JDC, Jewish Community of Romania Hosts Countrywide Tu B’Shevat Celebrations

A brimming Seder table in Iasi, complete with some of the seven species that originally grew in Israel, a Tu B’Shevat custom.

Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is known for its various rituals like eating a new fruit on this day, conducting a special Seder, and eating from the seven species (shivat haminim) such as– wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates –that originally grew in Israel.
Beginning at sunset on February 10th and lasting until nightfall on February 11, this year’s observance marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated on such a wide scale, with Seders taking place in nine Romanian communities including Arad, Bacau, Brasov, Cluj, Iasi, Oradea, Timisoara, Botosani, and Bucharest.

The multitude of Seders highlighted how Jewish life is thriving in areas where it was once nearly destroyed by the Holocaust and Communist-era religious repression.

Despite a recent snowfall across the region, more than 600 people braved frigid temperatures to take part in Seders, coming together for a holiday that has grown increasingly popular over the years, one that older generations in Romania still refer to as Hamisha Asar Bi’Shvat.

“For me, it is essential to be in the middle of the community and be an active part of it, so I took part in helping to organize this evening. It was amazing to see how it added some light and joy to this unique spirit that our community has,” said Ana Adrian from Timisoara.

The community celebrations were orchestrated by 27-year-old Magda Kupferberg, an educational programs adviser at the JDC-supported Bucharest Jewish Community Center (JCC), with guidance provided by Israel Sharli Sabag, the director of JDC Romania and the former Yugoslavia.

Yet, each community conducted their Seders and the activities around it a bit differently For example, in Iasi, there were many Tu B’Shevat related arts and crafts activities for children, while in Bucharest, a small sum of money was collected from participants to support the planting of 10 trees in Israel through Keren Kayemeth, Israel’s largest green nonprofit.

In a partnership between JDC and the Romanian Jewish Federation, FEDROM, each community received a holiday stipend to purchase the fruits and other foods needed to produce a successful and meaningful Tu B’Shevat celebration, as well as a manual with step-by-step instructions for conducting the Seder and reciting the blessings over the fruit and wine. The kit also included general information regarding the holiday and the significance of specific customs, like planting trees, and a kids section with coloring and connect-the-dots activities, as well as a holiday story.

“On this Tu B’Shevat, there was a very warm atmosphere because of the multitude of children, the beautiful songs of our choir, and the interesting and meaningful speech of the Rabbi. We had all the seven species of fruits and much more, and we enjoyed hearing the stories related to those fruits and the deep meaning behind Tu B’Shevat,” said Gabriel Szekely, a local attendee.

Today, Romania has about 8,000 Jews living in 39 distinct communities with 83 synagogues across the country, and 3,000 Jews reside in Bucharest alone. Just this past year, JDC celebrated its 100th anniversary of working in Romania to both aid the country’s neediest Jews and continue to revitalize Jewish life.

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Migdal JCC of Odessa Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Some 600 people converged on Odessa, Ukraine, on Feb. 5 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the city’s Migdal Jewish Community – the first JCC in the former Soviet Union (FSU).
The four-hour celebration’s guests included leaders of the city and region’s Jewish organizations, local rabbis, former and current JCC members, staff, volunteers, and families.
“Our JCC started in 1992 with just a few Jewish renewal programs that we offered on Sundays. We started from scratch and our biggest motivation was to return ourselves and our friends and family members to our Jewishness,” said Kira Verkhovskaya, chair of the JCC’s board. “We now have over 100 programs offered in three locations. We do summer retreats and Shabbatons, publish materials on Jewish education, run seminars and conferences. But our main achievement is that we have become the Jewish family where you have a home forever. You come here as a kid, you grow up, meet your future spouse, create a family, and then bring your own child here again.”
In addition to local projects, Migdal JCC works on joint projects with the Jewish community of Baltimore, a partnership that has enabled Odessa’s teenagers to go to Baltimore to participate in JCC Maccabi Games, JCC art festivals, educational exchanges, and more.
The anniversary festivities included an original musical performance called “Two Wings.”
The show’s two characters – David and Leba – are preparing for their bar and bat mitzvah (the total sum of their ages is 25 – like the anniversary being celebrated). Two angels (black and white) have an argument over whether the children are ready to overcome the obstacles they’ll face. The show had a cast of 160; the children, teenagers, and parents who participated are members of Migdal’s singing, dancing, and drama groups.
There were also performances by creative groups run by former Migdal Or and Migdal activists, and by a group from Odessa’s Beit Grand JCC. The event also featured messages of congratulations from Baltimore, other Jewish communities in southern Ukraine, and Migdal members now residing in other parts of the world, adding to the celebration’s “global” atmosphere.

