Award-winning novelist David Bezmozgis, whose family was assisted by JDC on their emigration from Latvia, is a master storyteller at the height of his powers. His latest novel, “The Betrayers,” tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician who flees scandal by running to Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula.
Bezmozgis took the time to answer a few of JDC’s questions about his work and passions.
Q: How was “The Betrayers” — now out in paperback — impacted by current events? To what extent did you weave the news out of Ukraine into your novel?
A: I started writing “The Betrayers” in 2010 and was finishing the book in the fall of 2013 as the revolution in Ukraine was unfolding. It had always been my aim for the book to be as current as possible, and I’d envisioned a storyline set in the summer of 2014, coincident with the novel’s publication date. I delayed as long as possible finalizing the text, expecting that the revolution would peter out and everything in Ukraine and Crimea would return more or less to the way it had been — simply because this was the way things had gone in the past. Of course, we now know something entirely different happened. Consequently, it was no longer plausible to have my protagonist, Baruch Kotler, and his young mistress, Leora, flee to Yalta in the summer of 2014. The only option I saw was to set the action of the novel one year earlier, in the summer of 2013. Thus, the novel could no longer attest to the current situation in Ukraine and Russia, but rather serve as context for the Ukrainian revolution and Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Its Israeli political elements, however, remained largely unaffected by current events, despite the war in Gaza that broke out around the time of the novel’s publication. In fact, if anything, the rift between secular Baruch Kotler and his Orthodox Zionist son presaged some of the Israeli extremism we’ve witnessed in recent months.
Q: Tell us a bit about how you used JDC archival materials and visits to Ukraine to research your novel.
A: The JDC’s contribution to the novel was significant. For instance, it was my discovery of the Agro-Joint project through the JDC archives that cemented the idea that the novel needed to be set in Crimea and Yalta. I’d been aware that Crimea had been contemplated as an autonomous Jewish republic after WWII through my reading about Stalin’s persecution and murder of prominent Soviet Jewish poets and writers. But I hadn’t known that this idea had its origins in the 1920s and 1930s when the JDC helped to establish numerous Jewish farming colonies in Crimea and southern Ukraine. Knowing that Crimea possessed this peculiar Jewish history — that the peninsula could have been an alternative to Israel — provided an important subtext to the story. And once I’d decided that the novel would be set in Crimea, JDC helped to connect me with its representatives on the ground in the various Heseds on the peninsula. The people I met there, both the representatives and the clients, provided me with invaluable insight and information about Jewish life in Crimea. Quite simply, without their input, I couldn’t have written the novel.
Q: Why did you decide to incorporate JDC’s Hesed social welfare center into the plot?
A: A significant part of the novel deals with the day-to-day realities of a Jewish pensioner in Crimea. It became very clear to me very fast that I could not write about such a person without also writing about the JDC’s Heseds. Almost as a rule, elderly Jews in Crimea and other parts of the FSU depend upon the Heseds for their material and spiritual survival. Also, when I visited the Heseds, both the people I met there and the physical spaces themselves, made a strong impression on me. I saw tremendous energy and optimism set against harsh realities and straitened circumstances. I wanted to reflect that in the novel.
Q: You’re passionate about Ukraine and the crisis there. As the story begins to fade from headlines in the West, what is important to remember?
A: Perhaps no place in the world has seen more bloodshed this past century than Ukraine. There has been almost no respite from conflict or hardship. This is certainly true for the Jews of Ukraine and Crimea. Those of the older generation still bear the marks of the Holocaust and WWII. Now, when they are at their most vulnerable, is not the time to forget them. The same holds true for the younger generation who are trying to cultivate their Jewish heritage.
Q: To what extent is “The Betrayers” in conversation with your other works?
A: My two previous books drew more from my own family history. In that sense, the previous books were about ordinary people at the mercy of history. “The Betrayers” bears no resemblance to my own life and the character of Baruch Kotler is far from ordinary–rather he is someone who, by force of will, has fought to change the world. However, I see the three books as forming a triptych. “Natasha” described a Soviet Jewish family’s process of immigrating to North America in the 1980s. “The Free World” concerned itself with the messy history of Russian Jews from before the Russian revolution to the mass emigration of the 1970s. “The Betrayers” examines where these Soviet Jews will leave their greatest impact and legacy: to my mind, Israel and the FSU.
