Getting to Know Us…An Interview with Donna Grushka

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.

 

Interview with Donna Grushka Donna at AACI  early 2000's

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.

Towards the end of the ceremonyFor 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.

Visit our facebook album to view the rest of the photos. This is just a sample.

Visit our facebook album to view the rest of the photos. This is just a sample.

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.

Are there parts of your work and volunteering that you would describe as fun?

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:

Employment Counseling
http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=47
Art Class
http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=132#marcia
Seniors
http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=132#seniors
National Memorial Ceremony
http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=298
Art Gallery Shows
http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=351

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in

Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv,  Beer Sheva and Haifa.

AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center

Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall)  Talpiot, Jerusalem

MAP

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.

 

Calling Children & Teens ages 5-18

If you live in Israel, and are age 5-18, you are eligible to participate in the AACI Children’s and Teens’ Juried Art Show, With Brush and Pen.

Your art, in any medium, or poetry/prose in English must be submitted this month (February 2013).

Click here to view all the details.

Don’t miss out! If you are an art teacher, please encourage your students to participate. No need to plan for a special project. Surely some of the work already completed is appropriate for the show.

Prizes to be awarding in categories by ages.

All participants will receive a certificate.

Opening night is April 11, 2013. Submit works by the end of February to AACI.

AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center
Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall)
Talpiot, Jerusalem
MAP
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.

“I’m Already an Artist”: AACI’s Children’s and Teens’ Art Exhibition

Editors Note: Purim 2013

It’s the last week of February, 2013 as we prepare for the next AACI Children’s and Teens’ Art Show. We created a VLOG for you about it, and want to remind you to get your submissions to AACI this week! All the details and a form you need to submit with your art or prose is available here.

And now, we proudly present in honor of Purim and the upcoming Art Show:

Last years blog about the Show continues below:

Even as the tiniest toddler, my son Simcha loved to create. When he disappeared into his bedroom and was “too quiet” for too long, he would be found, not getting into mischief, but drawing with his crayons — on paper, not on the wall! — or molding shapes of Play-Doh. A bead-stringing kit seemed like the perfect present for him at age six. But instead of threading necklaces, he took the enclosed plastic cord and strung it from one end of his bedroom to the other, adorned with the beads, as well as a wildly beautiful array of seashells, shiny buttons and other unusual objects. An onlooker commented, “Wow! Maybe you’ll be an artist when you grow up.” Simcha’s very dignified reply was: “I’m already an artist.”

Now you can meet some other Israeli youngsters who are already artists.

“With Brush and Pen,” AACI’s Children’s and Teens’ Art Exhibition, is opening Sunday, April 22, 2012. The exhibition entries may be viewed starting from 6:00 PM.  At 6:45 PM, the formal program begins. Prizes will be awarded, and several of the talented young artists will offer musical performances and readings of their written works.

For this, the second annual exhibition of its kind,  AACI expanded the definition of artwork beyond drawing and painting, resulting in a large increase in submissions. I just had a sneak preview of the exhibition this morning, and was amazed at the creativity on display. Media ranged from simple pencil or  pen, through marker, crayon, acrylic paints and oils, to ceramic figures and multimedia combinations. The young artists captured scenes from everyday life, fantasy, landscapes, portraits and abstracts. Pictures and sculptures of animals were particularly popular.  The artwork showed an impressive maturity of technique, combined with exuberant use of color together with youthful freshness and imagination.

You are invited to enjoy a very entertaining evening, and to support our budding artists. For reservations, please call (02)566-1181. Admission is free of charge. The exhibition will continue until June 15, 2012.

We gratefully acknowledge the generous donation by Gordon Sugarman in memory of Betsy Sugarman ז”ל to support this program.
AACI hosts exhibitions of art by olim of all ages on an ongoing basis, with new exhibits approximately every 2 months. We would love to have your feedback and participation. Please contact us if you wish to:
  • submit a review or photographs of an exhibition, or 
  • request inclusion in an upcoming exhibit (please include information about training, experience, previous shows, etc, and samples of your work — links to websites, digital photos, etc.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center, Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2, Talpiot    MAP
Buses # 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop  at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.

Calling all Children and Teens in Israel!

With Brush & Pen: an Exhibition of Art by Children & Teens in Israel

Do you like to draw or paint … or sculpt … or embroider … or collage … or write … or … ???  Would you like your artwork or story to be seen by hundreds of people? Would you like the chance to win a prize? Then bring your creation to the AACI center to enter it in our Children’s and Teens’ Art Exhibit, “With Brush & Pen.”  But hurry – the deadline is next Sunday, March 11th!

We gratefully acknowledge the generous donation by Gordon Sugarman in memory of Betsy Sugarman   ז”ל to support this program.

Click here for more information about entering the art exhibit.

The exhibition will be open to the public April-May, 2012 at AACI.

The AACI-Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center is at 37 Pierre Koenig/2 Poalei Tzedek, in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Telephone (02)5661181.
Click here for a map.
Buses # 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop  at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.

Reverse Mask: an Art Project for Kids 

Here is a fun artistic activity to get you in the Purim spirit. Usually on Purim we wear masks to disguise our faces, but this reverse mask will show your face and disguise the rest of you.

