“It’s a conversation about community – a conversation about our impact as Olim in Israel,” says Donna Horwitz, head of the Community Integration division at Nefesh B’Nefesh, about ‘Communal Responsibility – From Megillat Ruth to Modern Day Israel,’ a pre-Shavuot panel hosted by Nefesh B’Nefesh. The event will be broadcast on Zoom at this link, as well as on the Nefesh B’Nefesh Facebook page, and will feature two inspiring Olim who have made their mark on Israeli society – Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, and Beth Steinberg, co-founder and co-director of Shutaf Inclusion Programs. Leket Israel supplies surplus food to more than 200 non-profit organizations, serving more than 175,000 people in Israel weekly, and Shutaf offers year-round, informal-education activities for children, teens, and young adults with disabilities in the Jerusalem area.
Gitler, who made aliyah in 2000, is a lawyer by profession, and concerned by the poverty he witnessed when he moved to Israel, coupled with wage gaps and the vast amount of food that was being wasted, founded Leket Israel in 2003. In 2014, he was the inaugural winner of the Sylvan Adams Bonei Zion Prize, which recognizes the achievements of outstanding “Anglo Olim” and their contributions to the State of Israel. English-speaking olim, he notes, have founded many of the foremost communal organizations in Israel. “Many of Israel’s leading organizations have been founded by Anglos, from Beit Issie Shapiro to Shalva to Leket – people come with our education and background. People can come and make a difference.” Gitler adds that volunteering for communal organizations in Israel helps English-speaking Olim escape from their English-speaking ‘bubble’ and integrate into Israeli society.
Addressing the connection between the Book of Ruth, which is read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, and the work of Leket, which provides food for those in need, Gitler says, “The inspiration for the work of an organization like Leket is our heritage from the Book of Ruth. Ruth is poor, and she can go into a field and take what she needs to eat. The modern adaptation of that is not going into other’s fields. Modern food culture creates waste. We don’t need to ask farmers to set aside a portion of their field – they are doing it anyways. It is a privilege to do Biblical-type work in the modern state of Israel.”
Gitler adds that the Covid-19 crisis, which caused the closure of restaurants and hotels, adversely affected the supply of surplus food which Leket provides to the poor. In addition, farmers have huge amounts of crops that they are having difficulty selling, because of the lack of demand. In order to meet this challenge, Leket launched a special campaign to have catering companies prepare meals for their clients, which not only provided food to those in need, but enabled catering companies to reemploy their workers.
Beth Steinberg moved to Israel in 2007, and in addition to her work with Shutaf, is the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, which brings affordable and engaging theatrical experiences to local audiences, including summer Shakespeare in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Gardens. She says that moving to a new country gives immigrants an opportunity for change. “The Aliyah experience offers a chance to remake yourself, and the work that you would like to do. Maybe in New York, you never saw yourself changing your job from 'x' to something of a community nature, and now that you are in Israel, this is your chance.” Beth received the 2017 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the community-nonprofit category for creating and building Shutaf with co-founder Miriam Avraham, as well as for establishing Theater in the Rough in 2010.
Steinberg compares the experiences of Ruth and Naomi to new immigrants who have made aliyah, joined a new society, and made a new beginning. “In the deepest Jewish of terms, Ruth and Naomi and the idea of leaving your country and taking on a new life – I came here as a mature Jewish woman, very comfortable in my Jewishness, and yet the experience has pushed me in many different ways. I didn’t have to convert but I did have to take on a new way of life, and a new community, and a new kind of being. That resonates for me in a way that I did not know in advance. I definitely feel that whatever you think in advance of moving to a new place, you just don't know until you are there, and you don't know until years go by.”
As someone who immigrated to Israel, Steinberg connects with the idea of leaving something and coming to a new place, and even the idea of collecting the gleanings from the corners of the field. “Life as a newcomer is hard. You really have to learn new things, you have to learn to make new friends, or where to collect your first fruits that will enrich your life here.”
She says that new immigrants need to find a place to build their own part of a community. “If you are a synagogue-style person, you can find a shul you like to go to, or it may be something community based, like theater. There’s a reason why English-speaking theater is so popular in Jerusalem. It is a place where a lot of new people find people who have been here for a long time and establish some sense of community. I think community is everything.”
Steinberg cautions that it takes time for new immigrants to find their sense of community and place in Israel. “You don’t know at the beginning. That's a very big message. In some ways you have to be up for the adventure and then slowly say, ‘This was a good adventure so far, now let me figure out where I need to be.’”
This pre-Shavuot panel is one of many virtual programs Nefesh B’Nefesh has offered in the past few months, starting with the organization’s Virtual Mega Event which was held on March 15th in place of the organization’s annual fair which generally takes place in person in the tri-state area. Since then, the organization has hosted over 80 online events, which have reached more than 3,700 participants on Zoom and over 12,000 views on Facebook, as well as hundreds of virtual meetings with potential Olim. These have set a new precedent for how the organization can reach Olim both before and after their Aliyah, facilitating a sense of community and providing helpful information as well as inspiration.
As an additional part of the Nefesh B’Nefesh mission to facilitate community growth and responsibility by Olim, the organization has partnered with the Steinmetz Herskovitz Family Fund to further strengthen community in Israel through micro-grants and mentorships through the Initiative for Zionist Innovation. The Initiative empowers community organizers to help improve the structure and texture of Israeli communities for future Olim. Within the next few weeks, Nefesh B’Nefesh will announce the 2020 Steinmetz Herskovitz IZI recipients, who will hopefully go on to imprint and impact on Israeli society in the footsteps of Olim such as Joseph Gitler and Beth Steinberg. For a full listing of Nefesh B'Nefesh virtual programming please visit: http://www.nbn.org.il/events
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, and JNF-USA.