Fred suggested adoption to me many years ago. I loved that idea but did not yet have the gumption to make it happen.  Shortly after Fred’s death I turned 42 and realized that if I didn’t have a baby soon, it would never happen. I decided to commit every fiber of my being into becoming a mom. I pushed Darryl to go through the adoption process with me, knowing that he would one day thank me (he did).  In less than a year, we became mom and dad.

Our first PJ Library book came shortly after Jack was born.  A woman who used to volunteer in my classroom through Federation brought me a slew of books from PJ library for Jack.  I knew I wanted to raise my son as a Jew and made sure to give him a kosher bris so that when the time came, his conversion into the fold would be joyous and painless.  I had stopped doing Jewish things before Jack was born, but now I was eager to do mommy things.  When Hanukkah rolled around, I began looking at Facebook events and saw a familiar name: PJ Library!  PJ Library North Fulton was hosting a small Hanukkah party. Darryl and I took little Jack and it was there that I met Abby Adler and Leah Stinson, who are PJ Library Connectors.

Leah and I met for coffee.  She told me more about the wonderful programs that PJ Library does for young children, even children Jack’s age. I joined the Facebook page for PJ Library North Fulton and since then have taken little Jack to many Jewish events. Babies and toddlers play side by side at these events while parents schmooze and get to know one another.  Sometimes we meet at a preschool where children get to play in all the classrooms.  Sometimes there is an event where a craft is involved or where doing mitzvot is encouraged.  I met several moms who have children Jack’s age who are committed to raising their children in a Jewish home. Some moms have held playdates in their homes.  I am meeting some very nice people and hope to establish and maintain friendships for our little family.

Who could have guessed that a little baby, born in Arkansas, would be the spark that connected me to my Jewish roots. I know that adopting a baby from a non-Jewish birthmother means that it is up to the adoptive family to decide if they want to raise their child in a Jewish home. For me, there is no doubt that I want Jack to live a Jewish life. Finally, I feel that I can. I wish you could see how Jack’s face lights up and how he claps his little hands to his favorite song, Hava Nagila. To me it’s proof that he already has a Jewish soul.

Books to Feed the Russian Soul

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

Meet Our Russian PJ Library Connectors

Meet Masha Vaynman and Lana Severinsky, two Russian-speaking Jewish moms who are PJ Library’s newest Connectors. Both are long-time PJ Library subscribers who love how free monthly books bring Jewish traditions into their homes. Now, thanks to a grant from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a foundation focused on developing Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews, they’re using PJ Library as a platform to build and engage Atlanta’s Russian-Jewish community.

Masha and Lana estimate that there are as many as 26 thousand Russians in metro Atlanta and that around 50% of them claim some Jewish heritage. Many are married to non-Jews and know very little about Judaism, but are eager to learn by reading Jewish-themed books with their children. These parents also wish to keep the Russian language alive in their homes. PJ Library books in Russian and in English are great vehicles for both.

“Books are so important to the Russian soul and psyche,” Lana explains. “You simply cannot find a Russian-Jewish family without books.” “So many Russian Jews were intellectuals in Russian society. They actually took their books along when they left,” Masha adds.

Nathan Brodsky, Federation’s Family Impact Manager, has watched the PJ Library program grow in Atlanta and sees a great opportunity in the Russian-speaking community. “PJ Library is built on supporting families’ abilities to form strong connections with other families. We offer over 200 opportunities for families to connect in-person each year, often bound by geography or age-range, and we are eager to expand to now support the Russian-speaking community.”