I want to share a story with you. Last year, I went on the Campaign Chairs Mission to Tblisi, Georgia and Israel with the Jewish Federations of North America.
My story began here in Milwaukee before I even left. I was running errands and I swung by my shoe cobbler in Fox Point. I was talking with the owner, who emigrated here with his family from the former Soviet Union.
When I mentioned that I was about to go overseas, he asked me where I was going and I explained that I was going with a group of Jewish leaders from across North America to visit and educate ourselves on what our dollars raised here do overseas and in Israel, so I could come back and share that with our community here in Milwaukee.
He looked at me and he said, “I am so proud of you. I am so proud of what you do. You Jews take care of each other. There are Christians dying in Syria and Iraq, and nobody cares. But you Jews, you take care of each other.”
That short conversation became a moment in which I saw what our community does from a new perspective, and I haven’t forgotten it.
While in Tblisi, I had the opportunity to attend a formal dinner attended by many dignitaries, including the prime minister of Georgia, who told us how important Israel and the U.S. are to Georgia, a lone democracy in its own tough neighborhood. What impressed me most about the dinner was that at each table, we sat among people who were involved in programs funded by our North American Jewish dollars – funded with the dollars we raise, the dollars local people give to Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The impact of speaking to people directly involved in programs that we fund was immeasurable and I learned so much from them:
In Tblisi, many Jews are elderly and have outlived any pensions. Most of them don’t have nearly enough money even for basic needs, some living on as little as $2 a day.
They don’t receive benefits from their government. There are no safety nets available to them. Just us.
As a parent of young adults, I was struck by the similarities between Georgian youth and the youth of Milwaukee.
Simon, who was 16, told us about the Jewish youth group he is in, that he gets together with his Jewish friends several times a week at the Jewish Home, a JCC-like building in the city funded by our Federation dollars, and that he is teaching them film.
Simon was energetic and bright, and he could be my own kid’s friend and would blend in perfectly with the Jewish youth of our community who participate in programs like BBYO and Hillel.
And then I met Raphael, an older gentleman and a sweetheart of a man. Raphael, his interpreter Liz proudly told us, is a highly respected man in the community. For 20 years he had been the Director of the Georgian Jewish Community, overseeing 9 different cities and regions, including Tbilisi.
Through Liz’s translations, Raphael shared that he had been an aerospace engineer in his early years, but then, drawn to the needs and the potential of the Jewish community he became its leader. Warm and engaging, Raphael was eager to learn about us as he shared his own story.
At the end of the evening, as we were saying our goodbyes, Raphael asked me “what is the Lion for?” He was referring to the Lion of Judah necklace so many of the female mission participants were wearing.
I’ve gotten that question many times before. I told him, “It’s a symbol of our commitment to the Jewish community. Everyone wearing this necklace has committed her dollars and time to our communities.”
He asked – how much money? I hesitated, then I answered: “Everyone wearing this necklace has committed to at least $5000 a year.”
Raphael looked at me in what I would say was amazement and almost disbelief. He took my face and kissed me on both cheeks, and facing me, he put his hands on my shoulders and blessed me. With tears in both of our eyes, we hugged each other. We are truly one family.
We Jews, we really do take care of each other.
Joan Lubar is Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s chair of the annual campaign 2017.