I had a chance to get away with my wife for a vacation and then with my kids for a father-sons trip in early June. It was much needed and gave me a chance to rest and recharge. After the past 15 months, I didn’t realize just how exhausted and how deep the exhaustion actually went. It made me realize just how exhausted our Jewish professionals in Orlando all must be. For the past 15 months they have been working tirelessly in strange and difficult situations to provide for the needs of our community. Those working with seniors weren’t able to see them in person or have their group gatherings. Those with college students were limited to outdoor events and increased stress. Our clergy were doing religious services and Simchas on zoom and sharing Torah to an empty room while people watched on their computers. Our mental health workers and food pantry had to do it virtually and couldn’t interact in person. Our Jewish educators did some virtual classes and had to teach in rooms with masks with new rules about social distancing and interactions with other rooms of children. I’m getting more exhausted as I write this and think about it all.
What I really want to do is say THANK YOU to all of them. It’s easy to forget just how much they have all given and sacrificed for the betterment of our community. It’s easy to focus on our amazing health care workers who put their lives at risk. When you see one of our amazing Jewish communal professionals in Orlando, please make sure to thank them. It’s only their commitment and then efforts that kept our community going during the pandemic.
As I took the time to relax, reflect and take in the past year I noticed the toll it has taken on all of us. The emotional rollercoaster and trauma have affected all of us in different ways. Our community needs healing and unfortunately, instead, we are experiences extremely high waves of antisemitism and hatred. With the rise of anti-Semitism, we are all a little more wary and concerned. I had the privilege of co-authoring an Op-Ed on Sunday in the Orlando Sentinel with Representative Stephanie Murphy. There are two lines in the Op-Ed I want to highlight for you. The first is, “We need leaders in Washington, Tallahassee, and communities around the country to condemn anti-Jewish conduct is morally unambiguous language, without any attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify such behavior.” And the second, perhaps even more important, “visit ActAgainstAntisemitism.org, which offers information about concrete steps you can take to make a difference in your community. Please, make your voice heard. Rather than being a bystander, take a stand.” We live in a time when we cannot be silent and we must speak up. I hope you take action.
And as we prepare for Shabbat this week, I am proud to share that The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando has adopted the IRHA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition gives us clarity about what anti-Semitism is and has been adopted by many countries, businesses, etc. I encourage you to read the definition and use it when people as what is anti-Semitism.
The past weeks have been filled with challenges. Bombs falling on Israel, a rise in anti-Semitism throughout the country including things locally. The news is filled with reports of increased Jew hatred and even Aaron Keyak, the US National Jewish Engagement Director, tweeted, “if you fear for your life or physical safety, take off your kippah and hide your (Star of David)”. Google’s Chief of Diversity was found to have stated in a 2007 tweet that Jews have an “insatiable appetite for war” (he has since been reassigned). Officials at Rutgers University made a statement against anti-Semitism and then retracted it because it upset the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic population. It’s easy to get depressed and be filled with worry and concern.
And then something happens like on Tuesday. I got an email from Amanda Jacobson, both a parent and volunteer leader in our community, about her daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah, and her Bat Mitzvah project. Sammy Nappi, Amanda’s daughter, had a desire to expand the scope and opportunity for people to get involved and make a difference in our local community. We met on Tuesday afternoon and my hope and faith were given an incredible boost.
For her project, Sammy is doing something she is calling, “Fierce Foster Friends”. In Sammy’s own words, “Everyone deserves a loving family and a home of their own. Your family makes the home and foster children don’t have either a family or a home to call their own. Foster kids are often moved from temporary home to temporary home with few belongings and fewer friends.
The items we collect for them can make a foster child feel loved, wanted and seen by the community.”
Sammy is committed to collecting items for foster children and making a difference in the lives of people who don’t even know her. She has done her research and knows that the items most needed are:
Good toothbrushes and toothpaste
Silk pillow or bonnet for children of color
With all that is going on during the pandemic, it’s easy to forget about foster children. To be honest, despite all the things I have been paying attention to during the past 16 months, foster children have not crossed my mind even once until she brought them up.
