Celebrating 10 Years of Limmud Keshet Bulgaria
Over the past 10 years, Limmud Keshet here in Bulgaria has changed significantly. Every year, we see more and more sessions – but what’s more important is that every year more and more volunteers want to be a part of Limmud.
People understand the meaning of “community” even better than they did 10 years ago, too. The faces in the conference halls of Limmud are no longer new, people are no longer strangers, and even if people don’t know each other, that wouldn’t stop them from sitting at the same table for lunch and starting a conversation. That’s not something that was common 10 years ago.
This year, Limmud was attended by about 600 people. About 170 of them were children under the age of 18. There were children’s programs all day and all night long, so parents could attend sessions and workshops, or even just mingle with one another.
For the second year in a row, there was a special “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) initiative. There were three options for participants to choose from. About 150 people spread into the mountains, with some clearing a mountain path and others painting signs for the trail. A third group of about 30 teenagers went to an orphanage, where they spent half a day playing with the kids. They also brought board games that many Limmud participants brought as gifts in advance.
The Shabbat atmosphere, though unique, has also become a Limmud tradition. Whether it’s a mother who wants to show her daughter how to do it, or a grandfather proud of what he sees, people really anticipate the moment of candle-lighting. Whether or not it’s a tradition people do at their homes every week, they always look forward to the moment they can do it together at Limmud.
Havdallah has also become one of the most powerful moments of the event, as it’s not too frequent that 600 people come together to sing a prayer. This year, Havdallah was even more special as it marked the transition from Shabbat to a gala devoted to Limmud’s 10th anniversary. Gymnastics, singing, and dancing marked the end of the 10th Limmud Keshet Bulgaria with a lot of emotion.
Just before leaving the conference, during a feedback session, a young family shared with me that they were thrilled by their first Limmud experience.
“We expected to be on a holiday and maybe attend a couple of sessions, but instead are leaving more tired than we came because we didn’t want to miss anything,” the father said. “The program was amazing. We made new friends, and our daughter was also happy with the children’s program. It felt like it went by so quickly.”
He and his wife have already signed up as volunteers for next year’s session.
Julia Dandolova is JDC’s country director in Bulgaria.
From the CEO: On Jewish Unity and Inclusion
It seems to be an oft-cited truth that the Jewish community is, at many levels, divided.
In recent months that fact has been a major leitmotif in the news, in our communal conversations, our congregations, organizational boardrooms, and, most intimately, at our dinner tables and among our families.
Indeed, if there has been one defining feature to Jewish life today, it is how separated we are by great gulfs related to many issues — whether political, social, religious, economic, and existential.
Perhaps it is easy to give into this mindset, or accept the status quo that we Jews are always disagreeing, always shutting one another out, always at odds.
But there is another reality too – one that perhaps rarely makes headlines, but one I get to witness full well in my role at JDC: a community united, grappling with its differences, but bonded together in its commitment to the well being of Jews and other groups who are facing terrible odds.
From our response to the crisis impacting Jews in Ukraine to Israel’s stand against terror, from rising anti-Semitism, economic decline, and growing nationalism in Europe to a swelling global refugee crisis, we are able to muster our strength and put forward our talents, philanthropic passion, and expertise to ensure a Jewish response to a myriad of problems that worsen human suffering.
In these responses, in our yearning to reach out and offer solace and hope to those most in need, we tap the deepest part of our connectedness as a Jewish people and transcend the labels, divisions, and the differences that seem to divide us.
When we do that, we put into practice an ideal that is anchored in the concept of inclusion, in opening our hearts, our values, and our community to those with whom we share so very much at the core. And inclusion is top of mind for many of us in the Jewish community, especially at a time when the focus on rifts between us can become all encompassing and stop us from achieving great things on behalf of one another.
Movements for the inclusion of Jews in our community who have been marginalized – Jews with disabilities, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Jews from various geographic and ethnic backgrounds – are in full force and efforts to ensure we all have a seat at the communal table can echo in our wider efforts to care for one another. And that transformation can be felt in our home communities, our countries, or thousands of miles away in places we never imagined we could have an impact.
It can ultimately inspire others to take the lead, to step out of the shadows, to exhibit a bravery and dedication to klal Yisrael that has ripple effects far and wide. That momentum can set off a chain reaction for good and one that binds us together as a people with a common purpose in a world which is, frankly, chaotic and unpredictable.
