Diary of Global Networking in Action

— by Hannah Lee

As Part 4 of a sporadic series on Creating Community, I write about an effort that spans the Atlantic Ocean and connects us with Eretz Yisrael.

In May, a friend, Ari, contacted me to find an organization that could use three dental chairs and two x-ray machines, donated by a dentist who was retiring from his practice in New York.  (We’re foodie buddies and he knows about my networking instincts.)  His father, Bob Schwell, coordinates donations for Yad Sarah in New York (while shuttling between Israel and the United States) and these items were deemed not suitable for shipping to Israel.  By the end of the day, I was able to identify two organizations interested in the equipment: Columbia’s dental school which runs a clinic in New York and Partners in Health which would like to send them to Haiti.  

More after the jump.
However, neither one of them was able to mobilize in time for the date when the shipping container would be packed in the warehouse in Newark.  Meanwhile, my inquiries led to a phone call from a young dentist who was starting up her own practice and wanted the equipment.  Fine, but my stipulation was that she give a donation to Yad Sarah.

In early June, Bob went to Newark to supervise the packing of the shipping container and they set aside the dental equipment.  I asked him what does it take to start a chapter in Philly?  He said that the major issue is finding local storage.  The heavy items — hospital beds, etc. — that require professionals are picked up by Moishe’s Movers (which volunteers the time of its employees who are all veterans of the Israeli Army) and brought to the shipper’s warehouse in Newark.  The smaller, portable items are the things that need local storage until the next date for packing a shipping container.

So, I made contact with the coordinators of the local Bikur Cholim and they will accept the items Yad Sarah cannot send to Israel, such as manual wheelchairs.   Mati Sved, whose family owns a warehouse in Philly, agreed to house items, as long as they fit on a 40″ x 48″ pallet for transport to the upstairs storage floor.  I was making steady progress!  

Early this month, Bob reported that he’d spoken with someone at Moishe’s Movers but that individual was not interested in picking up from Philly.  However, this was not the boss!  Undeterred, I asked if we could separate the project in two: portable items that can be transported by volunteers and heavy items like hospital beds that require professional movers.  Then I got official permission from the American headquarters in New York and on July 11th, I announced the launching of a local chapter for Yad Sarah.  

I posted a notice on the LowerMerionShuls community list-serve (subject of Part 1 of this “Creating Community” series and now with 1,414 members) and I’ve gotten offers already.  Alas, they’re not items I can send overseas, so I’m busy finding other beneficiaries for them.  Still, it’s a good way to build community networks.  The next step is to line up volunteer drivers and additional storage space.

Founded in 1976 by Uri Lupolianski, now the mayor of Jerusalem, Yad Sarah offers a wide range of medical and legal services in Israel.  A recent survey by the Dahaf Institute found that every second family in Israel has been helped by one of Yad Sarah’s services.  In 2004, The United Nations granted Yad Sarah advisory status to its Economic and Social Council.  In 2011, Yad Sarah served 420,000 people, lent out 270,000 pieces of medical equipment from its 104 sites, staffed by over 6,000 volunteers.   For more information about Yad Sarah Philly, contact me at [email protected]  

Creating Community, Part 3: The Chabad Connection

By Hannah Lee

This series explores some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Previous articles have focused on a contemporary approach on the Internet and the traditional method of hospitality.

Jews who travel know to contact the local Chabad rabbi in whatever city they find themselves to seek help about kosher food and Shabbat accommodations.  The local Chabad website would have that week’s Shabbat candle lighting time and parshah (Bible portion), even when the traveller’s  own congregation’s website may not be as current.  This free service is extended to all Jews, regardless of religious background, but sometimes, the Chabad connection goes beyond the normal call of duty.

In Senator Joe Lieberman‘s new book, The Gift of Rest, he wrote about one memorable visit to Munich with Senator John McCain in February 2004, a time of massive anti-Iraq war demonstrations that targeted the international security conference attended by “almost all defense ministers and many foreign ministers of NATO countries.”  Lieberman was greeted by the American military attaché who reported thus:

As you have seen, Senator, the streets around the hotel are sealed off with riot control vehicles and police cars.  A few hours ago, I was called to come out and meet someone.  I went out, watched the police vehicles separate, and through them walked a young rabbi with a beard, a black suit, and black hat, carrying a large shopping bag.  When we met, he said he had brought the bag for Senator Lieberman for the Sabbath, and here it is.  

And there it was, thanks to Rabbi Yisroel Diskin, the Chabad rabbi in Munich- a bag full of all I needed to make and enjoy Shabbat in Munich.  How did the rabbi know I was there?  My mother, in Stamford, CT, told her Chabad rabbi, Yisroel Deren, that I was going to be in Munich that Shabbat, and Rabbi Deren immediately e-mailed Rabbi Diskin who took it from there.

My daughter got through her college years with the help of her Chabad rabbi, another venue where Jewish connection is maintained  by these dedicated rabbis and their wives.  When she graduated at the end of the winter quarter, it was the day before Purim, so we celebrated Shabbat and Purim with Chabad and we had a fabulous time.   I was Cleopatra, complete with headdress, gladiator sandals, blingy garb, and the fatal asp too!  My daughter channeled her inner geek, by re-purposing her graduation gown as the English school uniform for Hermione.

