29 September 2016

"My Greatest Mistake In Life Was My Dreams Were Too Small"

Yesterday evening, walking along Tel Aviv's popular Rothschild Boulevard, we happened upon the 'Makers Zone' of the Tel Aviv Innovation Festival 2016. Crowds of curious onlookers were huddled around various tables showcasing new and fascinating technological gadgets. According to the organisers, the 'Makers Zone' featured "cool inventions by crazy maker nerds" and the event did not disappoint.  From individually scanned, 3D-printed prosthetic hands for children, to products that converted art into sound, each exhibit was passionately demonstrated and explained by local inventors and technology lovers. At each table, pushing through the crowd to get a better look, were many children with eyes wide, full of excitement and eager to have a go for themselves. The exhibitors patiently helped each child to engage with the joy of new experiences and opened up in their minds, the door of hope for the future.

This morning, as I scanned the news headlines, I read that Israeli Statesman, Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of the modern State of Israel, had died at the age of 93. With a career that spanned seven decades, he had held almost every senior political office in the country, including Prime Minister and President. In 1994, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in reaching an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians. After his retirement, he continued to work tirelessly for peace and he was still meeting and networking people in his office, right up until he suffered a major stroke earlier this month. Not everyone will agree with every decision he took during his long career, but as the tributes roll in from all around the world, it is clear that this man was a very special human being who was well respected.

"I  am deeply saddened to hear that Shimon Peres has died. He was a visionary and courageous statesman, who worked relentlessly for peace and never lost hope that this would one day be achievable.  He was a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.   
My thoughts go out to the Israeli people and the family of Shimon Peres as they mourn the loss of a beloved father and compatriot – a great man who epitomised optimism and a belief that by working together we can build a brighter future for generations to come."  Theresa May, British Prime Minister  

"There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people," Barak Obama, U.S. President.

My  attention was drawn to the descriptions of an eternal optimist, who managed to inspire others to rise above their circumstances, to dream big and to work together to build a better world. I followed a link to an interview he had given at a local TEDx event and watched him at work, inspiring a whole auditorium of gifted young men and women to imagine and reach for a better future.

"Most of us prefer to remember [the past] rather than think, dream or imagine [the future]" he shared, "....when it comes to science there is no room for wars. In the case of territory, if you win, someone loses. In the case of science, you can win without anyone losing... I believe, politics divides, science unites. Politics calls for war, science calls for peace."

The interviewer asked Shimon Peres, what his advice would be to these young brains concerning how to change the future in the next 10 years or so.

Turning to look at the audience, to connect face to face, Shimon Peres replied, "My first advice, from experience, is each of you has a much greater potential than you yourself think, than your parents think, than your teachers think.  It is unused. I think, if you want, you have to make a choice: to be small or to be great. If you will serve your ego - ego is the smallest thing in life. If you serve a great cause, you will be great. So go and serve great causes. Great causes means: serve other people. Try to encourage them, to help them. It won't fall from heaven, you have to work hard in order to rise to the occasion."

"What were the two moments in your life that you felt most proud of, most satisfied and what were the moments in your life you felt the least happy or very disappointed." asked the interviewer.

"My greatest achievement in life would be tomorrow." replied Shimon,  "What we achieve today is past, so I am working for tomorrow. I know people ask me what is my greatest mistake in life, so I will answer this question too and you will be surprised if I tell you, that in my judgement, my greatest mistake in life was my dreams were too small...now with perspective, they were too small.  My recommendation, dream great! Don't dream small!"

I thought back to the Tel Aviv Innovation Festival I visited yesterday, and those curious young faces so eager to learn about something new. I thought about all the Festival represented in terms of using new technology to improve the world, to make it a better place and I thought that Shimon Peres would have approved. At this time of his passing, an era has ended but his inspiration to dream about the future continues. Let us be encouraged to use our God-given talents to work together for the common good - not puffing up our own egos but looking for 'great causes' that serve other people. And when we think about the future we are trying to create - dream big!

01 September 2016

Fania's Story...

