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Coronavirus. Successful initiative of an Argentine rabbi in Miami to match up young Jews

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Agencia AJN.- Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Yossi Smierc, director of the center for young Jews “KSpace” in Miami, led an initiative for teenagers to meet through virtual events and form couples. For more than 13 years, the institution has carried out an enormous task receiving and providing support to young people from Latin America, especially from Venezuela, who arrive in Miami.

In a interview with Agencia AJN, Rabbi Smierc stressed that many young people discovered with the pandemic that they do not want to be alone: “It is incredible what is happening, by chatting with each other and they cannot wait to be able to travel to meet up. They need to be with someone, to form a family.

At this moment, the centre was forced to stop all its face-to-face activities, but it keeps on working through Zoom and social networks. “Every weekend, groups of boys and girls with the same Jewish backgrounds are set up. That is, if they are religious, if they are not so religious, if they are conservative or if they are traditionalists”, added Smierc.

– Long ago you were in charge of helping those young people who had to take refuge outside Venezuela. That crisis prompted you to strengthen your institution and, without a doubt, the current crisis of the pandemic generates a new stage. What is this new stage like?
– When you’ re working constantly for the community and sometimes you drop so many personal issues, I sometimes find it hard to explain what I’ m doing and show it to the world. This is especially true for me, because I am devoted to the Jewish youth. So this is an opportunity to explain to the Jewish world and the world in general what we are achieving. I spend every hour of the day, from morning until 11 or 12 at night, contacting young people, not only from Miami, but especially from Latin America, from all over the United States and from all over the world, because there are kids from Europe and from Israel, who want to meet other young people. In this era of quarantine, social crisis, it is incredible how they want to know each other even more. Then I have more and more demand for work. For me, my wife and a group of young people who are helping me, time is hardly enough. I also don’t have enough time to look for sponsors, people to support our project, people from the outside to understand what we are doing. If I had to sit down and look for the funds we need to support these projects, I wouldn’t have the time to answer the questions and the young people who are desperate to meet other young people.

-What is it your analysis that maybe others didn’t see about Jewish youth?
-There is something incredible and new, I think very few people in the community know, that is the need of not being alone. It’s a very good psychological question if you think about the future of the Jewish people. More than 13 years ago we started with the first young people and started to form the first couples. The young people were always comfortable until three months ago, when they could meet any other young person, they could go dancing and they could go out with a girl. But after the coronavirus, the fear of socializing, the need to stay home as much as possible, and not even go out to work, awakened the need to be with someone, to form a family, because many young people who were always socializing in the discos, suddenly realized that they were alone. Many are immigrants from other cities in the United States or from other countries, who come to Miami to look for an opportunity. For this reason, two months ago we decided to start trying virtual activities every night. Every day there is a rabbi, a psychologist, a businessman, a lawyer or a doctor, who tells a story, not only of Torah, but of life. That made a lot of young people join in and every night almost 20 kids on average log on to the computer.

-What did you discover from this experience?
-We noticed that they started talking to each other, even after the activities were over. We did not close the Zoom because the young people stayed talking until 12 o’clock at night. And suddenly a boy started talking to a girl, and they also started asking me if there was anyone else they could meet. That’s how we realized that it’s a unique opportunity to bring together boys and girls no matter where they come from or where they live, because it’s the same living in Miami, New York, Argentina or Venezuela, if in the end they’re all at home. So, with the database we already have of many years of young singles, added to the database of a leader in New York, a rabbi from Argentina, a rabbi in Belgium and a girl from California, we began to put together, every weekend, groups of boys and girls with the same Jewish level. That is, if they are religious, if they are not so religious, if they are conservative, if they are traditionalists. Based on that, we started to bring them together and have group conversations with them through Zoom. We start the conversation so that they can get to know each other, we ask them interesting questions, for example: what was your worst experience on a date, what is the movie you would most recommend to watch, what conclusion do you draw from your life as a result of the coronavirus, what is the first thing you would do after this quarantine ends… Many boys and girls started talking to each other and there are more and more.

-From that beginning of your project 13 years ago as of today, are any marriages between some of them?
-There have been, thanks to God, almost 100 marriages, 100 couples.

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-So you’re a person who understands this, do you feel you can lead this moment and give this new generation of young people support and education?
-Yes. In the first group we made, I wasn’t the host. I left that place to other people, a psychologist, a therapist and a teacher. But I watched them and I realized that from my experience, I am the one who has to be in that place. Because I know how to break the ice among young people, and after so many years, which kid has to be in each group. So it’s not that just any kid gets into any group, a professional job is done in selecting the right people.

