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Romania’s Bereshit Event Turns 13

“Imagine getting to meet with 400 Jews who we don’t get to see every day in a reunion that is positive and energizing,” said Luciana Friedman, President of the Jewish community in Timisoara, Romania.
“It’s a real learning experience and a unique opportunity!”
Luciana is one of hundreds of participants, representing 33 communities across Romania, who have gathered together for a multi-day celebration of Jewish culture, learning, and traditions at the 13th annual Bereshit event, serving as a special Bar Mitzvah for the seminar, in Tirgu Mures, Romania.
“This event brings Jews from across Romania for a weekend of learning and discovery. We have professors from Israel and Romania who come to teach Judaism in a way that is both interesting and accessible, and there are hundreds of people who are thirsty to learn and celebrate their Jewish identity,” said Israel Sabag, JDC director of Romania and the former Yugoslavia.
This weekend’s gathering is especially significant, as it marks 100 years of JDC’s work in Romania, including the founding of the Bereshit academic study event for the country’s Jewish community, and local Jewish Community Center (JCC) members.
At this seminar, the group is exploring the theme of tikkun olam – the Jewish concept of repairing the world – through dynamic, interactive activities highlighting Jewish values.
“It gives me an enriching opportunity to meet other members from other Jewish communities in Romania,” said another participant, Ivan Schnabel.
Attendees will also celebrate Shabbat and engage in text study and meaningful dialogue.
“This seminar is a beautiful celebration of Jewish knowledge,” said Zoya Shvartzman, part of the JDC Europe team. “This forum provides educational, spiritual, and social enrichment for a community that was shattered by the Holocaust and decades of Communism, giving individuals the opportunity to gather, engage in Jewish study and strengthen their connection to their Jewish heritage. It is a testament of the vibrancy and resilience of the Jewish community of Romania.”

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A School, a Shofar, and a Question

Penny and Claudio Pincus recently traveled to Israel and visited a school that’s part of a JDC program called “Schools With a Heart,” for which they have been providing vitally important funding.This unique endeavor is testing an approach to identify, diagnose, assist, counsel, and guide children at risk of poor performance given either social, psychological, or cognitive difficulties.Penny and Claudio visited Kadima, a primary school in Kiriat Bialik, an area of Haifa. The school was selected to be a pilot and embraced the opportunity; the major, principal, and teachers personally mobilized the city in support.
The Pincus family was given presentations on the initiative, the unique challenges encountered, and many cases of successful outcomes. Children told of their journeys and what it felt like to overcome difficulties. Teachers shared the value of the new “tool box” they received through special training and of the support from professionals provided by the JDC program. Penny and Claudio witnessed how children from different races, backgrounds, and intellectual capacities are integrated under one big roof.Below is a letter they wrote following their visit.———————Dear Children, Teachers, and Principal of Beit Sefer Kadima, Kiriat Bialik, Makom B’lev,Penny and I visited you this last September 15, and you welcomed us in your school by showing us with great pride the classrooms, the music room, and other facilities and telling us about the different programs in which you now participate. Many of you spoke in English, played the piano, sang songs, and acted out parts of a new drama. We came for two hours and stayed for more than four, and we enjoyed lunch and fruits.You gave us two presents: a collection of pictures of teachers and the community – the “Family of Makom B’lev” – and a Shofar.Since that day, I have been thinking: Why did the children select a Shofar to express your feelings?Was it because you wanted to make sure that Penny and I would fulfill the mitzvah of Lishmoah Kol Shofar (listening to the Shofar)? And the shofar sound would be a great thank you?Or was it that 100 children wished that each of the 100 shofar blasts (the number we are commanded to sound on Rosh Hashanah) would be a celebration of the accomplishment of each one, thanks to this special program and community, Makom B’lev?Or was it that 100 children wished that the 100 shofar blasts would remind us that in the next year we should think of another 100 children who are in need of help?Or was it your wish that the Tekia Gedola (the long, clear shofar blast) would be a bridge to heaven, Gesher L’shamayim, that will bring the angels to this school?The Akeida Itzjak (the story of the binding of Isaac, read at Rosh Hashanah) tell us about the past, the times of danger that existed until the Shofar, blown by the angels, announced our transformation forever as a people and individuals.Children, let me tell you. This Shofar represents the essence of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). We were all children at risk, just like you. All of us asked for help when we were in danger. And some, not many, realized that we can be the angels, hiding our faces so that you and children yet to come can sing the song of our fathers, “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo.”Kol ha’olam kuloGesher tzar me’odVeha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.The whole worldIs a very narrow bridgeand the main thing is to have no fear at all.(lyrics: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)– Claudio and Penny Pincus, Rosh Hashanah 5777