On the largest sheet of paper you can find: lie down with your arms slightly stretched out and the top of your head at least 5 cm below the top edge of the paper. Have a friend or parent trace your silhouette (outline) with a pencil. Try not to wiggle!

Cut out a hole where the face would be, then decorate your silhouette with paint, markers, glitter, fabric scraps … whatever you want.  Use the decorations to show who you really are, or who you would like to be. Be as creative as you like.

When you are finished, have someone take a picture of you peeking out the face hole of your “self-portrait.” You can print small versions of the photo and use them to decorate your mishloach manos.

Have fun!

My Country – Through the Eyes of Our Children and Teens

AACI is pleased and proud to host its first CHILDREN AND TEEN ART SHOW.  The aim of this project was to give children an opportunity to express themselves artistically on a subject they could all relate to – MY COUNTRY – and to show these pictures in celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel Independence Day.  The results have not been disappointing!

Pictures came to us from as far away as Kibbutz Hannaton in the north and Beersheva in the south, as well many places in the Jerusalem area.  The children from Hannaton are in an art chug led by Debbie Jacobson-Maisals.

As you will see, the pictures show happy faces, flowers, rainbows, soccer games, hearts, and lots of Israeli flags. The natural beauty of this country is reflected in pictures showing the majesty of the desert, the mystery of mountains, exquisite sunsets, and trips to Masada and to the nature reserve at Ein Gedi.

One of our artists must be an insect lover, because there is an impressively-detailed representation of an underground ant colony!   There are several jet planes, a three-dimensional map of Israel,

an image of Moses at Mt. Sinai, a picture of the Western Wall, one of the 7-branched Menorah, and a vision of Tel Aviv in the future. Some of the pictures came with notes on the back which said things like “I like visiting friends on Shabbat” and “Israel is where my friends are.” In brief, each of our artists, some of whom are only 5 years old, found something meaningful to draw, something that says MY COUNTRY in a personal way.

In addition, in the large gallery at the end of the hall we proudly display work by teenaged students of two private art instructors, Shmuel Lhungdim from Efrat and Naomi Ocean from Beit Shemesh.  Both Shmuel and Naomi teach oilcolor techniques and the canvases on show are most impressive.

Colorful landscapes and nature studies are balanced by portraits and still-life studies.  Some of these young artists are obviously attempting to perfect their skills by studying the work of great European painters of the past and trying to emulate their examples, an approach to art training which has been used for hundreds of years. 

Finally, three of these young painters show works which return us to the theme of MY COUNTRY – a panoramic view of our eternal capital city Jerusalem, a moving image of soldiers at the Western Wall, and a wonderfully textured study of the Western Wall.

To the parents, grandparents and teachers who encouraged and supported these youngsters and facilitated their participation in this exhibit go our heartfelt thanks.

And to the young artists themselves, we say “Well done, each and every one of you!  May you continue to create beautiful pictures in the future!”

Please visit upi after Yom Hatzmaut, for an update which will include photos of some of the wonderful art.

With special thanks to Donna Grushka for this post and, of course, to her and her team for a delightful exhibit.

A Peek into “PEAK”

A new program called “PEAK”– a Place for English Activities for Kids– has now officially begun its activities at AACI’s new Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center in Jerusalem. I had the pleasure of speaking to PEAK’s dynamic volunteer coordinator, Fonda Weiss, who has many original and creative ideas for ways to engage children and teenagers in unique English-speaking activities.

PEAK launched its activities on September 20th with a very successful Sukkot arts & crafts workshop with over 60 attendees, most of them visiting AACI for the first time. 

 

First PEAK event at AACI's Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center in Jerusalem

A number of junior and high school students were involved in guiding the younger kids, and in taking individual photos of the kids for future PEAK membership cards. A huge thank you to Fonda for her organization, and to all the volunteers who made the event such a success.

How does PEAK differ from regular after school activities? Fonda explains that she hopes for PEAK to establish a new paradigm, by creating a place and structure for kids to make decisions and take initiative in deciding what they want to do. Developing volunteer leaders to run activities is an important goal of PEAK. Fonda also wants to tap into the unique synergy which takes place when young children, youth and teenagers interact. Volunteers will participate in training sessions to develop their skills and confidence in working with children. An added bonus of volunteering with PEAK is the opportunity to meet other English speaking peers in Jerusalem and to make new friends.

Fonda has been conducting market research to discover the interests of Jerusalem youth. She envisions the creation of a clubhouse where kids of all ages will come together to put on shows, play games, share hobbies, dialogue, do projects, read and enjoy one another’s company.

Dates and times of PEAK events will be announced in future AACI e-newsletters and in “The Voice.”

How can you get involved?
• Adult volunteers are needed to join either a goal-setting “board” for PEAK, or a hands-on PEAK steering committee.
• Teenager volunteers are need to help run PEAK activities. Volunteers will be trained.
• The donation of a portable stereo system with CD player, double cassette player, USB port and speakers (to amplify into a crowded room) would be greatly appreciated for future PEAK activities.
• Donations for supporting PEAK activities are also welcome!

Fonda is considering changing the words behind PEAK to a Place for Expression & Action for Kids, and she welcomes your feedback.

To volunteer or for further information about PEAK, please contact Fonda Weiss at peak4kids@gmail.com.