Q: What was the genesis of the novel for you? Was there an a-ha moment where you knew, “Wow, this is a story I need to tell”?
A: Ten years ago, I was writing an obituary for the New York Times about a famous refusenik, Alexander Lerner. Researching him, I read about a man ostensibly within the Zionist movement in Moscow who had denounced his comrades to the KGB. The main target of this denunciation proved to be Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. I was somewhat familiar with Sharansky’s story but not that of his betrayer. I got to wondering what happens to a man who betrays his brothers for a country that then ceases to exist. And I wondered too about the constitutional difference between someone like Sharansky and his betrayer. What enables one person to sacrifice everything for their principles and another to enter into a compromise? This formed the core of the novel.
Q: How does your experience as a Jew from the former Soviet Union impact your writing?
A: Soviet Jews have a complex history. They were the victims of tremendous persecution and deracination but they were also some of the engineers and beneficiaries of the Soviet experiment. Within every family, there were people who embraced communism and those who opposed or resented it. Trying to understand and reconcile this complexity has informed the way I see the world and the way I write.
On Visit to the Field, Challenging Easy Assumptions
“In late June and early July, I spent a week in Tbilisi and a handful of other Georgian cities. Embedded on a JDC Entwine service trip for young professionals, I crisscrossed this country of about 5 million people – and approximately 8,000 Jews – with a cohort of 15 young adults from all over the world, visiting Jewish communities everywhere from relatively thriving cosmopolitan cities to depressed former Soviet factory towns plagued by near universal unemployment.
We ate delicacies like cheesy khachapuri and savory khinkali dumplings. We visited with homebound elderly Hesed clients and impoverished families, grateful for the brave vulnerability they showed as they humbly let us in, unfussily sharing stories of unimaginable hardship and challenge.
We watched in awe as a troupe of talented Jewish youngsters wowed us with traditional Georgian dances, stomps and claps and elegant twirls. We lit candles and blessed wine and bread with smart, funny Hillel students caught between their love for the nation of their birth and the pull of countries like Israel and Germany that promised the sort of opportunity and stability impossible to dream of in Tbilisi or Kutaisi or Rustavi.
Georgia was not one vignette or story.
I know it’s reductive, shortsighted, ultimately futile to attempt to distill into a single anecdote the sensory overload that is a week in the field – especially in a nation as frenetic, stirring, messy, and striving as Georgia.
Georgia was a rich and troubling multi-sensory experience that challenged easy narratives about what Jewish renewal looks like in the former Soviet Union.
And yet. And yet! I keep returning to 10-year-old Ivan.
We met Ivan in Gori, the city of about 55,000 people where Joseph Stalin grew up as Iosif Dzhugashvili. Just a short drive from the gleaming marble museum that still lionizes the genocidal dictator, Ivan was the featured soloist for a troupe of a half-dozen young Georgian kids belting out Jewish classics like “Shalom Aleichem” and throaty Russian songs our group had never heard before.
He had real stage presence, with fierce eyes and a clear voice. He was in his element. He was the star.
I was entranced.
When the children’s song and dance program had concluded, we got on buses for home visits to some of the most vulnerable Jews of Gori, which struggles with unemployment above 90 percent.
As we pulled up to one of the hulking Soviet-era apartment buildings, indistinguishable from the one across the courtyard or the ones across the street, we were surprised to learn it was Ivan’s family we were visiting.
Ivan has a difficult life. His mother and grandmother are both divorced and unemployed and live with developmental delays. His younger brother is in Tbilisi for medical treatment, and Ivan’s mother leaves him for months at a time to live in the hospital.
I’ve been on home visits before, spending an hour or so with homebound elderly women quick to share stories, to pinch my cheeks, to offer me blessings of true love and lifelong happiness. Though it was sad to leave them, knowing their lives were lonely and small, it was also easy to feel unabashedly good about having gone to see them. They made it clear our visit would be the highlight of their week, month, maybe even year.
It wasn’t that way with Ivan.
Our group brought a scarf for his grandmother and a bag full of toys for Ivan. He wasn’t interested. His grandmother told us her story, seemingly baffled by how she’d arrived at this tough, tiring life. Ivan sat on his family’s threadbare couch and stared at us.
You got the sense Ivan was ashamed we were seeing this side of him.
