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entries tagged with: Shari Mendes


‘The miracle that happened in 1948’

‘One very special day’

How do former North Jersey residents feel about celebrating Israeli Independence Day in the land of Israel? We asked a few to share their thoughts.

“I thank God everyday while I’m walking or driving in Israel that I’m here. But Yom Ha’Atzmaut is that one very special day of the year I take extra time to realize I’m fulfilling Jewish destiny by living in the land of the Jewish people. It’s a dream I waited for all my life, and I am so grateful I had the courage of my convictions to actualize it.”

Stuart Pilichowski of Mevasseret Zion
(who made aliyah in 1999 from Fair Lawn)

“Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel causes you to realize that this is where the center of the story of the Jewish people is happening. It was nice peeking from the sidelines in New Jersey, but it’s so much better to be the one making history.”

Chaim and Kayla Kutnicki

– Chaim Kutnicki of Haifa (2007 from Elmwood Park), pictured with his wife, Kayla, outside of the Interior
Ministry after receiving their Israeli identity cards

“Every year since I made aliyah I have merited to pray on Yom Ha’Atzmaut eve at the Kotel [Western Wall] and say the following two p’sukim [passages] from Tehillim [Psalms]: ‘From HASHEM emanated this; it is wondrous in our eyes. This is the day HASHEM has made; let us rejoice and be glad on it’ (118:23-24, Artscroll translation). I think that says it all.”

– Zechariah Reich of Ginot
Shomron (2005 from Teaneck)

“Yom Ha’Atzmaut is an emotional day in Israel, coming on the heels of Yom HaZikaron. One genuinely feels the transition from national sadness ... to national pride. On erev Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we usually attend the Ra’anana celebration, which draws Israeli musical talent from around the country. Fireworks and festivities go on all night. There is a palpable feeling of happiness on Yom Ha’Atzmaut and we feel grateful to be able to be a part of this.”

– Shari Mendes of Ra’anana
(2003 from Teaneck)

“As an American, I recall the bicentennial well and do appreciate the privilege to be an American, but the notion of independence in the U.S. is one that people take for granted and is largely not one that is challenged or threatened. Here, mourning the loss of some 24,000 killed in wars and defense of the country, as well as those murdered in terrorist attacks, is an inseparable link to the festivity of Yom Ha’Atzmaut where we celebrate our independence. The first reminds us that we can’t take the second for granted.”

– Jonathan Feldstein of Efrat
(2004 from Teaneck)

“I remember back in the States the ongoing disputes as to what prayers to say on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Here in the Land, pretty much everyone understands that we are living a miracle and acts accordingly — at least on this one wonderful day of the year.”

– Fred Casden of Ma’aleh Adumim (2007 from Teaneck)

“From Teaneck, I felt once removed from modern Jewish history; now I feel a part of it. In Teaneck, we were just a footnote of Jewish history; now we and our children and grandchildren are creating it.”

– Joel Greenwald of
Tzur Yigal (1993)


No longer on the sidelines

Eight years later, a family celebrates its life-changing decision

It was rough-going at first for the Mendes family. From left, Sam, 17, Jon 23, Ben, 21, David and Shari, and Naomi, 14.

The March 24, 1995, front page of The Jewish Standard displayed a photograph of a young Ben Mendes enjoying a Purim carnival with his father, David, in Teaneck. In the photograph, he is dressed as a ninja. Today he wears the uniform of the Combat Engineering Corps of the Israel Defense Forces—and not just on Purim.

Recently, Shari and David Mendes celebrated the eighth anniversary of their family’s aliyah (immigration). It was a time for reflection on how life has changed for them and their four children. Military service is one integral part of the picture.

Jonathan, 23, finished serving in an elite army intelligence unit in February. Ben, 21, is about to be promoted to staff sergeant. David, chief of plastic surgery at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, was called to active duty as a surgeon during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead. Sam, just 9 when the family made aliyah, will put on the IDF olive drabs in another year. Naomi, now starting high school, will decide between army and national service when her turn comes.

“We made aliyah when Jon and Ben were teenagers—not an easy time—and the first year was a rough adjustment,” says Shari Mendes, an architect. “But they’ve done well in the army, all on their own. If they could do it, really anyone can.”

