OyChicago articles

Ofer Bavly's Journal: Witness to the Ethiopian Exodus

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Ofer Bavly, director general of JUF's Israel office, just returned from Ethiopia, the source of a modern-day exodus of impoverished Jews seeking a better life by making aliyah. There he and the group he travelled with – which included several Chicagoans – were immersed in the people, their stories, and the work of JUF's partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which is aiding the immigrants at every stage of their journey.

Below is Ofer's journal:

Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 11:04 a.m.
At the JAFI office, Gondar

Families are interviewed before clearance to make aliyah. A nurse will give them inoculation shots. The family interviewed when we were there will go within a few weeks. The family is made up of a Christian father, his wife and three kids. The wife comes from a Jewish family who converted to Christianity in the early twentieth century. The verification determined that she is of Jewish descent and therefore eligible for aliyah, giving eligibility to her husband and children. 

However, a problem arises when it turns out that the eldest son, 16, is in fact from a different mother, a Christian. He is therefore the child of a Christian father and mother – and ineligible for aliyah. Unless...

Unless his biological mother passed away. The father will claim it is so, and a court will have to approve it. Then, Asher Saiyum, JAFI representative in Gondar, will try to convince Israeli authorities to allow the son to make aliyah with his family on a humanitarian basis and despite his ineligibility.


Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 1:35 p.m.
Gondar – piazza


Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 1:35 p.m.
Visiting Jewish Homes

Gondar. Visiting homes of families awaiting their eligibility to go to Israel. The poverty is the first thing that strikes you. These are mud huts, baked in the sun, rented for $20 a month (an exorbitant expense) from landlords out to make a buck. In a mud hut of ten feet by eight, 5 people live together. The common kitchen serving seven families is another hut made of three metal planks serving as walls and a tin roof above. The kitchen consists of an open fire on which bread is baked. The toilet is a similar hut in the yard with no door and no running water nor sewer. The Jewish Agency, funded by JUF, assists the poorest olim (Jews making aliyah) with a small subsidy to help them pay the rent. Some of them have been waiting for seven or even ten years for the aliyah certificate.


Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 2:27 p.m.
Fenter and Seramle

Jewish villages outside Gondar. The Jews left these villages in 1991 and local residents moved in.


Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 3:21 p.m.

The former Jewish village of Ambober, which was home to over 150 Jewish families. The school was a Jewish school. Now that there are no more Jews here, the village is a Christian one and the school is a state school teaching 1150 children in two shifts. While one shift studies at school, the other shift works in the fields, helping to provide for their families.

Across the street from the school stands the synagogue with the Star of David on the roof.

In the school, there are no blackboards and much of the material is written on the walls.


Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 4:38 p.m.
Report from Gondar

The JAFI mission to Ethiopia began with an overnight flight to Addis Ababa. On the flight with us was an Ethiopian prisoner transported to Ethiopia by two Israeli plainclothes policemen. Shackled in the wrists and ankles and gagged, he nevertheless tried to throw a tantrum, calming down only once we were in the air.

Gondar airport is a quaint building and we walked from the plane to the tiny terminal where the group was briefed by JAFI's Micha Goldman, who was the agency's man on the ground for Operation Solomon.


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 8:22 a.m.
Shacharit prayer, Gondar synagogue

Our mission joined the morning prayer at the Gondar synagogue. Hundreds of men covered in talitot and wearing tefilin, hundreds of women covered in white linen cloth, many of them with babies strapped to their backs, prayed in this synagogue without walls. The ground is sand, the roof is metal sheet, the congregants sit on long backless metal benches. A curtain separates men from women. On the bimah, a rabbi leads the prayer in Amharic and then in Hebrew. The congregation sings loudly and they all know the prayer text.

