From the CEO: Around the World, Snapshots of Jewish Hope

Jewish tradition is prolific in advice offering. And one of the gems from this lexicon of do's and don'ts comes from the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin.

November 26, 2014

Agata Rakowiecka leads a program at the groundbreaking JCC in Warsaw, Poland.

Jewish tradition is prolific in advice offering. And one of the gems from this lexicon of do’s and don’ts comes from the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin.

In this text we’re instructed on the duties of a father to his son. Today I would read this as the duties of all parents to their children. Among the main responsibilities, we are told, parents must teach their children Torah as well as a trade. The text goes on to also implore parents to teach their children how to swim.

Interesting. Why?

The rabbis tell us that this curious addition is because a child’s very life may one day depend on being able to swim.

There is a deeper meaning as well: Swimming is not just about survival. It’s about endurance. It’s about moving against the tide in dangerous waters and emerging victorious, with the full breath of life. Ultimately, it’s about thriving.

And during the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of experiencing how JDC is working together with strong, local Jewish communities, governments, passionate philanthropists, and rising generations of those whose Jewish identities were stolen from them to thrive in ways some of us never imagined.

Here are four snapshots from my recent travels – from Israel to Russia to Poland to the Netherlands – which illustrate JDC at work:

Our beloved Israel is situated in an increasingly perilous neighborhood and must therefore have a cohesive and strong social fabric in order to take on the growing regional threats it faces. And JDC has played a central role in taking on the challenges facing Israel’s most vulnerable to offer them a place, and a successful future, in Israeli society. One of the hallmarks of JDC’s century of work there has been its work with the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community, which faces major obstacles in the area of employment.

We have made great strides in helping Haredi men and women train for and secure jobs through many programs, including those featured by in its coverage of the progress being made in this realm. I was recently honored to represent JDC at an event in Jerusalem marking the expansion of our Mafteach employment centers for Haredim, a further growth in our activities in a strategic philanthropic partnership with the Government of Israel’s Ministry of the Economy and the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation. It includes a major ramp-up of existing Mafteach centers and the creation of two more of these in-demand, one-stop employment centers.

Our ability to ensure that Haredim can offer the Israeli economy skilled and expert workers is strengthening Israeli’s social fabric. The more than 27,000 Haredi adults who have walked through the doors of Mafteach centers established to date – more than 50 percent of them with jobs today – is proof positive.

Moscow at this time of year, like much of the former Soviet Union, can be cold and overcast–winter comes very early. And yet, there was special warmth emanating from the Jewish community there when I visited, the embers of Jewish life glowing bright. I was in Moscow for two events, intertwined in many ways, which demonstrated our successful work to revive Jewish community, culture, and a shared sense of responsibility.

The first was , one of the city’s largest Jewish Community Centers, in honor of our beloved, late Ralph Goldman z”l. Established in 2001, this JCC operates out of a converted 19-century mansion in the center of Moscow. From its flagship Tapuz nursery and pre-school – consistently ranked among the top 10 institutions of its kind in the city – to lectures, concerts, and gatherings for holidays and special occasions attended by thousands, this bustling Jewish hub is a prominent sign of the remarkable revival of a formerly oppressed Jewish community.

How fitting then that it should now be called the Ralph I. Goldman Nikitskaya Jewish Cultural Center, after the man who negotiated with the Soviets to ensure JDC’s reentry into the Soviet Union to care for Jews in need and foster Jewish life. The ceremony – including a memorial tribute, musical performance, and the unveiling of the new name plaque at the JCC – recalled the extraordinary leadership of Ralph, a hero of the Jewish people. His 100 years were marked by the belief that all Jews had the right to freedom and to express their Jewish identity proudly and fully. And in that stately building today that bears his name, in the halls, among the children at play, and the Hebrew songs being sung, is his legacy: vibrant Jewish life.

That legacy was even more powerfully felt at a special gala held by the venerable Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) celebrating JDC’s centennial. Among those who attended the standing-room-only event, an annual gathering of RJC’s growing membership from across Russia, was U.S Ambassador John Tefft, Israeli Ambassador Dorit Golender, Russian Chief Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, and many of Russia’s Jewish cultural, business, and community elites. They were treated to a labyrinth of archival JDC photos and a very special theatrical performance. The evening was hosted by renowned TV presenter Nikolai Svanidze.

‘We will always remember that the Joint created a network of Hesed centers in Russia and supported Russian Jewry during its toughest times. We are very grateful for that,’ said Yury Kanner, the esteemed president of the RJC. As proud as I was of JDC that night, I was even prouder of the evidence of a community coming of age.