“I was 13 when we came, and I was a little excited—maybe naïve,” says Ben, speaking from his military base. “I saw it as an adventure. But I was in for a major culture shock when I got here.”

Although their Ra’anana suburban neighborhood is heavily English-speaking and there are several other families from Bergen County in the neighborhood, Ben and Jon were the only “Anglos” in their rough-and-tumble all-boys school. “They were throwing chairs and lighting firecrackers in the classroom,” says Ben. “Going to that from Yavneh Academy in Paramus was a whole different world. And the language was a huge problem for me at first. It took two or three years till I overcame the shock.”

These days, explosives are not just the stuff of schoolyard pranks. The terrorist attack on a bus near Eilat on Aug. 18—a bus Ben normally takes—claimed the life of one of his friends and injured two others. Even before that incident, the fire and noise of demolition had become familiar to him. “I’ve been in and out of live minefields,” says Ben, who was a training commander and now works in logistics.

Yet he expects to look back on his three years of military service as an enriching experience.

“The army changes you. You learn a lot about yourself. Combat training has a way of pushing you to your breaking point. After an all-night hike through the desert without sleeping or eating, you say, ‘Wow, I did that.’”

His mother admits to having had her “moments” during Cast Lead, when Jon was near Ofakim with missiles raining down nearby, and David was in Gaza. “But to tell you the truth, I’m much more nervous when they drive,” she says. “I used to work in the World Trade Center, so I know things can happen anywhere.”

Shari’s parents, Martin and Vera Greenwald, live in Teaneck. David’s parents arrived separately in Israel before World War II from Europe, and his father’s position with Israel Aircraft Industries brought the family to New York for six years when David was a toddler, and permanently when he was 12.

As time went on, the couple felt increasingly drawn to the land of David’s birth. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t be on the sidelines of history anymore. I want to be part of it,’” David recalls.

Shari’s resolve strengthened as she stayed up late listening to the news during the Arab uprising that began in 2000. “Our kids were not getting younger, and we wanted to do it [make aliyah] while the oldest was young enough to make it,” she says. “My husband and I were very united. We really believed in this.”

The close-knit community in Ra’anana was pivotal to their adjustment, says Shari, who built a successful business and now employs two additional architects. “My work Hebrew is excellent, and my everyday Hebrew is passable,” she says. “I don’t think language ought to be a barrier [to aliyah]. The vocabulary you need in your profession is actually very limited and can be learned quickly.”

The family’s visits to New Jersey always include a shopping spree at Wal-Mart and Costco, where goods are cheaper than in Israel, although Shari says “we bring less and less back with us each year.”

The visits highlight the effects of dual citizenship, said Ben. “All of us in the family have an identity issue, because here we’re Americans and when we visit America we’re Israelis. The more we visit America, the more we feel there really isn’t anything there for us anymore.”

“We like the life here,” adds his mother. “The pace is so much saner here for us and for our kids. We live with a little bit less—one car instead of two. It’s a more meaningful and authentically Jewish life. I like the fact that the Jewish holidays are the rhythm of the year. You can be unaffiliated and still feel it’s Shavuot, for example, while many Jews in America don’t even know what that holiday is.”

Ben agrees. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he says, “Israel is where I want to live, from a Jewish and Zionist point of view.”

“Clearly it’s better to come when your kids are younger,” Shari says, “but it’s better to come then than not at all.”


The Lemonade Fund

Program in Israel helps women with breast cancer

Its official name is the Israel Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund (, but the Teaneck native who founded it prefers “the Lemonade Fund,” the nickname it’s gotten for sweetening the lives of needy women suffering from breast cancer.

The fund’s origin was a breast cancer diagnosis for Shari Mendes in July 2010, a few months short of her 50th birthday. She and her family had moved from Bergen County to the central Israeli suburb of Ra’anana seven years earlier. Her husband, David, was then chief of plastic surgery at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. (He’s now at Shaare Zedek.) Shari was busy running her architectural firm and had taken the time for a routine mammogram. She was surprised by the results.

