“Young Jews, no matter where they live, will turn to Birthright Israel Labs to hear stories about their history and their heroes and to connect and support their peers,” said Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark.

Original Article Published in the JNS

Taglit-Birthright Israel is well-known around the world for its free Israel trips for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 32. Since 1999 through Birthright Israel, 750,000 people from 68 countries, the 50 U.S states and nearly 1,000 colleges and universities in North America have had the opportunity to experience Israel and Judaism firsthand.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has proven challenging for Birthright Israel during the past two years. Travel to Israel has been significantly curtailed or at times, stopped entirely. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped Birthright from continuing to innovate. If you can’t bring participants to Israel, then why not bring Israel and Jewish content to alumni and potential future trip participants—and in a language and format they can understand and relate to? Meet “Birthright Israel Labs.”

Comprised of two portions, Content Studio and Digital Initiatives, Birthright Israel Labs strives to create professionally produced programs and enable alumni networking. It will connect Diaspora Jews to Israel, their culture and to other Jews.

“Through trips to Israel, Birthright Israel has done an amazing job connecting people to Israel and to each other. This new extension—Birthright Israel Labs—allows us to connect young Jews and alumni through social medial and digital content,” says Andrew Davidsburg, who heads the Content Studio. Shay Assor, product manager at Birthright Israel, leads Digital Initiatives. Renat Wegrzyn oversees both teams as the head of Birthright Israel Labs.

On Dec. 23, the Content Studio premiered “Dinner With Jews: A Birthright Israel Holiday Special,” the first of its online videos, which explores why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas through the perspective of three comics. The 30-minute show is filmed in the famous Wing Wan kosher Chinese restaurant in the Long Island region of New York. The special is hosted by standup comics Robyn Schall, Modi Rosenfled and Jared Goldstein, written and directed by Bex Schwartz and produced by Andy Singer. Dani Luv, who had a multi-decade residency at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in Manhattan, serves as the house band.

“It gives different perspectives on being Jewish on Christmas,” observes Davidsburg.

The Content Studio premiered “Dinner With Jews: A Birthright Israel Holiday Special,” the first of its online videos, which explores why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas through the perspective of three comics, Dec. 23, 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

“Badass Jews” is the second project of the Content Studio. “We all grew up knowing about Nobel Prize winners, scientists, and geniuses,” says Davidsburg. “But we wanted to bring others — Jews from history who buck the trend.”

The animated series takes a look at elite Jewish athletes, spies, soldiers and all-around “tough guys.” From legendary Spymistress Vera Atkins Rosenberg to Jack Kirby, the World War II scout and comic-book genius, the stories will likely offer a more nuanced understanding of how people view Jewish identity and Jewish people. The series is animated by Israeli artist Ory Raz Pinchassi, a self-described “eclectic post-modern artist” who has worked with the IDF and Yad Vashem, illustrated books and book jackets and participated in more than 40 group and 16 solo exhibitions.

In its first week, “Dinner With Jews” had more than 200,000 viewers while “Badass Jews” had more than 180,000 viewers.

Birthright Israel Labs will soon launch “4Qs for Successful Jews,” a video series “digging into the who, how and the why behind the journey to success, through 4 simple questions.” Each episode plans to feature an interview with such successful Jewish celebrities as Mayim Bialik, Michael Solomonov, Kenny Albert, Marc Summers, Alexis Michelle and Nissim Black.

Digital Initiatives, the second arm of Birthright Israel Labs, investigates new and different ways to connect with Birthright Israel alumni in the digital space. Current initiatives include The Pool, a safe forum for discussion on Jewish topics; and “Impact By the Crowd,” a global, crowd-sourced platform for alumni to connect and “do good.” Davidsburg notes that “Impact by the Crowd is in its infancy—with good results.” He adds, “We are tapping the alumni community to bring their dream do-good project—and they bring it to fruition.” Thus far, Digital Initiatives has received 50 submissions with four innovative programs selected to date—from the United States, Israel and Uganda.

A still from “Badass Jews,” an animated series that takes a look at elite Jewish athletes, spies, soldiers and all-around “tough guys. Credit: Courtesy.

“Our goal is to build communities and connections post trips,” says Davidsburg.