These are the falashmora. Their forefathers converted to Christianity at the turn of the 20th century. They now wish to return to Judaism and make aliyah to Israel. Asher, the JAFI envoy, tells them twice a month that many of them, whose Jewish roots are in serious doubt, will probably not be approved for entry by the Israeli government. The concern is that many will present themselves as Jewish, simply to improve their conditions of life. Once someone is approved, they can then bring in their extended family on the basis of "family reunification." Their relatives might then bring THEIR own relatives and the wave could turn into a huge migration.

It is sad to see many of these faces, hopeful of making it to the Promised Land and yet knowing that their chances are slim.

Our mission spent time with the children, bringing them stickers, markers, coloring books and soap bubbles. The kids were ecstatic, enjoying the visit and adoring the cameras pointing at them.


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 8:29 a.m.
JCC Kitchen

Feeds the youngest kids and pregnant mothers


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 8:39 a.m.
At the JCC kindergarten

The kids learn Hebrew with Israeli volunteers spending three months here on JAFI's "TEN" program. They sing Hebrew nursery rhymes!


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 9:16 a.m.
The Israeli School

The school in Gondar, where kids of all ages learn Hebrew. In September there were 700 students. Thanks to aliyah, that number has come down to 300.

JAFI pays for everything in this school; staff (many of whom are brought in from Israel), books and materials.

The teacher in this picture is Sarah, wife of Asher, the JAFI representative in Gondar.


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 9:30 a.m.
Gondar School

Computer class


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 9:38 a.m.
Gondar School

Learning a Hebrew song about dreams coming true.


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 10:15 a.m.
Hebrew School

The teachers used to be Ethiopians who had learned a little bit of Hebrew but couldn't even converse in it. In 2010, JAFI took over the school from NACOEJ.

When Asher, a native of Gondar who came to Israel many years ago, was sent here from JAFI, he replaced all the Hebrew teachers with Israeli volunteers, some of them Ethiopian born. Some are TEN volunteers.

130 of the 300 students presently here are not approved for aliyah. JAFI decided that anyone already in the school when JAFI took over would not be asked to leave, but their families know that they will not make aliyah. However, the school does not enroll new students so as not to give false illusions of going to Israel.

When the olim at this school go to Israel, JAFI will give the school as a present to the Ethiopian government.

It is amazing to see these kids, some of whom came from tiny villages far away, who have been waiting in Gondar for years to go to Israel. They learn Hebrew, they sang in Hebrew, and the walls of their classrooms are covered with pictures of Israel. Israeli flags and Hebrew words are taped on every wall.

Ghazion is a 15-year-old student we met in a classroom. Each student was asked to tell their dream. All said they wanted to make aliyah. One said he would be a soccer star in Israel. Another said he wanted to be a doctor in Israel. One bright girl whose teacher said was the best in the class wanted to be a scientist in Israel. They all spoke in Amharic, but Ghazion wanted to speak Hebrew. He said he dreams of being a pilot for the Israeli Air Force. He said you need strength and courage, and he has both. He also said that he is aware of the tough competition, with 500 people competing for one position, but he will try and he will succeed . He said it all in perfect Hebrew. 

Later I found out from Asher that Ghazion was rejected and will not be making aliyah because his family could not prove its Judaism. Ghazion knows this. But he continues to dream.


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 3:45 p.m.

Asher, the JAFI representative in Gondar, told us his personal story. 

He grew up one of seven siblings in a small village outside of Gondar. As a child he never went to school, working instead on the family farm as a shepherd. At first he tended sheep, and when he was 10 he "graduated" to cows, a responsible position for a farmer.

When Asher was 12, the family was told to prepare to go to Israel. It was a big secret because Ethiopia was a communist country at the time and emigration was illegal. 

The day came when someone from the Jewish Agency told the villagers to sell their property and pack up for the march to Sudan. Asher was sad to be separated from his cows, but his father told him that God would lead them to Jerusalem, just as he had led Abraham to the land of Canaan. 

Nobody in the village had ever seen a map, and they had no idea where they were going. Non-Jewish guides showed up and charged them 70 birr (about $35) per person to take them to Sudan. That was an exorbitant sum, but they felt that they would be realizing their dream.

