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Bulgaria: Small Jewish Community, Big Impact

I can’t say I’ve ever spent much time thinking about Jewish Bulgaria, past or present. But if I had, I probably would have made the following assumptions based on what I thought I knew about Eastern Europe: (1) Bulgarian Jews were Ashkenazi; (2) they were shomer Shabbos (Shabbat-observant); (3) Their community was decimated by the Nazis, with plenty of assistance from local anti-Semites; (4) Those few who survived immediately set about rebuilding their cultural and religious Jewish lives.
So on Sunday, when I went down to Greenwich Village to hear Julia Dandolova, director of JDC Bulgaria, talk about Bulgarian Jewish life, I didn’t expect to learn a whole lot new. Truth be told, I was more interested in seeing a cool Perry Street carriage house.
Well, at least I was right about one thing – the hostess, Linda White’s place is way cool! [Note: Julia also spoke at a breakfast at JDC the following morning, chaired by Ron Burton and Steve Silverman.]
But as for my seemingly safe assumptions – wrong, wrong and wrong. Here’s some of what I learned about Jewish Bulgaria, then and now.
The Jewish community was created by Jews expelled from Spain, so it was and remains almost entirely Sephardic and concentrated in Sofia. It was never particularly religious. And while, yes, Bulgaria cooperated with the Nazis, when Hitler wanted to move all of Sofia’s Jews to border cities, making it easier to deport them, Eastern Orthodox priests said if the Jews go, they’d go, too. Their congregants applauded and so did many other Bulgarians. The order was delayed, the war ended, and 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. (Yes, history books will tell us that more than 11,000 Jews died in the camps; they were Jews from territories Hitler had given to Bulgaria, his ally. So there is a tragic story here, too.)
And even so, after the war, all but 5,000 of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews made aliyah. Those who remained, not a religious group to begin with, left dormant or hid their religious roots. Their kids grew up barely knowing what a Jew was, certainly not thinking of themselves as such.
But today? In no small part due to JDC’s active presence for the last 25 years, Jewish ethnic identity and cultural values are thriving. Kashrut, Sabbath observance, etc., all remain back-burnered, though Jewish literacy is way up. But tikkun olam, tzedakah, all the things that make me proud to be a Jew, are back with a vengeance. Children are going to Jewish summer camps, learning about their heritage. Teenagers are making tzedakah boxes, selling them to fellow Jews, collecting the money every few months, and distributing it to the needy. Sofia’s Jewish life is centered in the JCC and its programs. The one synagogue is not as vibrant yet, but an orthodox Rabbi from Israel who is learning Bulgarian is promising, and a community group has invited the first Reform rabbi to visit in February in the hopes of reviving interest in another version of Judaism.
Jewish values are strong and getting stronger by the day.
Yay, Bulgaria! And yay, JDC.
JDC Ambassadors will visit Bulgaria and Greece in October– for more information on that and other international travel opportunities, go to http://jdc.org/letsgo
Claudia Deutsch is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and a JDC donor and journalist.

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When Deadly Cold Sets in, JDC’s Winter Relief Warms the Most Vulnerable

Warm bedding is a critical necessity during the coldest winter months in Belarus.

As this week saw an unprecedented cold snap for people in Europe and the former Soviet Union (FSU) resulting in the deaths of more than 60, JDC’s Winter Relief program was well underway.
Now in its 25th year, the critical aid program ensures that thousands of poor Jews, including homebound elderly — without the resources or ability to secure appropriate supplies — get the critical support they need to survive frigid temperatures in places with little local support to help them.
Take the Vasiliev-Klochkovs, a family from the remote city of Prishakhtinsk in Kazakhstan, where the temperature currently is just -1 degrees Fahrenheit.
The family of four live in a dilapidated house without indoor plumbing or central heating. Their only source of heat is a furnace that burns charcoal. Last month, the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center provided a large supply of to the family. If it wasn’t for this delivery, which will yield up to four months of heat, it is highly unlikely the Vasiliev-Klochkovs would have been able to afford this basic necessity on their monthly income, just $176.
Without JDC, the Vasiliev-Klochkovs would be left alone to shiver in the dark–and they are not the only ones.
For needy Jews from the Baltics to Hungary to Kazakhstan, winter relief comes in the form of warm blankets and jackets, wood, coal, electric heaters, and utility subsidies that are desperately needed.
In Poland, where temperatures dropped to -4 degrees Fahreheit in some areas, dozens of families received winter aid, from warm clothes, to flu shots, to heaters.
A generation after JDC began its efforts to help Jews in need stave off winter’s cold, the annual program is not only saving lives, its providing community for those with no one else in the world to turn to.
JDC’s global programs are made possible by the generosity of our .