The Birthright Israel Labs team has ambitious expansion plans. There are six more “Badass Jews” episodes in production, more “4Qs” to come and a new initiative, “Behind the Nosh:  The Story of Israel Snack Foods,” not far behind. Birthright Israel Labs will also soon launch a worldwide travel initiative to connect alumni jet-setters from around the world. Through this portal, travelers will be able to share and experience local customs, food or just meet someone new from the community.

“In a rapidly changing and increasingly online world, our alumni and our future participants have made it clear that they want a place where they can connect with one another online,” said Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark. “Birthright Israel Labs is the future of Jewish connections. Young Jews, no matter where they live, will turn to Birthright Israel Labs to hear stories about their history and their heroes and to connect and support their peers.”

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“I have done hurricanes, 9/11, Sully in the river — [the Kentucky trip] is the first time I have ever seen people who had nothing. The concept of people having absolutely nothing is mind-blowing,” says Jamie Lassner, director of student programming at North Shore Hebrew Academy.

Original Article Published in the JNS

Winning the lottery usually conjures images of elated people feeling set for life after receiving a check for hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet for five North Shore Hebrew Academy (NHSA) students in the Long Island region of New York, winning the lottery meant being selected to represent their day school on an eye-opening, life-changing relief mission to tornado-devastated Kentucky.

On Dec. 10, a tornado with winds of over 166 miles per hour decimated the Kentucky of towns Cayce, Mayfield, Benton, Princeton, Dawson Springs and Bremen, killing 77, injuring hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.

Faculty and students at NHSA, located 1,000 miles northeast of the devastation, knew they had to do something. The school learned of an urgent need for assistance with food and clothing distribution as well as emotional support.

Seventh-grade students who were vaccinated against COVID-19 and interested in being considered for the trip entered the lottery. Five students, Aaron, Chloe, Jeremy, Orly and Shirel, were selected to join Jamie Lassner, director of student programming, and math teacher Yael Eleyahouzadeh (Ms. E).

Ms. E, Shirel, Chloe and Orly separating shoes at the Project Friendship Warehouse. Credit: Courtesy.

The group set out early Sunday morning, Dec. 19 from the school parking lot — a 16-hour drive away — and returned Dec. 22. During their three intensive days in Kentucky, the group witnessed scenes that even Lassner, a EMT with 36 years of experience, including 32 with Upper East Side Hatzolah in Manhattan, had never seen.

“I have done hurricanes, 9/11, Sully in the river (pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River) — [the Kentucky trip] is the first time I have ever seen people who had nothing. The concept of people having absolutely nothing is mind-blowing. We talk about it a lot with the students,” Lassner says.

Upon arrival Sunday night, the group had dinner and got a good night’s sleep for the anticipated physically and emotionally exhausting day ahead.

On Monday morning, the delegation set out for the Project Friendship Warehouse, a division of Chabad of Kentucky, to help Rabbi Avrohom Litvin (co-director with his wife, Goldie) as well as sons Rabbi Chaim and Rabbi Mendel separate various items for distribution.

But they were confused. When they first entered, they saw an empty room with decorations, a curtain and some boxes. They expected it to be filled with hundreds of boxes. After completing the separation of items from the few boxes in the room, they learned that the curtain was simply a mechitza (room divider) erected for a recent bat mitzvah. As they stepped behind the curtain, they encountered a warehouse they described as “as large as a football stadium,” filled with hundreds of pallets of donated items. The 12 shrink-wrapped boxes on each pallet were each filled with an assortment of items including toothbrushes, toys, clothing, food, shoes, socks, picture frames and jewelry.

The team mobilized. In assembly-line fashion, they opened and sorted boxes of clothing ranging from infant size to 4XL. As the group organized the gowns, suits, pants, coats, socks, shoes and more, Ms. E was struck by the magnitude of the loss the local residents had experienced just 10 days earlier.

“The concept of having everything you own destroyed in seconds and remaining with nothing was a difficult idea to understand and one that we continually discussed throughout the day,” she says. “We felt very accomplished after our six-plus hours of teamwork that proved to be very meaningful and hopeful.”

Lassner was moved by the hard work, dedication and modesty of the Chabad team. “Working with Project Friendship and Rabbis Litvin was moving,” she says. “They were the epitome of say little and do much.  I was so thrilled that we had them as mentors and examples.”

