Celebrating the past, looking towards the future

How did a small group of English-speaking olim turn into an organization of 1,000 volunteers?

October 5, 2008 09:17
Celebrating the past, looking towards the future

ethiopian man sewing 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Raise your hand, and you may find yourself in charge. Some fours years ago and newly arrived on aliya from the UK, Jane Krivine joined ESRA to meet fellow English speakers. "I knew few people in Israel at the time and thought it would speed up my integration." So she attended a few meetings - "listening more than speaking" - until an item appeared on the agenda: "to organize an event to celebrate ESRA's 30th anniversary." With a background in promoting art and music festivals at venerated venues such as Windsor Castle, Krivine had a few pointers to offer. She recalls hearing, after a brief silence, "So Jane, will you chair the 30th Anniversary Committee?" Come October 28, over 1,000 English speakers are expected to descend on Kibbutz Shefayim, where Krivine and her team of some 90 volunteers will be ready to welcome them, offering something for everyone. Guest speakers scheduled to appear include Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev, who will discuss the international media; Government Press Office Director Daniel Seaman on media manipulation in the Arab-Israeli conflict; and retired Ha'aretz editor-in-chief David Landau, addressing the controversial issue of "Haredi Takeover? Don't say you weren't warned." IBA News diplomatic correspondent Leah Zinder is slated to discuss dilemmas facing the Israeli media and photojournalist David Rubinger will discuss his latest book, Israel Through My Lens. "These speakers represent a wide range of English speakers presenting Israel in all its facets," says Krivine. A selection of documentary films will be screened from 11 a.m. in the kibbutz auditorium. The ESRA Film Club will be showing Watermarks - the prize-winning documentary about the Viennese Hakoah Ladies swimming team during the rise of fascism in the 1930s; Paper Clips, a documentary of how American students responded to learning about the Holocaust by collecting a paper clip for each victim; and Shada, the story of a young Muslim Israeli woman who is a karate champion. Planned outside activities include live music; over 30 arts-and-crafts stalls; a writers corner where published authors will read from their works; entertainers and children performing from ESRA community projects in Rehovot, Netanya and Ra'anana; and a bazaar offering a variety of ethnic merchandise - including ESRA's Ethiopian embroidery products and cookbooks. The highlight of the day will be an evening ceremony honoring ESRA volunteers, followed by the guest speaker Zeev Bielski, Chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization. "The festival will be a celebration of ESRA's achievements over the last 30 years in helping English speakers integrate into Israel, as well as helping the general public… and also immigrants from disadvantaged countries, notably Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union," explains ESRA President and Founder Merle Guttmann, who has been the recipient of the President's Award for Volunteerism and the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence of Volunteer Leadership. But why found an organization specifically for the English-speaking community? Why perpetuate one's cultural past, when one should be adopting the language and mores of a new society? While organizations were established in the state's early history for immigrants from English-speaking countries - notably, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), Telfed for South Africans and the British Olim Society, "[these groups] catered essentially for the practical absorption requirements of their particular communities and less for their cultural and social needs," explains Guttmann. So what was the genesis of ESRA? Guttmann recalls returning to her native Rhodesia in 1977 for her brother's funeral. "A special guy, a lawyer, a music critic and an abstract painter." It was a sad time and a time to reflect both on the family "as well as on wider issues." The atmosphere in Rhodesia's Jewish community was of winding down. Guttmann noted how people were "on the move" and that there was a similar trend across the Limpopo in South Africa. "Jews were leaving and mainly for the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia. Why not Israel? It defied their cultural and ideological makeup! These were Jews from such staunch Zionist communities. Was it an English-speaking thing? Was there something culturally absent in the fabric of Israeli society that made them fear they would not be part of that society?" She also reflected on "quite a number of English speakers who made aliya and were returning home," and not necessarily because of financial reasons. "Why was 'home' not Israel?" pondered Guttmann. Returning to Israel after the funeral, Guttmann was determined "to do something." She and a team of volunteers called the first meeting for English speakers in Herzliya, attended by the mayor. "I was amazed. Over 250 people came - North Americans, the