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Bulgaria: Small Jewish Community, Big Impact

I can’t say I’ve ever spent much time thinking about Jewish Bulgaria, past or present. But if I had, I probably would have made the following assumptions based on what I thought I knew about Eastern Europe: (1) Bulgarian Jews were Ashkenazi; (2) they were shomer Shabbos (Shabbat-observant); (3) Their community was decimated by the Nazis, with plenty of assistance from local anti-Semites; (4) Those few who survived immediately set about rebuilding their cultural and religious Jewish lives.
So on Sunday, when I went down to Greenwich Village to hear Julia Dandolova, director of JDC Bulgaria, talk about Bulgarian Jewish life, I didn’t expect to learn a whole lot new. Truth be told, I was more interested in seeing a cool Perry Street carriage house.
Well, at least I was right about one thing – the hostess, Linda White’s place is way cool! [Note: Julia also spoke at a breakfast at JDC the following morning, chaired by Ron Burton and Steve Silverman.]
But as for my seemingly safe assumptions – wrong, wrong and wrong. Here’s some of what I learned about Jewish Bulgaria, then and now.
The Jewish community was created by Jews expelled from Spain, so it was and remains almost entirely Sephardic and concentrated in Sofia. It was never particularly religious. And while, yes, Bulgaria cooperated with the Nazis, when Hitler wanted to move all of Sofia’s Jews to border cities, making it easier to deport them, Eastern Orthodox priests said if the Jews go, they’d go, too. Their congregants applauded and so did many other Bulgarians. The order was delayed, the war ended, and 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. (Yes, history books will tell us that more than 11,000 Jews died in the camps; they were Jews from territories Hitler had given to Bulgaria, his ally. So there is a tragic story here, too.)
And even so, after the war, all but 5,000 of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews made aliyah. Those who remained, not a religious group to begin with, left dormant or hid their religious roots. Their kids grew up barely knowing what a Jew was, certainly not thinking of themselves as such.
But today? In no small part due to JDC’s active presence for the last 25 years, Jewish ethnic identity and cultural values are thriving. Kashrut, Sabbath observance, etc., all remain back-burnered, though Jewish literacy is way up. But tikkun olam, tzedakah, all the things that make me proud to be a Jew, are back with a vengeance. Children are going to Jewish summer camps, learning about their heritage. Teenagers are making tzedakah boxes, selling them to fellow Jews, collecting the money every few months, and distributing it to the needy. Sofia’s Jewish life is centered in the JCC and its programs. The one synagogue is not as vibrant yet, but an orthodox Rabbi from Israel who is learning Bulgarian is promising, and a community group has invited the first Reform rabbi to visit in February in the hopes of reviving interest in another version of Judaism.
Jewish values are strong and getting stronger by the day.
Yay, Bulgaria! And yay, JDC.
JDC Ambassadors will visit Bulgaria and Greece in October– for more information on that and other international travel opportunities, go to https://www.jdc.org/letsgo
Claudia Deutsch is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and a JDC donor and journalist.

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When Deadly Cold Sets in, JDC’s Winter Relief Warms the Most Vulnerable

Warm bedding is a critical necessity during the coldest winter months in Belarus.

As this week saw an unprecedented cold snap for people in Europe and the former Soviet Union (FSU) resulting in the deaths of more than 60, JDC’s Winter Relief program was well underway.
Now in its 25th year, the critical aid program ensures that thousands of poor Jews, including homebound elderly — without the resources or ability to secure appropriate supplies — get the critical support they need to survive frigid temperatures in places with little local support to help them.
Take the Vasiliev-Klochkovs, a family from the remote city of Prishakhtinsk in Kazakhstan, where the temperature currently is just -1 degrees Fahrenheit.
The family of four live in a dilapidated house without indoor plumbing or central heating. Their only source of heat is a furnace that burns charcoal. Last month, the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center provided a large supply of to the family. If it wasn’t for this delivery, which will yield up to four months of heat, it is highly unlikely the Vasiliev-Klochkovs would have been able to afford this basic necessity on their monthly income, just $176.
Without JDC, the Vasiliev-Klochkovs would be left alone to shiver in the dark–and they are not the only ones.
For needy Jews from the Baltics to Hungary to Kazakhstan, winter relief comes in the form of warm blankets and jackets, wood, coal, electric heaters, and utility subsidies that are desperately needed.
In Poland, where temperatures dropped to -4 degrees Fahreheit in some areas, dozens of families received winter aid, from warm clothes, to flu shots, to heaters.
A generation after JDC began its efforts to help Jews in need stave off winter’s cold, the annual program is not only saving lives, its providing community for those with no one else in the world to turn to.
JDC’s global programs are made possible by the generosity of our .

