407-645-5933 ext. 236 marisa.west@shalomorlando.org

New month, new possibilities

As we begin a new month of our new reality, it’s easy to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and tired of our new normal. Living and working in the same place, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week can be exhausting. Who could have imagined that a trip to the grocery store might be the highlight of our week?

In this new normal, the Federation continues to work to provide opportunities to connect and to learn. If you didn’t have an opportunity to join with us for Rene Brent’s Meditation and Relaxation session, you can watch it here. (She’s also doing an encore presentation next week; details below). The Federation’s YouTube page is filled with opportunities to engage and learn more. I encourage you to visit it and enjoy the offerings at your convenience.

This Sunday at 3 pm, we are excited to provide an opportunity to listen, learn and engage with Deborah Feldman, the author of UnOrthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the basis for a hit miniseries on Netflix. Registration information can be found below. If you would like to get a copy of the book, you can order it from our partner, Writer’s Block Bookstore, using this link. You’ll be supporting a local business – and 15% of your purchase will be donated to the Federation to continue bringing you programs like this.

On Tuesday May 12, you can join us for our special Lag B’Omer Experience. We can join together and celebrate with a bonfire, picnic and more. The highlight (at least for me) is that I will be shaving my COVID-19 beard growth in the Jewish tradition of shaving on Lag B’omer.

There is a lot more being brought to you by your Jewish Federation so check our website for a listing of all the programs and opportunities we are offering. Many of these programs are also saved on our Best Of archive page for your viewing.

We hope that May will bring us into a new reality where we can begin to emerge and safely gather. May this Shabbat be the beginning of hope for a post-COVID future where we can once again gather, not just virtually but also in person. And it’s only 11 more days with my beard …

Thriving in our ‘new normal’

As the wind blew and the rain fell this morning, I found it symbolic of the changes we have been dealing with over the past 6 weeks. Storms roll in, creating chaos, and then leave, allowing us to regroup and move forward. During these uncertain times, it has been amazing to see our synagogues and agencies join together to provide for the needs of our community. It’s been exciting to see the interest level in programming increase and more people participating in Jewish life.

A few examples that I want to highlight include:

The Jewish Academy of Orlando’s online school has been outstanding. The curriculum, the teacher interaction, and the special exercise programs throughout the week are providing students with a quality education along with fitness and fun. 

The Federation’s RAISE continues to thrive, with employees attending weekly Lunch & Learn social skills and work training classes. The first RAISE Family Reunion was held online, and the RAISE Your Glass monthly team-building was held via Zoom with great success. Coming up next week will be an online Cooking Demonstration as part of the RAISE Lunch & Learn program. When RAISE employees return to their jobsites, they will be even better employees than before.

The Holocaust Center hosted an incredible online interview between a mother and daughter. The mother is a Holocaust survivor and hundreds of people including a tremendous amount of high school and middle school students attended and participated. It’s amazing the reach the Holocaust Center has, especially in these challenging times.

Central Florida Hillel continues to recreate the campus experience with a virtual model. Their weekly programs, coffee dates, and social interactions ensure students at UCF and Rollins College continue to feel that they are part of their community.

Our synagogues and Rabbis continue to provide Shabbat services and learning opportunities on a weekly basis. Using virtual tools, the spirituality and ruach makes sure Jewish life is vibrant and meaningful.

JFS Orlando and the Federation are working together to ensure those with food needs are taken care of. If you know of anybody who needs food, please either have them contact JFS or you can contact us directly.

In addition, I want to announce a few new exciting opportunities:

On Sunday May 3, at 3 pm, Deborah Feldman, the author of Unorthodox, the bestselling book and Netflix series, will be doing a special interactive Zoom discussion. Look for registration information next week and the link to join us If you haven’t seen the series, it’s well worth watching and then joining the discussion with her.

This week we began our Great Expectations: Peer Pregnancy Discussion Group. If you are expecting or recently had a child, this is a great way to connect with others who are pregnant or recently had children and build a support group. And if your child isn’t getting PJ Library or PJ Our Way books each month, make sure to subscribe now. Remember they are a gift to you and your children from the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.