-Do you know of any initiative of this magnitude that already exists?
-Not that I know of. In fact, I am being contacted to repeat these experiences in other places. For example, I just got a call from Panama to ask if I could help doing the same thing there. I also know that there is something similar in the Orthodox world. But the difference between Orthodox kids and unorthodox kids is that Orthodox kids are looking to get married. Young religious people have practically prepared for the meeting, they are ready and willing for this. For the non-religious boys it is something very new and you tell them that this is to get to know each other, to make friends. For those who are not religious, I manage to bring them along more easily because of the years of experience I have.

If someone wants to get in touch, any young person in any country has the possibility?
-That’s already happening. The last two weeks we had boys and girls from Panama, Venezuela and Colombia. From South America we invited boys and girls from all countries and this week we will have people from Mexico.

-Is this something that’s coming to stay?
-This is going very well. Probably at the beginning it began very well because of a need to socialize. What I love is that this model can be used for the rest of the year, and if it works well, it will most likely be the future of how young, unorthodox Jews can meet each other and build families among countries. We are talking about a very big future, and without coronavirus we couldn’t reach that level.

-In the programs for young people who travel to Israel, there are Jewish people who give money with the only goal of making Jewish families. Do you think that this project may need these supports?
-Yes, I am doing this at my own pace, we are doing it leaving aside many important things, not only from my private life, but from the community aspect. For example, every day I try to find funds for the institution, and these last three weeks I could hardly dedicate myself. Firstly because it is not a good time to look for funds, perhaps because of the uncertainty of the economy, but on the other hand because I do not have enough time. So, if this works out well, we’re going to need to raise funds to hire someone to put the information in a database, talk to the youth, or do registrations. There is a wave of young people, including parents of young people, calling me, asking me to do something so that their children can get involved in this Zoom events. But for that we need to have staff and people working, who handle the information and get in touch with them, and help me set up the groups. Then we have to contact them one by one, ask them how it went, if they enjoyed it, if they would like to join again, if there was a person they liked or if they would like to be in touch with that person. It is a procedure that is going to take a lot of work, and for that you have to have an active staff.

-The young people realized that they were alone. So this stage has to be led by someone, who is trained in some way to understand the problems and bring better answers.
-A hundred percent. I think that’s the point. There is a very big change in the mentality of young people, and you realize that the need of young people to know someone is huge. I’m talking about young people who I never thought in my life would be looking for someone and would be participating in this Zoom. It’s incredible what’s happening, they’re talking to each other via chat and they can’t wait to get to know each other.

To contact KSpace, e-mail to [email protected]

AJN News

Interview. Lorena Khateeb, the Israeli who shines on social networks and promotes friendship with Emiratis

AJN Agency.- Lorena Khateeb works in the Israeli Foreign Ministry within the Department of Digital Diplomacy, and since the announcement of peace with the Arab kingdom has been a link between Israelis and Emiratis through social networks. In an interview with the AJN Agency, said she is living this new era “as a dream” and hopes that the “brave movement” to be imitated by other countries soon. In addition, she expressed her desire to assume as Ambassador of Israel to the United Arab Emirates.

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AJN Agency.- A new reality is being experienced since the signing last September 15 of the Abraham Accords in Washington, which has opened doors that no one would have imagined. With the formal ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the endless expressions of affection between the Emirates and Israel were the first signs that something was beginning to change in the Middle East.

This new scenario has important actors, from prime ministers, presidents and diplomats, who showed all efforts for peace were not in vain, and that it was possible to write a new page in history.

Among all the diplomacy, Emirati and Israeli men and women began to build bridges between the two peoples. In the digital age, and in the midst of a global pandemic that limits face-to-face gatherings, social networks were the stage for the first messages of sympathy. Love and a constant pursuit of peace were the main reasons for these unprecedented achievements.

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Lorena Khateeb

New technologies opened the way for these characters who took the first steps toward coexistence, and they were also part of this great chapter. Lorena Khateeb works at the Israeli Foreign Ministry within the Department of Digital Diplomacy, and was one of the main voices to reach out to the Emirati people. With messages in Arabic, she managed to approach the Emirati community, bringing Israelis’ gestures of love and affection to their new friends in the Gulf. In an interview with AJN Agency, she described how she lived the first moments of this new era that she defines “as a dream”, and assured that she wishes to be Israel’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

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Khateeb with young Israelis visiting Dubai

A native Druze, Khateeb has been working for a long time building ties with the Arab world. “The first thing I thought was about that the people who contact us will no longer be afraid to make their voices heard, and that they will finally be able to get to know the true face of Israel,” she said. “I hope that the brave move of the UAE and its leaders will be an opening for more agreements. Peace is our solution and goal for a better future and world”, she added.