On the day that was set by the guides, hundreds of Jews showed up at a pre-determined meeting point. The guides said there were too many. It would be dangerous to march all together. Hundreds had to return to their village and wait for the next march. Asher's father volunteered to stay back with his family, but asked that his eldest son be allowed to go, as his wife was pregnant and there was fear that if she stayed back she would miss the next march. 

Ten days after the first group left, it was time for 12-year-old Asher and his family to go. They packed water, food and a shovel on their donkey. When Asher asked his father about the shovel, he was told it would be used to bury those who would die on the road. 

The group of 150 marched to Sudan. Some died on the way. They would march at night and hide during the day, and they were warned not to utter a word on the march as they would be heard and denounced to the police. 

The march took three weeks and they walked hundreds of miles. When they arrived at the Sudanese border, they were arrested by Sudanese soldiers. The Jews denied being Jewish and were placed in a refugee camp. They ended up staying at the camp for ten months. When Asher's father tried to find out what had happened to the first group and his eldest son, he was told that they had been arrested inside Ethiopia and put in Gondar prison. They ended up spending three years in jail before being released and going to Israel. 

When Asher arrived in Israel, he and his family were placed in a JAFI absorption center. At thirteen, for the first time in his life, he attended school. At 18, Asher completed his matriculation exams, graduating from high school. His natural path was to go to the army. He asked to be a combat soldier in the paratrooper brigade. The army had other plans for him, so he negotiated with them and they allowed him to go to college first. He studied physical education and graduated. It was then time to enlist... in the paratroopers. 

Asher served for three years, training paratroopers in a combat unit. He then got his undergraduate degree and started working for JAFI, receiving more and more responsibilities. He directed two absorption centers and, two years ago, was sent to Gondar to run the JAFI operation here. 

About six thousand Ethiopian Jews made it through Sudan in Operation Moses. Two thousand died on the way, trying to realize their dream and that of their forefathers, to arrive in Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency, with the generous support of the Jewish communities in America, made the dream come true for thousands. 


Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 4:34 p.m.
Walaka Village

We visited Walaka Village near Gondar, which used to be a Jewish village. After all the Jews left, others came in and continue to live in what tourists know as the Jewish Village. They sell little trinkets with the Star of David to all visitors.

Outside the village we visited the Jewish cemetery. The oldest tombstones date back about 250 years.

The Jewish Agency placed a memorial sign and a traditional pile of stones to commemorate the 2000 Jews who died making aliyah through Sudan. By the memorial, we recited the Kadish and prayed for their souls. It was a moving moment of remembrance and reflection.

The tombs carry inscriptions in Amharic and a Hebrew word here and there, but one tombstone carried a whole inscription in Hebrew, giving the name of the deceased who passed away in 1990 and then describing him thus: "He was a simple man who always helped those who were really poor. But what can you do, at the end he died."


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 7:14 a.m.

I asked Kim Shwachtman from Chicago to write this one. 

Begin forwarded message:

As I thought about our entire day today, words like overwhelming and incredible come to mind.

I'm exhausted beyond belief, but I also feel very energized. I think back to our experience this morning and the sight of a whole community of Ethiopian men, women, and children davening at the Jewish Agency's Jewish Community Center. Amazing!

And then to sit in on the childrens' classrooms and the adult classrooms and watch the dedicated Israeli teachers teach their Hebrew lessons and computer skills classes to these students. It filled me with tremendous pride to be a Jew and to see the passion and dedication of those teachers who were so clearly committed to helping their students prepare to make aliyah.

I was so moved to learn how the school got started and why the clinic was moved to Gondor. It truly begins with transmitting our Jewish values of treating people with dignity and compassion. Thank goodness for people like Asher, who made his vision for the school a reality.

Then, later in the day, to see the vast mountainous landscape and try to grasp what it must have been like to be a family making the daunting and dangerous journey through the night, for weeks, until they reached Sudan, with the hope of eventually getting to Israel. It was hard to imagine.

