By Stuart Mellan
“Kindness is the highest wisdom.” As I look back on all that we have accomplished this past year, it occurs to me that our federation’s work is a series of small steps informed by this simple teaching. And while the steps are small, the results can be powerful.
• This past year we launched a concierge project that is representing all of our congregations and agencies – making certain that we are handling all newcomer and other inquiries in a warm and welcoming manner. We also launched JewishTucson.org which is making it easy to engage and connect to Jewish community activities of all kinds and for all ages.
• We are fulfilling a 40-year dream by expanding our Holocaust History Center – a joint project of the Jewish History Museum and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. This new 2,000-square-foot space is under construction and slated to open next winter. It be using state-of-the-art technology to preserve the stories of our local survivors. We expect thousands of school children to visit annually.
• Through our Weintraub Israel Center we have established pen pal relationships (using Skype and other technologies) between 300 Tucson kids in our local schools and synagogues with children in our Partnership Region of Israel bordering Gaza.
• We have expanded our Homer Davis Friday food pack program – our signature social action project in the general community – now sending nutritious foods such as canned tuna, macaroni and cheese, cereal and more food home with 65 kids who otherwise might go hungry on weekends. We also have hosted a forum on poverty in Tucson as part of our ongoing work through our Jewish Community Relations Council.
• Our LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project, one of the first established by a federation over a decade ago, changed its name to JFSA Pride to coincide with the recent Supreme Court decision and in recognition of the increasing acceptance we have enjoyed since the project began.
• This summer we will accompany Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and other community leaders to Israel, and our first Weintraub Israel Center trip planned for February of this coming year is virtually sold out.
• In response to Mayor Rothschild’s request, our JCRC played a leading role in a community-wide effort to provide support and service to hundreds of Central American asylum-seekers who passed through Tucson.
• Our Women’s Philanthropy launched a continuing project to raise awareness with regard to sex trafficking. Care packages were made for and distributed to victims.
• Through our Mitzvah Magic project we provided personalized care packages at each of the major Jewish holidays for 25 of the most vulnerable Jewish families in Tucson.
• A community collaboration called J-TAG began this year bringing together teen leaders from the youth groups and youth programs in Tucson to plan joint social action/service learning programs and engage Jewish teens with an emphasis on reaching those not currently engaged in Jewish life. The Teen Advisory Council of our Youth Philanthropy program raised $12,000 for a local program that aims to prevent elder abuse.
• We expanded our Transportation Project, which provides rides to seniors and disabled adults to synagogue services and programs, and we have instituted a task force to explore ways in which we might assist adults with disabilities in our community.
• Super Sunday Mitzvah Day provided a way for the entire community to come together for a day of tikkun olam. PJ Library families joined with B’nai Tzedek teens and tweens from a newly formed group called the Many Mitzvah Makers to learn about the Jewish values of giving and supporting the community. Care packages were created by all youth for Tucson’s elderly Jewish population and included matzah ball soup mix, a personally decorated picture frame and a hamsa for the wall complete with the blessing for the home.
Underlying our federation’s work is the adage that “community doesn’t just happen, it has to be created.” That being the case, we are always looking to answer the question: “What kind of community do we want for ourselves and our next generation?” While there are many answers, for us the answer prominently incorporates the following: We want an engaged and vibrant Jewish community that celebrates diversity, takes care of the most vulnerable, and nurtures a strong sense of peoplehood.
As we aspire towards this vision, our work is firmly rooted by the Talmudic teaching that “kindness is the highest wisdom” – reminding ourselves that every small step that we take in creating our aspirational community can be powerfully important.
Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.