When my family was in Aspen for its annual music festival one year, we celebrated Shabbat with Chabad there.  Rabbi Mendel Mintz has created a lively Jewish community center in the Colorado mountains, which he, Brooklyn-born and bred, has learned to ski.  His beautiful wife, Lieba, is director of their Hebrew school — as is usual in the Chabad outposts —  and they’re assisted by a rotation of young women who come out from Brooklyn to help the family care for their children as well as serve as teachers in the Hebrew school.  They give their all, with zeal and passion, because their mission is to bring all Jews closer to their tradition.


So, why can Jews travel all over the world and get consistent aid from the local Chabad websites?  It’s because it’s all centrally maintained at 770 Eastern Parkway in Boro Park, New York.  The staff at the headquarters helps new shluchim (emissaries) with websites, data bases, and tax forms.  It’s maybe as old as the shluchim program.  And for the Reader, if you feel inadequate about your knowledge of Jewish heritage, their newest educational project is Fascinating Facts: Exploring the Myths and Mysteries of Judaism and it’s available at your local Chabad center.

Creating Community, Part 2: Better Than Couch Surfing

By Hannah Lee

This on-going series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 focused on a contemporary approach, the list-serve; in this article, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; future articles will focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion, and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

Recently, my daughter’s new apartment was burglarized, so I found myself making travel arrangements on short notice.  I couldn’t find hotel space close to her Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, so I reserved the bedroom and bathroom offered by a young couple on the Airbnb website.  My daughter stayed with me there for two nights and it was perfect for our needs.  Later this month, I will return for another visit, this time with my teen daughter.  The very day I landed in Chicago, the New York Times ran a feature on Airbnb and its placement service in its Business section.
As comfy as were my accommodations– far better than couch surfing!– the placement service does not yet compare to the generous hospitality that I know in the Jewish community in my role as Hospitality Coordinator for my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.  Orthodox Jews have such a strong sense of connection with other Shabbat-observant Jews that we can travel the world over and ask for (free) Shabbat and Yom Tov (holy day) hospitality from local Jews.  Usually, it’s because of work or non-Orthodox family celebrations that we find ourselves far from an Orthodox synagogue.  (We also get the occasional appeal from a shul member overwhelmed by the number of out-of-town guests for a simcha (religious celebration)).  But it is also when we travel for pleasure that we can ask for help finding kosher food and accommodations.

However, we Jews have been thinking a lot about trust and safety recently after the little boy, Leiby Kletzky, was murdered in Brooklyn, after he asked for directions from a man who looked legit, like someone who held the same values.  Similarly, Airbnb had to revise its policy after several hosts complained of paying guests who trashed their homes and stole personal property.  A few days after my return home, I received a letter from Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, stating their commitment to supporting their hosts with a newly instituted guarantee coverage for up to $50,000 in damages from paying guests.  So, how do we deal with the issue in my community?

Some people would say we’re crazy for opening up our homes to strangers.  I have even placed guests in local homes while the owners were away.  In one incidence, the guests were coming from London for a bar mitzvah, they later connected with their hosts, and the shul family’s daughter was able to stay with them while she was doing her semester abroad.  In a dramatic example of the Biblical quote from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)that can be translated as “Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days”,  this same host family found themselves in need of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) this summer when they made a wedding for one of their daughters and their machatanim (parents of the other member of the wedding couple, in this case, the groom) asked for an empty house, because the groom’s father is wheelchair-bound and he has to use a hospital bed.  To my amazement, with my very first phone call, I was able to make the shidduch (match).  Another example came four summers ago, when I got a frantic call on a Friday afternoon.  A woman was stranded at the airport because her plane had been delayed and she needed a place to stay for Shabbat.  I made the shidduch, then because her luggage had been routed to Boston (where the rest of her family was headed), she wore her host family’s daughter’s power suit to shul the next day.  The only marvel to me was that she, a mature woman in her late 50s, was the same size as her host family’s 19-year-old daughter.

After the boy’s murder, my Rabbi gave a drasha (sermon) on Shabbat about reaching out to the loners in our midst.  He also reassured me that we were doing just fine with our hospitality placements.  I later consulted with my co-coordinator  about changes we might have to make, as we are not in a position to offer any monetary guarantees against damages.  We decided to continue with our modus operandus, by inquiring about the community that a prospective guest hails from and how did they find us, as a community referral is best.

We are not unique in our commitment to hachnasat orchim. The website Shabbat.com was created by a web designer in Monsey, NY in 2010 and, after the webmaster of LMShuls posted a notice about it on our list-serve, about 20 local families signed up as hosts that week.  We cannot make the bad headline news go away, but we can focus on building community in the way we know, one mitzvah at a time.

This series will continue in September.

