Once again, I am in Israel. As of Monday, I have begun my 18th (my CHAI—life) visit to our homeland. I love Israel. I love the concept. I love the country. I love the people. And I love the feeling I get being here. I am on this trip with MOMENTUM, a group of 85 men (including 10 from Orlando!) who are exploring spirituality, brotherhood, and Judaism together in Israel.
The power of an immersive Israel experience is unparalleled. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly people bond and connect. This trip has been no different. From the time we met in pre-trip meetings to when we met at the airport, we were all already connecting. We hung out at the Delta Club at JFK and on the flight to Tel Aviv. By the time we landed, a bond had been created.
Day 1 began with multiple COVID tests to get out of isolation quickly—and then, we were off to our hotel in the Galilee! Kibbutz Lavi is absolutely beautiful. After a delicious lunch, we sat in the grass, drinking coffee and resting. I took a nice walk around the kibbutz, enjoying the views and sitting in the beautiful garden, making some calls, and letting Israel overtake me.
Our program inspired us from the very beginning. All 85 of us sat outside with birds chirping around us, the cool weather setting the tone, as Charlie Harary challenged us to embrace “AWESOME.” Using the biblical story of Gideon, Charlie reminded us that the few people who are truly dedicated can do wonders and by coming to Israel at this time, for this trip, we had proven we were truly dedicated. It was hard to get here (and required more COVID tests than you can imagine!), but we persevered to get to our homeland. Things that matter—the truly important things—take work, and this was another reminder of why we are here.
Photo of Kibbutz Lavi (taken by Keith).
Our evening was highlighted by a security briefing from a high-ranking officer in the IDF, who spoke to us about the geopolitical realities of what is currently unfolding around us. Syria, Iran, the Abraham Accords, and more were discussed. It was interesting to get a view from the inside.
Photo of Kibbutz Lavi (taken by Keith).
Israel and Judaism have an incredible focus on food. Dinner was an incredible BBQ with steaks, chicken, and more food than you can imagine! We sat outside, once again enjoying the beauty of Israel, and ate, drank, and built relationships. It’s hard to believe it’s only been one day.
You will hear me say this and write this often: if you haven’t been to Israel, come!It won’t disappoint. If you have been to Israel, come back!! There is something special here that you can’t explain until you experience it—and once you experience it, nobody will have to explain.
Tuesday is Tzfat, one of my favorite cities in Israel. I can’t wait to see the beauty of the mystical city, take a dip in the ancient mikvah, explore the candle factory once again, and have lunch with my friend Shmuel.
As we all prepare for Shabbat this week, I am preparing to travel to Israel. I leave on Sunday as part of the Orlando contingent of the Momentum Men’s Trip. (The women’s trip leaves October 31st.) Momentum is a special program designed to bring men together using Israel as a crucible for Jewish connection, involvement, and meaning. This year, the program is launching an advanced track for those who have been on the trip before; our Orlando group is lucky to have several participants on that track, as well.
I think it’s fitting that during COVID, this trip will be my 18th trip to Israel. 18 is the number of life in Hebrew—chai—and Israel certainly is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and holds a special place in my own life. Each trip I have taken has been different, enhancing my life in new ways, and furthering both my Jewish identity and Jewish journey. I have no doubt this trip will do the same.
For those of you who have been to Israel, you know and understand what I mean. There is something special there. The air smells different, the water tastes different. I remember realizing on my first trip in 1998 that the people collecting the garbage were Jewish—the bus drivers were Jewish—even the beggars were Jewish.
This trip will be more about introspection than seeing Israel itself. I look forward to the opportunity to use Israel as a tool for my personal growth and journey. I’m excited to spend more time in Tzfat, one of my favorite cities that I never get enough time in, and to immerse in the ancient mikvah there. To wake up early, to be able to pray at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple) as the sun rises. To spend Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem. And of course, to bond with the other men on our trip, creating and deepening friendships.
Israel is an amazing country, and also an amazing concept. If you haven’t yet been, I encourage you to do so. And if you have, I encourage you to return again and to get involved with the Federation’s Israel and Overseas committee. The task of this committee is to identify the focus we want to have in Orlando with Israel and the wider Jewish world—to identify the relationship we want to build. It imagines how we bring Israel to Orlando, and how we bring people from Orlando to Israel. It reviews our funding to Israel, and makes recommendations about where and how that funding is used. It’s a great way to get involved in the Jewish community, here in Orlando and beyond.
This Shabbat, I will be in Orlando—next Shabbat, in Israel. I consider myself very lucky and privileged to once again visit our Jewish homeland. I’ll be blogging and filming videos while in Israel, so if you are interested, be sure to watch the Federation’s website, social media, and emails for updates.
