We checked in late last night to our hotel in Jerusalem, which is wonderfully located just steps from the Old City and Ben Yehuda Street. We are looking forward to doing some sight-seeing at some point, but until then, we will spend our morning with Naava Shafner of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Accompanied by Naava, we had the privilege of visiting Susan’s House, an organization established in 2002 in memory of Susan Kaplansky, who dreamed of helping youth through art. Unfortunately, Susan became ill and passed away before she saw her dream become a reality. I can tell you first-hand that Susan would be proud of what was created from her vision. Today, Susan’s House changes the lives of some of Jerusalem’s most troubled teens by empowering them to take charge of their future through business and entrepreneurship. Alienated and at-risk 15- through 18-year-olds work under the guidance of Israeli artists to create beautiful art. They also learn business skills and how to execute their own business plan. The second you walk into the building, you are surrounded by wonderful creations and an energy of hope. There are walls of colorful figurines, glassware, and jewelry. Then you enter the workshop which is filled with teens. We saw one girl cutting glass and embossing it, to be fired in a mold to create a magnificent bowl. Another was melting glass into beautiful beads. Others were molding clay into playful figurines. And then another was making jewelry. You could see the concentration in their eyes. You speak with them and hear the confidence they have in themselves. It is extremely moving and hard to put into words. Next time you are in Jerusalem, I recommend a visit to the unique Susan’s House.
Our next stop was to the JDC offices, where we met with participants in the Haredi Employment Professionals program. Similar to Be-Atzmi, this program is limited to members of the ultra-Orthodox community, promoting employment and financial independence to this growing demographic.
Because the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community isolates itself, with men not serving in the Israel Defense Forces and many adults not part of the work-force, this population is often trapped in a low socio-economic class. Ultra-Orthodox are concerned that if they integrate into the larger Israeli society, the community will lose its unique identity. With 60% of this population under the age of 19 and 30% of Israel’s first-graders hailing from the Haredi community, there will soon be a huge minority that the State won’t know how to help.
With this realization, the Israeli government and JDC came together to work on solutions to this very sensitive challenge. The JDC has served as the bridge between the government and the Haredi community. The organization approached yeshiva directors and now male students are not only studying the Torah, but also attending university. Girls are now attending school for two years after 12th grade and are earning various academic degrees. The Haredi Employment Professionals program works with the Haredi community, offering trainees a wide range of skills, including English, vocational training, job placement, career development, career advancement, and resume-writing — with positive results. Today, there are 12 employment centers in Israel run by the government and modeled by the JDC.
The work that the JDC is doing is so necessary for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. We saw the impact, and we understand the importance of Federation’s support.