On Tuesday morning, the group had their first experience with the local Amish community. They set out for Oak Grove with five dozen black boots from Project Friendship. The 70 men in this community had come to rebuild the local lumber store and warehouse which had been destroyed.

As the group moved through the region, they were struck by what they witnessed.

The students next met Dave, who they describe as the chief tornado expert in Kentucky and a tornado spotter. They viewed his 10 weather and tornado-spotting monitors as well as other special equipment, and learned how Dave and the other volunteers actually spot tornados.

The group’s sorting work continued — this time at the Kentucky Weather Operations Center and the adjacent warehouse. They were asked by the Kentucky Office of Emergency Management Coordinator to separate various clothing and food items and distribute to people in need.

“The word ‘nothing’ took on new meaning when a local sheriff came in to pick up clothing and food for a family that was in a neighbor’s house as they had lost everything in their home,” notes Mrs. E. “The officer came in to get as much as he could to give these people that had nothing.  It was very moving to see that some of the food that we had helped separate just minutes before was taken for their immediate use. You never understand the meaning of nothing until you see it.”

Dave (black shirt) the Tornado expert for the region, with the NSHA Team at the Tornado and Weather Operations Center.. Credit: Courtesy.

As the students were about to depart, they had an unexpected lesson about the Jewish concept of teshuva (repentance). They were about to present Amazon gift cards to thank their fellow volunteers.  Dave then informed them that these “volunteers” were not eligible to receive these gifts — they were inmates from the local correctional facility. Jeremy reports, “Several of us were surprised in a wonderful way. We learned that people can make mistakes, regret what they did and do something to change their lives to better themselves and the world.”

The students closed out their stay by praying Mincha and Maariv, eating dinner and experiencing a farbrengen (joyous Hasidic gathering) with Rabbi Avraham Litvin.

The parents were impressed by what their children had accomplished. Rachel Spinner says proudly, “At first, I thought my daughter was too young to make this kind of trip. What kind of 12-year-old would be up for a 15-plus hour van ride? I was unsure if she’d be able to handle the long drive and the potential emotional hurdles she’d have to face. But I trusted Mr. Lassner and Ms. E so if they were in, I was in. Although our daughter came home exhausted, she was invigorated at the same time. I am so grateful to NSHA for providing her with this experience that will stay with her always.”

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A rabbi and rabbinical student drive 230 miles to provide a traditional burial

Original Article Published in the Chabad

When Rabbi Chaim Schmukler of Chabad of New Mexico in Albuquerque received a call from a Jewish man telling him that his homeless brother was in the city morgue in Amarillo, Texas, awaiting imminent cremation, the rabbi knew he had to act fast.

He immediately called his brother, Rabbi Bery Schmukler, in Las Cruces, some 225 miles to the south and just 45 minutes from the Texas border. The clock was ticking as the time for cremation approached, and Rabbi Bery moved into action.

“The man thought maybe we could say Kaddish for his brother,” Rabbi Bery told Chabad.org. “He wasn’t expecting that we would actually bury him.”

But the rabbis knew that a proper Jewish burial was essential. Rabbi Bery called a funeral home in Amarillo to have the body transferred to the Jewish section of a natural burial ground in Belen, N.M.—a five-and-a-half-hour drive. He then set out on the three-hour drive from Las Cruces to meet the hearse driver.

Schmukler, co-director of Chabad of Las Cruces with his wife, Chenchie, sees Divine Providence at work throughout the whole process. Pinchus Sudak, a yeshivah student from London, was staying with the Schmuklers for a few days while on his way to the National Parks. The rabbi included the young man in the mitzvah of chesed shel emet—a mitzvah for which there is said to be no repayment in this world, only the next.

“We packed the car with 20 gallons of water, cloth, a shroud and soil from Israel—all needed for a kosher burial—and we set out on the 230-mile drive,” said Schmukler.

The rabbi notes that people often chose this burial site since no coffin is required, it is in a natural desert setting, and the cost is lower. The deceased was laid to rest in the Jewish section of the cemetery.

“We did the purification on site, cleaned the body and did the taharah on the desert floor,” recounted Schmukler. “We dressed him, said the prayers, and buried him in a shroud and tallit. The driver was watching in awe. He just had to see what we were doing. He even took my phone to take pictures.”