He didn’t want to be the boy in the grimy apartment for us. He just wanted to be the soloist.
That’s the value of traveling with JDC to the field – you get the chance to go deeper. You get to see people in their fullness.
Ivan is not either/or. He’s both. Always.
In Georgia, it was easy to trick myself into thinking I’d arrived at some great and powerful burst of cross-cultural understanding at the end of the week of travel. I could delude myself that 20 minutes of playing checkers at a Hesed day center taught me what life’s like for the elderly, or that a Shabbat meal was a real window into Jewish observance and rituals in a given location.
But I know nothing.
was a needed reminder that though there is great beauty and nuance and emotional resonance in the encounters any given itinerary includes, they present just one side of the story. We pop into our clients’ lives for an hour, a morning, a day.
Those visits? They’re just small slivers of their stories. Our clients keep living their lives, whether or not we’re there to bear witness.
What a beautiful thing that we got to see both sides of Ivan. Coming halfway through our trip, that reminder of the complexity of our clients’ lives colored and strengthened the rest of our encounters in Georgia.
When we coordinated a carnival for at-risk youth at a JDC family retreat in a beach town the next day, we knew each of the children involved came from a background like Ivan’s. Quite simply, if their families were more financially stable than his, they wouldn’t have qualified to attend.
As we painted their faces and lifted them up in the air, as we made them their first S’mores and danced with them around a campfire built on the magnetic sand of a Black Sea beach, we weren’t just interacting with the experience in front of us.
We were conjuring Ivan.
My challenge going forward is to remember that apartment in Gori and answer its call as I write stories about clients in Kazakhstan, in Bulgaria, in Argentina, and so many other places around the world.
Even if they are dependent on JDC for assistance, our clients are the fierce, clear-eyed soloists of their lives.
Who am I to say they’re just one thing? I know nothing.
So it’s my job to learn.
Alex Weisler is JDC’s digital content and strategy producer.
A Summer Respite in Troubled Ukraine
Nikita Danilenko and his family were never JDC clients before Ukraine’s violent political and economic crisis erupted last year.
But now they’re among dozens of Lugansk Jewish families who require assistance.
“In spite of the fact that all our family members have different interests, each has managed to find his or her niche at Lugansk’s Jewish community center,” said Nikita’s mother, Milena Boikov. “These events and programs have made our family stronger and helped us become part of the Jewish community.”
Nikita, 12, was among the 60 children who participated in JDC’s recent summer camp, held in a natural setting outside city limits.
Also attending was Uliyana Batalia, also a 12-year-old from Lugansk.
Living alone with her single mother, Uliyana’s life is not easy. Her mother struggles to provide her with the most basic things.
But the Lugansk Teen Club has been a bright spot in a difficult life.
Each Sunday, she’s one of the first to open its doors — and the community appreciates her talents in painting and modern dance.
Since her mother is unable to pay for a vacation outside of Lugansk, the summer camp is a chance for Uliyana to get some respite from the difficult circumstances of her life and spend her summer with peers.
Camp activities included art classes, team sports, bowling, swimming, a Shabbat program, and talks on Jewish culture and traditions.
JDC also coordinated a summer playground program in Donetsk, another city heavily impacted by the crisis in Ukraine.
From the CEO: In Europe, JDC Prepares for the Future
The cities of Lisbon and Madrid are separated by about 300 miles, a distance similar to New York and Boston or New York and Washington, DC.
Yet despite their relative proximity, the leaders of their respective Jewish communities had never met until last month at our special Jewish resilience conference in Barcelona.
The two leaders were among more than 100 prominent European Jewish leaders, academics, and activists who came from all over the continent to the two-day event to learn ways to deal with growing insecurity and rising anti-Semitism, economic instability, and political volatility — matters of grave concern to Europe’s Jews today.
Jewish communities are deeply shaken by the fatal shootings at a kosher store in Paris and a synagogue in Copenhagen that took place earlier this year. Coupled with the ongoing euro-zone crisis, Jewish cooperation and preparedness in Europe is more important than ever.
In response, we at JDC — in cooperation with our esteemed partners at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC) — have brought European Jews together so that they can examine the latest geopolitical realities, partake in a series of workshops bolstering resilience and security, and build closer working relationships.
