Shabbat Candlelighting 5:54 p.m.                                                Friday, March 12, 2010/26 Adar 5770

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Visit from Ethiopian National Project
Today, Dr. Nigist Mengesha is a highly trained social worker and educator, working as executive director of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP) in Israel. In her youth, she was so determined to get to Israel that she took advantage of a student visa, leaving behind her husband and children. Fortunately, the family was reunited very shortly as part of the massive rescue of Ethiopian Jews that followed her own arrival in Israel. But while she has managed the integration into Israeli society for herself and her children, for the vast majority of the Ethiopian Israeli community, now numbering 150,000, many challenges and difficulties remain. The Ethiopians, most of whom came from agrarian communities, were catapulted into one of the world’s most industrialized societies. They face tremendous social dislocation, poverty, and in light of these, enormous problems among teens, including substance abuse and juvenile crime.

The ENP was formed almost 10 years ago as a new partnership between the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America and a coalition of Ethiopian Israeli organizations. It was expected to marshal massive financial resources to ramp up programs and support for the newly arrived Ethiopian immigrant community, in the hope of preventing the creation of a permanent underclass within Israeli society. Instead, an intifada broke out, diverting government attention and resources. In the years since, economic recessions, the Second Lebanon War and other events have prevented implementation of the ENP’s plans on anywhere near the scope initially envisioned.

Nonetheless, funds were raised to enable the ENP to focus their efforts on the 16,000 Ethiopian Israeli teens, with the goal of engaging at least half of them in a comprehensive initiative to enable them to complete high school and enter army service alongside their peers. A network of 24 special youth outreach centres was developed across the country, and thousands of teens were engaged in intensive after-school scholastic support programs. For a brief period there was enough funding to actually reach 7,500 of them, with extraordinary results. High school drop-out rates plummeted, as did juvenile crime rates.

During the financial crisis of the past few years, funding has been scaled back, and the ENP’s reach has correspondingly dropped to 4,000 youth. Last summer, our Federation joined with others to provide funding to prevent the closure of 15 of the 24 youth centres. Meeting representatives of the ENP this week, our leadership was struck by the terrible paradox of a situation in which we know what needs to be done to dramatically change the future for the Ethiopian Israeli population, at a time when the Jewish world cannot seem to marshal the will and resources to meet the need. The risk if we don’t is all too clear.

Positive News on the Gaming Funds Front
In recent weeks, I’ve talked about meetings we’ve had with government representatives about the potential loss of provincial gaming funds to a wide range of organizations across our community. This past week, the news about the winter round of grants filtered out. We were grateful and relieved to learn that most groups within our community had their funding renewed. Minister Rich Coleman announced various changes to the program that will affect future rounds of funding, but at least for now many of our organizations have been spared the loss of an important revenue source that would be difficult to replace. I want to express our particular thanks to Minister Moira Stilwell, whose office has been very proactive in tracking grant applications from our community and keeping us informed along the way.

High School Debates
There was a great energy at this year’s annual High School Debates, sponsored by our Israel and Overseas Affairs Department. Almost 100 students from grades 8 – 12 spoke supporting or opposing specific positions on three important and controversial questions. This year, the 24 teams not only came from the three Jewish high schools, but from Camp Miriam, Torah High and York House School. There were many comments from parents, judges and members of the audience about the high quality and skills of the debaters, and the pride we should have for the passion and intellect demonstrated. Special thanks to our co-sponsors: King David High School, Vancouver Hillel Foundation, Isaac M. Waldman Jewish Public Library and the Jewish National Fund.

Israeli Knesset Debates Changes to Conversion Law
One of the flashpoints in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities involves the laws governing the personal status of individuals who convert to Judaism. People who converted to Judaism abroad have been accepted as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return, which confers the right of citizenship on Jews immigrating to Israel. What’s at stake here is whether conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis will be accepted for purposes of the Law of Return.

New legislation has been proposed in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which would introduce changes to the current law governing conversion, both within Israel and outside of Israel. This has prompted a sharp reaction from Jewish communities outside of Israel, particularly in North America. The Jewish Federations of North America, our umbrella organization for the Jewish Federation movement, issued a strong letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu urging consultation with Diaspora communities before any changes are undertaken with this legislation, since such changes would have serious implications for communities outside of Israel. Click here for more information on the issue.

Parashat Vayechel-Pikudei
Within the double parasha of this week we find commandments related to the obligation of giving charity. First, Moses asks the Israelites to contribute to the building of the new Tabernacle. But when the officials in charge report that they are receiving too many gifts, Moses asks the people to stop – one of the rare moments in our history when we had raised too much. I, personally, have not yet experienced such a moment.

Our commentators used this parasha as a launching pad for discussions about standards of giving – who should give and how much. Rabbi Joseph Karo focused on the appropriateness of 10% of one’s income after household expenses but believed it was particularly meritorious to give a fifth – a standard most of us would be very challenged to reach. He also added that at the time of death the appropriate standard would be to leave one-third of one’s estate to charity.

Today, modern sensitivities about privacy constrain us from using a public listing of gifts to enable community members to learn from others about standards of giving. But, it is interesting to reflect on the open discussion in our tradition about these issues.

Without resorting to a public listing, perhaps I can at least encourage you to think about your own situation. What are the standards you use to guide how much to give to meet the needs of your community and the world around you? Have you thought about tzedakah as part of your estate plan? If your reflection causes you to think about changes, we are here to help you think it through.

Shabbat Shalom!

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