I thought the day ended on an incredibly powerful note, as we listened to young adult volunteers from Israel who have come to Ethiopia to do tikkun olam. It was clear from the expressions on their faces and from the words they spoke that in just the three months' time that these volunteers have been working with those in need and at risk, it has been a life-changing experience for them. This new Jewish agency program is doing far more than reinforcing the Jewish identities of these young adult volunteers. This experience is allowing them to see and feel the impact of their work, and they know they have been an important part of helping to change the future lives of those they are helping. What a priceless reward!


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 12:15 p.m.
In Addis Ababa

In Addis, we visited the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (another JUF partner agency) transit station, where the 73 new olim are awaiting their flight tonight. They arrived from the Gondar region, a 14-hour drive, by buses. It took two days. There are elderly men and women, obviously dazed and confused, yet happy, knowing that something very big will happen tonight. The children are very excited, spending their time playing ping pong and table soccer, or playing on the swings.

The olim spent the night here and are preparing themselves. Our mission gave out brand new clothes to everyone, which they will wear for the flight tonight.

In the pictures you will see our Chicago Federation members giving out clothes to the new olim.


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 12:18 p.m.
At the Israeli Embassy

At the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. JAFI's Micha Feldman, who was point man for Operation Solomon, tells us the story of the operation to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews. 


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 10:07 p.m.
Walking to the Israeli Embassy

Without a doubt, the most moving moment of the day was walking with the new olim from the JDC transit station to the Israeli Embassy, where they were welcomed and where they boarded the bus for the airport.

We saw them loading their suitcases and few personal belongings onto a truck and then the procession passed through the neighborhood and to the embassy. Hundreds of locals lined the alley and waved goodbye. They had seen these processions many times and knew that the Jews, dressed in new clothes, were going to their new home.

The procession walked and sang "Am Yisrael Chai." For us, this was a tearful moment as each and every member of the mission tried to imagine what it was like for these 73 olim to leave everything they knew behind and embark on what is literally a life-changing adventure.

When we reached the embassy, we gathered them around us and Debbie Tananbaum from New York greeted them on behalf of our mission. "We are one people, standing together, and we wish you a safe journey home," said Debbie. Asher translated her words to Amharic, and when he said the words "we are one people," the new olim burst in spontaneous applause.

We saw them off to the bus and would meet them later, at the airport.


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 10:12 p.m.
At the Ambassador's Residence

Our mission's final dinner was hosted by Blainish Zabaydeh, Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia.

Blainish, daughter of a "Kess of Kesses" (Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Ethiopia) came to Israel at the age of 17 from Gondar. She is the first Ethiopian-born diplomat in Israel, the first Ethiopian-born Israeli ambassador, and the first Ethiopian-born ambassador from anywhere in the world to be sent to Ethiopia.

Blainish gave us a briefing on Israeli-Ethiopian relations and told us her personal story, one of achievement and success. She is a role model for all Ethiopian olim, who see her as a hero and as representing the highest level of achievement for any new immigrant from Ethiopia.


Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 10:17 p.m.
At the airport

At Addis airport, our mission members sped the long wait talking to the new olim and playing with the kids. We brought crayons, soap bubbles and coloring books, and converted the gate area at the airport into a makeshift and very happy kindergarten.


Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 5:45 a.m.
Arriving in Israel

The new Israelis have arrived home. The flight arrives at 3.30 a.m., so everyone is slightly dazed, but their faces tell the story: They are very, very happy.

At the Ministry of the Interior office inside the airport, we join them as they are processed and receive their Israeli ID and their "absorption packet," which includes explanations of all the benefits they will receive, as well as a cash stipend to keep them until they open a bank account and receive, on March 1, their first monthly stipend for new immigrants.

We completed our journey. It was an exciting mission, opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to a part of the world where our fellow Jews spent centuries, and learning about the fantastic way in which JAFI, with JUF funding, is bringing our sisters and brothers home.