Khateeb was part of one of the Israeli delegations sent to Dubai as part of the process of achieving the agreements. “The meeting was exciting, the people were very warm, made me love the place and the culture,” he said of his trip. “I have always been curious to know their way of life, and now that the peace agreement has been signed, it is possible”, she said.

Below is the full interview that Lorena Khateeb had with the AJN Agency:

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Lorena Khateeb and an Israeli flag with Dubai as a background.

AJN- Are you aware that you are living in a historic moment and that you will have a story to tell your children and grandchildren?
LK- I’m living amazing and historical days. I never imagined it could happen, as a woman who speaks the Arabic language, I always wanted to get to know our neighbors, I always wanted to visit these countries and get to know their culture. I have always been curious to know their way of life, especially after I started working in the Department of Digital Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and made connections with people from all over the Arab world, I became more curious, and now that the peace agreement has been signed, it is possible.

AJN- How were the first moments lived in your offices after the announce of the accords?
LK- The first moments were like a dream for me, we were all excited about it, I saw it as a tremendous opportunity, an opportunity of true peace, of stability in the Middle East, of brotherhood. Peace is possible, the people in the both sides want it. The first thing I thought about was that people who have contact us would no longer be afraid to make their voices heard, and that they would finally be able to get to know the true face of Israel up close and not how the media try to present it.
If we managed to make an impact by using the social networks and the discourse we created, then it is possible to make a greater impact in the field, I thought about how I would start hosting people, showing them places in Israel and how people are living together in coexistence, example in my village we live together (muslims christians and druze) and how in universities we study together no matter who you are.

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Khateeb with Emirates on his visit to the Arab kingdom.

AJN- To what do you attribute this great Love and expressions of affection between countries?
LK- I believe that everything begins and ends with love, whether it is in the family circle, whether it is in a career, whether it is peace between people and countries. After all, if you do not like what you do, you will not succeed. If you don’t love your spouse in life you cant move up. I think that the love between the people has always been there, people have always seen Israel as an enemy because that is what the media is trying to show, as a minority within a minority (druze woman), I always say, we have challenges, we have problems in Israel, as everywhere else, we do not try to say that everything is pink and beautiful here. But in Israel I always fight for my community to change what is not good for me, and thats the point that we are the only democracy in the Middle East, you can express your opinion, and on the other hand, in the world I fight for my homeland, Israel. There is no shortage of organizations that deal with presenting Israel as an enemy, we will do the opposite, we will present the truth about Israel, we will present facts from the field and refute lies, and in an age where the media controls and people are aware of it, we share in our department the territory of Israeli citizens, of minorities who managed to integrate into Arab society, stories of coexistence, and we share the truth from the ground.

AJN- You are one of the most visible Israeli faces among the Arab countries that have relations with Israel, what is the secret of your success?
LK- I think the secret of my success is as I said before, my love for the profession, loving what you do is the key. Also perseverance, transparency and reliability, you have to be real to be successful, you have to convey your message clearly, speak at eye level and loud, to show the simple things. You should always know how to innovate, we live in an age of imitations, you need to produce your uniqueness, and to be different, and the most important thing is to keep going. I have passed all sorts of obstacles along the way, and I never gave up. Just be yourself.

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AJN- How much have social networks and the work Israel has been doing for years helped?
LK- Social media is already a part of our lives, and they have a positive and negative impact on Israel’s image in the world, and on all levels of life. I think that with the help of our pages and work in the Foreign Ministry Digital Department and especially in Arabic we managed to influence and reach people from all over the Arab world. We receive many inquiries and messages of peace, people seeking to move to Israel, people who support Israel, we created stage, created dialogue between peoples, people want to build bridges between Israelis. People are getting to know the ordinary and simple Israeli citizen through our pages.

AJN- Where are we standing in this new phase and how do you imagine the future?
LK- It’s not a simple question. I don’t like to limit myself and my ambitions and it’s impossible to know what life is preparing for us, but I see myself as an ambassador of Israel in one of the Arab countries, I aspire and aim for the Emirates, I have a very good connection with the people there.

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Image taken by Khateeb just before he got on the plane to Dubai.

AJN- Who are your main friends with whom you quickly converged in a relationship that will remain in history?

LK- I have many friends, but people I have talked to a lot are Thani Al-Shirawi, Dr. Majed al-Sarah, Ali Al-Hamadi, and many others.