Hearing her passion for helping others, specifically those who ‘aren’t as fortunate as me’ was inspirational. I do my best to help my children understand just how lucky they are and how fortunate we are as a family and to hear another child’s appreciation of what they have and how they wanted to help others who aren’t as fortunate was truly moving. Her eyes lit up as she talked about the time she has spent with foster children and how important it is to her to help them and make a difference in the world.
I found myself ruminating on this throughout the rest of the week. This is a core value of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando – making the world a better place, starting in our local community but also throughout the Jewish world and in Israel. Through our partnership city of Kiryat Motzkin and the projects we fund there to help Holocaust Survivors and children at risk to our Coleman Israel Scholarships to help teens in Orlando visit Israel and have a meaningful immersive experience; from our partnership with CC’s Wish List which gets new clothes to people in need to our new partnership with Temple B’nai Torah in Boca Raton’s TLC Program’s Little Free Pantry, bringing free little food pantries to Orlando; from our Food Cart from the Heart, ensuring those in need in our community have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to our partnership with Jewish Family Services to ensure there is a community Rabbi available for those in need, the Federation’s goal is to make our community better, stronger and more vibrant. As I write this, I hear the theme song from the old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man in my head, as we can build it, “Better, Stronger, Faster.” Your Jewish Federation is invested in making the lives of everybody in our community better. We only do this through your help, both in volunteering and financial support which make these efforts happen.
I hope that Sammy Nappi’s words, efforts, and her Bat Mitzvah project inspires you the way it has inspired me. I hope you will bring something to The Roth Family JCC lobby to drop off in our collection box for Fierce Foster Friends. I hope you will make an effort to get more involved in our community – every organization, agency, and synagogue can use your help to make our community ‘better, stronger, faster’. We can all do a little bit to change our local community and by changing our local community, we change the world.
Last night, I sat in the JCC auditorium as we held our first hybrid program. Approximately 30 people joined in person while many more joined us on Zoom for our community’s B’riut program on Substance Abuse in the Jewish community. This is truly a community program as nearly every Jewish organization, agency, and synagogue has agreed this is important and to be a part of the effort. It felt so good to be in a room with other people and to hear talking and interaction. I hadn’t realized how much I had really missed it.
As we listened to the speakers on the panel speak, it was incredibly moving. Ashlynn Douglas-Barnes, the Clinical Director of Jewish Family Services (JFS) was our moderator and has also been a key driving leader in the creation of B’riut. If you ever need a place to start with questions or addressing substance use disorder and needing to know what to do next, she and JFS are the place to begin.
Sheriff Leema from Seminole County was our first speaker. It was truly incredible as he explained the data about addiction, the changes that have created the current crisis, and the impact he has seen in Seminole County. There were more than 100 accidental overdose deaths pre-Covid and during Covid that spiked by 37%! His officers now carry Narcan to help save lives. Listen to a well-educated senior law enforcement officer talk about a totally different approach to public safety was inspiring. Hearing him talk about how it isn’t about criminal charges but about helping sick people get well was refreshing. In a time when law enforcement faces incredible criticism, this was another example to me about how lucky we are in Central Florida to have the law enforcement leadership we do.
Michal Osteen spoke next. Her personal tragedy of losing her son Ari to an accidental overdose has been public and she has devoted her life to ensuring no other family has to endure this tragedy. Between Sheriff Leema and Michal, it was made abundantly clear that fentanyl is now in every type of substance and it’s impossible for the person using to know if there is fentanyl in it or not. When asked about ‘how people could find safe drugs from having been cut with fentanyl’, Sheriff Leema put it best when he said, “Safe drugs are called medicine. Otherwise, there are no safe drugs.”
Our third speaker, Dr. Biff Kramer, has been in recovery from addiction for 40 years and has been a leader in creating the model that encourages impaired medical professionals to seek help without risk of automatically losing their medical license. I was deeply saddened when talked about how 40 years ago when he went to treatment in Atlanta and along with a handful of other Jews in the program, they reached out to the Jewish community to get support and were turned away. Hearing his gratitude that the Jewish community is doing the opposite right now was heartwarming and highlighted just how important this work in our community, by our community truly is.
