Arts & Culture, People

My Israel Story # 39- Sheryl Alexander

by JCPConnect-

We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell? 


I spent a recent week in Israel along with 14 colleagues from around the country. We were selected to participate in Fundraising University, a year-long program for leaders in fundraising roles sponsored by Jewish Foundations of North America (JFNA). The week was filled with beautiful sights, amazing conversations, exposure to and information about the Jewish Agency For Israel, and Joint Distribution Committee and their lifesaving work around the world, in Israel, and around the region. I heard so much about Israeli history, culture, and politics all while enjoying the beautiful cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It could take weeks to tell you everything we saw, experienced and learned on this trip so I’ve chosen some highlights to share. However, all of my colleagues and I agree —


Most of the programs we visited were for the purpose of bettering the lives of Israelis living on the periphery of the county. For example, the first group of people we met were Israeli Arab women learning Hebrew to be able to enroll in employment training programs to better help their families. These are women who hadn’t ever held a job before because it isn’t culturally acceptable.

We met young ultra-orthodox men (Heredi) who decided they wanted to experience more than studying Jewish laws and customs as their fathers and grandfathers had and were participating in secular studies in addition to their Jewish studies. Mostly with the support of their families, they had plans to join the army, go to college, become doctors and aspired to other careers to be able to contribute to the economy, their families, and future of Israel, which was once unheard of by members of their community.

I never realized that Israel is the only first world country where people from Africa can walk to and walk through the border. This presents both opportunities and challenges. In a country where 1/6 of the approximately 6 million people are immigrants, many aren’t Jewish, don’t know Hebrew, have decent housing, jobs or the skills to enter the workforce- even if there were places to work.

We spent a morning in south Tel Aviv – a total dichotomy to the beautiful beaches, hotels, and homes in the other parts of Tel Aviv. This part of town is home to approximately 38,000 refugees from Eritrea and life is challenging to say the least. It is heartbreaking to see and hear about what is happening. Crime is high, unemployment is prevalent, options for housing are terrible, and needs are great. The refugee center we visited has really passionate young people who want to help but the needs continue to overwhelm the solutions.

We were inspired by a mentoring program through Youth Futures helping to empower parents, students and schools in the Israeli Arab, Bedouin, and ultra-orthodox communities. This program focuses on helping students, families, and schools work together to understand the challenges they face and create possibilities to support traditional ways of life while learning how to work with families to provide skills to be successful in Israeli society.

We spent time with incredible young Ethiopian girls who emigrated with their families after being rescued by the Jewish Agency and coming to Israel with literally nothing. Their participation in the Ethiopian National Project SPACE educational program has changed their lives and those of their families. Their excitement and enthusiasm for learning is infectious and they have an extremely bright future.

We were privileged to have dinner with four members of the Knesset and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right hand man, who happens to be an American from Chicago. It was a fascinating evening! After telling us a little bit about their work, each of the government guests were asked to tell us one thing keeping them awake at night. While each answer was interesting, we were all breathless after the Prime Minister’s counsel told us the most important thing keeping him awake is the possibility of a nuclear Iran. His last sentence was “you need to know we will never allow this. Whether the current agreement is in place or a new one is drafted, we will never allow Iran to possess nuclear capabilities”. It was a chilling reminder of how tenuous life is in the Middle East.

We ended our week at the Kotel and had Kabbalah Shabbat in an apartment overlooking some of the holiest places on earth. There is no way to describe the emotions and thoughts about being in a place with so much meaning to all of us. It was truly magical. My photos are gorgeous but being there was indescribable.

So while it was hard leaving Israel, I am glad to be back home with new memories, new questions and new ideas. There are so many things filling my head and I am sure I will be thinking about this journey for a long time. I am grateful for this opportunity to represent Memphis and to learn more about our role and the role of our partners in this important work we do on a daily basis.

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