Opinion | Building Understanding and Connections

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By Jay Spector and Nancy Astor Fox

When the Samuel P. Mandell Professional exchange was started over 16 years ago, the goal was to bring together two Jewish agencies, one in Israel and one in Philadelphia, to learn from each other and to enhance their work to help individuals with disabilities in their own communities. Although separated by thousands of miles, we recognized the joint challenges our agencies face. We saw this as an opportunity to build connections and best practices to better help those we serve.

Each year, the Mandell Fellowship as it is now known, enables a JEVS professional from Philadelphia to spend a week learning about programs of excellence in the field of disability in Israel, and an Israel Elwyn (IE) professional from Israel to spend a week learning about programs of excellence in the Philadelphia area. Each IE and JEVS professional is accompanied by a representative from local, state or national government or an organization with which we work. In total, 65 Mandell Fellows — American and Israeli professionals — learned about colleagues’ support services for individuals with disabilities and had the unique opportunity to network with professionals from another country.

We know that these annual professional exchanges have impacted the services each agency delivers. The sharing of best practices, the development innovative program design and the promotion of joint advocacy efforts are but a few examples of the impact of this program.

Lesser known, and perhaps unexpected, is the effect this exchange has on the participants themselves. The following is a letter written to the JEVS board of directors from Souleymane Fall, director of employer services at JEVS Human services, who recently returned from his visit to Israel Elwyn experience.

To the JEVS board of directors,

Please accept this letter as a token of my gratitude for being selected to participate in the Samuel P. Mandell Fellowship, Having recently returned from my visit abroad to Israel Elwyn, I would like to take this opportunity to share my reflections with the board.

Growing up as a Muslim, I was taught that Christians and Jews were considered “People of the Book,” part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Muslims. Despite this, my childhood was also marked by horror stories about Israel relating to the treatment of Muslims and the longstanding discord between people who share a religious foundation.

Having been touched by years of warm relationships as part of the JEVS Human Services family, I saw the opportunity to visit Israel as a chance to learn and share experiences about helping the most vulnerable members of our community achieve gainful employment. Before flying to Israel, I decided to put aside all fears or worries. I wanted this experience not to be tainted by preconceptions and other people’s views. I did not want to form a view on a culture before experiencing it. It was a trip of a lifetime. I am sure there many facets I can learn about Israel.

From the beginning of my trip, I was treated with kindness and respect. Our Israel Elwyn hosts shared their experiences developing and operating a wide range of supports and tools for individuals with disabilities, while my colleague and I shared our insights from JEVS Human Services. Just like JEVS, the Elwyn staff care so much about the participants they serve. They strive to find resources that lead their participants to self-sufficiency, providing excellent service and supporting a just society.

More importantly, however, I felt safe while in Israel. I met people — many of whom I now consider friends — from different faiths and backgrounds. I also learned that more than 20% of Israel’s population is Muslim. I have been to some of the most magnificent places around the world and none of them compares to the history, the culture, the architecture and, especially, to the religious center of my beliefs. A visit to Israel is not a vacation; it is an emotional and educational experience I will never forget.

I have not been the same after returning from Israel. Before, when reading the Bible, I could not envision where each story took place. Now, I feel as if I am a participant in the events instead of just reading about them. I was deeply affected by what I saw and learned, and those memories are so precious to me.

With deepest gratitude,

Souleymane Fall

We can only hope that more international exchange programs will take place so that we can increase understanding and acceptance. Much too often, we focus on what divides us. This program reminds us of what we can accomplish together. We are grateful for the Mandell family for believing in this program and for the investment in bringing together our agencies. We know that countless individuals have benefited from their generosity and caring.

Jay Spector is CEO and Nancy Astor Fox is chief development officer at JEVS Human Services.

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