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Co-Founder of Journey Institute Delivers Inspiring Speech About Empowering People to Volunteer at NCJWC Triennial Convention

by Rhonda Spivak , October 6, 2016

Award-winning author and motivational speaker Dafna Michaelson Jenet delivered an inspiring keynote address about empowering people to volunteer, and take action to resolve problems in their community, at the 2016 Triennial Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada (NCJWC) on Sunday, September 18 in Winnipeg at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue to a group of over 50 women.

Dafna is the founder and president of “50 in 52 Journey”, a project where she on her own initiative, decided to break into her very few savings, in order to travel to 50 U.S. states and Washington D.C. to meet people, from ages 8 to 90, who came up with ideas to solve problems in their communities, neighborhoods, businesses, lives, and one by one changed the world.  In her address Dafna told interesting stories and gave a motivational recounting of her nationwide journey, in order to inspire audience members to action so that they too can be empowered to make changes in their communities, their workplaces, their families, and their lives.

Dafna, who received her MBA from the Daniels College of Business in 2001, and is the President and co-Founder of the Journey Institute, grew up in orthodox home, where on Shabbat her parents always had lots of company over and they spoke of social issues and problems they were facing.  She credits that experience as a child as one which made her want to be involved in tikkun olam, or changing the world for the better.

She explained to the crowd that when she set out to travel the United States, she was a single mother, making her task all the more difficult to accomplish.  She began by asking contacts of hers, who in general weren't Jewish, to people she knew in each state to help her find people who would come talk to her about a problem in their community that they were helping to solve by their own grassroots action.  They weren't leaving it up to State Governors or others to take initiative to solve problems in their own community.

Dafna, who is Israeli, said that she began to notice that  "everywhere I went I was meeting  Jewish women" and she began to ask herself why that was.  "Jews are less than 2% of  the population but I was meeting them in every state." She explained that this was before the days of Facebook when her Hadassah ladies weren't on line.

Dafna said that when she went to Arkansas, she thought she'd never meet a Jew.  "It's not going to happen," she told herself.  But then, as she told the crowd, she met Barbara Harmony, a Jewish woman who left New Jersey in the 1970's to come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas to bring back the water that had dried up from native wells.  "I am sure Barbara was the one Jew in the community," Dafna said.

"There were 500 people I interviewed.  65% of people I interviewed were Jewish, and 65% of the people I interviewed were women," she explained, noting she covered over 800 miles in each state.

"Qualitatively the problems they were solving for their communities were amazing," she said.

She described how one Jewish woman, Linda, changed the face of her community.  She lived in a small town in Wyoming where blue collar parents couldn't pick up their kids after school, and as a result the kids were on the streets and got involved in mischief, as parents couldn't afford babysitters for them when they got home from school before their parents had finished work.  Linda created a program for after school where there was snack time, assistance with homework and sport, until 5 o'clock, until their parents picked them up which helped "change the makeup of the community."

"This one Jewish woman changed the community," and solved a major problem on her own initiative, Dafna related.

Michaelson-Jenet also spoke about how she met a  Muslim from Iraqi Kurdistan who came to South Dakota as a political refugee in the 80's "and people spit on him." She relayed how he was given a driver's license but "they didn't tell him the laws so he got pulled over all the time."  Michaelson-Jenet said that up until meeting him she had never had an opportunity to sit down with a Muslim before.  She told the crowd that "I realized that bigotry was dormant in me", until she sat down with this Muslim man even though up until then she hadn't considered herself as being a bigot.  This Muslim man told her he realized, from his personal experience, given all the problems he had faced coming to the US as a refugee, that the community needed a welcome center for refugees, one that could help teach them how to drive and function in the community.  He also wanted to build a diversity centre.  Although it took him a long time, he accomplished getting these things built.

Michaelson spoke about how her 50 in 52 Journey was written about on the front cover of Denver Post, and then suddenly she got a call from CBS in New York and they came out  and captured her journey in Arizona.  She now had a film crew and a ground crew (things that she had been wanting to have, since she had set out on her journey).  The film and ground crew went back to the previous three states she had been in and covered her journey there as well.

On Jan 3, 2010, a full calendar year after Michaelson-Jenet had begun her travels, CBS aired the piece about her and her journey.  Her twitter account surged, and the quote she said in the CBS interview that was picked up everywhere was "It takes a little crazy to make a difference."

As Dafna told the crowd, "Of course, it does take a little crazy to make a difference.  When you stand up and say there's problem and I am going to put on my life on hold and I am going to stand up for something that I care about ....People don't know how to handle it".  She was told  to "step back inside of the box".

"I had friends who stopped talking to me", she said.  They asked her "When are you going to go back and get another job?".

"Every single person I interviewed lost people when they stepped out," Dafna revealed.  Dafna told the story of a  poor woman in Alabama who never had kids and after three boys opened fire on others, she decided to started an after school program.  She put in a shower since kids were dirty, and when she realized they were hungry and she started making them meals.  Some asked if she could make them breakfast.  "It starts being a full year program, " but her husband's family and some friends distanced themselves from her, as Dafna shared.

When Dafna asked her a most important leadership question, asking her what was in it for her, the woman answered by saying she "couldn't deal with suffering of children.  The whole community perishes when your children are killing each other on the streets.  She couldn't stand for it anymore."

In Alaska, Dafna met a former NFL football player Mel, and she saw he had an SUV loaded with teenagers.  He takes kids to McDonald's for lunch, for their meal for the day, as they had done some work.  Mel had a heart problem, and had to quit football.  He had raised himself, moved his family to Alaska and he started picking up kids, who were high school drop outs, on the street.  He built a centre for them, which got them engaged in music, arts, and sports, and worked with them so that they graduated from school.  "What was in it for him?" Dafna asked.  "He had seen his friend die and he wanted to do something to save kids."

Dafna asked the crowd, "What are things you complain about every single day?  What if you are the one to solve this problem or if someone you know could solve this problem?  What's the first step you can take?"

"What is the first step takes you half way?" she asked, encouraging those in the crowd to begin to take action to identify problems in their community and take the first step to solve them.

After Dafna spoke she led an interactive workshop.  The event lasted three hours.

During her talk, Dafna also spoke about her personal life at the time.  She was divorced with two children, and had a supportive boyfriend Michael who wasn't raised with any religion.  When he proposed to her she said yes, even though he wasn't Jewish.  She feared her parents' reaction, and her mother didn't approve of the fact he wasn't Jewish.  Her mother was going to sit shiva for her, but in the end she didn't and ended up accepting Michael.  Dafna also spoke about how it turned out that Michael had lost his grandfather, a political prisoner who was murdered in Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich in Germany, three days before Dafna's own grandfather who was a US army medic liberated Dachau. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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