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.

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.