As a Fishel fellow, I was placed in India with JDC Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps with Gabriel Project Mumbai, and I am now working in Berlin as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Photolog of my Journey!

Hello All!

I recently returned to LA after a year and a half abroad with the Fishel Fellowship, and I am now completing my fellowship with a position at the LA Federation in the YALA (Young Adults of Los Angeles) department.  Many people have been asking me about my experiences since I returned, and I thought that a photolog would be a great way for me to share my stories.  This link will bring you there:

Thanks to everybody who followed my journey over the past year and a half.  It was an incredible journey, and I am so grateful to have had this life-changing opportunity.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

War of Conflict and Unity

I recently had an unexpected experience like my grandmother did 70 years ago.  Just a toddler at the time, my grandmother sat in a bomb shelter surrounded by strangers in Holland during World War II.  She was already an orphan, her entire family killed in the Holocaust.  Bombs exploding overheard, she remembers that although she was terrified and crying, nobody in the bomb shelter comforted her or paid any attention to her.

70 years later, I also found myself completely alone in Jerusalem surrounded by strangers as the Red Alert siren sounded, notifying civilians of rockets overhead.  When the sirens sound, you have 90 seconds to run to shelter, but that's in Jerusalem.  In places in the south of Israel, people have 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter or safe room.  And as we saw with the recent, tragic death of four-year-old Daniel Tragerman, sometimes people only get a few seconds before the rockets hit. 

When I heard the siren, I dropped what I was doing and quickly got myself to the safe room in my building.  There I found myself surrounded by complete strangers including an Israeli couple, an Orthodox family, and a group of university students.  This was the first time I met my neighbors, and when they found out that this was the first alarm I had ever heard, they all started to hug me and gave me their phone numbers and told me to come to them if I ever need anything.  There was suddenly a loud "boom!" and the building shook a little bit (the rocket landed in an open field), and a little boy started to cry.  Everybody comforted him and reassured him that everything was okay.  A few seconds later, everybody got up and went back to their apartments to go back to living their lives.

This war has been tragic for both sides, so of course there is tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel.  Just about a week ago, hundreds of people gathered outside of a wedding between a Jew and a Muslim to protest the intermarriage.  I spent today in Jaffa, a city where Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Arabs live together in mostly peaceful coexistence.  We walked around the port area and had lunch at an Arab restaurant, and everything seemed really empty.  My cousin said that many Israelis stopped coming to these Arab places since the war started here, but not because they’re nervous about their safety.  They’re making a political statement and showing their opposition to Arabs amidst the conflict.  And according to my cousin, many Arabs are doing the same.  This conversation took place minutes after we visited the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, a place that brings together young Jews and Arabs for peacebuilding projects.  This is just a small example of how contrasting and complex life is here.

Not only has there been tension between Jews and Arabs, but there has also been conflict within Israeli society.  For example, thousands of Israelis showed up to a demonstration in Tel Aviv to protest the war, and there was violence between them and counter-protesters.   

It’s amazing how people can have such different reactions in times of conflict- there is violence and division but there is also unity and compassion occurring simultaneously.  In the midst of somewhat recent hostility between religious and secular Israelis over the issue of mandatory army service, hundreds of young Orthodox men enlisted in the IDF, and prayers for the safety of the soldiers echoed throughout religious neighborhoods.  There was an outpouring of care packages and donations to help the soldiers throughout the war.  There were pictures and articles all over the internet of young, old, religious, Orthodox, Druze, Christians, and Arabs leaving their often conflicting streams of life and converging in bomb shelters.  While this may be a necessity and not a choice, when sirens sound in the cities, shopkeepers and residents open their doors to any stranger on the street.

Take my experience with the siren- all these different kinds of people- Orthodox, young, old, American, Israeli- who usually have nothing to do with each other were sitting all together and acting as a community.  These people never met me before, but they treated me and each other like family, which was incredible to witness.  At work the next day, it seemed like everybody in the office asked me if I was okay after hearing the alarm, and my Israeli relatives all called during and after the fact. 

