As we come to the end of the summer and prepare for school to begin in less than 2 weeks, it’s a great opportunity to take a step back and reflect. As I do that this week, I find myself reviewing the preliminary results of our 2020-21 Orlando Jewish Community Study. In 2020, the Federation engaged the Cohen Center for Modern Judaism at Brandeis University to do this study on behalf of our entire community. The study belongs to the community and is the type of work the Federation does on behalf of the entire Orlando Jewish community. As many of you know, the study went out to the community in early 2021 and we are excited to prepare to share the results in public forums in November or December of 2021 with everybody.
The preliminary information shows some truly fascinating information. Our community is much larger than we expected, with more than 50,000 Jews living in the Orlando area (Orange and Seminole Counties and small parts of Osceola, Lake, and Volusia counties). In addition, while Winter Park, Maitland, and Altamonte Springs is the core area for Jewish agencies, more than ¾ of our community live at least 20 minutes away with most living 30-45 minutes away. This creates amazing challenges and opportunities for us. It is going to take all of us together to address them.
In addition, the Cohen Center broke down the way Jews in Orlando engage Jewishly into 5 categories. These categories are Personal, Familial, Holiday, Involved, and Immersed. They are defined as:
Personal – Participates primarily in Jewish activities that can be done individually. Less active in communal and ritual activities. This was the largest group.
Familial – Participates in family and home-based dimensions of Jewish life. This was very close to the same percentage as personal.
Holiday – Participates in communal activities such as holidays.
Involved – Participates in most aspects of Jewish life at a moderate level.
Immersed – Participates in all aspects of Jewish life. This was by far the smallest group.
Personal, Familial, and Holiday represents more than ¾ of how Jews in Orlando engage. As we plan for the future, this is critical information for everybody in our community.
This study, a significant effort by the Federation, is filled with much more information and actionable data. I am so excited to share it in the near future and work with the many agencies, organizations, and synagogues in Orlando on how to best use it to grow engagement in Jewish life and make our community even better.
To hear more from the study and what the future holds, please plan on attending the Federation’s annual meeting on Thursday August 26th from 7-8 pm. You can register here.
As we reach the end of July we are also getting close to the time for Federation’s annual meeting. Each year, our annual meeting provides an opportunity to highlight the amazing work done by the Federation, recognize outstanding leaders in our community, and give a view into the future. This year will be no different.
Hosted by Federation Board Member Yeosh Bendayan, this year’s annual meeting, scheduled for Thursday 26th at 7 pm, this year’s meeting will be held both in person and via Zoom so that everybody has an opportunity to attend in a manner they desire. Some of the highlights of this year’s meeting include:
The Jerome J. Bornstein Leadership award will be presented to Michael and Stacey Soll
The Byron B. Selber Young Leadership award will be presented to Danielle Krise
The Jewish Communal Professional Award will be presented to Aaron and Sharon Weil
The Heritage Florida Jewish News Human Service Award will be presented to…… you’ll have to read the Heritage for their announcement, but I promise you it’s somebody who is very deserving.
Having a chance to celebrate and honor our amazing leaders is enough however this year will be highlighted by not only a summary of the past incredible year during these challenging times and hear about what’s coming in the year ahead. While you may think you know about what’s happened this year with RAISE, Women Together, PJ Library, Family Engagement, Empowering Connections, the Bornstein Leadership Development Program, JTEN, the Human Service Matching campaign and more, I promise you that there is more than you realize that has happened. Even more important will be a chance to get some highlights from our 2020-21 Orlando Jewish Community Study which will be presented in full to our community by The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University later this year. Finally we will get to celebrate our amazing Jerome J. Bornstein Leadership Development class. These leaders are impacting our community by serving on the Board of Directors of The Jewish Academy of Orlando (JAO), Jewish Family Services (JFS), Kinneret, Central Florida Hillel, The Roth Family JCC, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando as well as serving on committees for many other organizations.
For those of you considering the next Bornstein class, I encourage you to apply. The next class begins in January 2022, and you will want to be a part of it!!
So before Shabbat begins, take a minute to register for the annual meeting and put it on your calendar. I look forward to seeing you there!
