Happy Chanukah to you and your family.
Yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the news of the devastating fire that has now swept through over 7,500 acres in northern Israel, killing 41, and displacing some 15,000 residents in the Carmel area. While the fire in Israel’s north continues to burn, there is optimism that with the arrival of fire-fighting helicopters from Greece, Turkey and the U.K., along with a contingent of 100 Bulgarian firefighters, the fire will shortly be contained. An aircraft from Russia is also en-route. Many other countries, including Egypt, Azerbaijan, Spain, Croatia, France and Jordan are providing various types of assistance.
Our overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), are in close contact with the various Government of Israel Ministries and the local municipalities. Close attention is being paid to the region’s vulnerable populations, including the elderly, disabled and youth at risk. JAFI has immediate shelter for 2,000 people and multiple groups in Israel are creating “activity centers” for families and their children since they are on Chanukah break from school. These programs will also include students from the Dalia and Issawiya Druze villages.
Yesterday, Federation opened up a special Northern Israel Fire Disaster Relief Fund where 100% of the dollars donated will go to help those displaced by the fire. If you wish to help please click here. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Israel as they work to confront this challenge.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I finished reading Gal Beckerman’s book, When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. At the end of World War II, nearly three million Jews were trapped inside the Soviet Union. They lived a paradox: unwanted by a repressive Stalinist state yet forbidden to leave. Those who tried were followed by the KGB, often denied jobs and higher education, even forced into menial labor or imprisoned simply for studying Hebrew or gathering with other Jews. Concluding the book at Chanukah seemed almost perfect timing. As we recount the miracles in the Chanukah story, I am reminded of the miracle of how we brought freedom to our “brothers and sisters” in the then Soviet Union.
Although the Soviet Jewry movement truly began in the early 1960s, it was an event that took place twenty-three years ago (December 6, 1987) that changed my life. At that time, I was serving as the International President of AZA and joined 250,000+ people on the Mall in Washington, DC for Freedom Sunday (it is amazing to note that the Rally was planned in only 37 days – and prior to the technology of today). People came from across the country, including Portland, to rally for the “release” of Jews from the Soviet Union on the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the United States with then President Ronald Reagan. The rally was a positive, celebratory show of unity bringing together the entire American Jewish community and the many elements that made up the Soviet Jewry movement. There I was in this swath of people wearing my metal Refusenik bracelet with Aba Taratuta’s name on it focused on the words of Elie Wiesel, “Too many of us were silent then…we are not silent today.” His simple, yet direct message is what changed my life and led me to this career.
This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the successful Operation Exodus fundraising campaign – a continental $1 billion campaign to relocate and resettle Jews from the Soviet Union in Israel and America. Portland, due to the incredible philanthropic leadership of so many, raised $2.2 million. Portland did it – as a community! From 1988 to the late 1990s, more than one million Jews left for Israel, 500,000 for the United States, including Portland, and over 150,000 went to other countries around the world.
The plight of Soviet Jews was bolstered by American and Israeli human rights campaigns – global efforts that comprised an unprecedented display of Jewish solidarity among people of all ages and from all over the world. The “Free Soviet Jewry” movement is a landmark victory of Jewish experience and can be considered a catalyst for the modern human rights movement. We should all celebrate this watershed moment in our history – and tell our children and grandchildren how we literally changed the world!
Our Jewish history is filled with examples about the power of the collective. I often wonder if we can replicate similar activities today. Is there that same sense of shared purpose? I do know that when we act and work together as a community, not solely as individual organizations or people, we can accomplish incredible things. If we could free over 1.5 million Jews from the USSR – then we can certainly find ways, together, to engage our 47,000 person strong Jewish community. The possibilities are endless – if we work as one!
Let us continue to make miracles happen every day! Enjoy your Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.
Please join us on Sunday, December 12 for our annual Super Sunday to help raise money for our community’s campaign. Your volunteer participation is vital to reach our entire Jewish community – click here to register.
On a final note, I just concluded my third “meet and greet” around Portland. I am grateful for the people who came out to meet me. I learned so much from hearing their ideas, thoughts and concerns about our Jewish community. Topics discussed included: Jewish education, greater availability of kosher food, engagement of teenage boys, coordination of Jewish services, more programs in other areas of Portland, challenges of feeling “welcomed”, Israel, and so much more. I truly appreciated the dialogue and look forward to scheduling many more in the near future.