Your Daily Phil: Visiting Israel amid the pandemic + IDF tackles mental health

Good Thursday morning!

COVID-19 case numbers are setting records in Israel as the Omicron variant continues to spread. Wednesday saw a seven-day average of more than 52,000 Israelis testing positive, an all-time high. The outbreak has led Israel to administer a fourth vaccine shot to its older and at-risk population, though a study found that the additional shot might not provide much more protection against Omicron.

Just weeks after Israel reopened its borders to tourists, the rising case numbers have led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn Americans to “Avoid travel to Israel.”

Israel barred non-citizens from the country at the pandemic’s outset, and again at the end of November as Omicron spread. The ban, which extended through the winter holiday season, raised the ire of Israeli tour guides, Israelis with family abroad and Jewish activists who promote Israel travel.

Despite the outbreak, American Jews may still want to travel to Israel while they’re allowed to, said Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which funds efforts to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relations. Ruderman told eJewishPhilanthropy that she has had trouble booking a trip to Israel this week because flights are full.

“I thinkwhen the government removed the barriers, people are comfortable coming to Israel, comfortable taking the risk,” she said. “I think people are trying to just get in, and there are many reasons: You have family, you have business, you can visit.”

American travel advisories to Israel are also nothing new, Israeli travel agent Mark Feldman told eJP, and historically have concerned security threats. Thus far, none of the group tours Feldman is planning to work with next month have canceled their trips.

“Most people realize that just like on the East Coast, Israel too will have seen Omicron numbers peaking and then decreasing,” said Feldman, the CEO of ZionTours. “The concern to fly to Israel is solely based on a real concern of getting sick here. That being said, in January, which is the slowest [travel] month, those that are coming are here to visit relatives and not to explore the snow in the Golan Heights.”

But others say rising cases and the CDC warning mean that travel to Israel is still not a sure thing. “It’s sad, but the unfortunate reality is you can’t live in both worlds, however much you want to,” Zvika Klein, a journalist and activist who pushed during the ban for American Jews to be allowed into Israel, told eJP. “In the past, you were able to be a Zionist Jew who visited Israel whenever you wanted to. It isn’t like that anymore. That’s a big deal.”


New army program takes on growing mental health issues faced by young Israelis


At the end of this month, a small group of Israeli teens will begin a rite of passage, donning military fatigues for the first time as part of their compulsory military service. But unlike their peers, the training for this crop of recruits will differ in one key way: They will never hold or fire a weapon. Ruth Marks Eglash reports on a new and unique program launched last summer by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that will enable individuals suffering from anxiety, depression, and other diagnosed emotional and mental health disorders to enlist and serve their country in a different way.

People’s army: Often dubbed “the people’s army,” most Israelis are drafted into the military at 18 — with exceptions for Arab and haredi citizens. Youths of all social and economic backgrounds, educational levels and even physical abilities serve side by side, abiding by the same strict rules and living under the same conditions, creating a kind of social equalizing apparatus. Until recently, however, those with physical or mental disabilities were excluded from active service. Over the past few years, the army has taken some steps to widen inclusion, creating a “Special in Uniform” program for young people with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. But for those suffering from emotional or mental health disorders, for whom holding or shooting a gun might be a dangerous task, the option to formally serve remained elusive.

Socially conscious: “Since its creation, the Israeli army has been unique compared to other armies,” Amotz Asa-El, a fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, told Jewish Insider. “It was assigned by [first Israeli Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion to take on social tasks, most famously teaching Hebrew to new immigrants, and that is how it became part of Israel’s social agenda.” He called the creation of the new program “some kind of latter-day reincarnation” of that process. “There is a distinction between social tasks and military tasks in the army.” While the move to allow women to serve in more combat roles in recent years might be a way to increase the pool of personnel that will help Israel in future wars, the army has also made a clear effort to “appear socially conscious and crusading,” said Asa-El.

Addressing mental health: Hilla Hadas, executive director of Enosh, Israel’s Mental Health Association, told JI that mental health disabilities far outnumbered physical disabilities among young people in Israel and, according to figures compiled by her organization, the number of young Israelis suffering from mental health problems was rapidly rising. She cited a 27% increase in the number of teenagers and youth seeking mental health treatment over the past year and said the age of those needing psychological support was trending younger. “Physical disability is much lower compared to those with mental or emotional disabilities,” said Hadas, highlighting that the past two years have greatly changed perceptions of mental health, with a greater acceptance and awareness that it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Read the full story here.


Antisemitism and the taking of hostages: A tragic and undeniable history


“The Torah portion for this week, Yitro, includes the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. It is not well known that in Jewish law, the Eighth Commandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ is actually understood to be a prohibition against kidnapping,” writes Rabbi Lance Sussman, senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pa., in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.

Intentionally antisemitic: “‘Stealing a person’ or kidnapping, abduction or hostage-taking are all serious crimes and all have played a significant role in the long, tragic history of antisemitism. For that reason, it is most unfortunate that in light of last week’s hostage incident in Texas that the FBI concluded that the synagogue’s hostage-taker’s demands were ‘not specifically related to the Jewish community.’ In fact, both in this case and historically speaking, the use, or should we say abuse of the Jewish community by the ‘stealing of Jewish people’ is specifically and intentionally antisemitic. Indeed, both the hostage-taker and the prisoner he was seeking to free are both flagrant antisemites.”