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AJT Conference Showcases Surging Jewish Teen Life in FSU

Kharkov, Ukraine played host to 350+ Jewish teen leaders attending the 3rd Active Jewish Teens (AJT) conference.

Today’s teens often spend their time navigating the world of adulthood, learning about the world, and themselves, through fast-paced information channels, and ultimately establishing their own unique identity. To support this journey on a global scale, JDC has prioritized supporting Jewish teen life around the world, largely through our global partnership with BBYO, the largest Jewish pluralistic teen movement.
A quickly expanding outgrowth of that effort, and the high demand among Jewish teens in the former Soviet Union to lead their communities and shape their identities, is JDC’s Active Jewish Teens Network (AJT).
A vibrant, inclusive peer network that engages teens and young adults in Jewish community life, AJT also offers them the opportunity to explore and form their Jewish identities.
Catalyzed initially by JDC-BBYO Service Corps Fellows – deployed in yearlong placements and utilize their expertise in Jewish education and teen engagement – and a grassroots enthusiasm among Jewish teens to actively participate in Jewish life, AJT boasts a membership of 3,000 Jewish teens from 55 cities across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. As Jewish life flourishes in the region, this younger generation plays a pivotal and central role in building Jewish life-a miraculous reversal of history in a region where the Nazis and Soviets attempted to obliterate all traces of Jewish people and communities.
The success of that evolution was on display in December as more than 300 of those teens gathered for the 3rd annual AJT Conference in Kharkov, Ukraine. Nearly doubling the number of last year’s attendees, the conference also included for the first-time teens from Latvia and Israel.
The conference, run exclusively by the teens themselves, has quickly become the largest platform for Jewish teen networking and communication and leadership best practices in the former Soviet Union.
Participants had an opportunity to meet with inspiring speakers and teachers from different countries to deepen their Jewish knowledge and leadership skills, analyze case studies of successful teen projects, and attend master classes from leaders of youth clubs.
“I have already said a hundred times that AJT has given me the meaning of life. It gave me confidence, and the desire to go forward. My greatest fear is to lose contact with AJT participants. It is only thanks to them that I’m feeling confident and open. Just know that all of you gave me a push to create something new,” said participant Natalia Gavrilyuk from the Ukranian city of Zaporozhe.
Each morning started with a choice of Israeli dancing, prayer, yoga, or morning exercises. Each meal had teen-led blessings. And on Friday night, the teens lit candles in a Kabbalat Shabbat service where they sang Hebrew songs, read from the Torah, and recited more traditional prayers, and listened to a dvar Torah, a commentary on the weekly portion of the Torah. The singing didn’t stop there however, as the festive dinner that immediately followed brought with it more singing and also birthday celebrations for several participants.
In spite of the freezing weather typically seen by Ukraine during this time of year, Saturday morning brought participants outside for a fun yet chilly “Shabbat Quest” where they completed challenging exercises in order to move onto the next level of the activity. At the end of each segment, the group learned something new about Shabbat from one of their peer teachers.
As Shabbat came to a close, the conference was far from over. Teens were then bused to the JDC-supported JCC, Beit Wohl, to take part in a festive dance party, awards ceremony for outstanding AJT achievements, and to cast their ballots for the new AJT presidents, Eva Shepilova and Dmitry Arutyunov.
“I would have never believed that over the last several days I could meet so many interesting people, learn so many new things, and experience such magic! With each new AJT opportunity, I want to further develop myself and my community more and more,” said participant Sonja Bakhtiyarova of Odessa.
This pride and excitement was also evident among the esteemed guests who joinged the AJT teens at the conference. Ian Kandel, Vice President of BBYO, traveled from Washington, DC to attend the conference. Kandel ran several sessions for participants and also spoke about the BBYO’s work and how AJT and BBYO partner together.