As we come close to April 30 and the tentative expiration of our stay-at-home order, I hope you all are staying safe. While it is challenging to be kept physically separate, when we can join together again it will be that much sweeter and that much more appreciated.

Our community’s heart is strong

During these strange and unique times, it’s easy to focus on the things that are now different than before. It’s easy to pay attention to what we no longer have the freedom to do, focusing on an uncertain future and when we will be back to our “new normal,” let alone what used to be normal. 

It’s times like this when I am grateful to be part of the team at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. Our mission is to address the needs of the Jewish community of Central Florida. And as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began last month, we redoubled our efforts to focus on keeping our community leaders informed and connected. We also immediately shifted our communication and programming strategies to provide information online to the community about opportunities to engage in programs and events on a virtual basis.

We also made a commitment to do everything in our power, both on our own and working with community partners, to serve those in need during this crisis. To that end, we launched Food Cart from the Heart, a new Federation program that helps community members who cannot afford groceries or who cannot travel to pick up donated food.

One of our key partners in this endeavor is JFS Orlando. This week that partnership bore fruit, as Federation staff and volunteers made their first deliveries from the JFS Pearlman Emergency Food Pantry to people who were unable to travel there to pick up the food. We also purchased and delivered perishable items from the grocery store for other individuals. Our ability to purchase these items is funded completely by donations, and we are so grateful to the community members whose generosity is making this possible.

We got a call from one of the people to whom we provided food. She was crying during the call, saying how happy and grateful she was. She said her fridge was full for the first time in a long time. She expressed heartfelt gratitude to the community and the Federation for truly caring for others and finding ways to help despite the challenges of social distancing and widespread economic uncertainty. This is what Federation does – steps up to take care of and fill needs in our community.

This is your chance to make a difference. Donate to the Federation’s Food Cart from the Heart program to ensure that we can continue to provide for those in need. We don’t want anybody to go hungry, and your contributions will directly impact our friends and neighbors who are suffering through no fault of their own. Every dollar matters when it comes to buying and providing food.

We are thankful for our partnership with JFS that enables us to deliver food to those who can’t get there to pick it up. If you would like to volunteer to deliver JFS food packages, let us know.

It is often said that a crisis brings out the best in us, and your generosity during the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly proved that axiom to be true. Your Federation – and your community – are grateful.

Connecting for Shabbat and beyond

As you prepare for Shabbat, there are lots of options for you to get connected with your community.

 At Congregation of Reform Judaism, there’s a Virtual Tot Shabbat for children under 6, followed by a live streaming Shabbat service at 6 pm. On Saturday, CRJ is offering a Bagels and Bible with Rabbi Engel and a virtual family Havdalah at 7 pm.

 At Congregation Ohev Shalom, Saturday marks Virtual Guitar Shabbat at 9:30 am. Virtual Havdallah is at 8:15 pm.

Ohev’s Rabbi Emeritus Aaron D. Rubinger is offering a free 16-week course, “Discover Judaism,” starting Sunday April 19. This introductory class is open to the community. You can register by email.

 Temple Israel has a variety of programs available. Services are live-streamed here. In addition, there are adult educational classes three times a week. You can participate in Torah Study on Wednesdays at noon, Mishnah Study on Wednesdays at 7:00 pm and Pathway to Judaism on Thursdays at 6:00 pm

 Join SOJC for Friday night services at 7:30. Shabbat morning services begin Saturday at 9:30,  with Havdallah on Saturday night at 8:30 pm. You can view their entire calendar here.

 First Night Virtual Community Seder

We want to make sure no one has to be alone on Passover, so we invite you to join the Federation for our First Night Virtual Community Seder on Wednesday April 8. This event will be hosted by the Federation’s Yael Weinstein. You’ll be able to join Yael’s family and other community members without leaving your home. Register here.