Next month in Boston, those values of inclusion will be featured at the , an international gathering of hundreds of advocates and leaders dedicated to ensuring that our community is inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities. We at JDC proudly join scores of other organizations – Jewish Federations, educational groups, advocacy agencies, media outlets, and others who are sponsors of this conference.
We take seriously the call of Jay Ruderman – a JDC Board Member and leading activist in the inclusion, disabilities, and Israeli-American Jewish relations spheres – to make our Jewish community more welcoming and warm to those who have often been left out. And not just to include them in all we do, but to harness their talents and passion and love for our community to make it stronger. There is no doubt that that message is one that will be powerfully echoed in Jewish communities far and wide after participants return home.
We know full well the power of that message in the work of our Israel Unlimited partnership. Dedicated to ensuring that Israelis with disabilities are part of an inclusive society where they live independently and contribute to their local communities and country at large, we have expanded opportunities for thousands of Israelis with disabilities – in housing, employment, social services, and wellness. And we have also transformed public opinion about Israelis with disabilities through this unique collaboration with the Ruderman Family Foundation and Israeli government.
The lesson in this, as in the other avodat hakodesh – holy work – I mentioned earlier, is the power of our collective to transform the seemingly impossible into the easily achievable. True, it takes hard work, unbendable will, and an especially unique Jewish resilience to surmount the obstacles that may keep us from doing good in a world beset by the worst side of our nature.
But when we join forces, when we welcome those in who have often occupied a place outside our communal agenda, we overcome not just our own limitations, but the forces that seek to divide us.
In that, we can achieve anything.
And today, more than ever before, we Jews need to dream big, band together, and make miracles happen for those without faith that they are possible.
Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Dispatch: Standing With Israelis During Troubled Times
As Israelis continue to face increasing terror attacks, Prof. Yossi Tamir, JDC’s Israel Regional Director, sent the following dispatch on JDC’s role in addressing the tensions and fears among Israelis at this time of uncertainty and violence:
“Israel is yet again going through a difficult time.
There is a lot of fear and uncertainty on both the personal level and the national level — everything from “Where are my children right now?” and “Should I tell them not to ride the bus?” to “How long will this go on?” and “How do we deal with this situation?” And of course, “How do we put an end to it?”It is this uncertainty that makes it particularly hard for people to be hopeful.
Here at JDC Israel, we are following the current situation closely and our team is ready to act whenever and wherever we are needed. At the same time, our employees are experiencing much tension and anxiety. Many are worried about their families.
I would like to share two events that occurred these past few days that highlight these anxieties but at the same time, also show why I believe there is still reason to be hopeful. Events like these make me proud to be both an Israeli and a “Jointnik.”
Earlier this week, Tevet, our employment initiative, held a retreat for its 115 program managers in the field, a third of whom work in the Israeli Arab sector. The day before the retreat we learned the Arab managers were afraid to come. Several of the Arab women who wear veils were afraid to travel by train, fearing confrontations or attacks; others felt uncomfortable facing their Jewish colleagues.
Tevet management urged all employees to attend the day, and despite their initial misgivings, almost everyone came.
Tevet Director Sigal Shelach used the opportunity to express the appreciation and respect JDC has for its workers, who tirelessly work in the face of complex realities.
“Your work gives us hope,” she said. “Today, the workplace is one of the few places where all the different strata of Israeli society meet and interact. In this way, JDC-Israel has created a special asset for Israeli society which, if used wisely, can turn the workforce into a catalyst for inclusion and shared society. This, in fact, lies at the core of JDC and Tevet’s mission.”
Additional hopeful signs came from our government partners.
Yesterday, the Mayor’s Forum operated by the JDC Institute for Leadership and Governance, convened a special meeting.
Forty-five Jewish and Arab mayors from the North and South of Israel met to spur dialogue between all sides and discuss matters calmly to find a path forward. During the meeting, tensions and concerns were candidly shared, and there was even room for some healthy humor. Together they confirmed their commitment to form a bridge of peace in these difficult times.
Meetings such as these should not be taken for granted.
“We have injured and dead people, and most Arabs don’t want to see Jews and most Jews don’t want to see Arabs,” MK Zohir Bahalul said. “That is why this coming together of Jewish and Arab mayors is an important sign of leadership for the social texture of this country.”
The exceptional ability of JDC Israel to bring together a multitude of different convictions, even in hard times like these, proves once again the unique and uniting role we have in Israeli society.We are in constant touch with our partners and workers in the field and will continue to monitor the situation closely. We join you all in wishing for more peaceful times ahead.”