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Haiti Update: Recovering From Hurricane Matthew

As Floridians brace for Hurricane Matthew, and our thoughts and prayers are with them, the people of Haiti are already grappling with the storm’s devastating impact.In fact, with Hurricane Matthew, Haiti — the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the world’s most impoverished countries — has experienced its biggest humanitarian disaster since the 2010 earthquake.JDC, in a Jewish response to this crisis, is working with partners on the ground to deliver critical medical relief to the hardest-hit regions.When Matthew, then a Category 4 Hurricane with 145 mph winds and 50-foot waves, pummeled western Haiti, it disrupted cell communications and caused major infrastructure damage to key bridges, airports, and roads.About 500 deaths have been reported so far, with more than 300 in the hardest-hit towns and fishing villages on the southern coast in Haiti’s Sud province. Thirty thousand homes have been destroyed, with scores ofthousands losing their livelihoods; the United Nations reports that 350,000 Haitians are in need of assistance.Our medical assistance is especially critical, given severe food shortages and fears of outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera. That medical relief to the worst-hit areas is happening together with and through ourlongstanding partner Heart to Heart International, which has three medical teams on the ground in Sud province.A fourth medical team is being dispatched today to Fondwa, a small community village in the 10th Rural Section of Leogane in the Western Department of Haiti. JDC has a history of working in Fondwa – we built aschool and implemented livelihood projects there in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.Six years ago, JDC was on the ground in Haiti within hours of the deadly earthquake that impacted three million Haitians. Since then, JDC has provided sustenance, medical treatment, psychosocial support, jobtraining, and education for more than 400,000 among the country’s recovering population.

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Hesed and Moishe House Team Up in Minsk

Residents of the Moishe House in Minsk recently partnered with JDC’s Hesed social welfare center in the Belarusian capital city for a special Shabbat event.
To get a taste of the event, we checked in with 80-year-old Vera to see what made it so extraordinary.
“Today, Shabbat was special for me. That’s for sure! I visit all the Shabbats events, in any weather and any time of year,” she said. “It’s so nice to spend time with the younger generation, who honor the traditions.”
We asked Moishe House Minsk resident Tanya Shteinbuk how “Shabbat with Hesed” came together.
Q: What was the spark of inspiration for this event?
A: The coordinator of the Jewish volunteer movement here in Minsk floated the idea to us. Young people here had never spent Shabbat with Hesed before. We thought it was a great idea and a chance for a “celebration” — for us and for the elderly.
Q: What was the most powerful part of the event?
A; “Shabbat with Hesed” is rather different from all the Shabbat events we’ve held earlier. The atmosphere was very warm and sincere, and there were more than 30 people. All the prayers were accompanied by music; our Eugene played along on guitar. It was really very touching and exciting. After the blessing over the challah, some of the elderly sang songs and read poems, too.
Q: Why is it important to have events with the elderly?
A: It is very important to gain experience, which the elderly have. We have a lot to learn from them. They are the storehouses of knowledge and traditions. We appreciate spending time together with the older generation.
Q: How have Moishe House and JDC impacted your Jewish identity?

A: Moishe House and JDC give me the opportunity to get to know new people. Each person has their own history, knowledge, and Jewish values. Talking with them, I ask them questions, and I ask myself a lot of questions. Moishe House and JDC’s activities and programs are very multifaceted, it allows us to approach the issue of studying Jewish history and culture from different sides.

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JDC in a Changing World

The following is a speech given by Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein at a JDC Schiff Society meeting on September 26, 2016.
It is a tremendous honor to be with you this evening and a special joy to again have the opportunity to personally salute you who are involved in and support JDC. I’ve said before but it is never sufficient enough to thank you for your furthering the mandate of one of the great heroic organizations of Jewish life. I have seen your work in action around much of this world and continue to marvel at the outreach and goodness emanating from the firmest of Jewish values as they are embodied in this organization. I especially thank Phyllis Hattis Rubin for hosting us and Rebecca Neuwirth for her tenacity in getting me here. I also want to recognize though he could not be here this evening your new CEO-designate David Schizer. He is brilliant, eminently decent and wise, and devoted to the best of Jewish life. I congratulate both David and you for your decision to move on together.
The topic for our conversation this evening is JDC in a Changing World and, of course, the world is changing, but as always the Jewish world is evolving at a faster pace. Let’s be clear that every generation tends to look at the one that comes after it with suspicion if not disapproval. And this young generation in the Jewish community, by whatever name you call it (millennial/self-reliant/odyssey/misunderstood), is fundamentally different from mine or even from the generations between me and those who are in the twenties and thirties.
In short form this we know:

