Shabbat Candlelighting 8:28 p.m.                                             Friday, May 13, 2011/9 Iyar 5771

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Marking Another Year of Israeli Independence
What better way to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) than by flying to Israel, which I did on Tuesday. Before leaving, of course, I was able to join in our community commemoration on Sunday evening of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and our Yom Ha’atzmaut concert on Monday night at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.

The group of community volunteers and professionals, led by Geoffrey Druker and Gaby Peled, who put together our Yom Hazikaron ceremony, do a beautiful job each year, combining Israeli music and poetry with the stories of fallen soldiers and terror victims whose family and friends are members of our community. The ceremony is, therefore, quite powerful on both a personal and communal level, as everyone in the room is at most two degrees of separation from someone who lost his or her life.

This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut concert, put together by another extraordinary volunteer group led by Stephen Gaerber and Allen Gaerber, was a particularly spirited evening. Mozaica, a composite group of talented young Israeli performers, graduates of the Israel Defense Forces entertainment troupes, put on a great show, engaging the audience with infectious enthusiasm. Bringing greetings this year were both Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson, reflecting the high octane political season that we are in. JCCGV’s Festival Ha’Rikud dancers provided their usual excellent display of Israeli dancing, and community leaders Jonathan Berkowitz and Rob Philipp provided an entertaining and informative vignette recognizing the 130th anniversary of the revival of the Hebrew language by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, an early Zionist and Hebrew educator whose vision and fanatic tenacity single-handedly paved the way for this revival.

Arriving in Jerusalem on the heels of Yom Ha'atzmaut, the holiday spirit is still present with Israeli flags still on display everywhere, and a more relaxed atmosphere than is usually present (and perhaps more than one might expect given the current range of internal and external challenges). I’m here because our Israel and Overseas Affairs Committee is beginning a series of meetings over five days, visiting a broad range of philanthropic projects with which our Jewish Federation is involved. We’ll be meeting with key leadership of various agencies we fund here, conducting site visits of projects where we will engage with program participants to see the impact on their lives, and meeting with Israeli philanthropists and strategic planners in order to think ahead to future directions for our community’s efforts here.

Over the past few years, we’ve become more strategically focused on investing your philanthropic dollars here by concentrating on youth and education-related issues in the periphery of Israeli society, especially in our partnership region in the Upper Galilee. Next week, as we wrap up I’ll highlight a few of our peak experiences.

Coming a few days ahead of the group has allowed me to participate in some particularly interesting meetings:

Dr. Ran Tur-Kaspa is dean designate at Bar-Ilan University’s new faculty of Medicine, and is leading the high profile effort to open Israel’s fifth medical school under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University this coming fall in Safed. We’ve been involved in this effort from its very earliest stages, having invested some of our 2006 Israel Emergency Campaign funds in a long-range planning study of health and education issues in the Eastern Galilee that laid the groundwork for the government’s decision to move forward with the school. Israel faces a current shortage of doctors. The new school and related research institute that are being developed, along with the improvement of hospitals across the Galilee to serve as teaching institutions, will have an enormous impact on the social and economic development of the whole north of Israel. Dr. Tur-Kaspa is a remarkably down-to-earth and engaging personality with a great vision and a drive to make sure that the new institutions that are created are grounded in the realities and needs of the north, and not just extensions of existing institutions from the centre of the country. The medical school will open next fall with about 120 students, an unbelievable dream-come-true from the vantage point of fewer than five years ago when we provided support to the Tzafona study.

Arik Rosenberg is CEO of the Ramat HaSharon Foundation, an effort by this suburban community near Tel-Aviv to create the first Jewish Federation-type organization in Israel. The hope is that within a few years there will be a locally based annual campaign generating funds that provide support for a range of local needs in their city, and also funds directed to other areas of need in Israel or elsewhere in the Jewish world. This is a wonderful evolution of Israel’s civic society to move beyond reliance on external support, and to build a voluntary sector that takes more responsibility for its own destiny. Arik was steered to me, among other North American Federation executives, for consultation on areas where our experience may be helpful in their early stages of development.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and CEO of the Reut Institute, a strategic planning institute focused on contributing to the social and economic development of the country. The institute is the main proponent of the Israel 15 initiative, an effort to leapfrog Israel’s development to be within the top 15 countries in the world in relation to social and economic measures. According to their research, which relies on intensive data analysis and deep study of other countries that have successfully leapfrogged, success depends on ensuring that economic and social improvements take place through the country in multiple geographic and economic sectors, and that the fruits of success are enjoyed by the breadth of the population of the country, and not just its elites. Israel has been experiencing a gap between the talent pool and the average quality of life, and this is a recipe for significant brain drain. Creating varied and diverse sectors of economic growth across the country is the best way to stem and reverse that trend, and to draw back to the country many of those who chose to life elsewhere.

Our strategic focus on youth, education and closing social gaps in the periphery dovetails well with the Israel 15 initiative, and we’ll be looking for ways to take advantage of the Reut Institute’s powerful research and analysis to sharpen the impact of our community’s investments here.

In the midst of all of the internal and regional political turmoil, it can be hard to step back and focus on these kinds of issues. But, this is actually where we can most significantly contribute to the future well-being of Israel. It has long been noted that Israel’s key national resource is its people, given the paucity of other natural resources on which to build its economy. In that sense, the rest of the Jewish world is Israel’s second key national resource. Making sure that Israel is a vibrant society, where equality of opportunity ensures that talent is developed and keeps the country thriving and growing, is a key component of today’s Zionism.

After a restful Shabbat our group will be off and running with a deep immersion into these kinds of issues.

Shabbat Shalom!

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