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A federation’s greatest gift: my family
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A federation’s greatest gift: my family

Traditionally the thank-you notes are written by the bar mitzva boy after the bar mitzva. But, as we prepare to celebrate our son Sam’s special day this Shabbat, we send out a special thank you to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Those of you who know my family know that my wife Gerri and I originally met on a federation singles mission to Israel in 1996. That trip began our relationship with Israel. The federation has long sought to create a “living bridge” between our two communities. For the Russo family, this has been a resounding success!

But our marriage was only the beginning of such bridge-building. On several occasions, the federation has asked us to host Israelis visiting MetroWest. The visitors have been many and varied. We’ve hosted JCC executive directors from Haifa, women’s empowerment groups from Ofakim, and IDF soldiers on speaking tours.

Some come to stay for a summer as counselors at Camp Deeny Riback, and others for as long as a year as Rish-

onim assigned to teach at our day schools and synagogues.

It is these young people who have had the greatest impact on our family. We have remained in touch with them, visited them during our trips to Israel, and speak with them frequently. Many of them were able to join us as we celebrated Sam’s “pre-bar mitzva” at the Western Wall in December. It was amazing to have a minyan of Israelis who all have a deep personal relationship with my family and Sam.

Those Israelis include Ofir Bustan and his parents. Ofir spent a full year in MetroWest and his summer with my family. Sam and our daughter Noa treated Ofir like a big brother. The three played together like little kids.

When Ofir left us to return to his town bordering the Gaza Strip and to resume his military duty, Gerri and I worried about him constantly. When the kids learned about rockets being fired into Israel, their friendship with Ofir gave the situation a reality that could not be taught in school.

During the kids’ first trip to Israel, Ofir and his family hosted us at a lavish dinner and insisted that we spend the night in their home. In the morning they took us to the Gaza border, a (too) short ride away. Peering into Gaza, I asked if it was safe for us to be there. Ofir’s dad, David, laughed and said that we were so close that the rockets would go over our heads rather than hit us. His Israeli sense of irony made us laugh, but did not make the situation less frightening or the reality less remote.

Our Israeli “minyan” also includes Merav Cohen Paraira. Merav was a dance instructor at Deeny Riback when she stayed with us for a summer. Today Merav is working for El Al as she finishes her studies. Merav and her family have also hosted us when we visited Israel.

Spending time with “real people” in Israel made our experiences much deeper. We hear stories of teens preparing for their entrance exams — not for college, but for the military. Merav’s brother trained and was accepted for an elite IDF unit. Her older brother had a “secret job.” He would leave at night to work for “a hotel,” they told us with a wink and a nod. Life for an Israeli parent reminds us that sometimes our worries are mundane in comparison.

Most recently, we hosted Lior Tamir. Lior’s military service precluded him from attending Sam’s simcha. His impact on my family has been remarkable. Those who met him know that he is an incredibly sweet and intelligent young man. On his first day in our home, Sam and he began chatting in Hebrew. The years of dual curriculum study at Hebrew Academy of Morris County (a federation agency) came to life in our kitchen. What better way to build a bridge then through a common language? Lior and his mom are now members of our family.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out Amir Shacham, who heads the federation offices in Israel. He helps pick the visitors to our community and arranges for joint projects. He is truly the architect of our living bridge. We visited with him and were exposed to our communities’ efforts in Israel on each of our trips.

Our living bridge will continue with our children. “Israel” will be the theme of Sam’s bar mitzvah. The federation that brought his parents together continues to build loving relationships between Jews here and there. I am confident that those kinds of bonds — like our family’s relationship with Israel — will go from strength to strength.

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