Thanks to volunteer, Irv Cantor, we present this second installment of our new “Getting to Know Us” blog series which began in December with an interview with Executive Director, David London. Watch this space for further articles acquainting you with the many members, employees, volunteers and donors who make AACI the place for English-Speakers in Israel.
The world-famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The gentle force of her words can be heard in the recollections and thoughts of Donna Grushka, an AACI volunteer. She has a unique history with AACI, and we appreciate her taking the time to share her insights with our blog readers.
Donna, thank you for agreeing to respond to our questions. Let’s start with how you came to AACI.
Let me start before that. In 1976, my husband Eli, who was born in Israel, was teaching chemistry at the State University of NY at Buffalo, when he received an invitation to be a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We were here for nine months and I fell in love with the country, fell in love with being here. We went back to Buffalo, right into the Great Blizzard of 1977, which was a shock after being in Israel for nine months! We returned to Israel in the Spring of 1978. Eli is still teaching at Hebrew University, and is also busy with research and consulting.
I took an intensive ulpan and worked as a research assistant at Hebrew University and elsewhere. In the spring of 1983 I was looking for a new job. I had the idea that I wanted to do something with English-speaking olim, but I didn’t know exactly what. I saw an ad for a temporary job as a counselor at AACI. At the time, I knew very little about AACI. My husband was an Israeli – if there was something to be done involving forms or procedures, my husband was my “in house” expert. But I responded to the ad, and even though I was not a social worker and had never been a direct service provider, AACI decided to take a chance with me. Luckily, the temporary job became permanent. I was always grateful for that decision: working at AACI was the job of a lifetime for me!
I was intensively trained, which is important to note. AACI counselors are given in-depth training in order to accumulate the knowledge needed to be effective.
What is your academic background?
I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. But I knew already when I came to Israel that I did not want to work in the politically confrontational field of labor relations in Israel.
Although you’re not a counselor now, do you see a difference between being a counselor now and what you did as a counselor in the 1980’s?
Yes, there’s a definite difference. The organization was larger then, and there were more counselors. I became the third full-time counselor in the Jerusalem office. We were booked several weeks in advance with appointments. There were many new olim coming to the Jerusalem area. In the absorption center in Mevasseret Tzion, we had 50 families from North America. And in Beit Canada in East Talpiot, we also had about 50 singles and couples and young families. We were very busy, and, of course, there was no email or internet.
Visiting the absorption centers to greet olim and to provide counseling services was a very special part of AACI in those days. Volunteers went with the counselors to provide a personal connection. New neighborhoods were opening up, like Har Nof, and parts of Beit Shemesh, and AACI sent counselors to those areas to assist new immigrants.
Today, the counseling staff is much smaller. People have new resources, and sometimes rely on online information. However, when people have questions about their personal situation, they still need the individualized, specific hands-on advice and assistance that can only be provided by a real live person in a one-on-one setting. This is one of the most valuable benefits AACI provides to our members – to make an appointment and see a counselor in our offices (Sheila Bauman in Jerusalem, Miriam Green in the South Branch in Beer Sheva, Yanina Musnikow in the Central Branch in Tel Aviv, Netanya, and the North Branch in Haifa and other locations; and Helen Har Tal for employment counseling.)
None of us had computers in those days. We didn’t even have typewriters. I remember a counselors’ meeting where we were asked what our vision was for AACI. I responded that I had a dream that each counselor would have a computer on their desk. It seemed very far-fetched at the time.
Did your relationships with new olim extend beyond the initial weeks and months?
In many cases they did. People would come back months later, saying that they had accomplished certain goals and now wanted to move on to another set of goals. Education issues with children might not emerge until months later.
How long did you have this role?
I began as a counselor in April 1983 and continued for about ten years. In 1993, I became the Assistant Director for the Jerusalem branch of AACI. There was a full time Director at the time just for the Jerusalem branch. The National office was separate. We shared the same building in the Talbieh neighborhood, with “downstairs” meaning National, and “upstairs” meaning the Jerusalem branch.
What were your responsibilities?
As Assistant Director, my main focus was on programs. I filled in for the Director when she was not around. I managed the production of the Jerusalem Voice magazine. I dealt with some outside organizations, and worked intensively with the Seniors group, as well as coordinating many of the volunteer activities such as the front desk.