To ensure the success of this conference, we convened experts including social psychologist David Gidron — who has worked with JDC around the world — to discuss crisis communication; Taly Levanon of the Israeli Trauma Coalition discussed pyscho-social trauma; and several teams of Israeli security experts gave advice on how to manage crowds, and prevent terror attacks.
The resounding message heard at the gathering underscored the reality that the vast majority are of European Jews are staying and committed to safeguarding their communities and their place in European society. Italian Jewish historian Diana Pinto, political scientist Dominique Moisi, and Rabbi Michael Melchior (pictured above, left, with Pinto) were among those who vociferously argued European Jews are building a bright future.
“Nowhere is completely free of fear, neither Israel nor Europe” Melchior, who is the chief rabbi of Norway and a former Israeli minister, was quoted as saying by . “We can”t pick ourselves up thinking everyone is a potential terrorist.”
Other participants at the gathering included the President of the British Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush; President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Ruth Dureghello; Director of the JCC in Latvia, Inna Lapidus; Vice President of the Reform movement in France, Patrick Schein, and many more.
Other participants at the gathering, extensively covered by , included the President of the British Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush; President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Ruth Dureghello; Director of the JCC in Latvia, Inna Lapidus; Vice President of the Reform movement in France, Patrick Schein, and many more.
Of course, the event in Barcelona is just one of many ways JDC is cultivating resilience and preparedness among European Jews. Our work mitigating the impact of financial crises in Greece, Bulgaria, and the Baltics on its Jews have been bulwarks against an economic roller coaster still in motion. And our creation and support of JCCs, Jewish street festivals, educational events, family and summer camps, and leadership training seminars have secured confident communities, and Jews with strong, positive identities, who can bravely and resolutely stand in the face of hate.
Such strong leadership was evident with a JDC Board mission to Paris and Budapest led by Amy Bressman, the Chair of JDC’s Europe Committee. During the trip, Board members were introduced to the realities of Jewish life in Europe, speaking to European Jewish leadership of all ages and in all positions, and seeing JDC’s current efforts in action. Without a doubt, their time singing and dancing — celebrating Jewish life — at the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas will stay with them for years to come. Indeed, the fact that we have added a fourth session to the camp this summer to accommodate more than 2,000 Jewish campers and counselors, the majority from Europe, speaks volumes of the critical need for all JDC does in Europe today. This experience was just given voice in an by the camp’s director Sasha Friedman.
I’m proud that JDC is engaging in this vital work, taking a leadership role at a critical juncture in European history and countering a destructive narrative of fear and flight. By utilizing our long-forged expertise from around the world and adapting those models of success, we are deploying a JDC that offers first-class solutions for a Jewish world facing increasing challenges.
Moscow Soccer Tournament Blends Jewish Identity, Volunteerism
Four Jewish soccer teams from Russia and Israel came together in Moscow for the Inter Maccabi Cup, a two-day tournament marking the 25 anniversary of the revival of the Maccabi community in Russia.
The Maccabi Russia and Maccabi Moscow teams were joined by the Jewish Moscow team and the Inter Petakh Tikva team from Israel.
The tournament was organized by two alumni of JDC’s Knafaim young leadership program – Igor Tvoretskiy, a 2011 graduate, and Tatiana Maron, a 2014 graduate.
Once students graduate from Knafaim, many continue creating volunteer projects to benefit the community – and continue supporting their fellow students’ endeavors.
“We were very happy to mark the anniversary with the tournament. The Moscow Maccabi soccer team has existed for many years, and from time to time, it organizes games with Jewish teams not just in Moscow, but all over the world,” Tvoretskiy said. “This year, thanks to JDC and private donors, we had the possibility to hold a tournament in Moscow and welcome our Israeli guests.”
The men taught soccer skills to the children, spoke about soccer in Israel, and taught some Hebrew soccer vocability. Then the boys and girls, aged 5 to 14, were divided into groups for scrimmage games.
“I’m very glad we had the possibility to visit the camp and speak to the children … and inspire them to be passionate about sports,” said Slava Gokhvat, the Israeli team’s captain. “We had a very good game with them. Some of the boys were really great at soccer! Maybe one of them will be the next Jewish soccer champion.”
Also on the docket was a training for at-risk children and families who were clients of JDC’s Jewish Family Service – part of a special focus on children throughout the tournament. During the event, the soccer players donated money to help one boy whose family is in a precarious situation.