This week for me was dominated by summer camp. I confess that I have always been a summer camp kid. The things children learn at both Day and Overnight camp are so critical for life lessons. The relationships they develop can be lifelong and I loved day camp and while my first overnight camp experience was challenging and not fun, I attribute that to being a bit too young. My second overnight camp experience was transformative and more than 30 years later I still talk to friends and even staff from that time. When my long-time camp director passed away, I was interviewed by the Baltimore Jewish Times about his impact. He was a mentor, guide, and friend.
This week I not only saw pictures and posts of friends picking up their kids from camp but also those dropping them off. I read about friends going to volunteer at my overnight camp and felt jealous that they got a week there as an adult. I walked around The Roth Family JCC and saw and heard the children attending Camp J laugh, sing, play, and smile. I watched the activity in the swimming pool and out on the back field. My heart was filled with joy. I got emails and phone calls from families whose children were having great summers and wanted to add more weeks before the summer ends. And I was blown away as I got to see and talk with a family who due to Covid had been isolating for over a year and Camp J was their first big outing. Their daughter was so excited to be able to attend Camp J and I couldn’t decide who was happier and more moved by what Camp J meant to her – the child, her parents, or me. When I got home that night I couldn’t wait to share this story with my wife. It’s why all of us who work in the Jewish world do what we do. We impact and change lives.
I decided to reach out to both Amy Geboff who runs Machane Ohev and Reuben Romirowsky at the Rosen JCC who have their own Camp J. I wanted to hear their stories and the impact of camp this year on them and their campers and families. As expected, I heard amazing things with amazing impact.
In speaking with Amy, the most powerful words she told me were, “It was amazing! Kids longed for it.” The importance of being together was highlight for Amy, especially the unplugged time together where they could just be kids. She told me that it truly became a Kehillah K’dushah, a holy community. Almost echoing my personal experience, the campers, counselors, staff, and parents found it to be “rejuvenating, motivating, and reminded everybody why we all do what we do – bringing Jewish kids together, it’s why we do what we do.”
I love stories and my favorite was when Amy shared this one. One the last day, Amy asked one of the campers what her favorite part of camp was. The little girl responded, “Just being with my friends.’ This is the power of camp.
When I spoke with Reuben Romirowsky, the CEO of the Rosen JCC, he was just as enthusiastic about the impact of camp this summer. They were pleasantly surprised with the robust registration of older kids as lots of new, older kids wanted to participate in Camp J. One of the most important things cited was the kind and respectful culture. Jewish values in practice! The desire to get back to normal and back in the building while also being safe and smart were important factors.
During the past year, it was easy to ask why we do what we do. We couldn’t be in person and the challenges of the pandemic were real. Just like Amy and me, Reuben was effusive about how Camp J was a reminder of ‘Why we do what we do. There were happy parents, grateful parents, and happy kids.’ Despite the challenges of the pandemic this was the largest number of campers in the history of Camp J at the Rosen JCC. Reuben said that camp brought life back to the Rosen JCC with an atmosphere of ‘controlled chaos. Lou and with an energy that has been missing. It was busy from 7 am to 7 pm.’ The other thing Reuben told me that I found significant was how Camp J provided campers with an opportunity to for them to talk about the stresses at home. The past 18 months have brought unprecedented stress to all of us and children often struggle to find the words to share their feelings. At Camp J they have found a place where they feel safe to explore their feelings and work through these stressors. What an incredible gift.
As we enter Shabbat, I hope I have given you a different way to look at summer camp. It’s not just a place to watch your kids in the summer when they aren’t in school. It’s not a place that just entertains your children and tires them out, so they sleep well at night. Camp is a transformative experience. It provides relationships, not just a transaction for care, that enable growth, development, exploration of values and Judaism. As a true camp kid myself, I long for the days at camp with my friends and often dream about finding a way to create an adult summer camp to allow us to experience the joy and relationships that our children do. Imagine how much better our lives would be if we could let go and spend a week or two immersed in joy, friendship, exploration or learning.