As a Jewish community, we are lucky to have Israel.
Being Jewish involves a lot of thinking. I think I first observed this in Hebrew School listening to my rabbi teach us. I was confused because unlike school, it wasn’t about the answer but about the thought process. It was the conversation and the different opinions, not the end result. There was no clear, definitive answer. It was always that this rabbi said one thing and another rabbi said something different. Now discuss their reasonings.
As I got older, this type of learning became more interesting to me. I will never forget my Auditing professor in college telling the class, “I’m not going to teach you to audit; I’m going to teach you to think. Then you will know how to audit.” We all sat there shaking our heads because after all, this was our Auditing class that we needed for our degree in Accounting. Yet over the years, I have appreciated his wisdom more than any other I received in a college class. That one statement has stuck with me for nearly 35 years.
This brings us to today, where I find myself thinking about the diversity of the Jewish community, not just in Orlando but around the world. Our diverse Jewish community is what makes us strong, gives us different views of life, and pushes us to learn more and ask more questions—not seek definitive answers. This Shabbat is our third annual Pride Shabbat, where we honor and recognize the LGBTQ+ Jewish community. I am proud that we began Pride Shabbat in 2019 and have continued this wonderful tradition. It reminds me of when Abraham, recently circumcised, welcomed the travelers and washed their feet in his tent, because that’s what we do. We welcome everybody into our communal tent. We are one people, diverse and unique, but one family.
On Sunday, October 17, I and ten others will embark on the Momentum Men’s Trip to Israel. Together we will explore not just Israel, but also our Jewish identities, values, and connections. We are all part of the Orlando Jewish community, yet each of us are at different points in our lives and represent different parts of the community. Collectively, we are one diverse group, mirroring the beautiful variety of the greater Jewish world.
In the next few months, the results of the 2021 Orlando Jewish Community Study will be released and presented by The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Having reviewed the information in preparation for its communal release, I can share that it also highlights the diversity of our community. As Jews, we are mishpacha, family—however, we are not homogenous. We come from Orlando and to Orlando. We are American and Israeli. We are married, divorced, single, and more. We have young children, college-aged children, adult children, and grandchildren. We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and “just Jewish.” Our differences make us stronger; our similarities bind us together. We are the Orlando Jewish community.
As we join together tonight for Pride Shabbat at City Hall and via Zoom, in your synagogues, chavurot, or with your families at home, I hope you realize that while you are unique, you are also part of something greater. Yes, we are diverse and unique—and we are also one.
Late in 2020 I received a call from Steve Nasiter, the President and CEO of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) of Metropolitan Chicago.He told me about the Lavin Family Foundation from Chicago and how they wanted to have a presence in Florida as they had business interests here.I reached out and spoke to them about two of their signature programs,CC’s Wish Listand EnchantedBackpack.The Federation became their partner for Central Florida with both of these incredible programs.
In 2021, we received our first shipment from CC’s Wish list.It was amazing to see how many new items of clothing they provided to us.We found partners throughout Central Florida to ensure that these clothes got into the hands of people in need.The American Muslim Community Center (AMCC) in Longwood, Columbia Elementary School, homeless shelters, the Jewish Pavilion, and many others became our distribution partners as we helped people in need.
A few weeks ago, we received our second shipment from CC’s wish list.Once again, it was an incredible amount of clothing and we began working with our partners.My friend Atif from the AMCC picked up 12 cases of clothing that they distributed on Parramore Ave.He texted me as he was handing out the clothes to share the impact.His words continue to inspire me, so I want to share them with you.
Hi Keith.I am here in Parramore Ave.The poverty here is heart breaking.Drugs and crime ruin these neighborhoods.So your support is so essential to provide hope and self-respect to families trying to get themselves in a better place.
Every time I read his words, it strikes my heart deeply.Our impact as a community is so significant.Atif has connected us with both Serenity Grace and SALT Outreach, two additional programs that help those in need.Partnering across the community is incredibly gratifying.Today, volunteers from Victim Service Center of Central Florida came to get clothes for the women and children who they assist.We were able to provide them with cases of women’s socks, underwear, lounge pants, t-shirts, and girls underwear. Knowing that these women and children will have new clothes to wear and a little more dignity is incredibly gratifying.Next week we will be sending a case of girls underwear to Columbia Elementary to ensure girls attending that school have what they need.
Speaking of Columbia Elementary, a few weeks ago they were able to receive a delivery from Enchanted Backpack.Nearly $50,000 in retail value of school supplies were delivered to them by the Lavin Family Foundation and Enchanted Backpack in partnership with the Federation.These items will fundamentally change the educational impact in that school.We are so excited to be there when they hand them out to the students and to work with additional elementary schools in Orange and Seminole County and Enchanted Backpack.
