Today is our last day in Afula and staying at the Partnership House on Kibbutz Yizre’el. The rain held off and Rahel was finally able to give us the grand tour before heading out to our final destination. The view from the top of the kibbutz and from the dining room was beautiful; the valley below was so green and full of life. Kibbutz life is so close-knit and you really feel like part of the family, even while visiting. We were fortunate to meet so many wonderful people. Rahel, Karen, Ofri, and Avner made it impossible for anyone to feel like an outsider. We are grateful to Avner and Hila and their daughter, Ofri, and her family for opening their home to us for a delicious dinner. Ofri was a Federation Israeli Emissary in our community many years ago and was hosted by our own Stacy Kamisar.

After our tour, we said our good-byes and Karen Brustein, the Partnership2Gether Educational Coordinator, then accompanied us to the Haifa Rape Crisis Center in Afula. There, we met Outreach Support Coordinator Sari Bru, an expert on the prevention of sexual violence in schools and youth programs as well as crisis intervention in small communities. Founded in 1979, the Haifa Rape Crisis Center runs a crisis hotline that receives over 4,000 calls a year, with 1,000 new cases annually. Approximately 300 of those calls come from the Afula area alone. In addition, its educational programs reach 7,000 people every year; half are teenagers at risk. We were surprised to learn that the center even helps men, too. In fact, the center is organizing a forum in February for men who have been abused. Their wish is to someday have a larger facility so that they may build their staff and help men and women alike in separate, emotionally safe spaces.

It was sad to hear that the stigma of abuse and rape prevents women and men from reaching out for help and that women who call the center for help do not always file charges. It was even more disturbing to learn that 90% of sexual- assault and violence cases in Israel are closed with no conviction.

Sari’s passion for the life-changing work she does is clear and statistics do not cloud her desire to make a difference. Sari’s work involves education and the distribution of information, as well as support for individual victims. When a sexual assault has occurred, she ensures that services are available. Support groups for parents of victims help them to be more emotionally available to their daughters. The center has also done a great deal of training with those who deal with sexual violence, focusing on secondary trauma. In that process, Sari has developed working relationships with police officers and district attorneys. She knows whom to call and they respond immediately. Sari believes that education is essential, particularly in the schools and among young people, and she regularly tries to sit down with members of the community and urge teachers, parents, leaders, and social workers to become involved.

Our time with Sari went quickly. It was heart-warming to know that the Federation supports the important work of this organization.

Our last quick stop in Afula was the Ein Harod elementary school to learn about the twinning program with Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, in the Federation community of Ridgefield (Conn.). The program engages students in promoting Jewish values, identity, culture, and heritage, along with developing new educational opportunities. The program also offers opportunities for educators to link with each other for professional enrichment. We met with Sarit, a teacher, and Ilia, the head of school, who are clearly passionate about their school and this program. They gave us a tour of the school, where we saw a classroom with a smart-board and computers. Here, the students create PowerPoint presentations and videos to share with students at Shir Shalom. The opportunity to connect their students in Israel to students in the United States enriches the lives of all involved. They explained how excited the children are to study new concepts and express their creativity with this program. They love to share their experiences and meet students from halfway around the world and are surprised to learn that their lives are so similar.

How lucky we are that children in our catchment area have this opportunity!

The day passed quickly and we needed to return for our next destination… Jerusalem!

We are extremely grateful to Shani Cabra Gerbak, the first Federation Israeli Emissary to serve the Westport community 20 years ago, and now the volunteer director of Makom B’Emek (Home in the Valley), who graciously drove us two hours from Afula to Jerusalem on a dark and rainy night. During our drive, we had a wonderful conversation about Home in the Valley, an organization that works to increase awareness and support of the LGBTQ+ community in Afula.

Shani expressed her gratitude for the Federation’s support. With funds raised during the Federation’s Giving Circle event last October, Shani was able to apply for grants and work with local agencies to build awareness and acceptance of the “gay community.” She said that, thanks to our community’s support, Home in the Valley is looked at as a legitimate organization, which helps her secure additional funds and respect for their work. This respect has allowed her organization to build awareness and fulfill the needs of the LGBTQ community, who is no longer leaving Afula in high numbers to seek safe haven in largers cities like Tel Aviv. Home in the Valley has also been able to bring together more like-minded individuals to help achieve its goals and mission.

In fact, as Shani was driving us, a leadership group was meeting in Afula. This is a safe place for members of the LGBTQ community to come together to discuss their needs and concerns and to develop plans to advance the goals of Home in the Valley. Because of the work of Home in the Valley, the acceptance and support of the LGBTQ community have increased. Shani strongly believes, as do we, that “when you promote inclusiveness with the LGBTQ+ community, you promote inclusiveness for everyone.”