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.
September 10, 2015
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.