“When the soccer players expressed a desire to help a child in need in the Moscow community, we contacted JFS and they gratefully shared the story of a family who needs help,” said Maron. “It’s very inspiring that this was not just a soccer tournament but a tournament with a mission of helping and inspiring kids. That’s a real, vivid example of a caring Jewish community.”
The Jewish Response to Disaster
Ram Tripathi gave a searing presentation about Nepal to JDC donors, giving circle members, JDC Entwine members, and friends who gathered at the beautiful carriage house studio of JDC Circle member Linda White in Greenwich Village on Wednesday, June 17. He spoke about growing up in poverty and how his parents insisted that he and his three brothers attend school. But there was only one pair of shoes, so the brother who was dressed and ready first in the morning would get to wear the shoes on that day.
Today Ram’s parents and siblings, whom he just visited after the earthquake in Nepal, are living outside under a tarp, along with hundreds of thousands of others. One of the schools that Ram built after his fortunes rose in the United States has been destroyed. Many children are orphaned and some people are preying upon the most vulnerable: Trafficking of women and girls is rising dangerously.
JDC’s Will Recant spoke about JDC’s response in Nepal and the Jewish response to disasters more broadly, most recently in the Philippines and Nepal. We are creating safe spaces for children, helping them deal with trauma, and providing immediate emergency aid and medium-term rebuilding support.
Most importantly, JDC looks for effective partners — whether the IDF, which landed its field hospital in Nepal within 72 hours, equipped with $100,000 of JDC-purchased supplies, or partners with local know-how and presence who can be empowered to act. Local partners are best able to assess their own needs and to design programs to address them effectively — with support and guidance as needed. Harnessing local energy also helps build local leadership and sustainability.
Jayne Lipman — a JDC Board member, vice-chair of JDC’s International Development Program, and co-chair of JDC Ambassadors (our major gifts program) — introduced the evening and spoke about the importance of getting involved. Members of JDC’s Impact Network, a giving circle focused on helping children, promised to raise funds for children in emergency situations.
Check out from the day.
To get more involved and learn more about JDC, there are an array of opportunities offered through our JDC Ambassadors and Entwine platforms:
JDC Ambassadors is the doorway to involvement through philanthropy, learning and travel – more information is ; travel destinations can be found . is JDC’s young leadership platform, which offers service experiences in Jewish communities around the world, and leadership development opportunities, including the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship – more information is .
QandA: On the Ground in Nepal, Finding Hope and Heartache
Gideon Herscher, JDC’s Director of International Partnerships, traveled to Nepal weeks after the country was struck by the worst earthquake in decades as part of JDC’s emergency response and assessment team.
There, he saw the devastation wrought by the natural disaster firsthand and took part in the rescue and relief efforts.
We recently spoke to him over the phone from Israel about his memorable experiences in the South Asian country.
Q: What were your impressions of the destruction when you arrived about two weeks after the earthquake?
A: As you fly into Kathmandu, past the peaks of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, I noticed colored spots on the earth. Those were tents for the hundreds of thousands of displaced/homeless Nepalis. The airport was eerily quiet, with mainly rescue workers gearing up and heading straight from the airport to the outskirts of Kathmandu where people were still trapped under the rubble from a second earthquake that had struck a few days before. Those that were in the airport, including myself, were focused on the many tasks that awaited us outside.
Q: Tell me about the work you were involved in on the ground: Where did you go? Whom did you meet?
A: As we surveyed different disaster zones, we observed newly homeless families. Disasters create confusion. Family roles and structure are often severely affected. It became apparent that women, and more specifically, women’s groups, would be key for family and livelihood rehabilitation. We engaged one women’s umbrella organization called HomeNet that recognizes that most women in Nepal work from home. Without a home, women are left to fend for themselves. Today, JDC is helping the women in these organizations bounce back as leaders in the rehabilitation of their country. Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring. They are indeed the pillars of their families and communities.
Q: How has JDC responded to the disaster? What help has it offered to victims?
A: The crux of the work my colleague Danny Pins and I were involved in was forging and strengthening relationships with local Nepali organizations whose mission and work resonated with JDC’s priorities.In almost every disaster, we see the great potential and resilience of children. Treating their trauma early and effectively can speed up the healing process and assuage chronic emotional problems. We spent significant time connecting a team of Israeli psychological experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition with teams of some of the most talented and dedicated teachers in Nepal. They would, in turn, be trained and impact 25,000 students in earthquake-affected areas. That reaches a wide catchment area, in a short period of time, with profound impact. In this case, Teach for Nepal was the ideal partner, and complemented JDC’s work here in Israel with Teach for Israel (Hotam).