So what does this mean for JDC and its future?
Here’s the nub of it in the plainest language I can use. This generation is searching for meaning: personal meaning and meaning in being a Jew. David Brooks asserts that they “want less stuff and more community.” They are globalist, socially responsible, and hopeful. Therefore I passionately believe that everything JDC is doing and the changes it is making can be a vehicle and motivator for, and an instigator of “meaning”, meaning as a Jew and as a human being.
The next generation will no longer tolerate past glib answers to serious questions. They are searching and want to know why we care at all about Jewish survival and Jewish life whether for themselves or for their offspring? And at its core, JDC says that we Jews are a global people that reach beyond our walls and beyond ourselves. You are on the ground and fully hands on wherever needed. Therefore JDC can declare with full integrity that if a person wants to be part of something that suspends xenophobia and isolation and allows you to go to bed at night with the comfort of knowing that are finding meaning for yourself in making a difference in healing this world then come with us, join us, support and believe in us because that’s exactly what we’re doing.
As an organization you stand outside denominational affiliation, institutional self-service and communal segmentation that marks too much of the Jewish world and you believe that “Joint” means just that… we are all in this jointly together.
From my perspective JDC is intent on sustaining an ongoing relationship with our history and with our mission because now more than ever you know that business as usual is not OK, “good enough” is just not good enough and playing it safe no longer guarantees our safety.
Therefore you, JDC, should rightly feel compelled to do what Jews are supposed to do: to care about others who are not Jewish even if they might not have concern for us if the tables were turned. You also stand with Jews in Europe against the invidious tide of anti-Semitism and you provide shoulders for Jewish girls in Tunisia to lean on.
Additionally, you have a special concern for what is happening in Israel? And why? My answer as I said at your plenary four years ago is because no matter what our feelings about the policies of Israel’s government, it is your mission to empower the future of all Israelis, to be with them in the midst of their celebrations and to be with them to share their heartache; to care for their immigrants and other children and youth at risk, and as you say “to develop visionary solutions to meet the needs of all disadvantaged in Israeli society.”
You, JDC, have an ineffable but powerful message to take to Jews throughout this world: that we Jews passionately recommit ourselves to the ongoing and miraculous venture of Jewish life. Launched as we were into human history we Jews have a mission and a purpose. So it must be with passion, courage and especially with the incredible energy that is the hallmark of this organization that you lead us forward. The answer to the question “why should we survive” is the fundamental truth of this organization. The reason we need survive is because we are a unique global people caring for our own and for others. That is the most perfectly reliable recipe and direction for finding meaning in our lives, meaning as Jews, as citizens of this world and as an integral part of humanity.

So I hope you get on with it and wish you well in that venture.

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How a Small Initiative Became a Lifeline for Refugees