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AJT Conference Showcases Surging Jewish Teen Life in FSU

Kharkov, Ukraine played host to 350+ Jewish teen leaders attending the 3rd Active Jewish Teens (AJT) conference.

Today’s teens often spend their time navigating the world of adulthood, learning about the world, and themselves, through fast-paced information channels, and ultimately establishing their own unique identity. To support this journey on a global scale, JDC has prioritized supporting Jewish teen life around the world, largely through our global partnership with BBYO, the largest Jewish pluralistic teen movement.
A quickly expanding outgrowth of that effort, and the high demand among Jewish teens in the former Soviet Union to lead their communities and shape their identities, is JDC’s Active Jewish Teens Network (AJT).
A vibrant, inclusive peer network that engages teens and young adults in Jewish community life, AJT also offers them the opportunity to explore and form their Jewish identities.
Catalyzed initially by JDC-BBYO Service Corps Fellows – deployed in yearlong placements and utilize their expertise in Jewish education and teen engagement – and a grassroots enthusiasm among Jewish teens to actively participate in Jewish life, AJT boasts a membership of 3,000 Jewish teens from 55 cities across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. As Jewish life flourishes in the region, this younger generation plays a pivotal and central role in building Jewish life-a miraculous reversal of history in a region where the Nazis and Soviets attempted to obliterate all traces of Jewish people and communities.
The success of that evolution was on display in December as more than 300 of those teens gathered for the 3rd annual AJT Conference in Kharkov, Ukraine. Nearly doubling the number of last year’s attendees, the conference also included for the first-time teens from Latvia and Israel.
The conference, run exclusively by the teens themselves, has quickly become the largest platform for Jewish teen networking and communication and leadership best practices in the former Soviet Union.
Participants had an opportunity to meet with inspiring speakers and teachers from different countries to deepen their Jewish knowledge and leadership skills, analyze case studies of successful teen projects, and attend master classes from leaders of youth clubs.
“I have already said a hundred times that AJT has given me the meaning of life. It gave me confidence, and the desire to go forward. My greatest fear is to lose contact with AJT participants. It is only thanks to them that I’m feeling confident and open. Just know that all of you gave me a push to create something new,” said participant Natalia Gavrilyuk from the Ukranian city of Zaporozhe.
Each morning started with a choice of Israeli dancing, prayer, yoga, or morning exercises. Each meal had teen-led blessings. And on Friday night, the teens lit candles in a Kabbalat Shabbat service where they sang Hebrew songs, read from the Torah, and recited more traditional prayers, and listened to a dvar Torah, a commentary on the weekly portion of the Torah. The singing didn’t stop there however, as the festive dinner that immediately followed brought with it more singing and also birthday celebrations for several participants.
In spite of the freezing weather typically seen by Ukraine during this time of year, Saturday morning brought participants outside for a fun yet chilly “Shabbat Quest” where they completed challenging exercises in order to move onto the next level of the activity. At the end of each segment, the group learned something new about Shabbat from one of their peer teachers.
As Shabbat came to a close, the conference was far from over. Teens were then bused to the JDC-supported JCC, Beit Wohl, to take part in a festive dance party, awards ceremony for outstanding AJT achievements, and to cast their ballots for the new AJT presidents, Eva Shepilova and Dmitry Arutyunov.
“I would have never believed that over the last several days I could meet so many interesting people, learn so many new things, and experience such magic! With each new AJT opportunity, I want to further develop myself and my community more and more,” said participant Sonja Bakhtiyarova of Odessa.
This pride and excitement was also evident among the esteemed guests who joinged the AJT teens at the conference. Ian Kandel, Vice President of BBYO, traveled from Washington, DC to attend the conference. Kandel ran several sessions for participants and also spoke about the BBYO’s work and how AJT and BBYO partner together.

“Thank you so much for what must be one of the most inspiring weekends in my 12-year career with BBYO and the Jewish professional world,” said Kandel of his experience at AJT. ” The word ‘proud’ does not begin to summarize my feelings about what we – BBYO and JDC -have been able to catalyze among the former Soviet Union’s Jewish teens, our future movement builders and community leaders.”

