37,000 Ways to Value Our Vets

A Women’s League project comes to the aid of wounded heroes.

by Lisa Kogen

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At Convention 2012, Women’s League announced its gift to the West L.A. Fisher House of gift cards and patio furniture. From left: Education Director Lisa Kogen, Value Our Vets Co-Chair Myra Promisel, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, Value Our Vets Co-Chair Ziza Pallia, and Fisher House Director Sharon Hudson.

At Convention 2012, Women’s League announced its gift to the West L.A. Fisher House of gift cards and patio furniture. From left: Education Director Lisa Kogen, Value Our Vets Co-Chair Myra Promisel, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, Value Our Vets Co-Chair Ziza Pallia, and Fisher House Director Sharon Hudson.

It has become tradition for members of Women’s League to participate in tikkun olam projects that benefit the communities chosen to host its biennial conventions. The Philadelphia-based Laurel House, which protects abused women, received donations in 2006. Fifteen thousand hand-knit hats and scarves went to Detroit’s homeless in 2008. And two years later, 12,000 new storybooks were presented to the children of the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Given the growing concern about the thousands of veterans with serious injuries and medical conditions, the 2012 Women’s League convention committee decided early on to focus its tikkun olam efforts on helping veterans, specifically through the Fisher House Foundation.

What is Fisher House? In 1990, when successful real estate tycoon Zachary Fisher – the son of Jewish immigrants – heard about a veteran of the first Iraq War who had to sleep in his car while undergoing treatment at a VA hospital, he was deeply distressed. The man who had recently acquired and converted the USS Intrepid into a museum on the banks of New York’s Hudson River appreciated American military heroism. To Fisher, the idea that veterans should have to make further sacrifices while undergoing medical treatment was unthinkable.

As a result, Zachary and his wife, Elizabeth, gave twenty million dollars to create the Fisher House Foundation, dedicated to building temporary lodging for veterans and their families at VA medical centers across the country. His desire was to create – at no cost to veterans – a home away from home.

The 2012 biennial was held in Las Vegas, but since there is no Fisher House there, we selected the closest one, in West Los Angeles, which also falls in our Pacific Southwest Region.

While the Fisher Houses provide free housing, the day-to-day living expenses for veterans undergoing treatment and their families can be daunting. In consultation with Sharon Hudson, director of the West Los Angeles Fisher House, we designed a project to help offset additional financial difficulty. Dubbed the Value Our Vets project, we solicited Women’s League sisterhoods, individual members, and their families and friends to purchase gift cards for local grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies to help defray some of the costs incurred by families staying at the facility.

Myra Promisel and Ziza Pallia had previously co-chaired the Books for Baltimore Project that raised more than $40,000 in 2010. They were asked to repeat their success, this time to benefit veterans rather than school kids.

There is always a certain amount of trepidation when starting such a project. Would our members share our concern about this issue? How would they feel about fundraising beyond the Jewish community? Could we raise enough to make a difference? We needn’t have been concerned. The project struck an enthusiastic chord. Once donations of every size began to flow in we were able to raise 37,000 dollars.

Donations to the Women’s League office were often accompanied by words of thanks. One note read: As the mother of a Marine lieutenant, and a volunteer at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, I wanted to say how wonderful it is that Women’s League has chosen a military charity to support… In addition to how nice it is that we are supporting these families in need, it’s great that our Jewish organization is supporting the families of wounded heroes, no matter what their religion, as opposed to just sending care packages to Jewish troops, as so often is the case. Thanks so much!

Other parents of soldiers, and female veterans themselves, expressed gratitude that we were recognizing the sacrifices of our military, and that we were supporting everyone regardless of race or creed.

Several months into the Value Our Vets project, a significant contribution was received from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, renowned for its philanthropic activities that include supporting female writers and community-based causes. The foundation, no stranger to Women’s League, was a significant contributor to the Books for Baltimore project and a principle funder for our publication With Strength and Splendor: Jewish Women as Agents of Change.

Equally gratifying were the contributions from scores of affiliated Women’s League sisterhoods. Even when grappling with their own financial burdens, sisterhoods realized the importance of the undertaking and asked people coming to their events to bring gift cards. Just one example: the sisterhood of Beth Israel Congregation in Vineland, New Jersey, hosted a Veterans Day reception to honor veterans in their community. Rather than paying for the event, members donated gift cards which amounted to a sizable contribution to the project.

Not surprisingly, larger sisterhoods made larger contributions. Among the most generous were the sisterhoods of B’nai Israel Congregation, Rockville, Maryland; Morristown Jewish Center/Beit Israel of Morristown, New Jersey; Congregation Beth Judea of Long Grove, Illinois; and Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, only a stone’s throw from the West L.A. Fisher House. In an equally amazing feat, the relatively small sisterhood of Congregation Beth El of Yardley,
Pennsylvania, generated over a thousand dollars in gift cards.

All contributions to any given cause share the same goal and I don’t want to diminish any of the other donations, from sisterhoods great and small and from many private individuals.

We so far exceeded our expectations that we were able to purchase terrace furniture, which the West L.A. Fisher House had requested, to provide a comfortable place for residents to relax in and convalesce in the sun.

The presentation ceremony, presided over by co-chairs Promisel and Pallia, was unquestionably a convention highlight. We were joined by Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, Command Chaplain (holding the rank of colonel) of the 807th Medical Command in the U.S. Army Reserve, and Marshall Sitrin, Commander of the Greenspun-Radin Jewish War
Veterans Post 21. Koppell, the highest ranking and first female rabbi to serve as chaplain in the U.S. military, shared her 30-year history in the service. Director of the West L.A. Fisher House Sharon Hudson also spoke, movingly describing the veterans’ personal heroism and sacrifices and the critical need for us to support them.

Promisel and Pallia underscored our appreciation of the outpouring of generosity by our sisterhoods, members and their families. They encouraged sisterhoods to support Fisher Houses nearer their homes. They also admonished everyone that tikkun olam is never complete, using the words of Rabbi Tarfon from Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Lisa Kogen is Education Director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.