It was an emotional journey as we traced the path of the Ethiopian Jews from the villages to the city and finally to their flight to Israel. Seeing their faces as they marched to the embassy in Addis Ababa, dressed in "Shabbat clothes," was unforgettable. Their gratitude to the Jewish communities in America was obvious as they realized that we were standing with them and supporting them, and uniting them with their fellow Jews in Israel.

And for the members of our mission, it was also a chance to meet and get to know each other, caring and generous Jews from Chicago, New York, Detroit, Atlanta and even Canada, exploring our Judaism, our background and the things that bind us together as we visit our sisters and brothers in a far away land. 

Canine Therapy

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Canine Therapy photo1

It’s amazing the changes one goes through over the course of a lifetime. For example, I am now never without a book, however when growing up you couldn’t pay me to read for pleasure. I was also never very devoted to academics and yet recently I willingly enrolled myself in grad school. It seems like my younger years were filled with doing the bare minimum, but with my uncanny ability to do the unexpected I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m now packing my schedule with responsibilities, possibly to make up for lost time.

One of my most recent missions involves volunteering for the Canine Therapy Corps (CTC). I got involved in CTC though my aunt, who volunteers with her dog and serves on the Board of Directors. Last year we founded a Young Professionals Board in an effort to boost awareness and fundraising in a younger demographic. If we’re friends on Facebook you have no doubt been assaulted by my posts asking you to participate in this event or that. Facebook averages over 500k posts every 60 seconds, so who can blame you for ignoring or missing the message. Luckily as an Oy! blogger I have the opportunity to set the record straight.

Canine Therapy photo 2

The most common misconception about CTC is that it is an animal shelter. In Chicago, where rescuing a dog is so popular, it’s easy to see “Dog” in your feed and think it involves rescues. However CTC is not a shelter. Some also mistakenly believe that CTC helps dogs who need therapy themselves. Now, as a dog owner I’ve been in contact with dogs of all shapes and sizes. And many, in my assessment, need therapy. Therapy to stop barking constantly, therapy to stop humping other dogs, but mostly they need therapy to help them cope with their crazy owners. However CTC does not provide therapy to dogs. So what does Canine Therapy Corps do? They provide animal-assisted therapy USING dogs. 

Bethany Tap, Canine Therapy’s Office and Volunteer Manager, is a true believer. “We talk a lot here about the human-animal bond. You really see the intuitive nature of the dogs exhibiting this unconditional bond. As they’re working with patients there are certain things that don’t need to be explained to the dogs, they are just inherently understood.” Debra Hadelman, CTC volunteer and member of the Board of Directors, offers an example from working with a patient afflicted with spastic cerebral palsy who loved to hug her dog Daffy. “This patient would hug Daffy and the dog would stay completely still. Daffy wouldn’t do that for a family member, she’d always run away, but she let the patient put her in a headlock without complaint.” But Therapy Dogs offer more than just emotional support to the wide range of patients visited by CTC. Where a normal therapy session for these patients would be arduous and ominous, working with an animal makes therapy easier and even fun. An example comes from another one of Hadelman’s volunteer sessions:

“Amanda, a patient with cerebral palsy, was afraid to start practicing walking. So we made a game out it, asking the patient to hide treats for Daffy. With the help of a physical therapist Amanda would now willingly walk to a cone and squat down to hide the treat. (Walking and squatting were both integral activities in the patient’s therapeutic regimen.) Daffy would then find the treats, and Amanda was thrilled. When her Mom came into the room Amanda said to her, ‘You won’t believe what Daffy did!’ completely unaware of the progress she herself had made. Using a dog for physical therapy completely took the fear and anxiety out of the exercise and put Amanda’s focus on the dog.”

Canine Therapy photo 3

And there are hundreds if not thousands of anecdotes just like these. I’ve been involved in several types of philanthropy in my adult life. What I love about volunteering for Canine Therapy Corps is how much impact one person can make. If you’re interested in learning more about Canine Therapy Corps or attending the annual event on Saturday, February 23rd go to http://caninetherapycorps.org.