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Q&A with JDC CEO David Schizer

The mission is 102 years old, but it’s very simple to describe: We save Jewish lives and we build Jewish life. In so many places in the world, Jewish people are living in really difficult conditions. I’ve been to Ukraine, and I’ve met elderly people who live on pensions that are $2 a day, because the currency in Ukraine has declined so much in the last few years. These people depend on us to live meaningful lives, to be able to function. We also are so committed to the idea of helping Jewish communities become better organized, so they can provide for themselves.

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Celebrating Chanukah with Ashalim and Better Together

Last week, Jews across the world came together to light candles and revel in the miracles of Chanukah. Different cultures even celebrated the holiday according to their own centuries-old traditions.
Across the State of Israel, Jewish communities began nurturing new Chanukah traditions, too.
With the help of JDC’s at-risk children and youth initiative, Ashalim, “Better Together” neighborhoods from Be’er Sheva to Kiryat Shmona celebrated Chanukah with a renewed commitment to bringing light back into their communities.
Better Together operates in Israel’s poorest neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for children and families.
This Chanukah, residents from apartment blocks across the Better Together neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona gathered in their courtyards to light candles, sing festive songs, and enjoy sufganiyot. Better Together in Kiryat Shmona has more than 3,800 participants involved in roughly 40 projects.
Community organizers purposefully lit menorahs near residential buildings; their goal was to bring light to families who were either not invited to a Chanukah celebration or might not feel safe enough to venture outside at night.
Take Marcel, a resident of Kiryat Shmona for more than three decades.
After her children moved from the city and her husband died, Marcel found it difficult to live alone, which in turn affected her health and quality of life. Last Chanukah, a few girls from her apartment block invited her downstairs to light the Chanukah candles together. At this small gathering, Marcel met the neighbors who would become her new family.
Since that evening, she has been an active volunteer, organizing activities for women and girls in the neighborhood.
She and a number of other women in the neighborhood heard from younger mothers about their difficulties raising teenage girls, and in turn began organizing mother-daughter activities at a neighborhood youth club. They also reached out to struggling single mothers from the former Soviet Union.
“For several years I lived in the dark,” Marcel said. “I did not see the ray of light and hope. But since the girls and their mothers arrived at the local youth club activities, my spirit has changed.”
In Be’er Sheva, the Better Together neighborhood Yud Alef held its own Chanukah celebrations. Throughout the neighborhood, residents blessed the holiday candles, enjoyed Chanukah treats, and organized children’s activities.
Ilana and her daughter Shachar, 8, residents of Yud Alef in Be’er Sheva, have felt the impact of their Better Together community. Shachar is involved in the Mishachkiya game room program, a creative play therapy outlet for families and their children. She basks in the warmth of her second family, eagerly awaiting each weekly meeting.
Better Together, one of Ashalim’s flagship programs, employs an innovative strategy to minimize systemic gaps among Israeli children and youth.
JDC-Ashalim, in partnership with local municipalities, identifies specific neighborhoods and seeks to give residents a voice in the decision-making process, strengthen the community’s belief in its own ability to change the situation, and train residents to carry out the change effectively.
Working closely with the municipality, the initiative leverages existing infrastructure, such as schools, community centers and public spaces, to empower the community members to take an active role in shaping the future of their neighborhood.
Programs range from specialized parenting groups (e.g. for single mothers, parents to teenagers, and parents of children with special needs) and after-school enrichment, to inter-neighborhood father-son soccer leagues and women’s cooking clubs.
Better Together helps to establish action committees, comprised of community members, municipal leaders, local service providers, and NGO representatives that aim to affect families’ quality of life. These include committees dedicated to updating and caring for communal urban green spaces, arranging neighborhood security, and implementing health-related programming.
Ashalim Director Dr. Rami Sulimani conceived of the Better Together program and has followed the growth of the program to some 40 neighborhoods.
He said the program gives neighborhood residents “the opportunity to express their voice, use their skills for the sake of their community and for their children.”
Dr. Sulimani said that when visiting Better Together communities, residents have thanked him for all that JDC has brought into their neighborhood.
“Thanks to the program, we’ve grown to become involved in serving the community,” they tell him. “We feel that we have the power to influence and make a difference in our lives, to live in a well-kept place and take responsibility for what is happening around us.”
Yehuda Zusman, Better Together’s Northern Region manager, said Chanukah ties in well to the larger goals of the neighborhood initiative.
“The core of the Chanukah narrative celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. And that is exactly what our Better Together neighborhoods are doing this Chanukah,” he said. “In a physical sense, they are honoring the mitzvah of candle lighting, and illuminating their homes, courtyards and public spaces. In a spiritual sense, the communities are taking the future of their neighborhoods into their own hands, in turn making their neighborhoods brighter places to live.”

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