Finding My Global Jewish Family in “Georgia (Europe)”
It all started by trying to figure out what “Georgia (Europe)” even was. That’s how they wrote it in the letter that everyone interested in traveling with JDC received. To my surprise, this Georgia wasn’t in the United States – instead, it was a recently independent country, a country with an area half the size of my Argentinian province, but with a Jewish community 10-20 times bigger.
Once I began looking into what this trip was all about, I decided to sign up for a few reasons. You could say the first reason was to visit a new country I wouldn’t have visited any other way. I also thought it would be cool to meet young people from other countries. Finally, I thought the activities there would enrich me – but I didn’t do a lot of analysis on that last point!
Then, I completed the form and waited…
To my great surprise, JDC chose me and I began receiving materials about the upcoming trip – biographies of my co-participants and the itinerary. When I read everyone’s biographies, I realized I’d be the only Spanish-speaking guy on the trip and also the only Latin American. The experience was getting better and better!
Thus began my journey, and after 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There, Guram, a friendly Georgian Jew who served as our guide, driver, and friend throughout the entire trip, came to greet me. His friendly “shalom” made me feel like we were family immediately.
During the seven days of our trop, we visited families, children’s homes, social welfare centers, summer camps and more. With the kids we visited, we played; with the elderly we visited, we chatted. We learned so much about these people and shared our deepest emotions.
We were so far and so close – so far in kilometers but so close in our shared values. Our Jewish songs, our Shabbat dinners, the brachot we shared. We came together with Georgian Jews, singing in Hebrew, singing “Hatikva,” helping each other.
I can’t explain the feeling of hearing the sentence, “All Jews are responsible for one another” – a Talmudic principle and a JDC oath. I can’t explain the feeling of pride of belonging to a community that organizes, with JDC’s help, assistance to our people wherever they are. Nor can I explain the thrill of seeing young people and adults committed to helping work for chance, expecting nothing in return.
The trip was in memory of Frances C. Eizenstat, z”l, a benefactor, former JDC board member, and transformational leader. Thousands and thousands of Jewish people have a blessing in Frances. I hope G-d continues to let the altruism and charitable souls of the Jewish people continue to exist, ensuring the continuity of our people through tzedakah and tikkun olam.
I really understood in Tbilisi how giving a few hours of your time can transform a child’s sad face into a happy one, how giving five minutes of your attention to an old woman can make her feel important and loved.
Young generations must be involved if we’re going to guarantee the Jewish people’s future.
Georgia began for me as “Georgia (Europe),” and ended up being the names, the experiences, the aromas, the flavors, the friends, and the feelings.
Fernando Camisar is a young professional committed to Jewish life. He lives in the northern Argentinian city of Salta, which has about 400 Jews, and is a JDC volunteer and member of several international Jewish organizations. In early July 2015, Fernando traveled to Georgia with JDC Entwine.
Building a Bridge to a Better Future
There are many ways to travel, but seeing the world with JDC has to be one of the most meaningful — an inside window into the fascinating and often challenging life of Jews in diverse societies in the past, an intimate glimpse at what the future may hold and, perhaps even more importantly, what we have the power to do about it today.
This summer, in the midst of a heat wave that broke a century record, a JDC Ambassadors trip set off to build bridges of a most personal kind with Jews in Hungary and the former Yugoslavia — Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia — and to better understand how they live.
The past was on display at Cafe Europa, a traditional Hungarian locale decorated with an impressive rendition of the Parliament building in pink marzipan and full of the smell of really strong coffee. Holocaust survivors, most of whom were children at that time, and young Jews meet regularly at the café; to share stories and be together. We sat at a table with a gracious former academic, a spry 80-year-old man, and a beautiful young Jewish student who also translated, and the conversation was tinged with a poignant mix of sadness and good humor as we listened to wartime remembrances and stories of life since.
After our short hour had passed, the man stopped me on our way out, his grip surprisingly strong. In an accented but correct English and in a tone of urgency, he shared this message: “I didn’t get a chance to say this publicly, but you must tell others.” He looked straight into my eyes, his thin face marking my memory: “Without you, without the Joint, we would never have been able to restart our lives. You made it all possible. We had nothing. It was thanks to you that we could move on and that we are here.”