Finally, our little food pantries continue to ensure families in need have to access to quality non-perishable food items.We currently have two operating, one at Temple Israel and one at Central Florida Hillel on the UCF campus.We are working to find teams and locations for 9 more pantries in our first phase of this work.
As we prepare for Simchat Torah and the restart of the Torah, as we just concluded Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and as we think about what we want to do in the coming year, I’m proud of the work the Federation is doing to impact change in Central Florida.There is so much more that we can do but we need your help to do it.As you think about what you want to do in the upcoming year, if helping those less fortunate is on your list, please reach out to me so we can create our Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah committee that is tasked with making our community better.
When Atif sent me that text and some pictures, I can’t tell you how good it made me feel.When he shared stories of people who were impacted, I felt such gratitude.Knowing that Victim Services Center has more resources to help women and children in need fills my heart.And knowing that children at Columbia Elementary will have resources they never could have imagined because of the work of the Federation makes me incredibly proud.Giving back and helping others is incredibly rewarding.Selfless service does make a difference.I encourage you to join me and the Federation in these efforts.
I saw this on social media and it really resonated with me. While I shared it on social media and many others have as well, it’s worth sharing again here as we just finished observing Yom Kippur. There are such lessons to be learned as we enter the new year about how we treat others, our community, and ourselves. Over the past 18 months, we have all endured incredible stress and we must remind ourselves to take care of ourselves, not just others. We all need to find joy and the beauty in our lives.
“One day, a nine-year-old girl walked into a jewelry store and said, “I am here to buy a bracelet.” She looked through the glass cases and pointed to a bracelet that was $3,000. The owner, the man behind the counter, asked her, “You want to buy that bracelet?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Wow, you have very good taste. Who do you want to buy it for?”
“For my older sister.”
“Oh, that is so nice!” the storekeeper replied. “Why do you want to buy your older sister this bracelet?”
“Because I don’t have a mother or father,” the little girl said, “and my older sister takes care of us. So, we want to buy her a present, and I’m willing to pay for it.” She pulled out of a whole bunch of coins from her pocket that totaled just under eight shekels, a little less than two dollars.
The man says, “Wow! That’s exactly what the bracelet costs!”
While wrapping up the bracelet he said to the girl, “You write a card to your sister while I wrap the bracelet.” He finished wrapping the bracelet, wiped away his tears, and handed the little girl the bracelet.
A few hours later, the older sister entered the store. “I’m terribly embarrassed,” she said. “My sister should not have come here. She shouldn’t have taken it without paying.”
“What are you talking about?” the storekeeper asked.
“What do you mean? This bracelet costs thousands of dollars. My little sister doesn’t have any money! She obviously she didn’t pay for it!”
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” the storekeeper replied. “She paid me in full. She paid seven shekel, eighty agurot, and a broken heart. I want to tell you something: I am a widower. I lost my wife a number of years ago. People come into my store every single day. They come in and buy expensive pieces of jewelry, and all these people can afford it. When your sister walked in, for the first time in so very long since my wife passed, I once again felt what true love is.”
He gave her the bracelet and wished her well.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we come before God. With sincerity, we express our devotion and dedication. We recommit and renew our relationship with our dear Father in heaven, and we ask Him to bless us with another year. We empty out our pockets and try to give the little we have. We show the few good deeds we’ve accumulated throughout the year. With a broken heart we resolve to do a bit more. “I’ll pick up the phone and call someone who is lonely. I will study some Torah. I will be more scrupulous about my observance, I will be more charitable, more patient, more kind, more appreciative, etc.”
And, just like the owner of the jewelry store, God sees our broken hearts and says, “You know what? You’ve touched my heart. I feel the love. You’ve paid in full. May you be blessed with another year filled with good health, happiness, love, light, joy and success!”
The Federation partners with the Lavin Family Foundation and CC’s Wish List to provide new clothes to those in need. We recently got our second shipment and partnered with the American Muslim Community Center to get these clothes into the hands of those who need them. My friend Atif messaged me this morning, saying, “Hi Keith. I am here in Parramore Ave. The poverty here is heart breaking. Drugs and Crime ruin these neighborhoods. So your support is so essential to provide hope and self-respect to families trying to get themselves to a better place.”
As we prepare for Shabbat and reflect on the holidays that just concluded, I urge you to feel love. To focus on the positive and let go of the negative. To enjoy what you have and to reach out and help those less fortunate. Atif’s message reminds me to be grateful for the wonderful gifts in my life. The story reminds me that I get more from giving than I do from getting.
Shana Tovah U’Metuka. May you all have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year. May 5782 be a year filled with good health, happiness, love, light, joy and success.
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.