“Thank you so much for what must be one of the most inspiring weekends in my 12-year career with BBYO and the Jewish professional world,” said Kandel of his experience at AJT. ” The word ‘proud’ does not begin to summarize my feelings about what we – BBYO and JDC -have been able to catalyze among the former Soviet Union’s Jewish teens, our future movement builders and community leaders.”

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Q&A with JDC CEO David Schizer

The mission is 102 years old, but it’s very simple to describe: We save Jewish lives and we build Jewish life. In so many places in the world, Jewish people are living in really difficult conditions. I’ve been to Ukraine, and I’ve met elderly people who live on pensions that are $2 a day, because the currency in Ukraine has declined so much in the last few years. These people depend on us to live meaningful lives, to be able to function. We also are so committed to the idea of helping Jewish communities become better organized, so they can provide for themselves.

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Celebrating Chanukah with Ashalim and Better Together

Last week, Jews across the world came together to light candles and revel in the miracles of Chanukah. Different cultures even celebrated the holiday according to their own centuries-old traditions.
Across the State of Israel, Jewish communities began nurturing new Chanukah traditions, too.
With the help of JDC’s at-risk children and youth initiative, Ashalim, “Better Together” neighborhoods from Be’er Sheva to Kiryat Shmona celebrated Chanukah with a renewed commitment to bringing light back into their communities.
Better Together operates in Israel’s poorest neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for children and families.
This Chanukah, residents from apartment blocks across the Better Together neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona gathered in their courtyards to light candles, sing festive songs, and enjoy sufganiyot. Better Together in Kiryat Shmona has more than 3,800 participants involved in roughly 40 projects.
Community organizers purposefully lit menorahs near residential buildings; their goal was to bring light to families who were either not invited to a Chanukah celebration or might not feel safe enough to venture outside at night.
Take Marcel, a resident of Kiryat Shmona for more than three decades.
After her children moved from the city and her husband died, Marcel found it difficult to live alone, which in turn affected her health and quality of life. Last Chanukah, a few girls from her apartment block invited her downstairs to light the Chanukah candles together. At this small gathering, Marcel met the neighbors who would become her new family.
Since that evening, she has been an active volunteer, organizing activities for women and girls in the neighborhood.
She and a number of other women in the neighborhood heard from younger mothers about their difficulties raising teenage girls, and in turn began organizing mother-daughter activities at a neighborhood youth club. They also reached out to struggling single mothers from the former Soviet Union.
“For several years I lived in the dark,” Marcel said. “I did not see the ray of light and hope. But since the girls and their mothers arrived at the local youth club activities, my spirit has changed.”
In Be’er Sheva, the Better Together neighborhood Yud Alef held its own Chanukah celebrations. Throughout the neighborhood, residents blessed the holiday candles, enjoyed Chanukah treats, and organized children’s activities.
Ilana and her daughter Shachar, 8, residents of Yud Alef in Be’er Sheva, have felt the impact of their Better Together community. Shachar is involved in the Mishachkiya game room program, a creative play therapy outlet for families and their children. She basks in the warmth of her second family, eagerly awaiting each weekly meeting.
Better Together, one of Ashalim’s flagship programs, employs an innovative strategy to minimize systemic gaps among Israeli children and youth.
JDC-Ashalim, in partnership with local municipalities, identifies specific neighborhoods and seeks to give residents a voice in the decision-making process, strengthen the community’s belief in its own ability to change the situation, and train residents to carry out the change effectively.
Working closely with the municipality, the initiative leverages existing infrastructure, such as schools, community centers and public spaces, to empower the community members to take an active role in shaping the future of their neighborhood.
Programs range from specialized parenting groups (e.g. for single mothers, parents to teenagers, and parents of children with special needs) and after-school enrichment, to inter-neighborhood father-son soccer leagues and women’s cooking clubs.
Better Together helps to establish action committees, comprised of community members, municipal leaders, local service providers, and NGO representatives that aim to affect families’ quality of life. These include committees dedicated to updating and caring for communal urban green spaces, arranging neighborhood security, and implementing health-related programming.
Ashalim Director Dr. Rami Sulimani conceived of the Better Together program and has followed the growth of the program to some 40 neighborhoods.
He said the program gives neighborhood residents “the opportunity to express their voice, use their skills for the sake of their community and for their children.”
Dr. Sulimani said that when visiting Better Together communities, residents have thanked him for all that JDC has brought into their neighborhood.
“Thanks to the program, we’ve grown to become involved in serving the community,” they tell him. “We feel that we have the power to influence and make a difference in our lives, to live in a well-kept place and take responsibility for what is happening around us.”
Yehuda Zusman, Better Together’s Northern Region manager, said Chanukah ties in well to the larger goals of the neighborhood initiative.
“The core of the Chanukah narrative celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. And that is exactly what our Better Together neighborhoods are doing this Chanukah,” he said. “In a physical sense, they are honoring the mitzvah of candle lighting, and illuminating their homes, courtyards and public spaces. In a spiritual sense, the communities are taking the future of their neighborhoods into their own hands, in turn making their neighborhoods brighter places to live.”