Our next speaker, John LeBron, is a younger person in recovery. He highlighted the challenge of being Jewish and seeking help, the stigma that exists, and how important it is to have others to connect with. He also emphasized how important getting the entire family educated about addiction really is, since the family system often contributed to addiction and can often enable relapse if change doesn’t happen.
The final speaker was Houston Spore, also a person in recovery. He works with project Opioid, which is dedicated to stopped deaths from opioid overdose. They provide free Narcan, a drug easily administered, which reverses overdoses to enable the person to be alive while 911 is called and emergency services are called. Everybody attending in person was given Narcan to take home. The amazing thing about Narcan is that if it’s not an opioid overdoes, Narcan simply does nothing. And if it is an opioid overdose, it can save lives. Anybody can access their free Narcan by going to their website, https://projectopioid.org/, and fill out the form. In a week or two, it will arrive in your mailbox.
The question-and-answer sessions was robust as this is a complex and important issue. The entire session was recorded and will be available on the Federation’s YouTube page for viewing.
You may find yourself wondering, “Why is the Jewish Federation doing this”? It goes to our core mission, taking care of the needs of our Jewish community. No longer can we pretend that addiction doesn’t occur in the Jewish community. No longer can we pretend that members of our community aren’t dying because of drug addiction and the opioid crisis. No longer can we be unprepared to deal with this life-threatening disease. The Jewish principle of Pikuach nefesh demands that we act. I’m proud of our community, our agencies, organizations, and synagogues who are stepping up to take on this responsibility. I’m proud that we are not allowing this to remain in the shadows and are working to remove the stigma so nobody has to die due to embarrassment.
Together we can change our local community which changes the world. As a community member both involved in the creation of B’riut and who attended our panel last night, I have hope that we are changing our Central Florida Jewish Community and will continue to do so.
Why did I just spend all this time writing about the events in May in Jewish Orlando? It’s because I believe in our community. We are large and growing – the upcoming results from our 2020 Orlando Jewish Community Study will show just how large – and diverse. There are truly options for everybody to get involved. As we witness the violence in Israel, the antisemitism worldwide, in the United States, in Florida, and even here in Orlando, it’s easy to think that it’s better not to participate or that there is nothing worth participating. And that’s where you are WRONG! Our synagogues, Jewish agencies and organizations are fille with meaningful, interesting, and fun content. This summer will be filled with opportunities to join together in person once again. I encourage you to take a look at what is offered in our amazing Jewish community. I encourage to take a risk and try out something that looks interesting that you may not have tried before. I encourage you to really give our Jewish community a chance to show you how special we are and how important you are.
As I sat at my youngest son Matthew’s graduation from High School this week, I found myself thinking about both how fast the years have gone by and how much we have been enriched by our Jewish community. The USY, BBYO, and JSU events attended, basketball and working out at the JCC, the time I have spent learning with local Rabbis, the friends created and friendships deepened. There are times during the year where we get to reflect and the changing of the seasons is one. As we transition to summer, as more people get vaccinated and we are able to gather in person, as mask requirements get lifted, I encourage you to invest in our Jewish community. Your return will be far beyond anything you expect.
I have spent the last few days in contemplation about what is happening in Israel right now. Having been to Israel 17 times, Israel is a passion of mine. It is a country I love deeply and one where I have a strong connection. I am a proud Zionist and don’t shrink from the label or consider it a four-letter word.
I am so passionate about Israel that I invest personal time as a board member of the Center For Israel Education (CIE) based out of Atlanta. If you want to read the fact-based history of the Modern State of Israel from source documents, go to www.israeled.org. You will likely spend much more time than you expected as you learn more about the real history of Israel.
I have also had the opportunity to spend time meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Civil Society in November 2019 as a part of the Encounter Program. This was a transformative experience that helped me see many other issues while also confirming some things I already believed to be true. You can read my blog posts about my experience here. During these challenging times, I found it helpful to remember the many different Palestinian voices I heard.