While this was the first time that the rabbi supervised a burial in the desert, he has organized funerals for elderly Jews in Las Cruces, a well-known retirement community given its warm weather and affordable cost of living. “We have a lot of seniors here and have saved some from cremation,” he said.

Schmukler estimates that 1,000 Jewish families live in Las Cruces, a town of 110,000 people. The Jewish community includes retirees, professors at New Mexico State University and medical students at the nearby Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University. Tourists also often pass through on trips to the Southwest.

Schmukler’s Chabad House is one of four in New Mexico. In addition to his brother Rabbi Chaim Schmukler’s Chabad House in Albuquerque, which he co-directs with his wife, Devorah Leah, there are Chabad centers in Santa Fe and Taos.

“It felt like we were able to help a Jew when nobody else could,” said Rabbi Bery Schmukler. “It is about being there for another person. I hope it will inspire people to know that there are mitzvah opportunities out there.”

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“He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni,” says Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

Original Article Published in the JNS

The Zamir family came to Madison Square Garden from Woodmere, N.Y., hoping to see their beloved Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards play against the New York Knicks. Elad Levi and his son came all the way from Tel Aviv — part of a 24-person tour group hoping to see their fellow countryman Avdija, the only Israeli in the NBA, play in several games.

Yet their luck was running out after the Washington Wizards’ game against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 21 was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Nets’ roster. They came with their signs and Israeli flags and jerseys, and prayed the Wizards’ Dec. 23 game versus the Knicks would go on.

Four hours before tipoff, Wizards star Bradley Beal entered the league’s health and safety protocols. It is unclear whether he had received a positive test result or whether it was a matter of contract tracing. He joined fellow starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was already in the protocols.

Ultimately, the Zamir and Levi families fished got their wish. But just barely. Avdija scored in double digits for the fourth game in a row, with 14 points, as well as five rebounds and a career-high three blocks. It was his fifth multi-block game this season. The Wizards defeated the Knicks, 124-117.

“I like that [Avdija] is a really good shooter and his defense is pretty amazing too,” reports Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in Woodmere. “He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni.”

The Zamirs, all clad in custom-made red number 9 Avdija jerseys, enjoyed their view from the first row, close to center court. Like other Jewish and Israeli fans, they enjoy following 20-year-old Avdija’s continued growth in his second year in the NBA. Very few fans saw Avdija play in person last season.  He made his first appearance at the Knicks’ home of Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2021, and scored 14 points before fouling out in a Wizards loss. Due to COVID-19 rules at the time, the arena was at 10% capacity. One month later, on April 21, 2021, Avdija suffered a season-ending right fibular hairline fracture, followed by a long period of rehabilitation.

This season, Avdija is thriving on and off the court, though he could do without the day-to-day uncertainty of the pandemic. “To be in question is a bummer,” he says. “It is not fun, but we have to keep being safe. We have to just keep working ourselves.”

Avdija worked hard to return this season and he feels it is paying off. “I see progress every day and hope I will maximize my potential until I retire,” he says. “I learn new things every day and get better every day as I become a more complete player.” For instance, Avdija describes that he is “more mature” and “knows what spots to shoot from,” and is learning to “trust my shot and not think too much.”

Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. likes what he sees and has been giving Avdija more playing time. “He has progressed well,” he says. “We are putting him in different situations. I am learning to trust him more. His teammates are learning to trust him more. He is stepping up and making big plays —facilitating, scoring, and we have seen the defensive side of it. So, I think he is starting to put together a nice run here. If he can play this way night in and night out, this is going to be great for us.”

Unseld also admires Avdija’s energy and attitude. “His energy is always good. He is a very positive guy, doing things for his teammates,” he says.

Despite the many precautions in place due to COVID-19, Advija has had some opportunities to get to know the local Washington, D.C., Jewish community — and he enjoys speaking with Israeli media. Avdija recently lit Hanukkah candles, signed autographs and answered questions from fans at the Rockville Town Center in Montgomery County, Md., 20 miles north of the team’s Capital One Arena.

When asked what was his best moment of the year, Advija enthusiastically reports that it was being back in Israel for the first time and seeing friends, family and all of the support he has been receiving.

And Avdija’s New Year’s resolution? “That by the end of 2022 I will be better than I was at the end of 2021. That’s all I’m asking for. Just to be a better person, learn more, know more, and be a better player and to be healthy. That’s really important.”

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