 New 10-week course for parents

For those of you struggling to deal with suddenly having a home full of children, we are excited to tell you about a special new program created just for you. Through the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, we will be offering a 10-week course, “Wine and Unwind: Foundations of Jewish Family Living,” on Tuesdays at 8:30 pm starting April 14. This class will be streamed through Zoom as a partnership with the Federation, PJ Library, JFGO Women’s Division, and the Roth Family JCC’s Richard S. Adler Early Childhood Learning Center. Normally $250, this class is being offered at only $100 for all 10 sessions (plus $30 for materials) thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. If you are looking for support and parental guidance based off of Jewish wisdom, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the class for you. Read more and register online.

 2 ways to help those in need

Finally, for those of you who want to do a mitzvah, we are excited to share two important Federation initiatives. The first, Pantry Partners, is a joint effort with JFS Orlando to provide delivery service to people requesting food from the Pearlman Emergency Food Pantry. If you want to help deliver these food packages to families in need who are unable to pick them up themselves, you can sign up here. If you know of anybody in need of this service, please have them sign up here so we can get them the food they need. We are only able to provide this service if we have enough volunteers.

 The second initiative is Food Cart from the Heart. Donations to this program enable the Federation to purchase and arrange delivery of groceries, particularly produce and perishables that are not provided through the Pearlman Emergency Food Pantry. If you know of families in need of food, please have them sign up here. We are only able to provide this food through your generous donations.

 I am inspired daily as I see our community stepping up during the COVID-19 crisis. Together we are showing what community really looks like. Even as I work from home and am practicing social distancing, I am filled with gratitude as we work together to take care of one another.

Help yourself by helping others

In this time of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure what to do. This is a great time to reach out to those in need and to make a difference in their lives. Both Jewish values of Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah tell us the importance of doing for others and guide us in times like this. The Central Florida Jewish community is stepping up to do more.

At the Federation, we have our Food Cart from the Heart campaign, raising money to purchase groceries for people in need. These are delivered to the homes of the people in need so that they have necessary food and dignity. In addition, we are partnering with JFS Orlando so that people who can’t get out to pick up food from the Pearlman Emergency Food Pantry can have the food brought to them. We are looking for volunteers to will pick up the packages from JFS and deliver them to the homes of those in need. This new Pantry Partners program is a great way to volunteer time to help ensure that nobody goes hungry.

The Jewish Pavilion is asking adults to write letters and children to make drawings to send to seniors. Homemade face masks are needed for seniors in elder-care facilities. You can learn how to make them here. In addition, the Pavilion is bringing a food truck to senior communities once a week to feed and thank their health care workers. The first truck was provided today from Toasted at the Brookdale Lake Orienta in Altamonte Springs. You can make a difference by joining with the Pavilion to help out seniors and recognize and support our health care workers. The Pavilion plans to continue the food truck service every Wednesday as long as funds are available. You can support this program by donating online.

Central Florida Hillel has launched a new initiative, Hillel Helps, where students interested in performing mitzvahs in the Orlando community can do so. Hillel Helps is a way for students to reach out to those in need, especially elderly residents of Kinneret in need of human contact at this difficult time. Please contact Jacqui Drazen McGrail for details.

Hillel Parents Roundtable is a new group offering support to parents of college students. More virtual meetings will be held in the coming weeks. If you are a parent of a college student and you or your student is in need of support or services, contact Liz Kalef, Central Florida Hillel Parent Liaison.

There is much more going on in our community. You can keep up with all the virtual offerings on our Federation website, which is updated daily. (Often several times per day).  

If you feel trapped in your home and missing the human connection we are all so accustomed to, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. You’ll help yourself while helping others. I promise you that you will feel better by doing a mitzvah and making somebody else’s life just a little brighter.

Staying Social While Distancing

As we come to the end of March, COVID-19 remains foremost in our minds. With the passage of the Paycheck Protection Act on Friday, there is a lot to learn and share with our agencies, organizations and synagogues. And as the Federation continues to work on a remote basis for the community, there are many exciting things to share for the week ahead.

For families

Each day, our partnership with PJ Library brings family engagement programming into your home. You can visit PJ Library’s website to see all the activities they provide. All activities are recorded, so you can access them on your own schedule.