Canine Therapy photo 4

Technically speaking at 1871

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TIP division hosts panel discussion on Chicago’s tech start-up ecosystem

Technically speaking at 1871 photo 1

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, though horribly tragic, ushered in an era of architectural innovation and creation, responsible for the acclaimed skyline Chicago has today. In homage to that remarkable moment in history—when talented individuals seized a moment and rebuilt a city—space 1871, which opened last May in the Merchandise Mart, was created to provide local startups with an affordable workspace, access to mentors, educational programs and like-minded thinkers.

It was the ideal setting for the Jewish United Fund’s Trades, Industries and Professions event “Fueling the Future: An In-Depth Look at the Chicago Tech Start-Up Ecosystem,” which was held Feb. 13.

More than 200 people attended the sold out event to hear four distinguished Chicago entrepreneurs and industry experts engage in a panel discussion about the Chicago tech ecosystem, where it is now and where it is headed in the future.

Technically speaking at 1871 photo 2

Steven Miller, principal and co-founder of Origins Ventures, moderated the discussion which featured two successful impresarios, Gregg Kaplan, the founder and former CEO of Redbox, and Talia Mashiach, the CEO and founder of Eved, an event commerce company that automates the buying and selling for meetings and events. Representing the Venture Capitalist side of the start-up equation was Bret Maxwell, the managing general partner for MK Capital.

The focus of the evening was growing the Chicago startup community. All of the panelists sit on the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center board, which is responsible for 1871 and supports entrepreneurs on their path to building high-growth, sustainable businesses that serve as platforms for economic development and civic leadership. With 220 start-ups building companies out of 1871, Chicago is competing with the tech heavy coasts.

One way to stay local is to find funding from Chicago-based venture capitalists like Maxwell.

“Being local helps you met every month,” Mashiach said. “The expectations versus outside of Chicago and inside Chicago are much more manageable….And I just really believe in this awesome city and this community here and I wanted to be Chicago based.”

Technically speaking at 1871 photo 3

“My goal is to stay in Chicago [with my next business] from a money perspective,” Kaplan said. “…What is the compelling reason to go out of Chicago? This is a small community, you know the people here and you are connected to them and the prestige, so to speak, about the firms on the east coast is not really an issue for me. I want somebody who I know.”

Maxwell, who has spent 27 years in the venture capital world and founded MK Capital, shared several insights on what venture capitalists are looking to invest in.

“Think about the search business,” Maxwell said. “Most people here remember Yahoo. At the time Yahoo first got funded, the Google guys were using it as their search engine. And they felt like they had a lot more to add like ad words, and everything else that they did. And yet, if you asked 99 percent of the investment community, the venture community, people would have said Yahoo has done everything and it’s over. And clearly, it wasn’t over. It wasn’t even close to being over. In a lot of these IT sectors, people think we are in these mature states…sometimes it’s the subtle little things…that may be technology enabled but that may not be pure technology and that can cause the dynamic growth.”

Jewish values played a large role in shaping all of their identities as entrepreneurs and business owners. “Being an entrepreneur is challenging the status quo,” Kaplan told the audience. “Red Box is a real example of that. We came from an industry that has a whole lot of can’t dos— where you could not charge a $1 for a DVD. Blockbuster has 6,000 stores and you weren’t allowed to return a DVD to any other stores and we said that doesn’t make any sense. Successful entrepreneurs are constantly challenging status quo and I think that’s part of Jewish culture where you are taught to raise questions.”

“The other part that people find very interesting is that I keep Shabbat,” Mashiach continued. “A lot of people say [to me], “you have a startup, you have five kids, how do you do that?” And I tell you, I think it’s my little secret sauce. I would probably work seven days a week all the time. I wouldn’t have balance to be with my kids and I wouldn’t recharge. So from Friday night till Saturday night, I shut off my phone and my complete focus is on my family and things that are totally not work related. It’s my revival and it gives me the opportunity to come back in on Monday—or Saturday night usually—and start all over again.”