photo: Photo Credit: Info Park

I’m walking around Belgrade, it’s the summer of 2016, and a global humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before my eyes.
You cannot get more central than Belgrade, the capital of Serbia – at the very heart of Europe — where the Danube meets the Sava River. Picture perfect. In Belgrade, refugees are not a new concept. As a country that sits in an often war-torn region, Belgrade has seen its fair share of refugees over the years. Still, what you see today when you walk around the streets of Belgrade is unprecedented. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East made their way through what is known as the Balkan corridor (the passage from Greece to FYR Macedonia and Bulgaria), and they are flooding the streets of the city. They’re crossing seas and borders on their way to a “promised land.”
It breaks your heart just to look at their faces. Most are confused from the entire border crossing. Some don’t even know where they are, thinking they are already in Germany when in reality they are in a park many, many miles away. There are women looking for husbands who left them behind. Everyone is exhausted. Some are even beginning to doubt their decision to leave their war-ravaged homes.
Most refugees only have the clothes on their back. If they are really lucky, they might also have a cellphone and a bit of cash. Many of them have found shelter at the local park in Belgrade that sits adjacent to the bus station. Standing here, I can honestly say it is the last place anyone would want to end up.
It is disheartening to see so many families with children trying to escape the boiling sun and find food, water, shelter, electricity and WiFi. For these families, and the other refugees in the park, Belgrade was supposed to be a pit stop on their way to Germany and north Europe. But now they are stuck there. Downtown is overflowing with families, small children, and single men using every space, roof, tree, and parking spot as shelter. Sanitation and health are at a minimum.
Enter Info Park, a pop-up grassroots initiative that provides information and free public WiFi access. Marija Mirtovic and Gordan Paunovic, two local activists from Fund B92 and the Trag Foundation, could no longer bear to cross the park, witness the heart-wrenching scene there, and remain silent. In a small hut, in the heart of the park, and with only the support of its staff and volunteers, Info Park now distributes about 300 to 400 warm meals three times a day, every day. They also provide other vital services, particularly to babies and children. Right now, Info Park is essentially the only distribution point for refugees to obtain food and basic necessities while the borders are closed.
What started with basic seed funding has now become the main lifeline for hundreds of refugees.
“The situation is changing dramatically,” Marija tells me. “The camp near Belgrade, Krnjaca, can normally host a maximum of 600 people. Currently, it houses more than a thousand refugees; all of a sudden, we had more than 850 people for lunch. It was quite intense, as we had to quickly secure more meals. We somehow managed but we’re worried about what will happen next, especially since the numbers are again on the rise.”
I meet Wael, a refugee from Syria who arrived in Belgrade last year and is still there. Wael is a survivor. A recipient of Info Park services, Wael became one of the project’s volunteers, there almost every day to help with the food distribution. The terrible circumstances he survived empowered him to step up and become an active leader in the park. When I visited the park, the food line was so long that many men began to fear supplies would run out before they could be served. Out of fear and hunger, people began pushing each other. It got pretty ugly. Wael immediately jumped in to diffuse the situation. He promised everyone they would all be served and, luckily, he was right. Wael’s asylum status is hopefully being processed. He recently entered the UNHCR reallocation program and is hopefully headed to a new life in Canada. Who knows how long it will take for him to get there. Still, he’s one of the lucky ones.
“We are not optimistic,” Marija says, “but we have no other choice. We must help them.”
That night, after I left the park, I felt oddly embarrassed as I sat down to dinner at a nice place on the Danube or as I went back to my hotel room to shower. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were refugees in Europe and were lucky enough to escape to Israel when the war started, I was humbled by my experience at Info Park. It reminded me how lucky I am not just to have access to basic life-sustaining supplies — such as food, clean water and shelter — but also how lucky I am to work for a Jewish organization, which chairs a Jewish coalition, that gives a global Jewish response to a refugee crisis like this.
At the end of the day, I was very encouraged and inspired by the people I met and by the volunteers I spent the day with. Serbia might be a small place in Europe, and it’s probably even seen as a negligible player in this humanitarian disaster. But its people have a big heart.
The Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, a sub coalition of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, is also working in partnership with Israeli-based NATAN, and together with B92 and Trag that have been running Info Park, to provide the much-needed psychosocial support to the refugees, primarily in the capital Belgrade.

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Jewish Families Come Together to Celebrate Shabbaton in Style

For the first time, 33 at-risk children and their families, with the youngest child less than a year old, traveled to a retreat center outside of Odessa for a celebratory Shabbaton — a chance to rejoice and make lifelong memories.
These families receive food, medicine, and more from the Jewish Family Services of Odessa and journeyed many hours from their homes to reach the hotel. All received support from their own local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare centers in Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, Izmail, and Balta.
When they reached their destination, they immersed themselves in the experience. Quickly the retreat center took on the feeling of a family reunion. After lighting Shabbat candles and saying prayers over grape juice and challah, the group sang songs and discussed important Jewish values.
The group also got to engage in some rare luxuries: swimming in the hotel’s pool, watching a live play featuring cartoon characters, eating pizza and special desserts, making their own chocolate-covered fruits, creating personal versions of Noah’s Ark in an arts-and-crafts workshop, and developing their own business plans related to a Jewish community center.
Traveling from Izmail, 9-year-old Tanya joined the festivities along with her 12-year old brother Nikolai, both of whom receive services from a JDC-supported Hesed in their hometown.
“When I went to bed on Thursday, I had a dream that reminded me not to oversleep so I wouldn’t miss the morning bus ride to Odessa,” she said. “If I did, I would have missed out on three wonderful days.”
She learned something new, too.
“I met so many new friends there, learned a new Shabbat song with my brother, and even went to a pizza place for the first time in my life, ” Tanya said.
In addition, the group from Balta brought a special gift with them to the hotel in the form of a concert that marked the first time they sang and danced in front of a large live audience.