I had such a different experience from my grandmother 70 years ago in Europe.  Of course, you can't compare the times and mentality of people during World War II with life today in Israel, but it still amazes me what a contrast our experiences were.  While my grandmother probably never felt more alone, despite me also being alone, I felt part of a community and part of the Israeli people who are all facing this together.  So while I know this is not the safest or most ideal time for me to be in Israel, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this level of unity that I never felt anywhere before. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

World Cup Celebrations, Demonstrations, and Death Threats

If a year ago, you told me that I would be singing the German national anthem (yes, I know it now by heart) with German colors painted on my face and waving a German flag, I would tell you that you’re crazy.  But somehow, all the experiences of the past year led me to this point as I celebrated the World Cup win with hundreds of thousands of Germans in the streets in Berlin.

The thought of German national pride makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  Before coming to Berlin and understanding the current situation here, it made me uncomfortable too.  A Jewish family friend from LA visited a few weeks ago, and I offered her some advice for things to see in the city.  At the top of my list was the Reichstag (the Parliament building), which visitors can climb and get amazing views of the city.  When I told her about it, she got uncomfortable and told me she doesn’t feel right visiting German nationalistic sites.  She’s not alone in her view- I even have a friend who’s lived in Berlin for years now and has German citizenship who told me that all the German flags hanging around the city for the World Cup make her uneasy.  

But if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from my year in Berlin, it’s that I no longer associate this place with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.  I no longer feel uncomfortable seeing German police officers.  I no longer get nervous when German is spoken loudly.  When I see old people on the bus, I no longer wonder what they were doing during World War II. 

That’s not to say that I am forgetting what happened here.  There are constant reminders around the city from street signs to memorials to Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” with former Jewish residents’ names on them) to make sure that doesn’t happen.  And I feel my grandmother’s presence in the area she used to live and go to school.  But rather than feel overwhelmed by the history of the city, I now feel its modern culture and diversity propelling it forward.

I couldn’t help but wonder what my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin would think about me waving a German flag, singing the national anthem, and blending into a crowd of Germans.  I really believe that she would be proud, not only of her granddaughter who returned to her home city to help rebuild the Jewish community, but of the country she once called her homeland.  A place that once persecuted and deported her and her family but that has now risen above that dark period to become a progressive, accepting country that honors its Jewish citizens. 

I left the World Cup celebration thinking about all these things and being excited to feel part of this country, but my excitement quickly changed as I turned the corner to my street and came upon a Palestinian rally.  I have seen dozens of Palestinian rallies back in LA, but this one felt different.

The protestors began with the usual chants saying “Kinder murder- Israel” (“Child murder- Israel”) which was unsettling to hear, but what came next was even more disturbing.  The protestors started to yell “Death to Jews.”  At this point, they were literally standing next to a Holocaust memorial a hundred meters from where I live.  Even amidst the growing anti-Semitism happening around the world today, especially in Europe, I have felt very much protected from it in Germany.  I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism during my year here living, working, and socializing inside and outside of the Jewish community.  Incidences like the Paris synagogue attack that happened last Sunday don’t happen here.  And even though these anti-Semitic protestors outside my apartment were Arabs, they still live here and are German citizens.  Hearing them chant “Death to Jews” shattered that sense of security I have felt all year in Berlin. 

The night of the celebrations was supposed to be my last night in Berlin.  The plan was for me to be in Israel now, working in a small student village in the desert, but because of everything that is happening over there, I am staying in Berlin for at least the next week. 

In the same spot where the Palestinian rally took place on the same street as the German World Cup celebration, I also attended a pro-Israel rally a few days ago.  Of course, this rally did not include anything violent or hateful.  About 100 people came and showed their support for Israel defending itself and protecting its citizens.  People made speeches, played Israeli music, and waved flags.  It makes me proud to be associated with these people, who support Israel but also empathize with the civilians on the other side.  What a stark contrast this was from the protestors who were yelling "Death to Jews."  I saw this contrast as very representative of the greater conflict.

I read an article today in which Natan Sharanksy, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Israel last month, discusses the future of European Jewry, a topic I’ve dealt with extensively throughout my time in Europe.  Sharanksy believes that increasing rates of Aliyah from Europe which are the result of growing anti-Semitism (especially in France) could mark “the beginning of the end of European Jewry.”  My interactions with young Jews from all over Europe have made me optimistic about the future of European Jewry, but with the growing incidences of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination, especially in countries like France and Hungary, my optimism is fading a bit. 