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Act Now: Jewish Response for Aleppo Evacuees

photo: AP

As the world is focused on the plight of those being evacuated from the besieged city of Aleppo, the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR), chaired by JDC, has swiftly moved to meet the needs of these beleaguered civilians.

Facing overwhelming hardship, the evacuees are in desperate need of food, medicine, clean water, and shelter. JCDR is working with a vetted and longtime JDC partner on the ground, the International Blue Crescent, to ensure food for the growing evacuee population.

This is latest chapter in JCDR’s response to the largest refugee crisis since World War Two. The 20-member JCDR Coalition for Syrian Refugees, and JDC, have provided humanitarian relief to tens of thousands refugees and displaced persons in the last three years in Jordan, Turkey, and across Europe.

As Chanukah approaches, and we celebrate the miracle of light banishing darkness and hope in the face of great odds, .

JCDR’s decades-long efforts providing life-saving aid and critical support, on behalf of the Jewish people, has impacted countless numbers of people facing disaster and crisis in numerous countries, including Rwanda, Haiti, Nepal, and across South Asia.

Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugee members include:

American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Anti-Defamation League
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
Jewish Federations of North America
Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
Jewish Labor Committee
JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Jewish Women International
Jewish World Watch
Rabbinic Assembly
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
World Jewish Congress
World Jewish Relief
World ORT

JCDR’s work with refugees has also led to the founding of the , an interfaith movement dedicated to spreading awareness and advocating for the needs of Syrian refugee populations.

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Experiencing the Flavor of Jewish Life with JDC

Event Chairs Danielle Capalino and Shari Levy, members of both the JDC Board of Directors and the JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee.