Was he grateful? It went beyond that — it was a statement of fact, of what can happen, and did, because of the choice of some to help others in a time of existential nead. If one wonders whether history is all in the past, his was a keen reminder that it is indeed the basis of our present in very real and tangible ways.
In the town of Szarvas in southeastern Hungary, JDC runs an incredible international Jewish summer camp that is the symbol of the future. If only Jews were not isolated, if they are truly able to overcome a deeply tragic past and answer the threats of today with fortitude and real strength … then this is what Jewish life on the continent might look like — and it is deeply moving to behold.
Szarvas feels like a visit into the heart and soul of the Jewish spirit. It is a place of learning and pride that brings some 1,700 young people from 30 countries together for camp and other groups — families, seniors, people with disabilities together outside the summer season. We joined the party at lunch — and it was literally that, with voluminous singing and dancing at, and soon on, the tables. There was the unmistakable air all around of youth and hope and joy that catapulted any objections.
I spoke to a young Hungarian woman after and asked her the questions I’d brought along from American friends about anti-Semitism and fear, the possibilities of leaving. Her response was a grounded, but firm optimism. They had seen worse, and they would do more. They had overcome hurdles, and this was not the greatest — they had turned a corner.
“We will build” — that is the message of Szarvas.
A look around Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, with Szarvas graduates so often doing just that, makes the point in an entirely different way — one lodged firmly in the present.
We traveled to Novi Sad, the second-largest city in Serbia and one that has seen conflict in its most modern history as well as its past. There — and in the small city of Szeged in Hungary, and Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia — we saw the present reality and how it all came together.
Novi Sad’s Jewish community numbers well under 1,000 today, but it has one of the very beautiful synagogues of the region, an Art Nouveau masterpiece that has been preserved and that hints at a thriving Jewish past in the city and region. A moving monument to Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, many lined along the Danube and shot into its icy depths in winter 1942, was a reminder of all that once was and has been indelibly lost. That past lives with the community today.
And yet, a dignified, thoughtful group of Jewish leaders met with us — their English excellent, their curiosity about Jewish life outside vivid, and their dedication not only to retaining cemeteries and monuments, but for keeping alive Jewish life — apparent. A young woman, not 30, with a promising professional career, told us about the Israeli dance program she runs, her passion. She is the link between the present and that tantalizing future. Following in her footsteps, four young people from Novi Sad attended the camp at Szarvas this year.
Seeing Novi Sad changed our perspective on Szarvas. The intangibles — the dance and the song and the spirit — took on a whole new meaning. Without the injection of certain energy and life, without the feeling of a full and robust community, without that very real hope for the future, how would it be possible for these young people to work throughout the year in their small communities to maintain and set aflame a Jewish spark today? From where would their resilience derive?
We sat late at night along the same Danube with the community leaders, whose eyes are wide open to the past, and yet not too jaded to see that there is, in spite of all, hope on the horizon. When was the last time a group visited, we asked. And one man sitting next to us said he hadn’t met with one in a long time, and so it was very special, perhaps some 20 years.
Which posed the question of our role. Not in the past, but today. What is our role in building a bridge to a better future? Who are we in this story?
Rebecca Neuwirth is the Director of Strategic Engagement and a Senior Development Officer at JDC.
On Crimean Peninsula, Building Jewish Community
Despite the political crisis that has plagued Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula since 2014, JDC’s activities in cities like Sevastopol and Simferopol continue unabated.
JDC continues to be the fundamental engine of communal Jewish life and renewal on the peninsula, with summer camps, family retreats, and more.
In July, a summer retreat held by Sevastopol’s “Hesed Shahar” social welfare center drew about 100 children and youth at-risk and their families to a seaside facility for a week of activities and events for all age groups.
Young madrichim (counselors) from the city’s Hillel ran daily programming on Jewish history and traditions, with the youngest children listening drawing the characters and making art projects related to the stories. Parents and children together participated in music classes, sports tournaments, and — of course — the retreat’s famous talent show.
As a group, the participants celebrated Shabbat and then welcomed two teenagers into the world of Jewish adulthood at a joint bar and bat mitzvah ceremony.
Also this summer, the “Nevatim” family retreat was held for the 16th time, this time in the village of Saky, about an hour’s drive from Simferopol. The camp brought together 88 children and parents and 14 madrichim, young activists from the city’s Jewish community.
“Family retreats are an extremely powerful instrument of community-building,” said Victoria Plotkina, director of the Simferopol Hesed.
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.