Helping Hand Coalition (HHC), an Israeli charity run by believers, was established when the directors witnessed first hand the desperate plight of many Holocaust survivors who now live in Israel.  Find out how a simple project is bringing hope and support to survivors like Fania:

Fania was born in 1936 in Nevel, Russia into a Jewish family. When she was one year old, her family relocated to Petergof, near Leningrad (St Petersburg) because of her father’s work. During World War II, Petergof was captured by the German Nazis and Fania’s family were evacuated by the Russian government to the town of Uglitch, which was further inland and considered safer. The Nazi invasion continued however and one year old Fania, experienced frequent bombing raids. After living in Uglitch for about a year, the German front advanced towards  the city and with increasing news of Nazi troops massacring  Jewish communities in the towns and villages they conquered, Fania’s family decided it was too dangerous to remain.  They escaped on a boat travelling along the river Volga and were then taken by train to Siberia.
Jewish men rounded up by Nazi soldiers in Latvia

Mass executions by Nazi specialist units in Eastern Europe
The family experienced terrible conditions during the train journey. The wagons were overcrowded with no provisions. They travelled for several days suffering from extreme hunger and thirst. Even today, Fania remembers the fear and suffering she experienced as a two year old Jewish girl escaping the advance of the Nazi army. 

Belorussia, June 1941, typical wagons
used by escaping Jewish families
When they arrived at their destination, there was nowhere for the crowds of people running for their lives to go so they were housed in army barracks. The whole family were housed together in one room with her grandparents. Food was extremely scarce and her parents would have been given very limited rations to share with the family in exchange for long hours of labour. Children often went hungry and the Siberian winters were extremely harsh for malnourished children. After the war, they found out that Petergof, their old home had been completely destroyed, so they moved to her grandmother’s home in Lenningrad (St Petersburg). Fania married and had one daughter but sadly she died when she was only 10 years old. Fania’s marriage ended in divorce and she immigrated alone to Israel in 2004.

Today, Fania is 80 years old and in poor health. She has problems with her leg and back along with arthritis and gastric problems.  Many of the Holocaust Survivors are suffering from health issues directly linked to the harsh conditions they experienced as children. Fania receives about £435 each month from Israel’s Social Security. Most of this goes on rent and utilities and the little that is left has to be divided between medication and food. Every so often, she has to find an extra £84 for specialist treatment for her leg problem. There is little, if any, left for food each week.

Thousands of Russian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust came to Israel in the 1990s. (Once the Iron Curtain had fallen and emigration from the USSR was no longer illegal) Some had survived the Nazi enforced ghettos and many like Fania’s family had fled for their lives deep into Siberia, ecking out a meagre hand-to-mouth existence until the war was over. Now these octogenarians and nonagenarians find themselves once again living in poverty and often alone without family or friends.  Helping Hand Coalitian (HHC), one of our partners in Israel is tackling this issue by establishing and funding ‘Shalom Houses’. A local co-ordinator opens their home once a week for up to 20 Holocaust Survivors to meet together and share a meal or other refreshments. This simple, local solution helps on many levels. These weekly small groups provide an emotional support network where friendships are made and important events like birthdays and holidays can be celebrated together. This directly tackles issues of loneliness and isolation. The co-ordinator is also able to find out which individuals are struggling and direct financial assistance to those most in need. Each group takes on its own style and flavour. Some groups recite poetry, sing songs and put on plays. Other groups arrange trips or play games together. 

Fania no longer feels alone. Firmly connected to new like-minded friends in her local ‘Shalom House’, she now has a support network and a place to go to celebrate the good times and find support and understanding during times of struggle.

Some of the ‘Warm Houses’ have also welcomed visits by Christians from abroad that HHC staff  have brought along. This has helped to break down barriers and given the Christian visitors an opportunity to express their love for the Survivors and let them know they have not been forgotten.  

Watch this heart-warming video of the time a group of Christian young people from Germany blessed one of the HHC ‘Shalom Houses.’

HHC needs to raise support each month to cover the expenses of the ‘Shalom Houses’ and to keep this vital lifeline going.  If Holocaust Survivors are on your heart, we recommend this very practical and simple way that these elderly survivors are being taken care of all across Israel.