(photo credit: Roulf Kneller)
California resident Irwin Lewis, whose daughter Shoshanna has lived in Israel for the past 14 years, is fed up with people in his home city of Los Angeles asking him "stupid questions" every time he visits Israel.
"People always ask us if we are afraid," says Lewis, who travels here once a year with his wife Pearl, in order to see Shoshanna and his two grandchildren. "We were here one year right after the start of the second intifada and everyone asked us afterwards if we'd been in the middle of the fighting. We just had to keep telling them that we did not visit Gaza."
Rather the Lewises spend their time in Israel at Shoshanna's Karmiel home. "She chose to live in Karmiel because it reminded her of Southern California," he says.
This time during his annual trip to Israel, Lewis will have the opportunity to mingle with other like-minded North Americans whose offspring live here at the Parents of North American Israelis (PNAI) conference. The event, which takes place every four years, runs from October 8-12 at the Nirvana Hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea and will feature a variety of speakers and trips in the South.
"We attended the last conference four years ago and the best part is that you get to meet people who understand Israel and who don't ask stupid questions," quips Lewis, who heads the LA branch of the 34-year-old organization, which started out as a classic support group to console parents whose children "ran away" to Israel.
"Back then it was a typical support group, no one had Internet access to communicate with their children, phone calls were expensive and the mail was slow. They needed the kind of group that would offer them group support," Rena Safer, Chairperson of PNAI's executive board and the driving force behind the conference, recalls. Today, says Safer, whose two children and grandchildren live in Israel, things are a little different.
"We try to give our members practical information such as what is the cheapest phone rates and how to cope with long distance relationships between grandchildren," she says.
The organization also offers its members an extra bag over the allotted luggage allowance on Israir airlines, an emergency aid fund to help members' children in Israel and a quarterly magazine with articles by the members, children of members and other information on travel in Israel.
"In some locations there are regular chapter meetings and in those places our members have become almost like extended family," adds Safer, whose own group in her native Milwaukee organizes picnics and other events several times a year.
She says that the organization also allows members the opportunity to meet up while they are in Israel, giving visiting parents of North American Israelis a little more independence and a chance for their own social life.
"The son of one of our members was very ill last time we were in Israel and we traveled up to Haifa to help out while he was in hospital," says Safer.
While PNAI in general and its convention specifically offer members a chance to socialize, share essential information and air various concerns about the distance between their family members, Safer admits that the organization's membership is shrinking despite a rise in aliya figures from North America in recent years.
The last PNAI conference, which was held on Kibbutz Ginossar near Lake Kinneret, boasted 109 participants. Four years later, that figures has fallen drastically to a mere 63. Additionally, membership for the organization has also fallen over 2400 a decade ago to under 1400 today.
"We have not been so good at advertising the organization in the last few years," says Safer, pointing out that falling membership is the same for almost every Jewish organization in the US. "But we are in the process of developing new ideas. We have just published a new brochure and are starting to develop relations with [aliya facilitators] Nefesh B'nefesh."
"PNAI is unique," she says. "We do not do fund-raising and we are a pluralistic, apolitical group, which sets us apart from most other Jewish organizations."
For more information on PNAI, check out its Web site: www.pnai.org
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