Jewish writer and activist Marek Halter recently published an article with a plea to European Jews against making Aliyah.   “Will you cede to those seeking our disappearance? Will you leave this home of ours to jihadists and the National Front?” he wrote.  European Jewish communities are divided on the subject of Aliyah, and it’s an issue that I’m also struggling with.  Should Jews stay and fight the anti-Semitism happening in their home countries, or should they escape to Israel where they can live Jewish lives without fear?  Hearing an angry crowd yell “Death to Jews” on my street, in arguably one of the safest cities for Jews in the entire continent is forcing me to address that question.

What a contrasting few days filled with mixed emotions it has been: World Cup celebrations, Israel under siege, demonstrations and death threats…but this is how life is here.  Working in the now celebrated Jewish community that was once persecuted, living in an old Jewish building surrounded by new buildings, and moving to a city that my grandmother was deported from inherently brings with it contrasts and daily experiences that are changing how I view the world.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Israel Through the Eyes of Christians

I never thought I would find myself walking through the Old City of Jerusalem with a group of Christians.  I recently spent five days with the Holy Land Democracy Project, a group of non-Jewish teachers, many of them at Catholic schools, that is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to help integrate much needed Israel education into Los Angeles classrooms.

Just a few hours into the trip, we were touring the Old City.  “The Old City is all about paradox.  Everywhere you look, there’s a contrast,” our tour guide told us as we walked towards the Kotel.  I couldn’t help but think that- being in Israel with a group of non-Jews was a real contrast for me.  I have been to Israel several times but always with groups of Jews.  Seeing Israel through the eyes of non-Jews and first-timers was a completely new experience.  Listening to them recite and relate verses from the Bible at both Christian and Jewish sites was new and surprising for me.   I was also surprised at how moved the teachers felt as we visited the Kotel and other Jewish sites.  It was not surprising how easily they picked up essential Hebrew phrases like “L’Chaim!” and “Bete’avon!” when food and drinks were involved.

But what was the most surprising for me was how being with this group of non-Jews actually strengthened my Jewish identity.  Back in Los Angeles, I never felt much of a distinction between Christians and me. I had a lot of Christian friends, participated in non-religious activities, and even had non-Jews over for Jewish holidays. And being in Berlin where I live, work, and socialize in the Jewish community, it’s a given that I should feel Jewish.  But standing there at the Kotel, the holiest spot for Jews, with a group of Catholics made me feel more Jewish than I ever had before.  It made me realize that my Jewish upbringing, my history, and my connection to this place distinguished me from the rest of the group.  One of the participants, a teacher at a Catholic high school, told me that he was jealous that Jews get to have this place that is so tied in with our identities.  It was a strange feeling, sort of being isolated but feeling this contrast was also a powerful experience that defined who I am as a Jew.

I had the opportunity to speak to the group at Yad Vashem, which I have a very personal connection to. Three of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Romania, Holland and Germany. My grandmother was just a toddler when she was separated from her parents in the Netherlands.  During the Holocaust, she was passed from family to family and was never shown any love or affection that she craved.  She is the only survivor in her entire family. She has no cemetery to go to, no ashes or memorial site to mourn her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. So she has a plaque at Yad Vashem, the very place where I spoke to the group, with the names of her murdered relatives.

I have spent the past year working and immersing myself in the Jewish world, and to be able to stand in front of a group of people who have no personal connection to the Holocaust and tell my grandparents’ stories and the stories of Jews I’ve worked with in Europe was a profound moment for me.  After I finished speaking, a few of the participants came up to me to tell me that the experience moved them to tears. 

I am grateful to have had the chance to tour Israel with such a wonderful group of people.  Their obvious passion for what they do and their new understanding and deep appreciation of the country I get to call my homeland was refreshing.  And amidst so much anti-Israel sentiment in the world today, this gives me hope for the future of Zionism, starting in Los Angeles classrooms.