During the panel discussion, participants “facebooked” their questions to the Jewish United Fund fan page and “tweeted” @JUFChicago.

Participation at the event required a gift to the 2013 JUF Annual Campaign. For more information about the Trades, Industries and Professions Division, visit www.juf.org/professionals. For more information about JUF’s Chicago Entrepreneurs Forum, visit http://www.juf.org/professionals/cjef.aspx

A heart bursting with love and song

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A heart bursting with love and song photo

Idan Raichel, Israel's musical superstar of the decade, arrives in Chicago for two performances in February. Since emerging in early 2003, The Idan Raichel Project   has changed perceptions of Israeli music. Fitting for February, love is a motif in Raichel's life and music; the composer/keyboardist's biggest hits are love songs; "Hinech Yafah" (הינך יפה / "Thou art Fair") from Song of Songs, "Boi" (בואי / "Come") and  "Im Telech" (אם תלך / "If you go"). This is rooted in a broader love for all peoples and cultures he encounters.

Raised in a secular family in Kfar Saba, Raichel first witnessed colorful customs from Yemenite families living up the street. After serving as musical director of the Israeli Defense Forces Band, Raichel taught music at school for Ethiopian immigrants. Many young olim sought to leave behind folkways to assimilate into Israeli society, but some passed Raichel recordings of traditional Amharic singers like Aster Awekem. The experience opened his ears to the musical potential of rich ethnic diversity.

Soon thereafter, Raichel began recording in his home studio, inviting numerous musicians to participate, including many Ethiopian Jews, Arabs, Africans, and singers from Yemen and South Africa as well as  Israelis. His debut album, The Idan Raichel Project was released in January 2003 by Helicon Records to critical and commercial success owing to its fusion of traditional Middle Eastern sounds with pulsing contemporary musical forms.

Adding to his appeal are seeming contradictions that defy narrowly categorizing him or his music. He seems to embody a spirit among Israelis of his generation, at once at tension and at home in the Middle East, informed but not constrained by religion and culture. Though Raichel himself is spiritual without being religious, his early lyrical sources were Hebrew Psalms and texts familiar to most Israelis regardless of background. Raichel's primary language is Hebrew, but he includes lyrics in Arabic, Swahili, Zulu, Spanish, Portuguese and notably, Amharic. Raichel likewise defies definition in appearance, sporting dreadlocks bound by a black turban and designer baggy pants. His openness, tolerance and desire for cross-cultural contact seem to reflect a worldly and open Israeli outlook.

Raichel's collaborations exemplify this. A chance meeting with Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure in an airport led to his visiting Raichel in Israel to play and record, resulting in the "Toure-Raichel Collective" and The Tel Aviv Session, a remarkable, critically-hailed collection of original music reflecting various traditional influences that altogether is an unlikely, beautiful fusion. In 2008 Raichel recorded Ben Kirot Beyti (Within these Walls),collaborating with musicians from Latin America. His relationship with the Ethiopian community, however, remains his hallmark. In 2012 Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Raichel to set his own poem "The Eyes of Beta Israel," about Israel's Ethiopian community, to music.

More recently Raichel recorded with Grammy-award winning singer India.Arie, whom he met during her 2008 visit to Israel. They performed at both the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize gala and 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication, singing "Gift of Acceptance," from a forthcoming joint album, Open Door. The track is posted on KFAR Jewish Arts Center's website at www.kfarcenter.org/video. Hopefully it opens a door to the music of this important Israeli artist and, in the process, your heart.

The Idan Raichel Project performs on Feb. 17 and 18 at the City Winery in Chicago. For more information, visit www.citywinery.com.

Adam Davis is the founder and executive director of KFAR Jewish Arts Center, a leading presenter and advocate of contemporary Jewish arts, music, and culture programs in and around Chicago. For future arts suggestions and feedback, e-mail Adam at adam@kfarcenter.org.