11:00am: Storytime
12:00pm Virtual Fieldtrip
1:00pm: Storytime
3:00pm: Craft-along
3:30pm Craft-along
4:00pm: Storytime

On Friday, April 3, at 12:00pm, Dr. Zack Weagraff a local ER doctor, will be hosting a 1-hour Coronavirus Ask & Learn for families with young children via Zoom.

Passover activities

Tomorrow (Tuesday, March 31), at 6:30pm the Federation brings you How to Host a Virtual Seder. Learn how to bring your family together for Seder in a virtual manner. You can download our interactive tool here, and participants will gain access to more downloadable tools after the event.

On Thursday at 6 pm we present our 2nd annual Women’s Passover Seder. Make sure to register for this wonderful event and celebrate Passover with the women of our Jewish community.

Next Wednesday, April 8, at 6:30 pm is our First Night Virtual Community Seder, hosted by the Federation’s Yael Weinstein. You can register here.

Keeping fit at home

If you’re into fitness, you no doubt are missing your regular visits to the gym. We have two exciting new options for you:

Join Monique Eyal for her Monique By the Lake fitness programs twice a day.

Bethanne Weiss will be leading a Virtual Walk on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 am – join her to “move your assets.”

Thanks to a relationship with The Roth Family JCC, Life Fitness has enabled its Digital Coach platform at no cost, providing a workout of the day to help you stay active.

Work out your brain, too

If you are interested in learning a little more about Judaism and Jewish life, MyJewishLearning.com has daily livestreams and online content (and they will be adding content from our Federation soon).

Food Cart from the Heart

As I discussed in a recent update, we are preparing to launch Food Cart from the Heart, a program that enables us to purchase groceries for people who can’t afford them. This program is fully driven by donations from the community, so please help out if you can by giving today!

I encourage you to keep an eye on the Federation’s home page for even more worthwhile virtual activities in the days and weeks ahead. Even though we are forced to physically isolate ourselves from others, we don’t have to isolate ourselves from our community. Enjoy the many things your Jewish Federation and Jewish community are providing for you.

A virus cannot separate us

This has been one of the most stressful weeks our world has seen. The news seems to change multiple times a day, and it’s hard to follow what the best recommendations are, as they also seem to change. Today saw California, New York State and Illinois effectively locked down. We can only assume that Florida will soon follow. Our regular gathering places are no longer options as we practice “social distancing.”

Judaism actually frowns on the concept of “social distancing,” as we are a people of togetherness. So as we physically distance, we must work to ensure that we are still socially connected.

The Orlando Weekday Community Minyan is occurring virtually. Many local Shabbat services are also available online so we can gather via technology. Our community leaders are creating more content available for online streaming, from the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning to classes taught by Rabbis to exercise classes through Les Mills.

If you have been following the special COVID-19 Federation page launched a week ago, you know that we have been collating activities available by our local organizations, and today we have added links to others around the country.

During this global pandemic and national emergency, I have been touched by the many people who have reached out to see how I am doing. People asking if I’m OK; saying thank you for the work of Federation to keep our community strong and thriving. I’ve been inspired by the local Jewish leaders who are stepping up to address this unprecedented public health emergency and finding ways to make sure everyone can stay connected. I’ve been inspired by our volunteer leadership across the country who are stepping up in a situation they never imagined to lead and steward the many organizations, synagogues, and agencies into an uncertain future.

Even in these challenging days, our community profoundly impresses me. I have seen incredible generosity, incredible leadership, incredible cooperation, and true passion. As we prepare for Shabbat, I hope that you will take a moment as you light candles to truly see the light: The light of hope. The light of commitment. The light that the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando brings to our rich, vibrant and amazing community.

