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News : Challahbear

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The Last War

The matzav (situation) in Israel and Gaza is pretty bleak right now. Failed efforts for a temporary cease-fire to the rockets being launched at both sides and preparing ground troops sound like a recipe for war to me. And if that’s what’s for dinner, I’m not very hungry.

The last time Israel was at war was the summer after my freshman year of college. I was interning at the local Federation office in Pittsburgh and things had been pretty quiet in the office. I divided my time there working on both fundraising and community building projects. I spent my days making flyers for women’s philanthropy events, and I planned activities for an upcoming visit from Israeli teenagers. We had sent 93 Pittsburgh teens to Israel for the summer, and they were going to bring some Israeli peers back with them for two weeks.

The day war broke out with Lebanon, my summer changed. My parents sent me to work with a check – an early donation for the Israel Relief Fund that was surely being created as we ate our breakfast that morning. When I got there, I had an email from the Federation CEO inviting me to join his senior staff in the board room. It was 8 am, and they had already been dividing up tasks. First and foremost we needed to closely monitor the safety of our youth traveling in Israel. Second priority was keeping their parents well informed. At that time, it was determined that minor itinerary changes would be made, but the touring would continue. Then there was development – raising funds from community members like my parents to provide relief to families affected by the war. There was public relations to take care of – preparing talking points for supporters and responding to inquiries from local reporters. Finally, there was community engagement. We hold a pro-Israel rally for the community. It was 9 am and the meeting was about to adjourn. “Any questions?” our CEO asked. I had been a fly on the wall up until that moment. But now it was my turn. “How can I help?” I asked.

I was assigned to the rally team. With two other people, I planned a community rally in just three days that was attended by over 1,000 people. The other members of my team had experience in this. They found their notes from the last rally which took place during the Second Intifada. They even found a picture of me and my old friend sitting in the crowd at their last rally – I was in middle school at the time. We secured a venue, invited local politicians, ordered blue and white balloon arrangements, and solicited bottled water donations. We handed out flyers to local businesses and press releases to email lists and newspapers.

Meanwhile, the fundraising gurus held a caucus for their relief fund. The leading philanthropists from the community sat together in a room and pledged their financial support. An older man stood up and proudly declared that he and his wife would give $20,000. A middle aged woman stood up next, promising $5,000. This went on for an hour, with supportive applause following each pledge. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Later that night, I helped collect donations in water cooler bottles during a lecture at the JCC. People gave loose change and small bills they were carrying. People gave what they could, large and small.

As the war intensified in those first few days, parents grew more fearful for their children abroad. The Federation booked flights for all 93 teens and our local staff to return home, just hours before the rally took place. It wasn’t easy. There weren’t a lot of planes going in or out of the war zone.

The day of the rally was a scorcher in high 80s (by DC standards, that’s not bad. For Pittsburgh, it was a really hot day). I spent over 10 hours outside setting up, attending the rally, and cleaning up, with a walkie-talkie on my hip. Two of the returning teens spoke and the whole group attended. My mom showed up. So did many of my friends who were home for the summer. There were a couple Pro-Palestinian people protesting the rally but everything was very peaceful.

At the end of the day, I felt like I had accomplished something. I know that rallies don’t save lives or end wars. At best, they provide an outlet for people who feel otherwise empowered to show their support and solidarity. At worst, they become riots with more casualties. But at the time, I still felt like I was doing something.

This week, I find myself in a different city, in a different stage of life, and still asking the same question. How can I help?

This past week has been a whirlwind of people, parties, and (for some, a lack of) power. In anticipation of a busy busy week, Kirios and I decided to relax at my apartment and watch a movie late Friday night. I noticed heat lightning outside my window, a common occurrence during summer heat waves. Then Kirios noticed that the flickering switched to inside – the power was going on and off. Within seconds of him pointing this out, a horrible storm ripped through my neighborhood and the rest of the DC metropolitan area. Kirios and I watched trees and dust blowing down the block from my window. The power went out and we grabbed our flashlights. I was lucky – it was restored moments later. Half of my block and almost everyone in the surrounding area did not get their power restored. Kirios’ family had no power from Friday night until Wednesday afternoon. During my two years in Silver Spring, multiple day power outages were quite commonplace, and I had a lot of sympathy for the powerless people sweating through our 100 degree heat wave.

Around half an hour after the storm passed, Kirios decided to drive home to pick up his glasses and some other things, since he hadn’t originally intended to stay at my apartment that night. His home is less than 2 miles from mine – none of the traffic lights were working. Entire trees and large branches riddled the road, frequently forcing people to drive in the lane of opposing traffic. A tree fell onto the roof of one house – the roof had completely caved in. Kirios’ close neighbors had a large tree fall in their yard, taking a mangled bundle of cables down with it. Miraculously, the tree did not harm their house. But they’re still without power and will have to pay a couple thousand dollars to remove it and repair their lines before the power company will help them.