With the group at my grandmother's plaque

Friday, July 4, 2014

Saving Lives in Moldova

I recently spent two weeks in Israel with two different LA Jewish Federation trips (see previous blog post).  On my last day in Israel, the group was standing on Rothschild Boulevard when our tour guide, Abraham, stopped us abruptly.  He proceeded to read us, “In the City of Slaughter,” Chaim Bialik’s poem about the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903.  Bialik’s poem expresses his disdain for passivity against growing anti-Semitic violence.   We wondered what that had to do with Rothschild Boulevard in modern-day Tel Aviv.  Abraham told us, “This poem echoed throughout the world and served as a warning for what was to come.  It also inspired Jews to fight to rebuild a Jewish state to protect themselves against this violence.” 

Six years later, 66 Jewish pioneers stood on top of a sand dune and decided to transform that sand dune into the Tel Aviv that we see today.   Abraham told us, “And that’s what they did.  They rolled up their sleeves and with their own hands, those 66 Jews built Tel Aviv, starting with the street we’re standing on now.” 

The next day, I flew to Kishinev, Moldova, the same place where the pogrom took place over 100 years ago.  It was like moving backwards from this triumphant present to our dark past. 

I went to Moldova to accompany two women from the Claims Conference, an organization that helps Holocaust survivors receive reparations from the German government.  We met with local JDC and Jewish community staff, visited Jewish community centers, and spent time with elderly Holocaust survivors. 

To give some perspective on the current state of Moldova’s economy, the poorest country in Europe, almost one-fifth of the population lives under the poverty line.  I couldn’t get over how clear and fresh the air was in the city, which a local JDC staff member told me is due to the shutdown of all factories from a lack of funds.  Because of the absence of employment opportunities in Moldova, 25% of the population works abroad.

Perhaps the most alarming thing I learned was that the average retiree only receives about $35/month in social security from the government.  Heating alone in the winter costs $200/month.  I couldn’t understand how people, who are too old and ill to work, are expected to survive off of $35/month.  These people include Holocaust survivors who have already endured such hardship in their lives.  This is why the work that JDC is doing in Moldova, including helping survivors receive reparations and providing food and medical assistance, is so necessary and urgent.  So it should come as no surprise that people who receive assistance from JDC in Moldova live on average 15 years longer than people who don’t.  JDC is literally saving these people’s lives.

Holocaust survivor telling us her story during a home visit
Siblings during a home visit
Besides meeting with local Jews in Kishinev, the capital, we also had the chance to drive up to Beltsy, a former center of Jewish life.  After a two-hour drive on one of the bumpiest roads I’ve ever been on, we were relieved to arrive in Beltsy.  The town looked a lot like Piatra Neamt, the village where my grandfather grew up in neighboring Romania that I visited this year with my parents.  But unlike Piatra Neamt where only a handful of Jews remain, I was pleasantly surprised at how active and lively the Jewish community in Beltsy is.  Sitting in the Jewish community center and seeing pictures of people of all ages participating in Jewish events, I wondered why a place like Beltsy that is so similar to Piatra Neamt and other Eastern European towns was able to retain much of their Jewish life while others died out.  It became clear after learning about all the programs offered for Jews and after touring the Jewish community center and learning about Hesed,  JDC’s social welfare department that provides much needed assistance to Jews in the Former Soviet Union.  In the short time we were there, we got a taste of the liveliness of the center and visited two classes for Jewish seniors. 

We visited a group of elderly people who are too sick to leave their homes on their own, so Hesed picks them up and brings them to the community center where they take classes and interact with their peers.  When we walked into their room, they were working on an art project.  The old woman next to me grabbed my hand and presented her drawing of a river.  She told me (via a translator), “My love used to live across the river.  He would go fishing every day.  Now he has been bedridden for eight years.  He longs for that river.  He dreams of fishing again.”