I’m coming home …

One last post before I return to America. After an exhausting experience like this, there is nothing better than getting to unwind with friends. I took a taxi to my friends Margot and Tamar’s house for dinner, conversation, friendship, to play with their kids and meet their new baby. We talked about it being 13 years since Margot made Aliyah (I took her on her first trip to Israel!) and how my oldest turns 20 in less than 3 months. It was an incredibly refreshing way to walk away from the challenges of the conflict and the deep thought of the past 4 days and talk about kids, food, family, and the wonders of daily life. Of course, they are Israeli and asked questions about the trip and we discussed things but the intensity was different. It was back on my home ground. I wasn’t challenged by what they said, in fact it was mostly what I believed before the trip and/or what I still believe today.

And the beauty of the Jewish community showed through as I got a text from a friend whose son is in our JCC preschool telling me that after such a tough week, I deserved to see this picture (it’s of her son and 3 of his friends in their classroom). All the pictures are below. It was amazing feeding the new baby – it made me understand what being a grandfather will be like sometime WAY in the future

Despite the sadness and anger and hope and joy that this week has brought me, I am feeling grateful and relaxed. I will miss Israel and all her beauty but I know I will be back in the near future to experience all her wonders again.

Part 15: Trip summary

We gathered together for the final time as a group to begin the processing of the entire experience. I learned so much from the others on the trip as well as those we heard from and what I saw throughout the West Bank. One of the things I said in that final gathering was how I knew I needed more time to process and unpack the entire experience. There is much that I have been thinking about that I haven’t written. As I figure stuff out, I’ll write about it.

Four days ago, I met these 35 or so people for the first time (well I did know two of them before and had met one a few years ago). We were strangers in a strange land. After 4 days I feel like I have new friends. We joked how the trip started weeks ago.

Intensive immersive experience is a commonly used term. I’ve used it many times. This was by far the most intensive immersive experience I have ever had. My head is still spinning with all I have seen and experienced. The beliefs I held at the start of the trip, the beliefs that were challenged, the contradictions not only from speaker to speaker but also within the session of a speaker.

As I sit at Ben Gurion airport waiting for my 5:20 am flight (it sounded bad when I booked it and it’s even worse now in actuality), the only thing I am certain of is that this is a very complicated situation and there are no easy answers. Israel has an existential security threat they must address. The Palestinians are suffering and struggling. I’m not into blame and don’t want to go there. I do believe the current situation is untenable and something must change but what, how, who starts, how long it takes, I have no idea.

In the end, just as the Encounter staff told us at the beginning, it’s not my job to solve the conflict. That’s for the Israelis and the Palestinians. I’m not even a citizen so I don’t vote there and have no say in the government. I do believe it’s my job to facilitate conversations. To help people in both my local community as well as in my sphere of influence gain a better understanding of the complexities and challenges that exist. So, as we discussed what our ‘intentionality’ was after the trip, I said mine was to bring this to my community and sphere of influence to do just that.

Now I’m really looking forward to plane taking off so I can go to sleep. The flight home will give me time to rest and maybe begin the processing. Or I may just watch a movie to numb my mind.

Part 14: One who dared

Our final speaker of the day and of the trip came with some pre-advertising. One of our facilitators had met him before and heard him before and raved about him. They had become friends.

Osama began his talk by asking for a moment of silence for all the souls lost as a result of the violence.
After our moment of silence, he began by stating that there are two different narratives and both are true. In addition, neither side wants to accept the other’s. It was an interesting beginning as he was the first speaker we had who began by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and historic ties to the land. He didn’t criticize Israel.

He told some of his family history. They left in 1967 for Jordan and couldn’t get back. His grandfather was passionate about Jerusalem and found a way to Jericho and then Jerusalem. The rest of the family stayed in Jordan.

His earliest memories were being taught ‘fear the black hat Jews’. In 1989 at age 12 he was harassed by soldiers for the first time and when he asked his mom she told him “We don’t call them solders. We call them “Yehud”. Yehud was meant as a racial slur. His hatred was stoked by his family and in 1990 when Saddam Hussain was bombing Tel Aviv, he and his friends would go to the roof of their building to celebrate. He thought that Tel Aviv was an army base, filled with soldiers, not where families lived. As he grew up, everything bad that happened was blamed on the “Yehud”.

