JCF Israel office bolder than most

A Bronx brogue is like pizza grease on a white cotton blouse — you’ll never get it out.

So while Gila Noam has called Israel home for the last 39 years, she still sounds like she just leapt off the No. 5 train at Pelham Parkway.

The director of the Israel office of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was a long way from her Jerusalem home and the Bronx, where she grew up, as she whisked through the Bay Area earlier this month on one of her semi-yearly visits. And, as she’s been proud to say for each of her nine years on the job, the JCF is doing things its own way.

“We very often target populations others would shy away from. We’re a little bit bolder than most,” she said.

For decades, the JCF has had a special relationship with Israel’s far North, specifically Kiryat Shmona. While the North has by no means been abandoned, much more of the roughly $5 million the JCF sends to Israel each year is being spread around the country (“Now we’re focusing on issues more than geography”).

Those issues, in a nutshell, are Jewish identity and pluralism and equality of opportunity. And the populations targeted are some of Israel’s most at-need, including Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs.

With the Ethiopians, “you’re talking about a population that’s 75 percent illiterate in their native tongue. So they’re not getting white-collar jobs. But [thanks to JCF programs] they’re getting jobs that are real, protected by labor unions and have some security. Getting up and going out in the morning is always better than staying home,” said Noam.

In Israel’s Arab communities, JCF programs focus on early childhood care and education, spurring volunteerism and joint Jewish-Arab projects. There’s also an emphasis on job placement, and in this the JCF differs from many Jewish groups aiding Israeli Arabs: “Others heavily focus on kids. Their focus is that this is a lost generation and you’ll never be able to get these people into jobs.”

Following last year’s war with Hezbollah, the JCF’s relationship with the North was more crucial than ever.

“One of the things we’ve done in the context of our Israel Emergency Campaign is adopt an entire school and really zero in on it. That includes physical renovations, extending the school day and hot lunches. If we didn’t do this, [the students] would be on the streets,” she said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.