Different foods tell a myriad of stories through their ingredients and spices, bringing together Jewish people from around the world for generations through the joyful process of cooking and the shared eating of these dishes.
The JDC Symposium, an annual event organized by and with participation from was held at the Center for Jewish History in downtown New York City yesterday, drawing in over 100 attendees who were offered a taste of JDC’s world, through hearing about Jewish issues; exploring key parts of Jewish history like displaced persons (DP) camps; tracing their own family roots via the extensive collection; and exploring the intertwining of today’s Jewish food and culture through a special presentation called “The Flavor of Jewish life: an exploration of cooking, culture and community.”
“JDC has touched so many lives. One of the privileges of joining this organization is that people I have known for years have recently shared with me stories about family members saved by JDC. While this need for JDC’s help is in the past for some, it is a current reality for many, many people. Jews across the globe are facing extremely difficult challenges. Without JDC, living day to day just wouldn’t be possible,” said David Schizer, JDC’s CEO designate, in his opening remarks at the symposium.
Following was Anne-Claire Legendre, the new consul general of France in New York, who discussed the status of Jews in France in the face of anti-Semitism and terror. In addition, Atina Grossman, a professor of history at Cooper Union, showcased multiple photos within the JDC archives collection and illuminated the plight of Jews living in DP camps after the Holocaust.
In another session, highlighting the connection between food and culture, heritage and Jewish peoplehood, Danielle Rehfeld, chef and founder of , alongside Liz Rueven of , and Amir Shaviv, JDC’s assistant executive vice president for special operations, held a lively conversation on Jewish food and life in distant locations ranging from Hungary to Belarus to Iran, where JDC worked until 1979.
“In cooking, there is always something to learn. Through cooking with dynamic Jewish people, I hear the remarkable stories of their families, proving there is an amazing common humanity that we all share,” said Danielle Rehfield.
Danielle proceeded to recount a few stories she has heard on her Jewish food journey like Chef David Nayfeld’s family, who fled Minsk, Belarus among tens of thousands of Soviet Jewish emigres who received aid in the form of food, housing, clothing, medical care, English language classes, children’s and youth activities, and religious programs from JDC while awaiting immigration processing in Vienna and Rome in order to head to the U.S. and other countries.
As she spoke to David about his family’s miraculous story of survival, he and Danielle , a delicious Belarusian style pancake stuffed with chicken recipe that was originally developed by Neyfeld for The Inherited Plate.
Danielle also interviewed David’s mother Galina just this past weekend to hear her perspective on how the recipe originated and her personal account on her family’s history.
She said, “At that time in my life, it marked the first time ever that people like JDC were there to help me.”
Danielle Capalino and Shari Levy, members of both the JDC Board of Directors and the JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee, chaired the event, while Co-Chair of the JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee Ellie Block kicked off the symposium.

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JDC FSU and Israel Departments Team Up to Promote Volunteerism