What types of programs was AACI running back then?
We had presentations on the rights of olim, for example. The art class that is given today is a twenty-year-old program. There were music programs in the evenings. The old building was smaller, so we could not run many programs during the day. The Wednesday morning program for seniors (RAPS) is also one that has been in existence for a long time.
One of my most enjoyable activities at that time was working with the seniors. We had a nice garden outside our building. We had an end of season luncheon there every June.
Also, we held large yard sales in the garden area where we could accommodate 70 or 80 sellers and regularly attracted several thousand buyers.
The travel program started in the late 80’s and grew to the significant program that it is today.
For how long were you in this management role and what did you do after leaving?
I was in that role for about four or five years, and then at the end of 1997 I said I had to get out of the “ivory tower”. With some trepidation, I left AACI. I did a bunch of other things. I spent a year working for Birthright, when it was just a dream. It was a very small, modest role, similar to a secretary. The program was just being created, there was no real infrastructure. It was fun to support the dreamers.
After a short time working for Hadassah Women in Israel, I worked with Evie Weidenbaum, who had been the Director of the AACI Jerusalem office while I was at AACI, and who had become a close friend. We set up a small company which provided support services to families with elderly parents or spouses needing care. Then in 2004, I went to work, on a temporary basis that stretched into five years, for the Israel Government Coins and Medals Corporation. My job was to translate their public relations materials from Hebrew into English. I loved that job. The exposure to Jewish history and tradition was so interesting. And after those five years, I retired.
When did you come back to AACI as a volunteer? How did that occur?
I have been active at AACI as a volunteer for about ten years, doing more and more as the years passed. Currently, I am Co-Chair of the Jerusalem Branch of AACI. Belle Fine-Cohen and I have just begun our second terms as Co-Chairs. We work closely with the AACI staff and other volunteers on programs and what goes on in this building. We sit on the National Board and also focus on cooperation with other organizations.
For almost ten years, I have also been the Co-Chair of the National Memorial Ceremony that takes place in the Fall. I think that we, as the North American community in Israel, owe a debt of gratitude to our fellow countrymen who have come here and fallen, as members of the IDF or in other positions of service, or as victims of terror. We owe it to them, to remember them, to honor their memory once a year. So I have helped organize the ceremony along with my Co-Chair, Rabbi Jay Karzen.
On a totally different note, for three years I have been in charge of the art gallery shows in our building. It’s been a fun part of my work here, because I love seeing the artwork on the walls around our offices.
And I must mention the Children & Teen Art Exhibition which has attracted entries from kids around the country – English speakers, Hebrew speakers, and even international students.
I have worked on the amutot, the independent funds associated with AACI. Perhaps you are not aware, but AACI has three independent funds, including one that gives very small scholarships to school children in Jerusalem.
What skills do you think are necessary to be successful in these types of roles?
I think the essential skill is being able to get along with people who are very different from one another, and to be able to convince them to do things that need to be done. As a volunteer, you do not have authority to compel cooperation, so you have to use skills that convince and persuade.
What do you value most about the work you do and what AACI represents?
What I have always felt about AACI, and it is now thirty years that I am associated with the organization, is that we bridge the gaps between individuals. What do I mean by that? I mean that in this organization we have people from almost every part of the spectrum – politically, religiously, or any dimension you can think of. We are a diverse group. AACI looks to what unites us, as English-speakers in Israel. This is aside from all of the good work that we do, the support to olim, and the outreach to the community.
Does anything stand out as particularly rewarding?
This is not my project, so I cannot claim credit for it, but it reflects how special AACI can be. There was a project that Murray Safran z”l began over 20 years ago when there was the large Russian aliyah. He began a tutoring project to match up English speakers with these olim who needed to learn English, mostly for work. It was a huge project, and he did it as a volunteer. He did not have a computer – he had index cards with hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of students. It was a beautiful example of how AACI members reached out to the community.
It is rewarding when things you did many years ago have become the standard way of doing things for many other organizations. For example, AACI initiated a “Yom Aliyah”, bringing representatives from different government offices, from banks, and from the kupot cholim to talk to new olim individually, in one place at one time. Today, other organizations now consider this activity as the default for providing olim with needed information. I remember organizing the first one, when people came to the old building – some representatives even sat outside in the garden.