Q: What were some of the most difficult moments?
A: We heard so many horrific stories of people being buried alive under tons of rubble. We came across mothers who simply refused to let their children out of their sight. We saw women struggling to breath calmly. Their emotional trauma (PTSD) had not yet been diagnosed, but it was clearly taking effect. There was not a lot of tear-shedding. There was a strong front presented by the survivors we met. And yet, when the Israeli team began working with them, we learned that every one of these women had been traumatized, and prior to the moment had not shared their experience with anyone.
Q: What was the most uplifting experience?
A: When one of the women leaders who was struggling with PTSD finally shared her story of surviving underneath the rubble. Within 10 minutes, her demeanor had changed. Her face had become hopeful.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Judafest Celebrates Hungarian Jewish Pride, Identity
For eight years, the JDC-sponsored Judafest festival has brought thousands of members of Hungary’s Jewish community to the streets to celebrate their culture and share their pride in their identity. The festival is especially remarkable in the face of Hungary’s unsettling rise of right wing, anti-Semitic political rhetoric.
Peter Berenyi, who coordinates Judafest as part of his deputy director post at Budapest’s Balint Haz Jewish Community Center, took a few minutes to speak to JDC about the value of the street festival and the importance of resilience in Jewish Europe.
Q: What’s new with Judafest this year? What programs or sessions are you most excited about?
A: The festival can’t grow bigger in a tangible physical way, because we already use the full street, but we always come up with new ideas. This year, for the first time, we have a guest of honor: Poland. The ambassador, the Polish Cultural Institute, and representatives of the Warsaw Jewish community will come and bring tons of programs – like five-minute Yiddish and Polish language lessons, a Polish klezmer band on the big stage, and Polish culinary goddess Malka Kafka cooking all day long. There are more than 100 programs, many of them under the creative direction of András Borgula of the Golem Theatre, so I’m really excited about the whole day!
Q: In Hungary’s tricky political climate, why is Judafest especially important right now?
A: In just eight years, Judafest has become one of the biggest community festivals. Today, when the extremist right is the second-largest party in Hungary, we need to make a statement that being Jewish in this country can be done this way, too: by not hiding, by being happy and proud. The Budapest event serves as a role model for other smaller Hungarian Jewish communities, so it’s not just fun anymore, but also a big responsibility! But it seems that others understand this, too – we have more partners and supporters this year than ever before.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in staging the festival? What are the biggest opportunities?
A: The biggest challenge is the weather! As much as we pray, it doesn’t always help! But seriously, the challenge is to bring the Jews out from their houses and “towers.” The community is big, but the members are largely not so active, and they often hide their Jewish identity, roots, and culture. We need to create an atmosphere where it is safe, fun, educational, and adventurous – all at the same time. It’s not easy. But this is our biggest opportunity, too: If we can get them to come out, even if only 10 percent of them will became active in any way, we won the day.
Q: Tell us about the festival’s growth over the years.
A: Eight years ago, we started with one event and a simple goal – to get 1,000 people to attend the festival. On that day, 3,500 came! So we knew that this spoke to people, to our people. We built a bigger and stronger event the following year and added another culinary festival, too. And it happened again. The crowd was way bigger then we expected. Today, Judafest is “the” brand in the Jewish community – and even in the city of Budapest as a whole – with a huge street festival, a family day, a picnic, and a film festival. We hope the excitement will continue through the next decade.
Q: What’s your favorite part of Judafest?
A: The community dinner! The last two years, we’ve closed the event with a huge table, 50 meters long, for 200 people, with the Jewish community hosting another community for dinner. Last year, it was the Hungarian National Association of Large Families, and this year, 50 families who are living with Down syndrome. We cook for them, we serve them – it’s a time for them to just enjoy life. This time, the Israeli and Polish ambassador and the head of the Hungarian Jewish community will serve the meals.
Q: What are your dreams for Judafest? How would you like to see it expand?