One of my early assignments for JDC was traveling to Moscow in the early ’90s to work with the nascent RJC in its formative development. Today, it has grown in membership, influence and, together with tens of thousands of other Russian Jews, in its proud expressions of a serious Jewish identity. For those of us who have journeyed together with the Jews of the former Soviet Union, from the fall of communism to today, the two events I attended in Moscow are evidence to any skeptic that miracles do indeed occur.

My great-grandfather Avraham Yechiel z’l, whose name I carry, is buried in a cemetery in Lodz, Poland. He was one of the millions of Jews who inhabited a critically important center of Jewish life, of Jewish civilization, in Europe before the Holocaust. After emerging from the double trauma of Nazism and Communism, Poland is today a noted spot for the revival of Jewish community life.

Covered by the media for years now, this Jewish reawakening was powerfully on display at the opening of POLIN, the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I attended the opening together with a senior JDC delegation, including our Europe Board Committee Chair Amy Bressman, and we experienced exhibits that were both educational and inspiring. As I ventured around the space, and afterwards stood in front of the museum on the grounds of the former Warsaw ghetto, I began to realize just how significant this was. What has been created is a movingly presented story of the Jews of Poland. Our story. My story.

But my week in Poland wasn’t just about history. We also celebrated the one-year anniversary of the opening of Warsaw’s first modern JCC, a landmark JDC project. Launched in partnership with the Taube Foundation, Koret Foundation, and Kronhill-Pletka Foundation, the JCC represents the potential for the community today and for its future. It’s a space that is warm, welcoming, creative, forward-thinking, and realistic about the need for Jewish life to happen on the terms of those who are partaking in it.

From children’s activities to themed Shabbat meals and holiday programming, hundreds take part in the JCC’s overbooked schedule of events. All Jews are welcome – from secular Jews to members of various Jewish denominations – and the first year has been marked by many successes, including a special Purim shuk. This holiday marketplace included craftsmen, designers of Judaica, artists, and chefs from the community to sell their work. Twenty percent of the proceeds were donated to needy members of the community. Impressive.

As Agata Rakowiecka, , relates, ‘There are religious and secular people of different ages sitting together, talking, laughing. I meet people who haven’t been involved with Jewish life for years. At these moments, I realize how needed and how important our mission is.’

For me, Avraham Yechiel’s great-grandson, this sentiment is spot-on. And I know his memory lives on, and is given new life, in Poland’s incredible Jewish renaissance.

Amsterdam is home to one of Europe’s strong, proud, and financially self-sufficient Jewish communities. A partner with JDC in our work aiding the elderly in the former Soviet Union and training European Jewish leaders, this community is also now facing the scourge of spiking anti-Semitism.

I was hosted by the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, its distinguished president Ronny Naftaniel and director Muriel Leeuwin, and the local Jewish community leadership to hear more about their work and concerns. What was striking to me about our conversations, and experiencing first-hand the reality of a Europe that has both rising anti-Semitism and thriving Jewish community life, is the stalwart attitude taken by the Jews of the Netherlands.

After all, JDC played a seminal role in rebuilding European Jewish communities like those in the Netherlands after the Holocaust. So from our perspective, we see the vibrant Dutch Jewish community, made up of tens of thousands of people, working hard under increasing duress, to support their fellow Jewish communities, and Israel, in meaningful ways. And that is simply inspiring.

But perhaps more inspiring was the fact that I went to Amsterdam to study and to listen, but instead got a true lesson in global Jewish responsibility. In my conversations with community members, I asked what their response was to rising extremism. Some were looking for opportunity elsewhere. Others were unmoved, pledging to stay. But they were united in their commitment to their community, and to one another.

In that moment I became aware that my presence there wasn’t just in a professional capacity. I was there in solidarity – standing shoulder to shoulder with a community that JDC had aided in the aftermath of the Nazi horror, a community that proudly partakes in Jewish humanitarian work around the world, and a community that is committed to weathering the storm.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh – all Jews are responsible for one another – is more than sustenance and material succor to those in need. It’s about ‘being there’ when ‘being there’ means everything to those you are standing next to, whether physically or metaphorically.

Back in America, to ask what they can realistically do to respond to a world in crisis.

And, they sometimes ask, given the seemingly hopeless state of things, should they even bother trying?

I have the same answer to give, the same in every language, in every venue, and to every person who asks: YES.

Because of what I experienced on this most recent JDC journey.

Because of what we have done together for the last one hundred years.

We are there for the Jewish people at their time of need–yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Alan H. Gill is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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