You might think JDC’s Former Soviet Union (FSU) department would have little in common with Ashalim, our partnership with the Government of Israel to address children and youth at risk.
At first glance, the two departments operate in different regions of the world and address the needs of distinct target populations.
But instead of viewing these differences as challenges to cooperation, JDC welcomes them, constantly seeking new opportunities to collaborate across the 70 countries in which we work.
That spirit was showcased by last month’s “First International FSU Volunteer Conference,” held in Chisinau, Moldova.
The event brought together more than 150 local community volunteers coordinators and volunteers from 35 communities across the FSU. Along with the critical input and participation of Ashalim professionals, it was a weekend of volunteer-based skills building and professional development, as well as coordinator training to engage, recruit, and mobilize volunteers.
JDC’s FSU team has invested efforts in strengthening and expanding volunteer activity and networks over the last several years. There are now , providing services to all age groups within the Jewish community, helping carry out community-wide events like holiday celebrations, and working to improve the broader society in the places where Jews live.
Ashalim’s Volunteer Area program was identified as a unique professional resource that could assist and support the volunteer expansion process. Since 2014, Ashalim Volunteer staff have led training programs tailored and adapted to the unique needs of Jewish communities in the FSU.
At the Chisinau conference, each delegation was encouraged to present their unique community volunteering projects at a volunteering fair. Participants had the opportunity to learn from their regional counterparts’ successful and original projects, and many said they would return home inspired to continue innovating their local volunteering initiatives.
Volunteer coordinators in the Jewish community of St. Petersburg organized “Living History,” a series of meetings between the elderly and young people. Senior citizens are given a meaningful chance to share their stories, and the next generation is able to learn about history with people who lived through it.
In Ukraine, volunteers initiated “To live — means to create,” where community members visit the Kiev Pediatric Oncological Center and spend a day interacting with the young cancer patients.
The Jewish community of Mogilev, Belarus brings Jewish theater into the lives of homebound Hesed social welfare center clients. Incorporating costumes, music, and poems, the shows — typically for just one or two viewers — are interactive, providing a much-needed source of entertainment and community belonging.
The conference was a chance to develop professional skills and meet peers engaged in the same kind of important work, said Alexandra Gorbatil, a volunteer coordinator from Moldova.
“The common discussions with coordinators and volunteers from other cities about problems they face with their volunteer projects helped me to find solutions to some of the problems that we were also facing, he said. “I was surprised how much we were all on the same page and could learn from one another.”
JDC-FSU Executive Director Michal Frank recognizes the wide-ranging benefits of community volunteering.
These volunteer networks “help meet community needs and at the same time develop a high sense of engagement within the volunteers themselves, leading directly to strengthening ties in the community,” she said.
The partnership between the FSU department and Ashalim was instrumental in developing the programming — a joint professional collaboration that involved adapting best practices from Ashalim to the realities in the FSU.
Ashalim Director of Knowledge Development Liora Arnon has worked closely with the FSU team for the past three years and was part of the team that developed the conference.
She said she’s grateful for the opportunity to work across departments.
“Sharing Ashalim’s knowledge and unique professional experience in volunteer management was a valuable professional opportunity for mutual learning and development,” she said. “The conference was an exciting opportunity for me to further learn from my colleagues on topics ranging from community development to cultural sensitivity.”
JDC Israel CEO Yossi Tamir also praised the collaboration.
“I see great importance in working shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the FSU to develop new programs and partnerships,” he said. “JDC Israel will continue to use its knowledge and expertise to the benefit of JDC globally, and in turn be enriched with the experience and knowledge other divisions can bring to JDC Israel.”
Tamir said the collaboration will continue with the opening of JDC’s Center for Learning early next year in Israel.

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Carrying Ralph Goldman’s Legacy Forward

Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson and Israel Supreme Court Deputy President Eliyakim Rubinstein were among the distinguished guests today at the opening of the Ralph I. Goldman Center for Social Welfare, Ethics, and Judaism at the university’s Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, where Prof. Yedidiya Stern presented the opening lecture.
JDC Israel CEO Yossi Tamir headed a delegation of JDC professionals, who joined Goldman family members, friends, and a host of academics in this latest tribute to the legacy of Ralph Goldman, z”l, who passed away in October 2014, soon after celebrating his one-hundredth birthday.
An icon of international Jewish communal service, Ralph’s name was synonymous with JDC’s for over four decades. He served first as JDC’s Assoc. Director General in Israel and then as its Executive Vice President and Honorary Exec. Vice President, and he was still actively working on JDC’s behalf at his death.
Intensely interested in the interface between Jewish ethics and social welfare policies, Ralph himself laid the groundwork for this new Center. In 2008, with support from the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Fund, he collaborated with the Baerwald School to establish what has become an increasingly popular series of courses and student scholarship opportunities addressing this nexus.
It was an endeavor that continued a long-standing relationship between The Hebrew University and JDC, dating back to the establishment in 1958 of the social work school, named after Paul Baerwald, a founding member of the JDC, and the founding in 1971 of the Joseph J. Schwartz Training Center for Community Center Personnel, named after the JDC professional who led JDC’s response to WWII and the Shoah. [Learn more about JDC’s hallmark WWII-era activities at archives.JDC.org.]
Honoring Ralph’s legacy in a field so close to his heart, the eponymous Center will serve as a hub for groundbreaking academic explorations of this subject. It will offer graduate level courses, research groups, support for masters and doctoral studies, and opportunities for international collaboration and scholarly exchanges.
As JDC Executive Vice President Alan Gill reminds us, “Ralph lived his entire life in service to the Jewish People, and his greatest joy was to pass on his values to the next generation. This new center will do that and more–keeping his dreams, his vision, and his abiding sense of commitment alive for generations to come.”

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