Campaign chair spends week in Israel, learning how Federation touches lives overseas
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
Back from an emotional week-long mission trip to Israel, Jewish Federation of Jacksonville Campaign Chair and First Vice President Ken Jacobs now has a greater appreciation for how Jewish federations make a difference in the lives of Jews overseas and in our homeland. Jacobs spent seven impactful days at the beginning of July as part of the Jewish Federations of North America's (JFNA) second annual campaign worker's trip to Israel.
"This particular mission had never been done before until last summer and it was the brainchild of our very own (executive director) Alan Margolies," Jacobs said. "He was extremely instrumental in the planning for it, the vision for it and what the overarching goals would be."
There were two main goals which Margolies and other trip architects wanted to accomplish when laying the groundwork for the mission in its initial planning stages. The first was to show Federation volunteers throughout the U.S. and Canada the types of programs JFNA does in Israel and for them to fully understand the impact it has on the lives of Jews there. The second was to help train those workers to be more effective advocates to gain support for their respective Federations' campaigns.
"The ultimate goal of the mission was for us to receive training on establishing relationships with donors and how we can better teach them about the mitzvah of Tzedakah," Jacobs explained. "Now, there is nationwide army, so to speak of campaign workers who can properly help educate fellow donors."
At first, this process of learning and discovery wasn't one Jacobs was necessarily looking forward to embracing, as he was used to seeing a different side of the country during his time there.
"I went into this trip thinking I wouldn't enjoy the site visits or programs regarding the things the Federation does as much as some of the other sightseeing stops along the way, but as it turns out the site visits were the most interesting and emotional part of the trip for me," Jacobs recalled about his transformation. "I was simply blown away by what I saw there."
Jacobs along with his 50 plus other trip participants made treks to places like an absorption center in Tel Aviv for Jews who were fleeing Europe to move to Israel in order to escape the rising anti-Semitism which is rearing its ugly head in the region.
"We met people from France, Ukraine and Russia who left their families, their friends, their jobs and everything they have to start a new life because things are so bad in Europe right now," the veteran Federation board member recalled of his emotional experience. "The atmosphere in Europe probably has not been this difficult for Jews since before World War II, and because of that JFNA is expecting 30,000 European Jews to move to Israel this year."
Jacobs remembered one young man in particular during that visit named Thibeau from France, whose grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. While growing up he was put into Catholic school and did not overtly advertise the fact that he was Jewish, but because of his last name, the harassment and discrimination were so intolerable, he had to make a new start in the one place he knew he would be welcomed with open arms.
"What Federation does for these people in similar situations is provide them housing, job training, teach them Hebrew and give them everything they need to start a new life in a brand new country," he detailed of what he learned that day. "It was remarkable to me that these young people were doing this at the same time that Israel experienced war last summer and rockets were raining down on the country. Nevertheless, they still felt Israel provided a much better life for them than where they were coming from."
Other visits after the trip's first emotional one included a stop along an Israeli town bordering Gaza, where they talked to residents about their experiences during the war last summer. Sometimes what they had to go through physically, evacuating their homes and businesses, was much less damaging than the emotional toll it took on them and their families to do that.
"We went to a Kibbutz called Nir Oz that is so close to the border that there is only a 15 second warning from the sirens to having to go into the shelters," Jacobs said. "So we actually witnessed holes that rockets had put in walls and pieces of debris leftover from the attacks."
More unforgettable interactions with Israelis followed as they explained their struggles living amidst the conflict coupled with resolve and determination.
"We also met with a solider at a memorial for fallen soldiers of other Gaza campaigns and he talked about what he went through during the war as his brother was also with him in Gaza at a separate command," Jacobs remembered of his one-on-one discussion. "He told us that even if he found out his brother had been killed during one of the attacks, he was going to call home and tell his parents he had to stay and finish his mission because he was an integral part of the IDF and he could not leave his fellow soldiers behind."
Jacobs, Margolies and others from the trip next went to the town of Be'er Sheva in the Negev Desert where they saw how the Federation's support was helping educate Haredi or ultra orthodox youth in the region with science and math classes.
"Obviously it’s the hope that the Haredi children will be able to integrate more into society and earn a living in Israel," Jacobs said.
Along with the Jewish youth, there were also Arab-Israeli girls who were being given the benefit of academic instruction from the JFNA and its partners.
"They were actually running a debate team for the girls who were debating other Jewish schools, so it's the hope that these Arab-Israeli girls will develop much greater feelings toward Israel through these programs," he explained. "All together these efforts showed us tremendous hope for the future of Israel through education."
Upon his return, the campaign chair had a chance to reflect on only his second trip to Israel during his lifetime, but unlike his first pilgrimage to the Land of Milk and Honey, this one proved to be less touristy and more of an in depth exploration of day-to-day life inside the Jewish state.
"We weren't going to see a bunch of sights, take a few pictures and move on. Instead we gained a full understanding of the issues Israel is facing, the challenges that they have over there and what Federation is doing to provide solutions," he said. "From that standpoint, it was far more meaningful, extremely emotional and very moving for me to see all of the good that Federation is doing in Israel."
But for Jacobs, the experience was made even more special because the blueprints for the trip had a Jacksonville flair to them.
"I took a lot of pride in the fact that this program was as the result of the original ideas of our Federation's executive director here in Jacksonville," he said. "I think all of the cities throughout the country and across Canada were extremely appreciative that it happened, and impressed with what had been done to make it happen."
The 2015 trip which Jacobs was a part of was in fact so successful that the workers mission will return for its third year in 2016.
"I enjoyed my time there so much this past July that I decided to take my wife Allison on the Federation and JCA's joint trip to Israel in April," he said with excitement.
The third annual workers mission will take place July 16-14, 2016, while the first-ever joint mission involving the Federation and the JCA is scheduled for April 10-18.. For more information on the worker's mission, contact Beverly Woznica at Beverly.email@example.com, and to guarantee your spot on the joint Jacksonville mission with a $500 deposit, call Federation executive director Alan Margolies at 904-448-500, ext. 207 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.