It was heartbreaking to hear their stories, but I felt a strong spirit in that group.  Each of these people went through so much suffering for being Jewish, but here they were continuing to celebrate their Judaism.  They even sang us a song in Yiddish, which you can see here:

I truly believe that this incredible community center in Beltsy is the reason that Jewish life remains there.  Jews have opportunities to participate in events, receive assistance, and to be part of a strong community.  Of course, Beltsy is nowhere near where it used to be in terms of Jewish life.  Pre-Holocaust, Beltsy boasted a Jewish population of nearly 15,000, more than half of the city’s total population.  Now, many young Jews move away in search of economic opportunities.   But those looking for social Jewish opportunities need not look further than Beltsy’s Jewish community center.

In my eleven months in Europe, I have learned how significant social life is in retaining Jewish membership in communities in Europe.  Perhaps the most prevalent motivation for young people to leave a Jewish community is the lack of social (including spousal) opportunities.  I have met young Jews from all over the continent who have pointed to this factor as the leading cause of their cities’ shrinking Jewish populations.  So while a Jewish community center like the one in Beltsy may not be able to address all economic problems for Jews in their area (although they do provide aid), they are a powerful social force giving these Jews a reason to stay.

Couple who have been together since they were kids
Claims Conference beneficiary with a photo of her late husband

Young Jewish Leaders of Los Angeles

In 1948, the 700,000 Jews living in Palestine were faced with a decision.  Having just lost 6,000,000 Jewish lives in the Holocaust, should they make the risky choice to fight against attacks from all the surrounding Arab countries or should they save themselves and leave?  In true Jewish spirit, they chose the former.  But without desperately needed weapons, they stood absolutely no chance in defending themselves.  In January 1948, Golda Meir got on a plane and spoke in front of the Council of Jewish Federations in Chicago.  She communicated the urgency of the situation and pleaded with the American Jews to do something to save the Jews living in Palestine.

In just six weeks, Golda received over $50 million from Jews across America.  She returned to Palestine, which soon became the State of Israel, and the rest is history.

Our group leader told us this story as we drove out of Jerusalem and into the desert.  He ended with, “Without the help of American Jews, YOU PEOPLE, those 700,000 Jews would have been killed and the State of Israel would not exist today.”   Driving through the Negev, it was hard not to feel a burst of emotion and pride for the long history of partnership that American Jews have  had with the State of Israel. 

I was travelling with the Community Leadership Institute, a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles group of Jewish young professionals who are leaders in Los Angeles.  The group is divided into four tracks- real estate, entertainment, Russian-Jewish, and universal.  Each participant receives a mentor in their field and besides this leadership training in Israel, they take part in events in Los Angeles.  During the week I spent with them, we met with influential Jews and Israelis and toured places to remind us of the importance of our leadership as Jewish Americans.

I was impressed by the depth of the participants’ conversations as I moved through the different tracks.  There were conversations about how the Russian speakers constructed their Jewish identities both in the Former Soviet Union and now in Los Angeles.  Others discussed Israeli politics in light of elections that took place while we were there.  There were also conversations about how the participants can work together both within and outside of the professional tracks once they return home.

We had the privilege of having Natan Sharansky, a hero for many of us, speak to the group.  He told us, “A leader is not defined by his title.  He is defined by his passion and capabilities to spark passion in others.”  After spending a week with Jewish doctors, musicians, lawyers, social workers, real estate brokers, educators, and entrepreneurs, I witnessed these young Jewish leaders’ ability to do just that.  Their professional success and excitement to be a part of the Jewish community sparked passion in me, and I am confident that they will be successful in doing the same for other Jews when they return to Los Angeles.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Future of European Jewry

According to radio talk-show host Dennis Prager and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently spoke at an LA synagogue, the future of Judaism in Europe is bleak and instead lies in the United States, Canada, and Israel.  This is just one of the many pessimistic statements I often hear concerning this topic.  But after spending a weekend with 30 Jewish leaders from all over Europe, I would like to offer a more positive view directly from those living and working in Europe, and reevaluate the fate of European Judaism.  

I recently had the opportunity to lead the opening workshop at JDC’s Generation Next seminar, a four-day-long conference for young Jewish adults from all over Europe who are change makers in their communities.  After participating in the previous Generation Next seminar in Brussels several months ago, I was invited to return as a leader and facilitate a discussion about the current state of European Jewish communities, which for many people is the most meaningful aspect of the seminar.  Countries the participants came from included Germany, Poland, Romania, Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Latvia, Ukraine, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, and Russia.