It’s often said that “Israel lives in a tough neighborhood.” There is no doubt that is a true statement. It is also a neighborhood that measures time in centuries, not hours and minutes. It is a neighborhood that while there are many similarities, is very different from ours in the United States. It’s something we must remember when we think about the Middle East. We also need to be careful about generalizations. We can’t talk about ‘Israelis and Palestinians’ as one voice. We can’t talk about ‘Jews and Arabs’ as if every Jew or every Palestinian think and act the same. There is no excuse for either the violence against Jews in Jewish-Arab neighborhoods or against Arabs by Jews in these same neighborhoods. My many experiences in Israel taught me about the many voices of Israelis and my experience with Encounter taught me about the many voices of Palestinians.
Most Israelis and Palestinians do not want war, do not want to see rockets flying all over Israel, and do not want the death and destruction that is occurring. Unfortunately, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are not among them. Both use terror tactics to their benefit. Hamas fires missiles from hospitals, mosques, and schools, using children and families as human shields. Having visited the Aida ‘refugee camp’ in Bethlehem, I have seen the power of hatred and generations of taught hatred firsthand. I have also seen and met Israelis who believe that all of Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish people and as a result, do not respect the rights of Palestinians living there. I have heard the frustrations of good people who only want to live in peace with Israel and who are not allowed to do so by Hamas, the PA, and the Israeli government. I have gone through a checkpoint as the Palestinians do, which unfortunately is necessary to stop terror, and saw how degrading and awful it can be to do that day after day just to get to work.
What we are seeing in the news is not what most Israelis and Palestinians want. It is what terrorists want. It is what those who believe all the land is theirs want. It is a small group that unfortunately has access to power and weapons. It is what Iran and Syria want which is why they fund these terrorist groups.
My heart breaks daily as I think of my Israeli family and friends and what they are living through now. Each story I hear hurts a little bit more. 1,400 rockets launched in 36 hours. Can you imagine what just 1 rocket launched at an American city would do to us?
I think of my cousin Lisa, who made Aliyah in 1980, and her family. Will her children be called up from the reserves? Will they be safe in Jerusalem? I think of Margot and Tamar and their three young children who also live in Jerusalem. With Margot visiting the US, how are Tamar and the kids dealing with this? I think of Aaron and Sharon Weil, visiting Israel now to be with their three children who live there. My son Evan, friends with Nadav, their youngest, follows him on social media and shared his concerns last night. I think of my friend Jonathan who flew to Israel over the weekend and hopes to be able to hug his children who live in Israel. I think of my friend Zaq’s three children who made Aliyah and live in Israel. His youngest is preparing to be called up from the reserves. I think of David and Orly Diamond here in Orlando, worrying about their children currently serving in the IDF. I think of all my Israeli friends whom I met on birthright trips while they were in the army and joined our trip. Each friend and their personal story hurts a little bit more.
My heart also breaks for my Palestinian friends. I think of Ali Abu-Awaad and his efforts to help the Palestinian people take responsibility and control of their future. Of his efforts to ensure Palestinians understand the power of non-violence and the need to create their own infrastructure to build their own country based on peace and love. I think of Osama and the personal transformation he went through. His carrying a kippah in case he was invited to Shabbat dinner. I think of how this must retraumatize him. I think of Suzan in Bethlehem and her olive trees and women’s art store. I think of Mohammed and his beautiful family in East Jerusalem. His work takes him into Gaza for humanitarian purposes. Was he there when this started and is he stuck? Is he ok and safe? How about his wife and young son?
As we watch what is happening, I urge you to think beyond stereotypes and what you ‘heard’ or ‘know’. I encourage you to learn more than what the news shows you or what a biased media outlet may show. Learn about the history and learn about the realities. While Hamas is responsible for the rockets flying, there are real people who are being impacted. We can never lose our humanity in understanding that there are many who want peace, who want to live together, and who fight against what is happening now. That’s my commitment.