WRJ’s March 10 YES Fund to heal the world
Photo: Courtesy Women of Reform Judaism
Shari Schulner, WRJ director of philanthropy (far right), on a mission trip to Israel last May with WRJ participants and staff members, from left, Sabrina Miller, Lizzie Rosenblum, Shoshana Dweck, Andrea Gingold and Judy Landis.

Austin teen will share her Oct. 7 experience

By Deb Silverthorn

“We’re stronger together” is the undertone and value of the 2024 YES Fund and the spirit of Metroplex-area Women of Reform Judaism chapters. The women of congregations Adat Chaverim, Beth-El, Beth Israel, Beth Shalom, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Shalom invite the community to “Heal the World” as they raise funds to support WRJ-affiliated programs.

From 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at Temple Shalom the hosts will welcome Gabrielle Merrill, an Austin resident who was attending high school in Israel on Oct. 7, and Shari Schulner, WRJ’s national director of philanthropy.

“WRJ is an organization with opportunities to build amazing friendships, to touch people and to be a part of many things that matter so deeply,” said Jacquie Schwitzer, a WRJ national board member and co-chair of the March 10 event with local WRJ chapter members Laney Arndt, Cathy Frisinger, Michelle Hartman, Michele Kerstein, Lori Kleinfield, Marcy Roitman-Boothe, Jane Shook and Denise Siegal.

Photo: Courtesy Jacquie Schwitzer
Jacquie Schwitzer, center, during a Women of Reform Judaism/Women’s Rabbinic Network solidarity mission trip to Israel, at the Knesset Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Also pictured: Rabbi Liz Hirsch, left, WRJ executive director, and Karen Sim, WRJ North America’s first vice-president.

“I first joined to meet people and I have met some of the most wonderful people, but I soon became involved in social action projects and I am inspired every day,” added Schwitzer. She serves on WRJ’s grand allocation committee, which in 2023 and 2024 has allocated $300,500 to nearly 30 beneficiaries. From Feb. 11 to 18, Schwitzer was in Israel for a Women of Reform Judaism/Women’s Rabbinic Network solidarity mission tour, which included visiting many YES Fund recipients.

“The Jewish community of the Dallas and Fort Worth area has a reputation as a beautiful and thriving community, and I look forward to experiencing it for myself,” said Schulner, coming to Dallas for the first time. “There is power in numbers. The collective effort of the members and leaders of these six congregations, and their passion to serve, is immeasurable.

“We’ve had representatives in Israel on a solidarity mission, meeting with the grantees and reporting back on how our funds are helping and how we can help,” she added, noting Schwitzer was among the group. “When we know how to help, we do all we can and we do it stronger, together.”

Attendees will enjoy musical entertainment by Kay and Kent Ellingson and the inspiring story of Cedar Park High School junior Gabrielle Merrill, who last fall was attending a semester abroad program at URJ’s Heller School based in Hod HaSharon, 13 miles from Tel Aviv. She is the granddaughter of Schwitzer and her husband Myron and is the daughter of Dallas native Eve and her husband Jay Merrill. Her family belongs to Austin’s Temple Beth Shalom; she is a member of North American Federation for Temple Youth.

“The first seven weeks were amazing. We climbed Masada before sunrise, walked through the underground tunnels in the City of David and hiked for four days from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee,” said Gabrielle. “We were in Jerusalem for Sukkot and we woke up on Oct. 7 with counselors banging on the doors and a race down seven flights of stairs to the hotel’s bomb shelter. Between 8 a.m. and noon, we made that trip eight times.

“It was very scary. You can’t imagine being in the middle of a war zone and I think about all the ‘ifs’ that could have been,” she said. “What if Israel didn’t have its shelters everywhere? What if there was no Iron Dome?”

Despite flights canceled with rockets fired above, Gabrielle was able to get a flight from Tel Aviv to Rome, then to Boston — where she was unexpectedly met by her mother — before landing safely in Austin.

“I called my mom from the airport in Tel Aviv with bomb sirens blaring and then the call disconnected,” said Gabrielle. “I couldn’t get reconnected right away and could only imagine what she was thinking. Seeing her in Boston was the best surprise.”

Eve, the daughter of Marsha, of blessed memory, and Myron Schwitzer, is a former URJ Greene Family camper and a J.J. Pearce High School graduate with her own first Israel memories made on Dallas’ Teen Tour. Her children Gabrielle and Miles followed the tradition. In her role as camp psychologist, Eve first heard about the opportunity for her daughter to study abroad.

“We worried about her safety, for sure, before she went but, despite her coming home early, despite everything that happened, last fall shaped Gabrielle and heightened her Zionist connection,” said Eve.

Gabrielle’s connection to Israel has only intensified since her return. She will share her experience in Israel with WRJ YES Fund guests. “Since I got home, I pay more attention to the news. With my Uncle Joel (Schwitzer, regional director of AJC Dallas) I’ve lobbied  DFW-area Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett and I am figuring out when and how I can go back to Israel.

“Of course, it was the scariest thing ever but while there, I saw resilience, hope and everyone coming together,” she said.

Registration for the event is open until March 4 at tinyurl.com/2024SAYYES.

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