Shabbat Candlelighting 8:37 p.m.                                             Friday, May 20, 2011/16 Iyar 5771

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During this past week, I’ve been traveling in Israel with our Israel and overseas affairs committee mission. This is the first time that we’ve organized a trip for the committee with the sole purpose of checking in on the various projects and programs that we support through Jewish Federation. The participants, all of whom traveled here on their own time and at their own expense, got a deep exposure to the breadth of programs we are involved with in Israel.

As we concluded our experience yesterday, the group was united in its appreciation for the strategic approach we have taken, both in terms of allocations from our Annual Campaign and from the Israel Emergency Campaign (IEC) in 2006. Without question, staying focused on our partnership region in the Upper Galilee and on efforts related to youth and education has enabled us to accomplish a great deal.

The fundamental challenge of our partnership region stems from its location on the far periphery of Israeli society. As Canadians, we laugh about the Israeli perception of periphery in a country in which you can drive from one end to the other in six hours. But, even with that reality, the Upper Galilee is in every sense a social periphery. Life expectancy, health indicators, high school graduation rates, university enrollment and economic opportunity all measure lower in the Upper Galilee than in the centre of the country. Going into the army, which is often the gateway to a young adult's future, there is a glass ceiling. High school graduates from the periphery will not be considered for many elite units without some extra intervention.

By focusing on youth and education, we are helping close social gaps by providing opportunities that young people would otherwise not have. We are also focused on building future social leadership for Israel by bringing youth who would otherwise not have access to the same opportunities as their peers from the centre, into leadership programs that level the playing field.

Seeing the impact of the investments we made after the Israel Emergency Campaign in 2006 was particularly inspiring. At Tel Hai College, a regional college serving 3,500 students, a whole new eastern campus has been built in the last four years, supplementing the existing older campus. Canadian IEC funds have supported the development of Beit Canada, a large multipurpose building which is the anchor of the new campus, new dormitories and the Sidney Warren Science Education Centre, a regional centre focused on strengthening science education at the secondary school level throughout the Eastern Galilee.

The most strategic investment was in the early research and developmental planning related to the creation of Israel’s fifth medical school. I’ve written about it occasionally over time and the reality is now at hand. This October, the new medical school will open in Safed with 130 students registered. We visited the massive renovation and construction project now underway and it is unbelievable to see the furious pace with which an existing old hospital building is being renovated, along with the construction of six new buildings. Together, these new facilities will house classrooms, offices and research labs for several years while a brand new campus is built on the hills just southeast of Safed. To think that the Coast-to-Coast Canadian Federations funded the initial planning grant that provided the foundation for the government’s approval of the project, and also provided initial seed money to the association of 13 Eastern Galilee municipalities that helped drive the project through the national government process, is truly astounding. Our initial investment has helped catalyze what will now be a $400 million investment in the Galilee – the single biggest and most important social development project in the north in Israel’s history, with important by-products to come in health, employment, housing and education throughout the Galilee.

I think the visit that really stole our group’s heart was the visit to Beit Vancouver in Kiryat Shemona. Opened in 2006, just after the Second Lebanon War with support from three Vancouver donor families, Beit Vancouver has been through a bit of a roller-coaster the past few years. Last year, a new partnership was formed between our Jewish Federation, the city of Kiryat Shemona and the Rashi Foundation to revitalize the centre. The Rashi Foundation took over operating responsibility, the centre was cleaned up and an excellent new director hired. The breadth of activity taking place is breathtaking. The building is full of activity everyday from 3:00 p.m. until midnight, reaching hundreds of youth in Kiryat Shemona. There are leadership activities for older youth, who are trained as counselors for younger kids, there are drama and dance programs, special programs for immigrant youth, social space for teenage boys to drop in and hang out and a “fix-it” lab where participants in the Net@ program (also funded by our Federation) work with donated old computers and resell them, or provide repair services to local residents. A youth council with representatives of all the youth programs and movements in the city meets regularly to share information and ideas, and to plan joint projects. There is unbelievable energy and a new pride among the youth in their town, and it is very exciting to see it all under one roof.

Our first full day coincided with Nakba Day, commemorated by Palestinians as the anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel. Nakba means catastrophe. There are protests every year, but this year several erupted into violence, especially as Palestinians attempted to cross borders into Israel from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. At least 12 Palestinians lost their lives as a result of the violence, and there were significant injuries among Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. We feared that the violence would erupt into a broader regional conflict; there was certainly that potential. But, within a day the news receded from the forefront, and we remained focused on what we really came to Israel for.

Today, 63 years after the creation of the State of Israel, there are still visionary pioneers building this country. They aren’t doing it by clearing the land and milking cows. They are doing it by building a brighter future for all Israelis – Jews and Arabs – by strengthening their society, by expanding economic opportunity for all, by investing in future leadership for Israel and the Jewish people. This is the Zionism of today. Not only are we a part of it – we are engaged in some of the most important efforts in this regard.

Shabbat Shalom!

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