Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to meet with visionary and passionate leaders from three different programs that have been supported by YOUR Jewish Federation:
Yachdav Senior Center
Bordering the campus of Sapir College, we spent a few hours with Chaya Bradman Levy, the director of the Yachdav Senior Center. Wide eyed and with a huge smile, Chaya shared with me about the life-changing work of the Center, which provides vital social and educational opportunities for seniors throughout the region. She explained how classes and trips are filled quickly. The Center is vibrant on a daily basis, whether members come for therapy, art classes, or just to eat together.
What sets Yachdav’s work apart is its approach to engaging the seniors themselves. In response to a Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) study that found ‘loneliness’ to be a growing and devastating problem for seniors, Yachdav, under Chaya’s leadership, has innovated approaches that empower seniors to organize programs and activities for their peers. This initiative has received support from our Jewish Federation! These seniors also have the opportunity to learn together – with students from Sapir College – about human development and other subjects of interest.
Chaya describes this life affirming approach as truly changing the lives of Sha’ar HaNegev’s senior population. She told me a story about one senior who discovered that there is a population of other seniors with physical disabilities, and many in wheel chairs, who were not coming to the Center. With encouragement from Chaya and Roni Seri, the Loneliness Coordinator from Yachdav, this remarkable woman took it upon herself to organize transportation for these isolated seniors so that they could visit Yachdav and be with others. In this story, we can see the power of the facility itself as a gathering space, but also the beauty of the community engagement model which mobilizes the seniors themselves to organize activities, engage each other, and contribute to the whole community. How simple. How beautiful.
While I thanked Chaya for all of her work, she expressed her deep gratitude to our community in San Diego for YOUR support of her efforts.
Sha’ar HaNegev High School
This remarkable institution, led by the intrepid and indomitable Ahrale Rotshtein, has more than 1,300 students enrolled in the current year. Students from Sha’ar HaNegev and neighboring regions come to this school because of its unique approach to education.
During our visit, Ahrale explains that their primary focus is not to educate for high test scores alone. Rather, the school employs a philosophy that focuses on developing students’ identities, encouraging them to ask questions and to be curious, open, and willing to learn. Once they build those skills and develop their identities as learners, the students then develop more concrete skills and knowledge that will help them succeed in whatever career path they chose. The unique focus on the individual’s development, coupled with the tremendous diversity of the students (socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, etc.), positions these young people to be positive, contributing members of Israeli society.
Ahrale talked a great deal about the power of relationships and creativity and pointed to the Alex Viterbi Art Center as an example of how his students get to be “partners in creation,” where they get to express themselves and contribute to the creativity of the campus.
We also had the incredible opportunity to meet with a group of students who recently spent time in Jewish camps in California associated with our Jewish community in San Diego. When I asked them what they wanted me to share with our community upon my return, they each wanted me to relay their deep appreciation for the opportunity to experience what Jewish life is like in the United States. They shared about their appreciation of how our Jewish community in San Diego expresses such pride in our heritage and connection to Israel. “What amazing spirit Jews in your community have” said Zohar Laskov, one of the students who worked at Congregation Beth Israel’s Camp Sababa Program. And Lee Shpak, who worked at Temple Solel’s Camp Simcha Program, also wanted us to share at home that “Life is difficult sometimes, but we also live normal lives here.” Their gratitude and enthusiasm was palpable.
Ahrale told us that students recently shared with him that they no longer feel like their community is on the periphery of Israeli society. They feel like they are pioneers and part of something truly special. These students have clearly gone through an unbelievable transformation as part of Sha’ar HaNegev High School. And Ahrale’s gratitude to members of the San Diego Jewish community and love for the deep friendships he has built over the years was made so very clear. “Relationships. This is everything,” Ahrale shares as our visit comes to an end.
This exciting economic development and entrepreneurial program is a true gem in Sha’ar HaNegev. SouthUp provides the opportunity for entrepreneurs to launch startup companies that will improve the Sha’ar HaNegev region in some way. In just two years, an unused building donated by the local municipality is filled with creative young entrepreneurs doing phenomenal things.
SouthUp’s CEO, Elad Yeori, introduced me to a unique student loan program called “Robin” that provides students with lower interest flexible loans that are made possible by hundreds of investors around the country. I learned about a new drip irrigation technology that operates based on true water needs rather being set on a timer. This innovation will presumably save significant amounts of money AND water, ensuring that the exact right amount of water is used – no more, no less.
Spending time with San Diegan and SouthUp mentor Wolf Bielas was also a real treat. I could see Wolf’s eyes light up as he described his passion for supporting innovation in this part of Israeli society. And it is YOUR Jewish Federation that has made a major impact in support of this effort.
And yet what truly touched me was that these for-profit ventures are on the path towards sustainability while committing to improving society and provide economic development opportunities for residents of Sha’ar HaNegev. This was technological and social entrepreneurship at its very best. How amazing that our community is part of this enterprise!