Creating Community, Part 1: The New Digital Connection

By Hannah Lee

This series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 will focus on a contemporary approach; in future articles, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; a focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion; and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

In June 2007, I launched the LMShuls list-serve for the Orthodox community of Lower Merion.  It was immediately embraced and, as of this writing, there are 1,195 subscribers.   No, there are not that many shomer-mitzvot Jews even if we are more identifiable by our festive garb on Shabbat and Yom Tov (the Jewish holy days).  
The popularity stems from the list-serve’s ability to forge a new sense of connectedness, so now we have subscribers — both Orthodox and otherwise — who live in Cherry Hill, Elkins Park (which recently launched its own list-serve) and Northeast Philly.  We even have non-Jewish subscribers who’d heard about this free service from their Jewish friends and neighbors as a great way to publicize their intent to sell their home.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to create a city-wide directory of Jews and Jewish services, but it was costly to publish and it was quickly out-dated.  A list-serve is uploaded quickly — as quick as the attention of my webmaster,  Eitan Dvir — and it can be read instantaneously or in a Daily Digest format (which I recommend unless you have a terrific thirst to find out the latest real-estate scoop).  So, what is a list-serve?  I think of it as an electronic bulletin board which is monitored.  

What are our guidelines?  

From our webpage, our policy is clearly stated:

  • Always appropriate: community events in Lower Merion; notices of institutional news and events; events of interest to members and non-members; shiva (week-long period of grief and mourning) notices; community blood drives.  
  • Generally appropriate: houses/apartments for sale or rent  in Lower Merion and Philadelphia; cars for sale; Lower Merion business events; Lower Merion garage sales; lost and found; parlor meeting in private residences; information about sports leagues; housekeeper/maid inquiries; rides to a funeral/carpool requests; Lower Merion playgroup inquiries; job postings; backyard camps; babysitting.  
  • Never appropriate: jokes; offensive or disparaging e-mails; lashon harah (gossip); posting for an event whose kashrut (kosher certification) is not acceptable to the Orthodox community; and views, opinions, and political news.

Since becoming the Webmaster, Eitan has not become the local celebrity, although he and I get approached by neophyte users, usually the older, less technically savvy members, about sending and receiving posts.  No, I do not want to get your desperate appeals while I’m driving, so my daughter knows not to give out my cell phone number.  Eitan scans every proposed entry during mental breaks from his day job as founder of E-agle.com for web development and Search Engine Optimization (what Netflix uses to tell you what other movies you would enjoy!).  Even with the public guidelines, Eitan estimates that about 50% of the submitted entries are not acceptable and another 25% of the submissions need additional information.  As Coordinator, I have the less time-intensive but dubiously more enjoyable task of being Enforcer of our policy.  Since I have chosen the Daily Digest format, I receive the posts the next day, about 5 am, and, if need be, I chase the culprit down by e-mail (environmentally, with no high-speed car chases) and remind them, gently, not to abuse the sensibilities of our subscription base.

I first heard about a community list-serve from the Teaneck Jewish community, where a rotation of five web monitors serve a subscriber base of 50,000 (tally supplied by Eitan).  Eitan cut his teeth working with the Monsey list-serve where he’d lived previously.  I proposed it to the board of my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, which approved it but has not underwritten our costs, absorbed charitably by Eitan himself.  The first month, we had only two posts, but the very next month, the tally of posts went up to 75, and since then we’ve gotten as many as 345 notices this past month of May (definitely a reason to choose Daily Digest).

What were Eitan’s most memorable posts?  He cited the one by a bachelor who offered over-ripe bananas.  Silly?  Note that the poster got 13 responses and someone retrieved the items before Shabbat.  Bakers know to freeze the ripe fruit until there’s a banana bread emergency.  Another of his favorites was the time someone’s fridge went on the fritz and wanted a temporary cooling unit and the family received four offers and got a loan two hours before Shabbat, when religious Jews cannot run to the store for more ice cream.  My favorite notice was the time an Israeli family came for a consult at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and was told their child needed emergency care.  The LMShuls list-serve identified for the family an available apartment and furnished it with donated items.  Another one was by a woman who needed to send medicine to her son who was studying in yeshiva in Israel.  Several people who were flying to Israel that week agreed to be her courier, people whom she would not have known to be traveling or would agree to undertake this humanitarian mission.

What is the most frequent offense?  Spam (unsolicited electronic mass messages), including requests for tzedakah (charity).  The posts garnering the most chatter are the quirky ones, like the offer of black bananas.  An example of a quick response via this list-serve occurred recently when a woman posted a warning that “some of the ACME cookies (like chocolate chip) usually packaged as OU pareve are no longer marked as such.  There is a sign by the front display at the store– but you may want to check packages purchased.”  Jan Moskow, the Lead Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at that store location wrote back publicly:

“Thank you for calling this to our and the community’s attention.  The bagged cookies in question were actually pulled off the display before your notice got posted.  ACME uses only one style bag for all its bakery cookies and even though there was no Kosher labeling on these bags, in addition to the non-kosher signage at the display, the Mashgichim saw the potential for confusion and had the cookies repackaged in an entirely different container.”

This is a brave new world, and you can use or abuse the new technology available to us.  Our Rabbi carries a Blackberry so that he is technically always on call, except for Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Our list-serve is available to our subscribers to reach out and connect.  This is one way we build community in Lower Merion.