Brits and Southern Africans. The two prime questions that were presented at that meeting as the basis for discussion applies to this day: "What do you want?" and "Are you prepared to volunteer?" Over the next 30 years, ESRA evolved. "While it began as a group of English-speaking new immigrants who sought ease and familiarity by socializing with other English speakers," says ESRA chairwoman Debby Lieberman, a former Philadelphian, "it grew into a registered charitable organization offering a rich array of social, cultural and educational activities and services as well as a multitude of projects for new immigrants and veteran Israelis in need of support." Lieberman asserts that the "secret of ESRA's growth lies in the quality of its volunteers. They are hands-on, hard working and innovative." Guttmann explains that from the beginning "our philosophy was our belief in our volunteers." After all, she argues, the English speakers, by and large, came from a culture of communal responsibility and were accustomed to being involved or seeing their parents involved in community activity. "ESRA tapped into this reservoir of talent. What's more, they brought a professional approach to their volunteerism that has characterized the performance of our work. We have lawyers, accountants, journalists, social workers - all volunteering their expertise. But it's the commitment and passion," she says, that really drives ESRA. She cites the story of how, during the mass waves of Russian and Ethiopian aliya, a volunteer of very modest means, "would catch a bus some distance away to run the ESRA secondhand shop in Safed and some years later would travel weekly to the Hatzrot Yasaf caravan site near Acre to supervise a pre-school enrichment center for Ethiopian and Russian children." ESRA, according to Lieberman, currently has some 1,000 active volunteers. How did it expand from what began as a Herzliya-based organization? "We worked hard," laughs Guttmann. She recalls how she and Adele Rubin, one of ESRA's co-founders, never wasted an opportunity. "We were always on the job." If they were standing in line at the post office or bank and heard someone speaking English, "we would go up to them and ask whether they were members of ESRA. If not, we would enroll them then and there. A day would be wasted if we did not extract from somebody their address or phone numbers." It's paid off. The organization's bi-monthly magazine is delivered to 6,000 households and has an e-mail address list of thousands. This is a far cry from the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Guttmann, when the group's first obstacle was communication. "Very few Israelis had phones in those days, and you could wait up to six years for one. Not easy to expand and grow in those circumstances, but we did." If in 1978 ESRA's first volunteers didn't have telephones, "one can appreciate how far we have come when in 2008 you can turn on the TV and see ESRA today broadcasting nationally on cable and Middle East TV." Much of ESRA's work has required fundraising, particularly during the 1990s, which saw major aliya from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. "Whether providing dubonim (winter jackets) to the Ethiopians or shoes to the children who came in the wave of Albanian aliya or paying professionals to teach computer courses to Russians, we needed funds. At first we found the task of major fundraising daunting, but we soon found our way," Guttmann says. Clearly. Over the years, ESRA has raised NIS 50 million to support 160 community projects. Its Community Fund - formally the ESRA Immigrant Fund - has helped over 20,000 immigrant and disadvantaged families with education, welfare and employment. As ESRA looks to the future, it is following a practice that it established right from its inception. "We expand geographically wherever we find there are English-speaking volunteers to take up the challenges," say Guttmann. "In this way we enroll new generations of volunteers in new areas." Like Modi'in - destined to be Israel's fourth-largest city in less than a decade, "this city with an ever-increasing English speaking community is definitely on ESRA's agenda." While ESRA has been strong in the center of the country, it has had little presence in the South. "This hopefully will change," says Lieberman, "with our new ESRA Negev Committee (HaDromim B'Derech), which aims to change the mindset among English speakers both locally and globally." The new committee will be reaching out to the English speakers in the Negev to help promote the Negev as a region to live, work, study and travel - as opposed to the common perception of a vast arid expanse to drive through or fly over on the way to Eilat. "ESRA wants to be part of this new Zionism." David Ben-Gurion is watching from his celestial perch! Past, present and future ESRA is on show on Tuesday, October 28. "Visit our Web site at www.esra.org.il to see the full festival program," says organizer Jane Krivine, "and then make sure to come." Doors open at 10:30 a.m. with Jazz On The Grass, followed by the Opening Ceremony at 10:45 a.m. with Merle Guttmann, President and Founder of ESRA.

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