Serving and Learning in the Holy City

Adam Moscoe
Our Culture Columnist Adam Moscoe has completed his first week in the Holy City of Jerusalem and will be sharing his summer experiences in Israel as a volunteer with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known here as the JDC or simply “the Joint”.) He has had the pleasure of serving in one of the elderly day programs sponsored by JDC-Eshel – a partnership with the Israeli government which works to promote health and self-sufficiency for Israel’s elderly population. This article aims to give an inside look into the culture of Jerusalem and the great work of  The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. 

This posting does not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Jerusalem Vibrations

By 2015, it is estimated that 11% of Israel’s population will be elderly – that’s one million people. Shockingly, one in three seniors in Israel lives under the poverty line and JDC-Eshel partners with local Israeli groups to combat poverty and develop strategies that preserve the dignity of Israel’s seniors, many of whom are Holocaust survivors.

JDC Eshel programs support elderly Israelis living independently

Each morning, I head from my apartment at the edge of Rachavia up north to the Haredi neighbourhood of Sanhedria, where I volunteer at the Bayit Bayer day program held in the basement of the Idan Home for the Aged. JDC is known for investing in programs that promote self-sufficiency and indeed the 80-or-so clients (yes, they are deliberately treated as paying customers – which they are!) live in their own homes or with their children’s families. Yet, they and their caregivers rely upon the day program to provide a stimulating social environment as well as a nutritious breakfast and lunch. A few of the clients have full-time caretakers who accompany them to the program. It has been fascinating to meet these individuals, as they are from India and the Philippines.

The clients are adorable and endearing “babushkas,” as my supervisor puts it. They are gracious, charming individuals representing a wide range of Jewish backgrounds – from Haredi to secular – and a plethora of languages from French to Russian. While my Canadian French has come in handy at times, I am grateful to the staff and residents for giving me a ‘safe space’ in which to practice my ivrit (Hebrew).

 Fighting Poverty 

The heart of the program – and my placement – involves three hours of daily activities such as arts and crafts, a daily exercise program, and a new computer literacy program (which unfortunately is a tough sell for most of the clients – although one lady has a flair for Skype). I have been assisting in various ways and integrating myself with the program atmosphere – singing, painting, listening, and serving. I particularly enjoy the interactive shiur (class) where participants are able to connect Jewish teachings to current events – such as ongoing frictions between the ultra-orthodox and secular communities in Jerusalem – and contribute their unique opinions.

The learning curve for me is relatively steep since the bulk of my previous volunteer experience has been with children and youth initiatives as well as with adults who have developmental disabilities. Working with the elderly is a new and exciting foray.

Israeli President Shimon Peres

Learn from your Elders 

Meanwhile, I am a true believer in the value of serving and learning from one’s elders. A few weeks prior to my trip to Israel, I was humbled to act as an Honourary Witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Toronto, Canada. Indigenous and First Nations individuals who had survived trauma in the residential schools system were given a opportunity to share their pain and healing journey. What struck me most was the important role of the Elders in all aspects of the summit and the respect they were shown by youth and adult participants alike.

Although I am officially part of the JDC team in Israel, I have not yet had the chance to explore the rich history of this organization in depth. Fortunately, I will be meeting with key members of the staff – including JDC Israel’s CEO – in the coming weeks. However, I already have a sense of the important role of JDC here. Almost everyone I meet – including at last week’s Israeli Presidential Conference – knows of “The Joint” and many have told me their grandparents or great-grandparents were supported or even “saved” by JDC. It is a privilege to be a small part of an organization that continues to have such broad impact in Israeli history and society.

Speaking of that Presidential Conference, what a remarkable three days it was. I joined over 4000 delegates from around the world gathered in Israel to consider how we will “Face Tomorrow,” as the conference was titled. I had the privilege of attending workshops on issues from Arab-Jewish coexistence to cutting-edge science. The speakers included the Presidents of Croatia and Cote D’Ivoire as well as a A-list of experts and celebrities – the economist Steven Fischer, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, music mogul Russell Simmons, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and on and on.  I also had the unforgettable experience meeting Dr. Ruth Westheimer and the Soviet freedom fighter and former prisoner of conscience turned cabinet minister in Israel, Natan Sharansky. The conference also capped off my year interning for the Hon. Irwin Cotler, MP and Canada’s former Minister of Justice – and indeed it was enjoyable hearing him speak on a panel concerning “Judaism and Democracy” alongside Mr. Sharansky, who Professor Cotler worked to have released from prison in the 80’s. Above all, the three days of the conference allowed me to watch one of the world’s greatest ever statesmen at work – the 88-year-old President of Israel, Shimon Peres.

When not volunteering, I am taking in all that Jerusalem has to offer – meeting wonderful new friends and visiting old ones, exploring the rich cultural scene, and of course seeking out engaging Jewish experiences. This past Shabbat, I attended an amazing Shabbat Dinner with 200 young professionals who had made Aliyah (the official move to Israel). I look forward to spending upcoming Shabbatot in areas of Israel I have not yet explored such as Tzfat and the Galilee. In the coming weeks, I shall continue to share with you my experiences serving, learning and exploring – here in Israel!