In My View: In Coldest Winter, Warm Thoughts of a Summer Visit to Israel

By Dara Kaufman / Executive Director, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

The snow may be piled up against the window in my office, but today my mind is filled with memories of the hot sun, green fields, and crispy falafel with creamy hummus. 

During a family vacation to Israel this past August, I took some time out to meet with Jewish Agency For Israel representatives and lay leaders from the Afula-Gilboa region to see firsthand some of the projects our Federation is funding through our support of the Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) of Partnership2Gether (P2G).

Last year, on another visit to Israel for the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, I had the privilege of visiting two of our Israeli beneficiaries - the Valley Rape Crisis Center in Afula and the Sandwich Club of the Afula Community Center - which I wrote about on these pages. This year, I planned a visit to two more beneficiaries.

Beit Singer Children's Home

Accompanied by my daughter Maya, I started my day with a visit to Beit Singer Children’s Home together with Adi Dado, from the Partnership2gether team in Israel. We received a warm welcome from their associate director, Ariel Rakovsky, who had visited the Berkshires in 2017 with Yochai Booganim, a graduate of Beit Singer. Yochai had shared his life-changing experiences growing up in the Children’s Home (and the successes he had had in his life as a result) with Berkshire community members at our Connecting With Community program and kosher lunch.    

Beit Singer, located in K'far Yehezkel just outside of the city of Afula in the Gilboa region, provides a home for at-risk youth who have suffered abandonment, neglect, and abuse from an early age.  The children are organized into small, intimate groups where they receive intensive attention from a range of professionals including educational staff, social workers, and psychologists, along with movement, art, and animal therapists.

Due to the large intake of young students over the years, the SNEC partnership support has helped Beit Singer add extra hours of psychotherapy and additional social workers, in order to better address the emotional and educational needs of those traumatized by being removed from home.  More recently, partnership funding was used to develop an animal therapy program where therapists pair the children with an animal that can be a source of comfort, and can help them learn to love and trust again.

It was the end of August and extremely hot, and the residents of Beit Singer were off on an end-of-summer adventure, at a time when ongoing renovations were being wrapped up at the home. Ariel took me on a tour of the campus, pointing out recent renovations that included the creation of a new computer lab and an updating of bathrooms and living quarters to better meet the needs of the children. Many of the children have suffered some form of sexual abuse and the change over to private bathrooms and smaller rooms, for just two children, helps them feel safer and more comfortable in their environment.

After our tour we went to visit the Zoo to see the new space they are creating for work with individual therapy animals who are “adopted” by the students. One look at the cute hamsters, rabbits, and ferrets and you can understand how important it is for a child,  who has lost (or maybe never even had) the love of a family, to experience the unconditional love that can come from caring for a vulnerable, furry, cuddly animal.

Needless to say, it was a loud and slightly “odorful” tour for a hot morning in Israel, but it was so meaningful to witness how our funds help create life-changing experiences for the more than 100 children who currently reside at Beit Singer.

On our way out, we met a group of young adult counselors and mentors who were taking a break from their training workshop to get lunch. I was thrilled to see Yochai Booganim in the group, and I stopped to have a quick chat. He shared how he had come back to Beit Singer as a mentor in order to give back to the place that had helped him so much during his life.

Home in the Valley

After our visit at Beit Singer, we caught up with Naveh, the P2G director for our region, and Dalit Lanir, the chair of the partnership’s Israeli steering committee, for lunch at bustling Falafel Golani, the GO TO  place for falafel in Afula. If you find yourself in Afula some day, go there!!!

As with any meeting between two Jews, we started with Jewish geography. Turns out Dalit is a very good friend of my husband’s cousin, who lives next door to her. And you thought the Berkshires was a small community!

We were joined by Shani Bar, the director of Home in the Valley, another beneficiary of our partnership funding. Shani has been at the forefront of engaging an LGBTQ leadership group to design and implement new initiatives to support the LGBTQ community in the Afula-Gilboa region. Prior to Home in the Valley’s formation, there was a significant lack of services and support for this demographic.

Home in the Valley works to raise social awareness, develop services, and create a safe place where LGBTQ individuals can meet and take part in joint thinking and action.

Shani shared the success of some of their recent events including the region’s first Pride Festival! Hundreds of people participated in the event, which included cultural performances, children's activities, and various information stands. Shani spoke with great animation about how it felt to see so many people expressing their support for the LGBTQ community and the values of tolerance and equality.

She emphasized how tremendously impactful this event was for the local LGBTQ community, especially for the teens and young adults in their community and the children of LGBTQ parents. She also expressed how grateful they are for our support.

Our P2G Partnership - Inspirational, Impactful, and Personal

I ended my afternoon back at the Jewish Agency’s office, where I got to say hello to Achiya Ben Ari Buganim and Karen Burnstein. Achiya is the partnership’s living bridge coordinator and has organized so many of the exciting programs we have hosted the past few years, including our Israel@70 Hafla Dinner. Karen organized the Project Zug artists’ learning exchange, in which many Berkshire community members participated last year. The highlight of our meeting was meeting Achiya’s new baby, Yael!   

As always, I returned from my site visits enriched, energized, and filled with a renewed love for this beautiful region in Israel and the inspirational people I met who are making an impact on the lives of so many.

It is always inspiring to me to see our community’s work in Israel in action, but the main message I want to share with you is this - VISIT! Support Israel with your feet! Tour our partnership area. Stay for a few days in the guest house on Kibbutz Yizre'el, which is available to our community free of charge. Experience the extraordinary impact of our work there. Let Naveh, Adi, Achiya, and Karen welcome you as family and show you the beauty of the Afula Gilboa region through their eyes.

As this edition of the paper goes to production I have just learned that our 2019 campaign has reached its goal!  Thank you to all who participated! Your values inspire us. Your strength empowers us. Your commitment is at the very heart of Federation: giving to others, taking responsibility, acting with lovingkindness. Thank you!

Dara Kaufman is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. Pictured, from left, are Adi Dado, Achiya Ben Ari Buganim and baby Yael, Dara, Karen Brustein, and Naveh Yogev.