Kirios’ Neighbor’s Home

Saturday morning was a strange one. While I had power, my cable and internet were down. We had a full day of plans, and tried to maintain some normalcy to our lives, but the whole area was disrupted. In the afternoon, Kirios and his dad brought over many of the perishable items in their refrigerator/freezer to store in mine. I went out to get a manicure. Until Saturday, I’ve only had 3 manicures in my life, but I figured with a cocktail party and two weddings, now was the time to splurge. I walked several powerless blocks where all of the businesses were closed, passing two nail salons. There were branches and debris everywhere, and multiple dead birds. That’s always an ominous sign. I knew my quest for a manicure wasn’t hopeless when I started to see people holding Starbucks cups. I reached a block with power – and a nail salon! An hour later I had partaken in conversations about open restaurants, waiting lists for generators, and where to donate spoiling food. I also had pretty nails.

When I returned to my apartment, I saw the full fridge, but Kirios was gone. I called to check in and see how he and his parents were doing, but he didn’t answer. Twice. I thought about driving over to his house to check on him, but then I realized if I did, I probably wouldn’t have phone reception either, which would make it hard for him or anyone else to check on me. So I stayed put. He knew where I was. Eventually he called me, but we kept getting cut off after a few seconds. He came back over shortly after anyway, I suspect he was using me for my air conditioning at that point!

I also checked in with my cousin who lives about 20 minutes from me. Her parents were visiting from Florida and we were all planning to get together for an early dinner. She lost power and her parents made reservations at a nearby Hilton. (Later Saturday I heard on the radio that every Marriott in the greater DC area was sold out.) My relatives were having a hard time finding restaurants that would answer the phone.

Kirios and I left to meet up with my relatives around 4:30, but before going to dinner we made a stop in Rockville to check on our friend’s house. He and his parents had spent the past week at the beach, and were returning home a day early having heard about the storm. As we approached his neighborhood, we saw the same signs of destruction. Downed trees, powerless traffic lights, and basketball hoops on the ground… I was nervous, not wanting to have to call back with bad news. Luckily his home seemed fine, at least from the outside. They didn’t have power, but they also didn’t have any damage.

We met my aunt, uncle, and cousin at California Pizza Kitchen in the mall. The mall was filled with people charging their phones, iPads, and computers at any and every outlet. Some people were just there cooling off. But if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought it was the week before Christmas. Kirios guessed that the mall was running on a back up generator – although it was air conditioned, it didn’t have the typical freezing temperature of the mall. Despite the craziness, we were able to have a nice meal with my family.

Next update to include parties and more people!

Thank You, SCOTUS

I have Crohn’s Disease. It is chronic, and there is no cure. Since my diagnosis four and a half years ago, I have lived in fear. My biggest fear has been that my symptoms will flare and I become too ill to work. Without employer-provided health insurance, I bankrupt myself (and perhaps my parents and brother shortly thereafter) trying to control my disease and still, I am unable to afford adequate care.

I am completely functional. I live on my own, hold a steady job, mostly eat and drink whatever I please, and have even run half-marathons. Please, do not dismiss my fears for paranoia.

In December 2008 I graduated from college – a semester early, at the top of my class with well paying job waiting for me, despite the beginning of the financial meltdown only months earlier. In the weeks following my graduation, I suffered from a Crohn’s flare-up and became too ill to routinely partake in everyday activities. I racked up tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills and other medical expenses. My family consulted with labor attorneys and human resources professionals.  I deferred my start date for work and eventually walked away from the opportunity all together. I could not afford – literally – to start working and get sick again before I worked long enough to be eligible for COBRA.   

I tend to avoid political discourse in online formats and I don’t particularly enjoy arguing about politics. As an adult in the Washington DC area, my lack of interest in political confrontation makes me seem atypical. But it is not because I’m apolitical. I take my civic duty of voting very seriously, I keep up with the news, and there are political issues which I am extremely passionate about. Today I am confident that America’s future involves healthcare reform including insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Regardless of any legislative changes which may alter what that reform looks like, things are improving.

Today, I am less afraid.

Gilad

Earlier today Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas over five years ago, was reunited with his family in Israel. Rumors of the pending prisoner exchange first emerged a week ago on October 11th. My news feed on Facebook has gone crazy following the story ever since. Gilad’s release is a big deal in the international community and is rightfully receiving a lot of media attention– but I think the story has definitely resonated the most amongst my peers – young American Jewish professionals. Perhaps it’s because in another lifetime we could have been him.

Gilad was 19 when he was captured on June 25, 2006. So was I; Gilad is only six months older than me. While he and his counterparts growing up in Israelwere serving their mandatory time in the Israeli Defense Force, I was interning at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and preparing for my second year of college at the University of Maryland.

In the past five plus years while Gilad was held captive, I studied abroad in Europe, earned a bachelor’s degree, started my first job and became financially independent from my parents. Forget my bat mitzvah, it was these past few years that I became an adult.

In the coming days, people around the world will continue to debate the terms of Gilad’s release. 1,027 jailed Palestinians for one Israeli. Jewish mothers will lament how pale and thin he looks. Today let’s just celebrate Gilad’s freedom and homecoming, the beginning of the rest of his life.