His fear of the “Yehud” turned to hate when he was arrested for hanging a Palestinian Flag on a post and he was given a 6-month jail sentence. He ended up serving 9 months. HIs time in jail was where he learned all bad things about the Jews. He said jail is where they “learn the lies to breed hate of Jews.” At one point he was put in solitary confinement. Sitting in the dark, he had reached his lowest point of despair when he began hearing somebody singing a song. He couldn’t make out the words and didn’t know the tune but hearing that singing pulled him out of his darkest place.

Soon after he was released from jail, his best friend was killed by the army. Osama decided to join the Palestinian Police to fight and hurt the ‘Yehud’. He was given orders to protect the Alysha settlement where another of his friends was killed in the skirmish and he left. He left the Palestinian Police because he wanted to ‘do something big to get revenge.’

Doing something big meant he got very involved with the 2nd intifada. In his own words, during those 6 years he lost everything. He lost his “heart and soul and was filled with hate.” One day he needed a ride back to Jericho and asked a friend if he would take him. His friend said yes but he had to stop in Beit Jolla to talk to friends about peace and eat and then he could go home. When he walked into the room with his friend, he saw people with Yarmulkes on. He was confused and said to his friend, “they look like Jews.” His friend told him they are all Jews and they want to talk about peace. Osama couldn’t believe his friend and walked out of the room. While outside the room he began talking to one of the Jews who explained that they wanted peace and weren’t ok with Jews or Palestinians being killed. It was the first time that Osama thought there could be a good Jewish person. He thought perhaps there could be more than just the one. He gave her a hug and walked back into the meeting of Combatants for Peace with his friend, Ahmed, who we had met the day before!

Osama continued going to Combatants for Peace meetings and began to make some Jewish friends. In his own words, he ‘got to see the beauty of Judaism and that the army isn’t Judaism.’

He doesn’t reject his Palestinian narrative but understands there are other narratives and that all can be true. His work with Combatants for Peace, where former fighters from Palestine and Israel, has taught him that both people have a right to the land. He chooses not to look at States but at people. He does believe that the occupation needs to end.

He was asked the same question as his friend Ahmed about naming streets for terrorists. He was passionate that there should not be any streets, plazas or building named for terrorists. He pointed out that Israel has a few of these which I didn’t know. I’ll have to do further research on this to verify what he said and learn more, however there were others in the room who knew exactly what he was talking about.

When asked if there were Israeli citizens, he said yes. He went a step further and said that even soldiers shouldn’t be a target and that nobody deserves to die. He said he understands the soldier’s fear of Palestinians and that “I don’t think blood is justified. Killing people is not the answer.’

When asked about BDS, he said that BDS is done by the elite and wealthy who can have what they want. It’s not for him on the ground dealing with his life challenges. It doesn’t help him in what he wants to achieve. He said that boycotting products is an acceptable form of nonviolence but boycotting people is not ok. When I asked him about boycotting academics, artists and musicians, his reply was that ‘they are people’.

Osama finished his talk by telling us about the first Shabbat dinner he attended with his Jewish friends. They poured the Kiddush wine and gathered around the table where they sang Shalom Aleichem. He began to cry openly. This was the song that he heard in jail that touched him at his darkest time. He was proud to tell us that he now knows it by heart.

As we wrapped up with announcements, one of the staff told him he could go while they prayed Mincha (the afternoon service). He laughed and asked, “What? I can’t stay for Mincha?” He took a yarmulke out of his pocket, put it on and stayed for the service.

I was profoundly moved by Osama. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he was raised with hate and that he acted on that hate. He also wasn’t afraid to admit he was vulnerable and found a way to let go of that hate and find love. He joked with us that if he took a DNA test, he’d probably find out he was part Jewish. He keeps a yarmulke in his pocket in case he is asked to a Shabbat dinner or to join his Jewish friends for a meal.

Osama left me with hope. If somebody raised in uneducated hatred and had that validated around him for 2 decades can learn he was wrong and find a way beyond hate and into respect and dare I say love, then perhaps anybody can. Here is a picture of me with Osama – we exchanged contact information and I look forward to building a friendship with him.