Last weekend was Independence Day. Celebrating the 4th of July has always been a favorite time for me. Growing up we would visit my grandparents and cousins and spend the time at the beach in Connecticut. On the 4th we would go to the parade and celebrate the birth of America while honoring the military veterans who marched in the parade. These are some of my fondest memories.
As I got older, the 4th of July weekend became a time when I got together with friends. For the past 29 years, a bunch of us get together and spend the long weekend reconnecting, celebrating, and just having fun. We got together this year; however, it was a bit different.
Getting together with the same group of friends means two things. One, I’m very lucky to have such longtime, good friends. Second, we’re getting old. This year highlighted both. One of our friends couldn’t join us as he was put into hospice with two different forms of cancer. He passed away early this morning. Another friend did join us after he finished his chemo treatment this week. Cancer in both lungs. He’s halfway through chemo and when he finishes, he’ll undergo radiation for another cancerous spot that was found. Yet another friend, who has never joined us, went public with his terminal cancer status, letting everybody know that he has stopped treatment and is now saying his goodbyes. When I think of his little daughter who is preparing to lose her father, my heart cries in pain.
As I think of my friends battling or accepting their fate, I get filled with both sadness and gratitude. When you have these types of friends, it’s as if we have made a vow to each other to always be together. To always be there for each other. This week’s Torah portion, Parashot Matot-Masei focuses on promises, oaths, and vows. Judaism teaches not to make a verbal commitment unless you really mean it. Such a commitment is something one is morally obligated to honor, even if it later becomes inconvenient. That’s what these friendships are. Long time commitments, oaths, and promises to each other. When these friendships are impacted by health challenges and even impending death, it highlights just how important these oaths, vows and promises truly are.
One of the great things about the Jewish community is how we care for each other. Every day we make a vow and commitment to take care of our fellow Jews. One of our guiding principles is Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. We don’t make these promises, vows, and oaths lightly. And we strive to live up to them each and every day.
As we prepare for Shabbat, hold your loved ones a little tighter. Call those who don’t live close. Invest in the relationships with friends that truly matter. Enjoy the wonders of our vows, oaths, and promises to each other. Our time is fleeting and it is our commitment to each other that truly makes our time special.
On June 24, 2021, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, just outside Miami, collapsed. The video of the collapse was horrifying and if you are like me, you wondered how anybody could have survived. Eighteen people have been confirmed dead and there are still 145 people unaccounted for. We all pray for those 145 people and hope for the best while expecting the worst.
Surfside is a very Jewish community. As a Miami suburb and located on the beach, it has been a popular place for Jews to live and build a community. With many friends in the area, I was concerned if anybody that I knew lived in the building and have followed the story closely. While so far it appears none of my friends lived in the building, there were employees of Jewish organizations who lived there. Luckily, the ones I have heard of are all safe. Members of the Miami Beach JCC lived there, and some remain unaccounted for. Family members of my friends lived in the building and remain missing. My heart breaks for what they are going through. The one story that remains with me is that of Jay Kleiman, who flew to Miami for a friend’s funeral and spent one night at an apartment in Champlain Towers South. June 24, 2021 was that night. He is among the missing, presumed dead. As I read the article about Jay, my friend Mark Baranek, Jay’s flag football coach, is quoted in the article. It’s one degree of separation.
This is the essence of the Jewish community. We are closely tied to each other. It’s only a degree or two until you find the common friends, relatives, or associates. I’ve never met Jay Kleiman, yet we are tied together by Mark Baranek. There are many others who are missing that I’ve never met but we are tied together with a common friend or relative. Being part of the Jewish community is being part of the Jewish mishpacha (family). And family takes care of each other.
As we prepare for Shabbat this week, let’s hold our families, our friends, and those we have in common just a little bit closer. Let’s make that phone call or FaceTime with our family members or friends just to say hello and Shabbat Shalom. Let’s make sure we connect with those that are important to us. We never know when it’s our June 24, 2021. We never know what the future brings but we can act today. In the words of the Alter of Novardik, “A person should be willing to give up all his tomorrows for one today, so that he doesn’t end up wasting all his todays on one tomorrow.” Let’s make sure that we don’t waste today.
If you want to donate to help those in Surfside, The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has a fund set up to help. You can donate to that fund by clicking here.
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.