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In Cuba, Blending Fun and Jewish Community

For most people, summer vacation is a chance to organize trips, family outings, and visits to parks and cultural attractions — in short, some much-needed rest.
But for the Jews of Cuba, financial challenges prevent many from taking full advantage of the time off.
Enter JDC, which recently organized a beach day outing for the Cuban Jewish community in conjunction with the Patronato, Havana’s largest synagogue.
“We always have a good time at the beach because we’re spending time with friends,” one 19-year-old community member said. “Thanks to Patronato and JDC for the opportunity!”
Another young community member, 15, said the trip was especially important, because there aren’t many outlets for relaxation and leisure in her country.
“I love the beach because in Cuba we don’t have many places where we can have fun. The beach is the best place to share a moment with family and friends,” she said. “I spent a magnificent time there, thanks to JDC.”

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Odessa Horse Therapy Program Helps Children In Need

13 year-old Egor is one of five at-risk Ukrainian Jewish children with special needs from the Odessa community who recently visited the city’s Horse Club for a special therapy program.
The therapy differs from others in that its innovative healing techniques use horses to assist kids with developmental and speech delays, as well as neurological disorders.
Living with his mother and grandmother, Egor’s family already works tirelessly with him to improve his speech and knew horse therapy would be a great supplement to the work they are already doing.
“Our boy likes all the things JDC organizes for us, especially those where he can enjoy communicating. He also likes animals very much and it was unbelievable for him to ride horses,” said Valentina, 75, Egor’s grandmother. “Without JFS, it would be impossible for us to be here today since one therapy session costs one sixth of my monthly pension, and the three of us survive on my daughter’s salary and my pension. This is happiness for all of us.”
Horse therapy is a highly efficient tool for rehabilitation, known around the world for helping to spur children’s physical and emotional development.
Over the next four months, once a week, the group of children will participate in these therapy sessions. Along with their parents and grandparents, the kids all already receive support in the form of food cards, medications, psychological rehabilitation, and more from Odessa’s JDC-supported Jewish Family Service.
In addition, the program includes family Shabbat retreats twice a year, Sunday meetings involving a special art therapy group, and even family theater for kids with special needs.
Although this is the first time the Jewish Family Service is utilizing this particular service, in 2010 and 2011, several kids engaged in dolphin therapy at the Odessa Dolphinarium, sponsored by the JFS/Hesed.
The initiative is possible thanks to a partnership between JDC’s Shaarey Tzion Hesed social welfare center and the city’s local Horse Club.

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Celebrating Shabbat Together in Turkey

Our Shabbat event was amazing! We had so much fun.
I got the idea when I was sent to a Tzeadim Yesod training program in Jerusalem, and we went to an amazing Kabbalat Shabbat event. I wanted to have an experience like that in my community, and we did it! Now we have people celebrating — congratulating us, saying they didn’t understand the concept before and asking when we’ll hold another one. I’m so happy.
The challah-making activity drew more people than expected — 35 women together, most making challah for the first time in their lives, including me! We learned the importance and the meaning of the ritual, and we had a chance to speak and eat together.
We also had live music, dancing, and songs. The music was so good! The dance circle was about 15 people, all coming together to enjoy the day.
A third part was fantastic, too! At our synagogue with a view of the sea, we were very creative. We managed to separate the men’s and women’s side with flowers, a solution everyone was comfortable with.
Later, we had a powerful seder. It was breathtaking to see all of us singing together. I didn’t even know we knew how! Sixty-nine people together for a special Shabbat seder. Wow. I am so proud of bringing people together for Shabbat, making a dream come true, enjoying and learning together with friends.
Events like this really help strengthen our Turkish Jewish community. I am proud of our history. We’ve been in this land for such a long time. We also have very strong lay leadership.
Still, seeing new things and experiencing new traditions creates a better future. Together, there are many more things to explore, many more ways to be Jewish and to be proud of being Jewish.
On a regular Friday there are about 180 people in the JCC. For this event, we had 270 people, so we know we made an impact.
Between us, I felt glorious.
Lisya Behar is the program director of JCC Alef in Istanbul.

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