I was asked to share something about American Jewry, so I utilized my own community as an example for participants to contrast their communities with.  I began with a brief presentation about the Jewish community in Los Angeles and the distinctions I have observed between that community and the ones I have been exposed to in Europe. 

An Overview

I then shifted the conversation to the participants, who really serve as ambassadors for each of their countries.  I asked every person to present an overview of their communities, as I did in my presentation.  While I spoke about the current state of my home community, I noticed that every single European participant talked exclusively about their community’s history when asked to describe their community.  Their emphasis on the past is something I have observed during my time in Europe.  Young European Jews are very aware of their histories, which creates a strong foundation that they construct their identities around.

Distinct Issues

I then changed the topic to what makes each community unique.  I presented positive things that distinguish the LA community from others including the diversity, the range of organizations and events, and the emphasis on tikkun olam.  However, the European participants focused primarily on the issues and challenges their communities face looking toward the future. 

Some examples:

A young man from Bucharest, Romania presented a pessimistic view of the fate of Judaism in Romania.  He explained that the community there is rapidly shrinking each year, and Jewish life in the small villages is almost entirely extinct.  When I asked him if he thinks there will still be a Jewish community in Romania in 50 years, he replied, “Not with the way things are going.” 

A participant from Germany explained that with the rate of intermarriage increasing so rapidly among German Jews, he doesn’t see the community lasting much longer.  Even with the abundance of funding the German government provides for its Jewish communities, Germany’s Russian, Israeli, and German-born Jews often seek partners outside the small Jewish community.  Furthermore, the leadership does not invest enough to provide opportunities for young people to get involved.

Another participant from Poland voiced his frustration about how people come from all over the world to see Holocaust-related sites in Poland without considering a visit to Jewish museums or the thriving Jewish Community Centers in Warsaw and Krakow.  He asked how young Polish Jews are supposed to move forward if everything in his community is focused on the past.

Surprising Results

I interjected and shared my observations with the group as a non-European outsider.  I told them that I found it interesting that when asked to describe their communities, they all spoke about the past, while I spoke about the present.  And when asked to talk about something unique about their communities, I expected to hear positives and not the challenges that they told the group about.  I see this understanding and relation to the past and awareness of current issues as something positive, especially among young people, who are essentially the future of these communities.  If you ask young American Jews what the issues facing their Jewish communities are, many would be unsure or indifferent.  This is why I see hope in each of these young European leaders.  They are certain of their Jewish identities and their long histories and are passionate about keeping European Judaism alive.

Taking Action

I told the group, “You’ve discussed the challenges your communities are facing, and you’ve made it clear that you care about the future of your communities, so what can be done?”  There was an outpouring of suggestions and ideas from the participants.  A Serbian who said her community was shrinking because of the difficulties of finding a Jewish partner received suggestions from a young man from Zurich who initiated a singles group.  The two of them also talked about collaborating to organize a big event for Jewish singles from all over Europe.  A young woman from Greece explained that Jewish people are leaving the country because of unemployment, and a young man from Bulgaria told her about a job center program for Jews run by JDC in Sofia.  Two young men from Amsterdam discussed how even with an active Jewish community, it is often difficult to get young people to participate in events because new people never attend.  They spoke with a German girl about working together to plan joint events for the neighboring countries to diversify and expand groups of attendees. 

It was inspiring to witness this enthusiastic collaboration and sharing of ideas, which is exactly the purpose of the Generation Next seminars.  


These young Jews are vital to the survival of Jewish communities in Europe for many reasons including maintaining the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remnants of the flourishing Jewish life that once was.  Many are extreme minorities in their communities, but they are the link between the past and the future of Jewish life in Europe.

That 30 young Jewish adults who are active and who care exist in places where Jews were persecuted is remarkable and a testament to the tenacity of the Jewish people. It made me wonder, what was it that made these 30 young Jews stick with Jewish life and culture while their counterparts did not?