Daily prayers: “Taking Jews as hostages has a long and terrible history, so much so that we even refer to ‘people stealing’ in our daily prayers. The central part of the Jewish service is variously called the Amidah (‘Standing Prayer’), Tefillah (‘The Prayer’) or the Shemoneh Esrei (‘The 18 Benedictions’). It begins with the familiar homage to our founding ancestors (Avot) and continues in blessing two (Atah Gibor) with a praise of God as the One ‘who frees the captives (umatir asurim).’ Obviously, only long and bitter experience would have resulted in including such a terrible reference in our daily Jewish devotions including Shabbat.”

Positive outcome: “In the most recent incident, a positive outcome was achieved, thanks to excellent police work and broad government and interfaith cooperation. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, not only survived but also were physically unharmed.”  

Changing definition: “Finally, the FBI, in the wake of the Texas incident, correctly reclassified the attack on Congregation Beth Israel as antisemitic, following the lead of the government in Great Britain. The bureau needed to change its definitional criteria both for the sake of historical accuracy and deterrence and, luckily, has done so. For our part, American Jews need to remember that despite our deepest wishes to maintain open and welcoming congregations and Jewish institutions, we must remain ever vigilant to provide for the security and well-being of our members and guests from every walk of life in our society.”

Read the full piece here.

Worthy Reads

New Newsroom: Five philanthropies plan to spend more than $20 million to bolster news coverage in Houston and create what they say will be one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the country, writes Haleluya Hadero in theAssociated Press. “The newsroom is anticipated to launch later this year or early 2023 on multiple platforms, the donors said Wednesday in a news release. The goal, they said, is to ‘elevate the voices of Houstonians’ and address information needs identified through focus groups, community listening sessions and multi-language surveys conducted with local residents.” [AP]

In Betty White’s Memory: Inspired by the late actress’s life and passions, donations poured into animal welfare groups in honor of what would have been Betty White’s 100th birthday, writes Caitlin O’Kane in CBS News. The donations were encouraged by the popular “Betty White Challenge” on social media, which asked fans to donate to shelters on Jan. 17. “White, who died just shy of her birthday, was an animal activist and a volunteer and board member of American Humane, the first national humane organization in the U.S. and the largest certifier of animal welfare in the world. Web traffic and donations supporting American Humane have quadrupled since White died in December, a spokesperson for the organization told CBS News.” [CBSNews]

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Word on the Street

Irit E. Gross has joined OneTable as chief advancement officer…

Jewish Care U.K. named Rachel Jones director of care, housing and hospitality…

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif., announced the creation of the Myron and Nancy Dembo Social Justice Initiative, a $130,000 endowment for social justice programming and initiatives at the congregation…

The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood is offering two prizes of $5,000 for educational innovations. The prizes are in memory of Dan Cedarbaum, the founder of the center…

The British Zionist Federation has been instructed to take “all necessary steps to reduce all spending” – including implementing staff cuts – after the organization’s current financial model was deemed to be unsustainable… 

The 25 “most philanthropic” American billionaires have given away a total of $169 billion in their lifetimes and are still wealthier than ever, according to Forbes… 

The Lilly Endowment contributed $20 million to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as seed funding for the Preserving Black Churches Project…

GiveDirectly, which provides cash transfer services to people living in poverty, saw the number of individuals giving in cryptocurrency increase 60 times between 2020 and 2021, with countries in Africa the biggest beneficiaries of its cryptocurrency donations…

Pic of the Day

UF Hillel

UF Hillel, at the University of Florida, hosted “Spread Cream Cheese, Not Hate” in honor of National Bagel Day. Students handed out fresh bagels and cream cheese – and invited the Gator community to sign a pledge to combat hate on campus.


Philip Letang/Wikimedia Commons

Philanthropist and professional equestrian, Georgina Leigh Bloomberg… 

Claremont, Calif., resident, Adar Belinkoff… Distinguished professor of physics at Texas A&M University, he won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics, David Morris Lee… Lakewood, N.J.-born diplomat and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ambassador Morton I. Abramowitz… Moroccan-French rabbi and founder of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship of France, Michel Serfaty… Pleasant Hill, Calif., resident, Daniel L. Fisher… Elected four times as a Republican at-large member on the Council of the District of Columbia, Carol Schwartz… Refusenik during the 1970s and 1980s who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, he later served as chairman of The Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky… Travel editor at CBS News, Peter S. Greenberg.. Former congresswoman from Nevada, now CEO and senior provost for Touro University Nevada, Shelley Berkley… Host of HBO’s political talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” William “Bill” Maher… Board member of Israel’s largest refining and petrochemical firm, Bazan Group, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Moshe Kaplinsky… Actress and television host, Melissa Rivers… Congressman from Minnesota (D-MN-3), Dean Benson Phillips… Coordinator of community education and support at JCFS Chicago, Diane Kushnir Halivni… Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and former governor of South Carolina, Ambassador Nikki Haley… Founder and CEO of Everywoman Studios, Abby Greensfelder… U.K. cabinet minister and former MP, member of the House of Lords, Baron Frank Zacharias Robin “Zac” Goldsmith… Former prime minister of Ukraine, Volodymyr Groysman… Israeli actress and musician, Hen Yanni… Senior consultant at Deloitte government and public services practice, Paul Mandelson… Senior director at Purple Strategies, Alec Jacobs… Senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, Jason Berger… Former president of AJC Houston and Houston AIPAC Council chair, president of, member of the board of governors of The Jewish Agency and chairman & CEO of the largest specialty retailer of outdoor and patio furniture in the United States, David Barish

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