AJN- How much does this impact on the economies of the countries?
LK- The agreement has enormous business and commercial potential in a variety of fields, education, agriculture, business and more, hope it will only help and it is an opportunity for both countries both parties can benefit from it.

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Khateeb and a picture that went viral: the Dubai fruit and vegetable market displaying Israeli products celebrating peace.

AJN- Will there be more agreements soon?
LK- It’s impossible to know. I hope that the brave move of the UAE and its leaders will be an opening for more agreements, peace is our solution and goal for a better future and world.

AJN- What was your most amazing experience recently?
LK- One of the most fascinating experiences I had, is leading and participating in a civilian delegation in the reservists on duty organization where we met people from the UAE. I got to meet people I knew through my work in the mofa, the meeting was exciting, the people were very warm, made me love the place, the culture, it was amazing.

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AJN News

Hadassah, an exemplary interfaith and coexistence environment in the Middle East

AJN Agency – (By Daniel Berliner) Walking the halls of Hadassah Medical Center is a unique experience. In view of the recent internment of Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority official, some astonishment appeared in some sectors.

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Cover photo: from left to right: Daniel Berliner (Director of AJN), Malena Cohen-Cymberknoh ( Head of Pediatric Pneumonology Service) and Jorge Diener

AJN Agency.- (By Daniel Berliner) Walking around Hadassah Medical Center is a unique experience. In the light of the recent hospitalization of Saeb Erekat, top official of the Palestinian Authority, the situation generated astonishment in some sectors.

However, many Palestinians are doctors, assistants and nurses at Hadassah, and even Palestinian patients are normally treated like any Israeli citizen and with the same rights.

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Abed Khalaileh, Palestinian, director of the Kidney Transplant Service of General Surgery Department of Hadassah

An example of this is the Palestinian-born doctor Abed Khalaileh, director of the Kidney Transplant Service of General Surgery Department at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. “Hadassah hospital is like Noah’s Ark, because here you see Arabs, Jews and Christians. We have people who come from the Palestinian territories like Tulkarem, Ramallah, Hebron, Kalkilia who we teach and if they have any trouble in their area we go and help them,” he said during an interview with the AJN Agency in Jerusalem.

“I see how my colleagues fight for every patient, no matter where they come from, what they did, who their family is. And not for political reasons, but because all human beings deserve the best possible medical care,” he said.

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Victor Kukali, operating room litterer, Palestinian.

Another example was meeting Victor Kukali, a Palestinian stretcher-bearer who has been working there for 20 years. “I was the first Palestinian to work at Hadassah Hospital,” he told the AJN Agency. “I come every day from Beit Lejem and I have a special permit, which I renew every six months, and once a year I have to renew my work permit from the Israeli Ministry of Health. I believe that Hadassah is the place where you can send a message of peace. It is the place where we can say to the whole world ‘we can work, live and be together’. At first I was afraid, mostly about how they would treat me, and so the months went by and then years and now I realized I’ve been here for 20 years,” he said.

This shows that the call for peace is not recent, but many years ago this coexistence was constantly seen in Hadassah.

You only have to approach the waiting room of the operating room to see how simultaneously Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Palestinians and Catholics share the floor. Each one prays to their own God, some with their carpets on the floor, others with their kippah, others with their rosaries… and all this happens without interruption 24 hours a day, in ten square meters at the exit of the operating room. It is very common and moving to see Palestinian mothers talking with Israeli surgeons after a surgery, they have the headscarf (kippas) on their heads, and women with scarves and some even with their veils and face covered.

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Other of the most moving images can be seen in Hadassah’s pediatric sector, in the hall or multipurpose room. As soon as you arrive and look up, you can see a locomotive and its miniature iron carriages speeding through the room on a track just above the door frames. The children live an imaginary journey with their stations in the middle of the walls painted with balloons and colors. But the most wonderful thing happens when you look down and see a big low table, the ones that children use with small chairs. There they are all together, mothers, fathers and their children, some Arab parents, others Orthodox Jews, Palestinians, Muslims: all together in a rewarding coexistence and atmosphere of peace and harmony around the table.

That and many other achievements – such as Hadassah’s efforts to maintain equality in the provision of medical treatment, its exemplary model of cooperation and coexistence, and its perseverance in building bridges for peace – earned it a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005 and continue to make the institution an example of coexistence in the Middle East.

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That’s why on each trip I take a moment to visit that oasis in the Middle East and say a prayer in front of Marc Chagall’s vitroux in the hospital synagogue.

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