It reminded me of a conversation I had recently with Daniel, a young German Jew who is a leader in the Jewish community in Berlin.  His Jewish mother married a non-Jew and raised him and his brother with little exposure to Judaism, and they even attended Catholic school.  But somehow Daniel found his way to the Jewish community and is an active leader in the community in Berlin, even serving on the board of a new reform synagogue. 

I grew up surrounded by Judaism; my family lit candles for Shabbat, I went to Hebrew school, and I had a bat-mitzvah, so it isn’t surprising that I feel connected to Judaism.  But how do people like Daniel and many participants at the seminar who have minimal exposure to Jewish life and are in the extreme minority in their cities and villages not assimilate, and even more, become active leaders in their communities?  When I asked Daniel that question, he said that he believes people are just born with this passion and link to Judaism, but not everybody discovers it.  He found his connection in the bonds he felt as a teenager with other Jews in his local community that he had never experienced before.  For others, it comes from trips to Israel or seminars like these where they interact and discover immediate connections with other young Jews.  Jewish organizations like JDC that provide opportunities such as these conferences are not only supporting young Jewish leaders but are building networks that will have an impact on the survival of Judaism in Europe.  It would be amazing to bring some of these young Jews to the United States to help them develop connections with Jews from thousands of miles away and to share ideas and inspire each other. 

Not only was it fascinating to learn about Jewish communities that most people don’t even know exist, but experiences like these are giving me a new perspective on world Jewry and are making me realize that I truly am a part of a single, intertwined Jewish world.  The fact that 30 young Jews from such diverse cities and countries were able to come together and have an immediate understanding of the issues they’re facing shows how connected we are.  Whether it’s the young woman from Transylvania who is the only Jew under the age of sixty in her village or the young man from Warsaw who is trying to show the world that his lively community is more than just a sad history, these young people share a passion to keep the Jewish spark alive.  And even in the midst of all the challenges and obstacles still to be overcome, this passion gives me a lot of hope for the future of European Jewry.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Purim + Pesach in Berlin!

I've been terrible at updating this blog while I've been in Berlin, and so much has happened that I don't know what to write about first! So I thought I could start with Purim and Passover because both holidays were packed with events.


Young Adult Purim Party- I teamed up with a local Jewish group for young adults called Jung und Judisch to organize a huge Purim party for young adults in Berlin.  Think hundreds of young people in costumes, a DJ, dancing, singing, and a costume contest in a Berlin bar.  It was a really great night.

We also decided to include the German-Israeli Society, a local group comprised of young adults, most of whom are not Jewish.  Two girls from the group helped organize the party with us, and both are studying Hebrew and Jewish Studies in university, which is really interesting considering neither of them are Jewish.  When I asked one of the girls where her motivation to learn about Judaism comes from, she seemed flustered by the question.  I tried to clarify, explaining that at UCLA, where I studied, the Jewish Studies department is dominated by Jewish students.  However, in German universities, Jewish Studies students are usually not Jewish.  When I asked her why she thinks that is, she shrugged and said, “It’s probably because of our history.”  

Purim at Bambinim- We had several events at Bambinim for Purim including one at our center in the West where I made hamantaschen with the kids (thanks for the recipe, Mom!) and silver crowns out of tin foil.  One of the kids who was dressed as Spider-man decided that I should also be Spider-man, so he painted my face to match his.

At another event at our center in the East, we had dancing, face painting, and different stations where the kids could do arts and crafts and make mishloach manot, gift baskets people give each other on Purim.


Young Adult Seder-  For Pesach, I teamed up again with Jung und Judisch to organize a seder for young adults.  It was a great experience because just two friends and I led the entire seder.  We had around thirty people at the seder from Germany and all over Europe, Russia, Israel, and the U.S., and everybody had different traditions and ways of singing songs that we tried to integrate. We did the seder mostly in German, but each person could read in whatever language they felt comfortable with.  It was a lot of fun, and it was nice to have such a wide variety of people from different organizations and groups.  The next night, I had seder #2 at my apartment, but it was much more low key after such a big event.

Family Seder at Bambinim- I helped organize a family seder with two other women at Bambinim.  We decided to project the hagaddah onto the wall, and we sang a lot of songs and told the story of Pesach using props and the kids as actors.  I made decorations with the kids beforehand that I put up on the walls and we set up cushions on the floor, so the atmosphere was very nice.