Love amongst the bug spray

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Let’s face it. You meet a guy or a girl at a bar. What do you really know about them? They like to drink. That’s about it. But you meet a fellow counselor at a Jewish day camp and before they say hello, you know you’ve met a kindred spirit.

“You can assume if they’re working at a day camp that they like kids, they’re outgoing and athletic,” says Jeff Silver, a former counselor at the JCC Chicago’s “Z” Frank Apachi Day Camp. “Everyone has the same values. They like kids and they’re family-oriented,” says Adam Sax, another alumnus.

“It’s a magical spot,” says Terri Blenner, the camp’s director. “Kids have a chance to be who they want to be while they enjoy their Jewish heritage. I don’t think anyone can quite understand it who hasn’t been there.” 

All of which explains why romance is so likely to blossom at camp. Blenner, who has been with the JCC for over 35 years, says last summer a dozen counselors left the camp as couples. “We tried to make a list once of all the couples who met here and got married, but we gave up.”

Love amongst the bug spray photo 1

Debbie and Jeff Silver at a 1950s-style camp dance in 1986, shortly after they met.

When Debbie Schwartz first saw Jeff Silver, she thought he was “full of himself.” He was an older man, 21, a senior at the University of Illinois, and a premed. Debbie was 18 and had just graduated from Niles West. “He gave a speech on first aid. I don’t want to say he was arrogant, but he was very confidant. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’” 

This was in 1986 at Mayer Kaplan JCC Day Camp. Since Debbie was working with second grade girls and Jeff was working with second grade boys, they spent a lot of time together, teaching swimming, and cooking. “There was a lot of mingling,” says Debbie. 

“There were a lot of parties that summer, a lot of couples pairing off,” says Jeff. “That’s what happens when [counselors work] together in an informal setting…they mingle and flirt with each other.”

As the summer wore on, Debbie saw the way Jeff interacted with the campers. “The kids adored him. He got down to their level.” 

After four weeks of hanging out, they went on their first date. They married 22 years ago, live in Northbrook, and have three kids, 16, 14, and 13, who have all attended Apachi Day Camp. 

Love amongst the bug spray photo 2

Debbie and Jeff at their son’s bar mitzvah earlier this year. 

When the kids were little, Debbie hired Amanda Plotkin to babysit. In 2007, when she was a sophomore in college, Amanda worked at Apachi in the office. Adam Sax worked there, too. They met at the photocopier. “There was a spark,” says Adam. 

Love amongst the bug spray photo 3

Amanda and Adam, at Apachi Day Camp in 2007, the summer they met. 

“He was the unit head, in charge of the counselors and all the campers from four to six. I saw how he interacted with the staff and the supervisors. This guy he was a leader. People respected him, parents respected him. We saw each other every day, and I got to know him on a much different level than meeting someone at a bar,” Amanda says. 

“When I was first hired as a counselor-in-training in 2002, the director at the time was joking around and said, ‘You’ll meet a lot of girls here. You might even meet your wife,’” Adam says. 

Terri Blenner got a call one day from Adam. He needed her help. He wanted to propose to Amanda at the Xerox machine where they’d met. “I called Amanda and told her I needed her to come in and help with scheduling,” Terri recalls. “When she got there, I said, ‘I just printed something, would you get it for me?’ She lifted up the lid on the Xerox machine and there was a sign that read, ‘Will you marry me?’ Adam was waiting in the other room.”

Love amongst the bug spray photo 5

Amanda and Adam Sax today. 

“I had it all set up with roses and an engagement ring,” Adam says. They’ve been married almost two years and live in Vernon Hills.

“We had one couple who got engaged on Apachi Hill,” says Gayle Malvin, director of JCC day camps. “Now their kids are in day care at Mayer Kaplan JCC.”

The Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) is a partner in serving our community and receives support from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Cheryl Lavin writes the “Tales From the Front” column which appears Monday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Chicago Sun-Times. Her website is askcheryl.net

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