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Feeling at Home, Far from Home

By Atlanta Jewish Community, Global News, Jewish Journeys, Shinshinim Atlanta

Feeling at Home, Far From Home
by Itay Yekutiel, Israel Shinshin

My experience as a Shinshin (young Israeli emissary) in Atlanta for the past two months can be expressed through the song by the Israeli band, Hatikva 6.  The song begins with a guy saying, “Here I am. I came to the world to give the time. Hello everyone, I’m ready!” He asks himself, “What is my purpose in this world?” It brings me back to the day I boarded a plane to Atlanta with seven other Shinshinim and went on the journey of a lifetime. We landed in Atlanta and it took me a long time to realize, here I am, this is what I’ve been waiting for so long! Every place we visit, and every person I talk to, just adds more to my experience, my journey, and my life.

Originally I am from Tel Aviv, but shortly before I came to Atlanta my family moved to Holon, a small city near Tel Aviv.  Here in Atlanta I live in Toco Hills, a diverse neighborhood with many different types of people and different religious communities. It’s fun to see the differences, and also to see how everyone looks and acts like one big community. My hosts are the Gal family — wonderful people, with parents Erica and Raanon, and four lovely children, very similar to my family in Israel. It really feels like my house. They love me and their home feels like mine. I never believed I would feel so at home in a place so far from home!

I had a lot of apprehensions about coming here, like how will the high holidays be? And how will the prayers be? And how different is it from home? But the truth is, it’s not that different, and it’s not that strange — it’s very similar! As an observant Jew living in Atlanta within the Jewish community, I arrived with many questions and saw a lot of new things. For example, in the synagogue, the partition between men and women is very different. In Israel, the men are usually downstairs and the women upstairs, or sitting behind the men. The second thing I saw was that the women said the blessing over the challah, which in Eretz Yisrael does not happen. Also, on Sukkot there were women who handled the four species. There is a lot of equality between men and women in many things, this is the main difference that I noticed.

Much of our volunteering happens at schools. At first I thought to myself, “What? Every morning I have to get up early and go back to school? Didn’t I just graduate high school?” And the truth is that all I thought I’d learned about myself and about life has been rediscovered here. Each lesson feels significant, and every hour of the day, even my free time, is important and adds to the great puzzle of my journey.

I’m loving Atlanta — the people, the atmosphere, the culture, the food, the music, everything! The most positive experience I’ve had so far was the evening all the Shinshinim went to the BeltLine Lantern Parade, and as we walked there, we heard songs in Hebrew. We saw that there was a Chabad community singing near a sukkah, so we started dancing and singing with them. We felt like a family and it was a moment of fun and happiness and connection to the country in the best way possible!

As a Shinshin, it’s fun to be in the center with everyone asking questions and being interested in hearing about our lives in Israel. Yet slowly I have the thought of “this journey is going to end very quickly.” I always think that time is running away from me. So I go back to the words of Hatikvah 6 and the line, “And everything is before me” For me, the truth is that everything really is before me and my journey has just begun!

Learning from and Loving Yuval

By Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, Shinshinim Atlanta

by The Levy Family

When Atlanta Shinshinit (feminine form of Shinshin) Yuval Modan moved into our guest room in October, our entire family fell in love with this poised, mature, and beautiful 18-year-old young woman from Hod HaSharon, Israel. This is Yuval’s first time in the U.S., and her first time away from home, but you’d never know it. She is friendly and adaptable, like a puzzle piece that fits in and completes our family. She has created a special relationship with each one of us.

For Sydney, our 11th grader, Yuval is like a sister. “She has been teaching us Hebrew and sharing her Israeli traditions with our family. Molly braids challah with her most Fridays, Jordan watches Grey’s Anatomy with her, and I spend hours talking to her about our life experiences. Through bonding with Yuval, I have learned about her high school life in Israel and her passion for the scouts. She has introduced us to Israeli games and food.”

My husband Sam and I agree — Yuval has become our Israeli daughter.

Our family hasn’t had much exposure to Israel. I haven’t been since 1995. My husband Sam’s second trip to Israel was last January, on the Community Leadership trip, and Jordy went to Israel with Davis Academy. Yuval has changed all that. This summer Sydney is going to Israel with Camp Judaea and is already thinking about doing a gap year in Israel after high school. Yuval will be working at Camp Barney Medintz this summer while Sydney is there. I believe that Yuval’s positive experience in Atlanta gives Sydney the confidence to go to Israel on her own. What a gift!

Yuval teaches us all the time. Not just about Israeli food and culture and language, but about how to be an ambassador. In turn, I think we’ve provided a wonderful nest for her in our home. Teenagers are at their most vulnerable when away from home. If you open your arms and your heart to a Shinshin, you’ll give a gift to your family.

When she left for Atlanta, Yuval’s mom said, “Don’t fall in love with America or you might not come home.” I totally understand her mom’s worry. But I know Yuval’s love for Israel is deep. She can’t wait to serve in the army and is passionate about her land. We are excited to welcome Yuval’s family for Passover at our home — all of them, except her oldest brother, who is serving in the army, will be here soon.  It brings our families full circle and sets up a lifelong friendship for all of us.