In the early 90’s we were all searching for ways to reach out to the Ethiopian olim. We invited Ethiopian children from the absorption center to come to a Hannuka party at AACI. We thought perhaps 20 or 30 children would come. Close to 100 excited kids came, many of whom spoke little Hebrew and obviously no English. It was a bit chaotic! But they sat on the floor next to North American olim children – and we lit candles, and sang songs. I was very proud to be part of AACI that day.
During the Gulf War, when people were staying in their apartments, AACI volunteers living near the office, on their own volition, came in to the office and made phone calls to members who were living alone, to make sure they were okay, if they needed training on their gas masks, if they needed windows sealed with tape, if they needed medications from their kupat cholim, or had other concerns.
Let’s turn to the challenges. What challenges confront AACI as it supports its community of English-speakers in Israel?
I think the biggest challenge is always the financial one. We simply need more money to do all of the good things we want to do.
With the appearance of new organizations over the years that are addressing aliyah and klitah, we need to address our position relative to those organizations and what makes us unique. We need to communicate what we offer that cannot be found elsewhere.
We don’t have a timeline for our services. We don’t walk away when a new oleh has become “settled”. Yet many of our members, after two or three years, when they feel comfortable, let their membership lapse. When we contact them, we try to let them know that there are still many opportunities to work together, and that we understand that Aliyah Never Stops. Our message is: “We need you. We need your input. We need your time as a volunteer. We need your financial support.” It is interesting that we hear from members years later, when their circumstances change or they become elderly. The issues surrounding growing old in Israel can be difficult ones. We need to maintain an interested and supportive membership during that gap between growing comfortable in Israel and growing old in Israel.
Another challenge is to grow the number of young people to our organization. The J-Town Playhouse Theater is an effort in that direction. There is tremendous potential for young people to make a major contribution to AACI and support English-Speakers in Israel. And they can have a lot of fun at the same time. We need to develop ideas that will attract more young olim to AACI.
I am not sure I am going to answer that question directly, but there is an important point I want to make. I think one of the nicest parts of being at AACI has been the friendships that I have made over the years. Some of these friends are former colleagues, and some are people who were “my” olim when I was a counselor. It is very rewarding – personally – when people say to me “ I remember when you were my aliyah counselor and you helped me settle in Israel”. To have helped people fulfill a dream is a wonderful feeling.
In the last year there were two events that brought together people who have worked for AACI in different eras. One was a birthday party for the former director of klitah and national executive director, Olga Rachmilevitch. A group of about 25 former employees went up to Netanya, where Olga lives, to celebrate. It was a great reunion. Second, AACI recently honored two people who have been working for the organization for 25 years, Carole Kremer and Helen Har Tal. Again, people spanning many years came together in this building to honor them. AACI has been extremely lucky that, despite modest salaries, the people who work at AACI have always been dedicated, caring, serious professionals. It has been a privilege to have known and worked with them.
What about your life outside AACI? Hobbies, interests…can you describe them?
My husband and I have been blessed with three wonderful daughters. One lives in the States and teaches as the University of Virginia. The other two live in Tel Aviv. We have three grandchildren, two of them in the States. Family is very important to us.
My husband and I are antique enthusiasts. We are especially interested in Israeli antiques and Judaica. We have collections of different things, for example old chanukiot. Not the fancy silver ones that came out of Europe, but Israeli ones from the 50’s and 60’s. We have old newspapers, and some framed newspaper stories for particular milestones, like the morning of May 14, 1948 saying the country would be established.
And we love Israeli art. We go to auctions and enjoy them. We don’t buy the big, famous names, but enjoy what we have. We also like going to concerts, theater, and the opera. One more thing: we love watching sports on television, especially winter sports such as skiing and ice skating, as well as tennis and baseball.
Donna, thank you for taking the time to share your rich history at AACI with our readers, along with your ideas and insights. You should be an inspiration to readers to become part of the AACI family, to be members, to be volunteers, and to sponsor the remarkable work of AACI. Thanks, again.
To our readers, below are links to the services and programs mentioned by Donna during the interview:
National Memorial Ceremony
Art Gallery Shows
AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.