A: We wish to stay alive! It may sound strange, but in this country and in this economic situation, it is not guaranteed at all. I see the opportunity to expand to other cities here in Hungary. There are cities that have invited us, but we don’t have the resources to come to them. I hope that will change.
On the Ground: Delivering Relief in Manikhel, Nepal
Today’s visit to a very tight-knit community that lost a daughter was heart-wrenching. We brought our condolences, visited with each family to understand how they are surviving, and delivered critically needed aid.
The village of Manikhel, located south of Kathmandu, lost one person, a 16-year-old girl named Muna, crushed under a bed as she sought cover.
Manoj Pahari, a fellow with our partner organization Sarvodaya – Teach for Nepal (TFN) who was embedded in Manikhel for two years, told me he remembered Muna’s 16th birthday party, celebrated in her home — now a ruined, flattened pile of rubble.
The girl’s uncle told me he had high hopes for Muna, the eldest of three daughters.
“She showed great promise, and I always spoke to her about doing well in school,” he said. “My heart hurts.”
The village school in Manikhel, 8,500 feet above sea level, served hundreds of children walking two hours each way from across the hilly region. The school is closed for a month, serving as a relief distribution point for 1,500 people across ten villages. When I visited, 15 families were living in the school, with many others forming makeshift structures from tarp, tin, stones, and wood salvaged from the piles of the rubble.
I saw wide-scale destruction in some of the hardest-hit districts in Nepal. It is extremely encouraging to know our partners at Tevel B’Tzedek and TFN take the same community-based approach as all of us at JDC when providing relief and assistance. We all fully believe in long-term sustainable impact for those most in need.
We visited six villages where more than 90 percent of homes were affected, destroyed and uninhabitable. The need for shelter is great, especially given the monsoon season set to strike in five to six weeks.
Because of the difficult terrain and landslides caused by the earthquake, it is taking even longer to deliver critical aid to the periphery than what JDC has experienced in some previous disasters.
We are hard at work with our partners to identify the best solutions that will solve short- and long-term housing needs while still providing critical first-line aid, including food and medicine.
Sam Amiel is a senior member of JDC’s disaster response team.
JDC Responds: Team in Kathmandu, Packing Aid Supplies in NY
After a day on the ground in Nepal, JDC’s veteran disaster response expert and emergency field medic Mike Attinson said he’s struck by the devastation in the city.
“The damage in Kathmandu is visible – to temples, to the tourist areas. The cultural heritage has been destroyed. People are still sleeping outside, still afraid to go into their homes. They’re still apprehensive,” he said. “The poorer sections of the city were hit worse.”
Attinson flew into Nepal with fellow aid workers on what he described as “the airborne UN,” reflecting the dozens of relief workers, government emissaries, and NGO specialists aboard his flight.
Attinson said a visit to JDC’s partners at the IDF field hospital was particularly powerful. JDC helped facilitate the delivery of two critically needed neonatal incubators, and is concurrently working with the Afya Foundation in Yonkers, NY, to pack and ship humanitarian and medical supplies to a Kathmandu hospital. This shipment is being coordinated through the Nepalese Consulate in New York City.
“While the utter devastation and loss of life in Nepal is unimaginable, the needs of injured and displaced are growing and our shipment of supplies will be critical to their survival in the coming weeks,” said Danielle Butin, Director of Afya, which is readying the first shipment of 20 pallets (or 25,000-32,000 pounds) of supplies with help from JDC staff volunteers. “Together with JDC, we have addressed these needs in previous disasters and have been heartened by the public’s response to our call for donations for those hard-hit in Nepal.”
Eileen Donovan, who has been volunteering with Afya since Hurricane Sandy, said the packages, containing medical supplies like Tylenol and aspirin, will help victims of the earthquake recover.
“There’s people without homes. There’s people with a lot of injuries. They’re living out in tents, and they’re petrified,” said Donovan, a retired nurse. “I just hope the help gets to the people that need it.”
Later this week, Attinson and the JDC disaster response team will visit some of the remote towns and villages hardest-hit by the April 25 earthquake, which impacted eight million people and killed more than 5,000.
“What is certainly needed in the outlying villages is activities for their kids, temporary schools, temporary community centers,” he said. “These people lost everything. They lost their homes. They’re in a state of PTSD, a state of shock.”
For more information on JDC’s disaster response, and to donate to the relief effort in Nepal, visit