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This New Philly Group's Job Includes Looking After Members of the IDF

May 18, 2011 By:
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Singer and program director of Philadelphia FIDF Chapter Tzvia Wexler (center) performs with an IDF ensemble. Photo by Jay Gorodetzer

Last year, the Friends of the Israel Defense Force raised more than $60 million nationwide, but those dollars didn't go toward the purchase of guns, uniforms or tanks.

Instead, the 30-year-old organization allocates funds for a series of programs that directly benefit soldiers. Its tagline reads: "Their job is to look after Israel, ours is to look after them."

The assistance comes in the form of college scholarships, general financial aid and sponsorship of recreational outings that give soldiers a chance to unwind when off-duty.

In February, the organization opened an office covering Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. The region's new executive director, Linda Grife, said that the cause should appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike across the political and ideological spectrum, notwithstanding widespread disagreement over Israeli policy.

"What makes it a great cause is that it really crosses all boundaries. It is not political, it is not operational. People from all sides can be really supportive," said Grife, who has a daughter now serving in the IDF.

As the Jewish state celebrated its 63rd birthday on May 10, roughly 750 people crowded into the National Museum of American Jewish History to mark Yom Ha'atzmaut and the opening of the Philly chapter of FIDF.

Among them was Jon Frank, who grew up in London and lived in Israel for several years before moving to the Philadelphia area. While he's "a little critical" of Israel's settlement policies, and sees himself as politically in line with the dovish group J Street, he said that supporting the men and women of the IDF was a worthy cause.

The program, called a "friendraiser," was geared to spread the word about the group's activities.

According to Grife, the New York-based organization had long been looking to open more regional offices. Several recent large donations, she said, have allowed FIDF to expand to new cities, including Philadelphia.

Even without a local chapter, about 8 percent of the funds raised nationally comes from this area, according to organizers.

Tzvia Wexler, the local organization's program director, said she will periodically put together events that highlight the work that FIDF does in order to show donors how their money is being used.

"I want them to understand why they give the check," said Wexler, who sang as part of the Independence program and had once served in the IDF's musical ensemble.

Looking for Some Publicity

The group has solicited the support of several veteran Jewish communal lay leaders, including Howard Silverman, a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who served as the Yom Ha'atzmaut event chairman.

"This is a social operation that helps people get on with their lives," said Silverman."We just want to get a little more publicity."

The museum program, in addition to musical performances, included talks by several Israeli soldiers on how their lives were changed by FIDF and a speech by Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Corbett.

The Republican from Allegheny County hasn't been to Israel, though he said he hopes to go. The one-time ninth-grade history teacher spoke about how support for Israel and the IDF flows from a proper reading of history. He also made reference to another former history teacher, Israel's only female prime minister, Golda Meir.

"A woman from Milwaukee said this: 'We only want that which is given naturally to all peoples of the world -- to be masters of our fate,' " the governor said, quoting Meir.

"Israel is there because it has to be," concluded Corbett. "The Jews needed Israel as a home. The rest of the world needs Israel as an example."

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