Shari Mendes

While undergoing treatment, Mendes was consumed by two thoughts: First, she wondered how financially strapped women were managing the costs of the disease, ranging from medications, wigs, and prostheses not fully covered by national health insurance, to extra transportation and household help expenses.

“I was shocked to learn how extremely costly a serious illness can be,” she said. “I had so many new out-of-pocket expenses, and all I could think was to wonder how poor women could do this.”

Second, Mendes wanted to do something to mark her milestone birthday, whose celebration had been delayed by her treatment. She inaugurated the fund a year from the day she had her mammogram.

“I received the news that I had breast cancer on the Ninth of Av, one of the saddest days of the Jewish year,” she said. “It seemed fitting to do something positive on the one-year anniversary of diagnosis, specifically on a day that addresses ways to heal after destruction. Thank God, I’m doing fine and feeling fine.”

Mendes talked to other women and to breast cancer center social workers, coming away convinced that nothing like what she envisioned existed in Israel, despite the great need for it there. The Israel Cancer Society gives $250 grants, but she wanted to do more.

“Aside from worries about your illness, it’s so expensive to be sick,” she said. “You’re working less, and life costs more. By quickly and compassionately delivering direct financial assistance, some of the financial burdens that accompany breast cancer can be eased so that patients can concentrate on the more important challenge of getting well.”

Mendes learned that the Herzliya-based nonprofit ESRA (English Speaking Residents Association, runs a welfare fund. She incorporated her Israel Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund under this charitable umbrella, which allowed her to begin quickly and waste no money on overhead.

“It’s amazing how easy it is to just do something,” she said. “From idea to execution was two months.”

Within one month of launching, on Sept. 18, 2011, the Lemonade Fund awarded its first five grants, using some $12,000 that Mendes had raised by emailing “almost every woman I know.” Since then, she’s raised more through foundation and individual donations, many of them in memory of her father, longtime Teaneck resident Martin Greenwald, who died recently.

Somewhat reluctantly, she’s decided to go public with her appeal because the needs are even greater than she had anticipated.

“Hospital social workers all over Israel have learned about the fund, and when a patient is desperately poor they urge them to apply,” she said. “They have to supply financial information, and the social worker sends the application to ESRA for review.”

Adele Hunter, head of ESRA’s Welfare Committee, explains that ESRA has been giving to the needy, via social welfare departments throughout Israel, for more than 20 years. A committee composed mainly of retired social workers screens about 25 applications every month.

“Shari’s fund is run on the same lines,” Hunter said. “We invite Shari to come review the applications — about three to seven per month. Together we decide which ones meet the criteria and how much we can give. A week later, we send them a check directly, along with a letter to their social workers.”

The amount of each grant depends on how much has been raised, but it’s usually between 1,500 and 4,500 shekels.

“Shari’s got a very open heart and really wants to make a difference,” Hunter said. “If she had more money, she’d give more money.”

Mendes is struck by how diverse the applicants are. There are native Israelis as well as Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Arab women, and religious and secular Jews.

Mendes received a letter from another woman, who wrote:

“I have no words to describe how much I thank you for your contribution ... to be ill and also suffer from poor financial conditions is extremely difficult for me. ... I am a single mother and I have many expenses; for example, buying drugs that aren’t covered by insurance to help me with the side effects of the chemotherapy. This donation helped me purchase these drugs and it is easier for me to deal with breast cancer treatment.”

Mendes said that one recent applicant particularly tugged at her heartstrings. “She’s an Israeli woman, orphaned at 12, abused as a teen, a single mother, and is now 42 and suffering from severe disease. She was a hardworking nursery school teacher but cannot work now and makes almost nothing. To give her 4,500 shekels is nice, but it’s a drop in the bucket. If I could give her 10,000 I could help save her life.”

That’s no exaggeration, she insists. “When you’re stressed about money it’s hard to get well. If you could be calmer about your financial situation it could impact recovery. I think this helps just like medicine helps.”

Make U.S. tax-deductible donations through the PEF Israel Endowment Fund, 317 Madison Ave. (Room 607), New York, N.Y. 10017. Checks should be made payable to “P.E.F. Israel Endowment Funds.” Designate ESRA IBCERF on the memo line.

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