Shinshinim Atlanta brings 18-year-old Israeli high school graduates to Atlanta for a year of service. If this story touched you, consider welcoming a Shinshin into your own home next school year. Find out more about hosting here, or contact Ezra Flom, Shinshinim Atlanta Director at 562-234-6609.

Atlanta is Exemplary

By Atlanta Jewish 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 in 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 Atlanta Jewish Community, Global News, 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 Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, PJ Library Atlanta

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 Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, PJ Library Atlanta

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 Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, PJ Library Atlanta

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 Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, PJ Library Atlanta

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.”

ALEF Made Day School Possible

By ALEF Fund, CARING, Jewish Journeys, People in Need, PHILANTHROPY

Educated and Empowered, Thanks to ALEF Fund

J. is a single parent and a survivor of domestic violence. She receives no financial support from her ex-husband, who was her abuser, and works very hard to make ends meet. One of the joys of her life is that her daughter is getting an incredible Jewish day school education at Atlanta Jewish Academy, thanks to scholarship support from ALEF Fund.

“When I moved back to Atlanta from out of state, I was pretty broken from my marriage,” she remembers. “As we looked at school options, I had concerns. Our zoned public school has an open campus and it worried me that someone could easily walk into the building off the street. When you’ve been in an abusive marriage you learn to be hyper vigilant and protective. I was thrilled to find a position at Atlanta Jewish Academy.  The school was everything I dreamed of for my daughter — amazing facilities, Hebrew language instruction, Jewish values, and great campus security, with gates and intercoms and a culture of vigilance. But the cost of tuition put it out of reach.  Then I heard about ALEF Fund.”

“When I learned about the ALEF Fund state tax credit, I opted in right away. “It makes me so happy to know that by participating in ALEF Fund I am paying it forward for others like me who depend on tuition help for Jewish schools. My small contribution helps fund substantial scholarships, so it feels like a win-win! I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it!”

“My daughter is thriving at her school and every day she teaches me something new about Judaism. We were at Six Flags recently and she heard a family speaking another language, which she recognized as Hebrew. She went right up to them and introduced herself in Hebrew! The father was so impressed with her language skills. I was blown away!”

“I was lucky to attend Hebrew Academy as a child in Atlanta. It gave me foundational Jewish literacy and taught me to read and write Hebrew. Now my daughter has surpassed me in her Jewish education. I am so grateful to ALEF Fund, for opening these doors for my daughter. Knowing that she is educated and empowered is everything to me!”

Georgia taxpayers have until December 31, 2019 to make a 2020 pledge to ALEF Fund and redirect a portion of their GA state taxes to become scholarships at 18 Jewish day schools, preschools and high schools. Questions? Contact Nicole Flom right away!

What Does Secular Judaism Mean?

By Atlanta Birthright Community Trips, Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Journeys, NextGen Atlanta
Robin in isreal - jewish atlanta

By: Robin Glaubman

Just six weeks ago I traveled to Israel for the first time with 38 strangers on Atlanta’s Birthright Israel summer trip. Quite honestly, I’d never been around so many Jews in my life! I grew up never going to synagogue, attending one Passover seder, one bar mitzvah, and the only Jewish holiday we ever celebrated was Hanukkah. Still, I have always strongly identified as Jewish. I’ve called myself a Heritage Jew, meaning that I was not a religious Jew. The concept of being a “secular” Jew wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. I didn’t realize before the trip that it was yet another way to be Jewish.

Our Birthright bus ranged from people who attended synagogue every week and spoke Hebrew, to myself and eight others who struggled through a phonetic pronunciation of the Torah blessings during our bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies in Jerusalem, and just about every shade of observance in between. When we arrived in Israel we were told to make the trip about ourselves. Not to be self-absorbed, but to make sure we were experiencing our own authentic Jewish journey.  It was good advice. I never felt like my opinion wasn’t valid or didn’t want to be heard. I never felt like any less of a Jew than anyone else on the trip.

One night I had a conversation with a fellow secular Jew that really stands out in my mind. We were debating what were the most important aspects of being Jewish. Raising Jewish families? Supporting Israel? Studying Torah? His ideas startled me. And his definition of what is a secular Jew challenged me deeply.

For many years growing up he’d attended a havurah, which I learned is not a synagogue, but a group of people who get together for Shabbat and holidays, usually without a rabbi. He spoke some Hebrew, and he had a bar mitzvah at age thirteen. This shocked me! How could you call yourself a secular Jew and be so involved, so connected to Judaism as a religion. His definition of secular vs. religious hinged on whether or not a person believes in G-d.  He also implied that he could not be considered ‘religious’ because he was not Orthodox. This too shocked me. Growing up he was surrounded by Orthodox Jews, so that was what religious Judaism looked like to him.

To me, he was one of the most Jewishly connected people I’d ever met. I may have been one of the least connected Jews he’d ever met. And yet here we were in Israel, on a trip for Jewish young adults, attempting to reconcile some very macro-level questions of what it means to be Jewish. These were big conversations for me. And they’re big conversations for all of us.

While each day of Birthright was filled with a whirlwind of hikes, history lessons, monuments, water activities and limitless information, this conversation remains my biggest takeaway. There are no bad Jews. There are no lesser Jews. We all do Judaism differently and we all do it right. By making the trip about my own Jewish journey, I found a place in Judaism that I could call my own.

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