Pesach Camp-  We had three days of Pesach camp at Bambinim because of school vacation.  The weather was nice, so we got to take the kids to the park every day.  We also did some gardening in the backyard, which the kids loved, and I led a few arts and crafts activities including making afikomen holders and frogs with party blowers for tongues, which my mom did for us every year at home.  Of course that was a big hit for the kids and not so much for their quickly annoyed parents haha

Yom HaShoah in Israel

I was lucky enough to spend the past five days in Israel with my grandparents.  I’ve been to Israel several times before, but this was a unique trip that made me appreciate and understand my grandparents on a whole different level.  The fact that I happened to be there during Yom HaShoah with my grandparents who are both Holocaust survivors made the trip even more meaningful.

On my first day there, we drove to Jerusalem and visited the Memorial Cave at Yad Vashem, where my grandmother has a plaque for her parents and grandparents who were all killed during the Holocaust.  I had visited the cave before with my brother and then with my parents, but seeing my grandmother light memorial candles at a place that serves as a cemetery for her to visit her family was something I’ll never forget.  I had the opportunity to visit the homes of her parents and grandparents outside of Amsterdam a few years ago, and this experience made it all come together.  My grandmother endured more than any child should, but she was able to come out of it and make a life for herself.  She told me that the most important thing for her was to create a family, something she never had, and her nine grandchildren prove that she succeeded.

After Yad Vashem, we drove over to the Kotel, where my grandpa and his friend were able to charm the security guard into escorting our car right up to the wall.  The ultimate finaglers.  As my grandpa headed over to the men's section, my grandma and I decided to do something different and go to the women's part of the enclosed synagogue that you have to walk through the men's section to get to.  Of course everybody yelled at us and told us to go to the women's section, but we walked in anyway.  On our way out, a woman stopped me and asked us if we wanted to pray.  She turned to a page in her book and then asked if we live in Israel.  "I'm too old to move back here, but my granddaughter is coming here to work soon," my grandma told her.  The lady smiled and handed me a book called "Prayers for Happy Times."  Thinking this lady was one of many at the Kotel who give you things and then ask for a donation, my grandma reached into her bag to get some money.  "Lo, ze matanah (no, it's a gift)," the lady said and wished me good luck in Israel.  

On the morning of Yom HaShoah, my grandpa told me, “Briannale, in Judaism, you must honor the dead,” so we drove to the cemetery his parents are buried at.  Just as we were getting out of the car, the sirens went off.  For those of you who don’t know, on Yom HaShoah every year, air-raid sirens are sounded all throughout Israel, and people stop what they’re doing and stand in silence to pay respect for those who died in the Holocaust.  As the sirens stopped, I watched my grandfather kiss the graves of his parents, and we lit memorial candles and said Kaddish for them. 

During the few days I was there, my grandparents also took me to see other places that were important in their stories like the street my grandpa’s family lived on, the vineyards he worked on as a teenager, the place my grandma taught English and the Kibbutz she worked on and learned Hebrew.  I had seen most of these places before, but seeing them through my grandparents’ eyes gave me a completely different perspective. 

My grandparents’ lives started when they got to Israel.  My grandmother, a victim of the Holocaust and then an adopted home that never gave her love told me that her life really began when she came to Israel on a Young Hadassah trip when she was eighteen and decided to stay.  She told me it was the first time she felt she belonged and had people who cared about her.  My grandfather, who also went through the Holocaust and then tried to get to Israel after the war, was turned away by the British and sent to a refugee camp in Cyprus. I asked him how he felt when one year later he was finally able to step onto Israeli soil, and he closed his eyes and smiled.  “I had nothing but the shirt on my back, but I felt pure happiness.”

One day as we were driving past the kibbutz my grandma lived on when she first came to Israel she said, "As an eighteen-year-old just arriving in this country, I never would have thought that 50+ years later, I would be returning to show my granddaughter these places.  That's a really special experience." And it was a special and powerful experience that I'll always cherish.   

I’m returning to my work in Berlin with an added sense of purpose and understanding of my heritage and excitement for the months that I will serve in Israel!