(photo credit: Courtesy)
Vulnerable new immigrants, children at-risk, the elderly, young people from the periphery, small business entrepreneurs, victims of terror, people with physical and mental disabilities, lone soldiers, civilians on the front lines, women and community leaders. The vast number of programs and activities supported by United Jewish Communities (UJC) - Federations of North America in Israel touch the lives of millions of Israelis and strengthen the connection and understanding between Israel and the North American Jewish community.
"Keeping Israel safe, strong and prosperous has always been a priority for the North American Jewish community," says Nachman Shai, senior vice president, UJC and director-general, External Relations, UJC Israel. "It is UJC's mandate to offer meaningful support and promote individual connection."
United Jewish Communities - the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Israel Appeal and United Jewish Appeal - represents and serves 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. Its work reflects the values of social justice and human rights that define the Jewish people. According to demographer Gary Tobin, the UJC/Federation system is "the single largest fundraising effort in American Jewish life - nothing else even comes close."
So what is the organization doing in Israel?
UJC works through two major partners in Israel - the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, as well as the Ethiopian National Project (ENP). Each of these organizations initiates, operates and oversees social and educational programs for different sectors of Israeli society with support from the UJC. This support is leveraged to bring in additional partners, including NGOs, government ministries, local municipalities and, most recently, Israeli philanthropists.
Since 1948, Jewish communities in North America have been instrumental in bringing three million new immigrants to Israel. Absorption centers, Hebrew language ulpans, social, psychological and support services, employment and retraining programs, enrichment activities for children and equal higher education opportunities for young people have been made possible by the UJC.
This network of integration services gave the State of Israel the ability to absorb one million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union in less than 10 years. In addition to absorbing these newcomers, the UJC was involved in the Free Soviet Jewry grass roots movement that sparked the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. It also played a vital role with the Israeli government in bringing the majority of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 and 1991 - Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
The ENP was established by the UJC and other partners as an umbrella organization to empower the Ethiopian community in Israel and move it forward. SPACE, the flagship program of ENP, provides scholastic assistance, creates youth outreach centers and offers other forms of intervention to Ethiopian-Israeli high school students. Recent studies have found that as a result of this intervention, participants' scholastic achievement exceeds the average students'.
Tens of thousands of new immigrant children and teenagers participate in the broad spectrum of UJC-supported programs. From the precedent-setting early childhood education PACT program (Parents and Children Together) to the Selah and Na'aleh programs for high school and post-high school students who come to Israel without their parents, youngsters receive the assistance they need to face the challenges of living in a new country.
Alexey Kochetkov, a 23-year-old violinist from Smolensk, made aliya from Russia at age 19 through the Selah program. "When I made the decision to come to Israel, I knew I wasn't coming alone. There was an entire network of people who were there to help me."
In working to make life better for the 230,000 Israelis between the ages of 18-65 who receive disability benefits, the UJC supports JDC programs to empower those with disabilities by forming independent life centers, accessible and supportive communities and helping them find gainful employment. This support has helped to raise awareness about the rights of the disabled and helped further policies to support those rights.
The work for Israel's elderly with the ESHEL program has also made a tremendous impact on Israeli society. These initiatives have resulted in innovative, community-based services to care more effectively for the elderly. Services include daycare centers, supportive communities, warm homes and institutional care. The Stay Well program, for example, assesses risk factors and screens for vision and hearing problems. It promotes walkathons, gymnastics, dance and water exercise that help older people stay active.
In the realm of equal education opportunities and programs for children at-risk, the UJC's work is unprecedented. Atidim, for example, provides talented youth from the periphery with opportunities for higher education and career advancement. Net@ gives youth from disadvantaged backgrounds the training and international certification from the Cisco corporation to design, build and maintain computer networks while learning to work as part of a team and developing a sense of volunteerism and community leadership.
The UJC was instrumental in developing the national Youth Futures initiative for youth at-risk. Now operating in towns and cities throughout Israel, the program provides youth at-risk with comprehensive, tailored intervention. At the heart of the program are professionally trained trustees who are dedicated to social action and change. They work to ensure that children at-risk and their families have access to the community resources that are available for them. Working with primary school age children and their families, the trustees develop personalized approaches for each child to bridge critical educational and social gaps.
During the Second Lebanon War that broke out in 2006, the UJC mobilized and raised $360 million through its Israel Emergency Campaign (IEC) to provide for emergency needs and to rebuild the North. The goal for rebuilding was twofold: to repair the war's damage and to strengthen the social and community fabric of the North and ensure the resilience of its residents.
Allocation decisions were made by an IEC Work Group set up by the UJC. Onsite evaluation missions were carried out by the Work Group members. "Nearly every family in the North, from veteran Israelis and new immigrants to Arabs, Druse and Beduin, has been helped by IEC programs. When the federation system comes together as one, our work is truly magnificent," says chairman Toni Young.
According to UJC reports, some 100 educational, economic opportunity and community capacity programs were funded in the North and in frontline Sderot and Gaza border communities in the South.
"One week after I applied for the grant for my business, I received a check in the mail. I cried when I read the accompanying letter explaining that the money was donated from Jews living in the US. There are such good people in this world," says Levana Halfon, a small-business owner in Acre.
In addition, the Israel Trauma Center (ITC) created Resilience Centers to identify gaps in the psycho-social field, advance projects for the benefit of individuals and the community at large, and create a local municipal infrastructure for emergency preparedness. The Jewish Agency's Fund for Victims of Terror was reinstated and continues to this day.
Through the IEC, United Jewish Communities-Jewish Federations of North America has created a new paradigm for developing efficient, streamlined working processes among UJC's overseas partners and NGOs, Israeli philanthropists, government offices and local municipalities. They have rebuilt the North and changed the fundamental ways in which Israel conducts its domestic agenda.