JCFs excellent adventure — Local activists get the in-depth picture of Israel in annual visit

jerusalem | “It’s great to see what we work for in action,” said Leah Noher, gazing through the bus window onto the sun-drenched Israeli countryside.

Viewing Israel as few tourists ever do, Palo Alto resident Noher and more than 25 other Bay Area-based Jewish activists recently wrapped up a memorable mission to the country, inspecting — and cheering on — several humanitarian projects they support.

This consultation trip is an annual event for the Israel and overseas committee of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Led by committee Chair Linda Brownstein and federation CEO Sam Salkin, the mission took members on a magical mystery tour of the Jewish state, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights. Committee members observed numerous projects funded by the JCF, attended briefings with key Israeli thinkers and gained invaluable perspective on Israel’s economic and security status.

“This is a group profoundly committed to Israel,” said Salkin, discussing the Israel and overseas committee. “It attracts people whose caring is deep. Everyone across the political spectrum has told us that what we’re doing is important.”

After crisscrossing the country for five days, committee members reached a unanimous conclusion: Though beset with serious problems, Israel will survive and thrive.

One goal for the trip was to learn more about Israel’s current economic crisis, and much of what committee members heard was not pretty.

In separate briefings, Jack Habib, director of the Joint Distribution Committee-Brookdale Institute, and Yitzchak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child, painted a grim picture. Worldwide recession and the ongoing intifada have contributed to the steepest economic slide in Israel’s history, according to Habib.

Among the statistics cited: unemployment at nearly 11 percent and rising, several quarters of anemic or even negative gross domestic product, skyrocketing welfare claims and draconian cuts in social spending.

Perhaps most shocking of all: More than 28 percent of Israeli children now live below the poverty line. “That’s a record of shame,” said Kadman.

Committee member Al Levitt later said, “It was depressing to hear about the poverty level. When you compare it to how things were when the country was founded, this is a drastic change.”

Yet there were voices of hope as well.

Committee members visited the Haredi Center for Technological Studies, a groundbreaking institution that seeks to bring into the workforce the fervently religious (who make up a disproportionate number of welfare recipients).

Abe Fus, an American-born attorney who started the school., told visitors he began in 1996 with 13 students. Today more than 1,000 men and women attend the center, studying everything from architecture to computer science to business management.

In a separate briefing, Amal Elsana-Alh’jooj, a Western-educated Bedouin social worker, offered herself as living proof that Arabs and Jews can work together for the common good. She has joined forces with various American and Israeli agencies to better the life of the Bedouin in her native Negev. Dressed in headscarf and a black-and-burgundy dress, she told committee members, “I am very optimistic. But we need you. I come from a patriarchal society where women and children are excluded. I need you to take the lead.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres also addressed the group, telling them: “We can live with peace with the Palestinians,” but first the violence must stop. “Terror is a protest against the future,” he added. “Civilization faces a new age, and one has to adopt it or challenge it.”

Peres’ talk was a bit underwhelming for Annette Dobbs, 81, the indefatigable committee member on her 61st trip to Israel. “I respect him for what he has done,” she said afterward, “But they were typical politician’s comments. He didn’t really say anything.”

Committee members also traveled to the Arab village of Taibe and then on to Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in the JCF’s Upper Galil partner region.

There they met with coordinators from the Israel Venture Network, a philanthropic entity that teams with the federation in various education projects. Committee members toured local primary and secondary schools that, thanks in part to federation funding, offer enrichment courses in music, science and English.

Later it was on to Tel Hai College, a fast-growing university that also benefits from federation funding. Offering a quality education in many fields, especially high-tech, the college is a success story in a part of Israel that had been long neglected.

“Kiryat Shmona is the outback,” said committee member Alan Rothenberg. “When we first asked them, ‘How can we help?’ they said, ‘Bring us a Hewlett-Packard factory. We want a reason for our families to stay [in the area].”

The itinerary also included a retreat in Tel-Aviv with the Amuta, the JCF’S Israel-based partners in volunteer efforts. “Retreat” might be a misnomer, as the event was more of a charge forward to tackle the enormous problems Israel faces today. The daylong meeting clarified strategies for funding future projects in Israel.

Arguably, the members of the Israel and overseas committee care deeply about Israel’s future, talking the talk and walking the walk every year.

“We learned that our work here is properly focused on the critical issues facing Israeli society: civil society, inclusiveness, Jewish pluralism and making sure that safety and security are being taken care of,” said Salkin. “Israel is facing an uncertain future, but Israelis are very candid and honest about it.”

Added Brownstein of the JCF’s work: “It’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s the right drop.”

Dan Pine accompanied the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel and overseas committee on a recent trip to Israel.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.