Jessica Nysenbaum

Turkey's Jewish Future

Posted: April 15, 2013

Jessica Nysenbaum is a co-chair of Inside Jewish Turkey on April 22 in Washington, DC. She recently returned from JDC Entwine's Insider Trip to Turkey.

On my recent JDC Entwine trip to Turkey, no experience was more profound than visiting and getting to know the Jewish community of Izmir.

Izmir, formerly known as Smyrna, is a beautiful city on the Aegean coast where the Jewish population used to number over 40,000 but today is significantly less. This population decline presents the community with many challenges such as keeping synagogues open with declining membership and educating children on their Jewish heritage when their numbers are too small to support a formal school.

Given these realities, you might expect that Jewish identity in Izmir is waning and that visiting the community would be depressing.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

What I saw in Izmir was a Jewish community with an incredible strength and vitality. A community with incredible young leaders who willingly gave up their free time to hang out at the Jewish community center. A community where these same teenagers teach the younger children at Hebrew school, and are excited to spend their summer at a Jewish summer camp in Hungary or traveling to Israel.

And yet many of these same young leaders plan to leave Izmir to fulfill their dreams of attending college abroad in America or going to school in Istanbul. While we understood the aspirations of these young leaders, and I excitably encouraged the young women eyeing my alma mater to apply, hearing their plans was bittersweet.

Our group couldn’t help but talk amongst ourselves about our fears that if the young people of Izmir choose to leave that the community’s ability to survive is imperiled. Coming to terms with this reality, that the Jewish community of Izmir may not always physically be there, led me to an even greater appreciation of the work JDC does to help sustain and build Jewish identity and community around the world. JDC is helping give these young people choices. For those who want to stay in Izmir, they have a strong and active Jewish community. For those who chose to leave, they bring with them the foundation of their strong Jewish identity and the traditions of their community. 

This is just a sample of the issues facing this community. Join me on April 22 for an in-depth discussion on Turkey's Jewish future. I'm co-chairing Inside Jewish Turkey at Agora Restaurant. RSVP here.

 

 

My Family's History and the History of the Joint

Posted: November 13, 2012

Last winter I was intrigued when I attended Inside Jewish Turkey, a JDC Entwine event for young professionals. The event, one of many held by the Entwine DC network, showcased Turkey’s Jewish community and detailed their history and current needs.

I was curious to learn more about the organization, and browsing the organization’s website soon learned JDC works with Jewish communities I didn’t even know existed all over the world from India to Tunisia. Poking around the JDC website I also stumbled upon a page detailing the organization’s history. I read about how JDC was one of the main relief organizations working in the displaced persons camps after World War II, and how they played a major role in helping people emigrate. That caught my immediate attention as the displaced persons (DP) camps played a critical role in my family’s history.

My grandmother (pictured, front, in between the man in the suit and the woman in the polka dotted shirt) survived the war by evacuating to Tashkent, Uzbekistan from her small polish town, Pworsk, as the German army advanced across Poland in 1941. Her parents, and youngest sister 12 year old Malka, stayed behind in Pworsk, believing that leaving would be too hard on my great grandfather, Samuel, who was chronically ill.

As my Great Uncle Paul recently recounted to me, Samuel believed that the Germans wouldn’t do anything worse than make him work. He was tragically wrong, and my family believes that Samuel, his wife Sarah, and Malka were murdered in a massacre of Pworsk’s Jews in 1942. Two of my grandmothers older sisters, who were married and living in the nearby city Kovel, were also killed during the war.

My grandfather retreated with the Russian army from his town Radzyn, also in Poland, before the Germans arrived. He spent the war in a Russian work camp cutting wood (which I naively thought didn’t sound too bad until I read a book about the starvation, brutal punishments, and high mortality rates in Siberian camps a few years ago), and managed to survive while his parents and several of his siblings perished.

I’ve never been able to figure out how they both made it from Russia across the European continent to a DP camp in Germany. Perhaps, it was one small piece of luck in a terrible time since it was in that camp where they met each other and started their new lives. My grandmother and grandfather were married within a year of meeting in the DP camp, and soon my aunt and then my father were born. I’d never known very much about the time my family spent in the DP camps, or how they managed to immigrate to America when they literally had nothing.

I was excited to discover JDC’s archives and sure enough, my suspicion was correct. I found registration cards for my father, my aunt, and my grandparents in a database of DP camp residents JDC worked with. It’s hard to put into words the significance this discovery had for me. It opened a window into my family’s past, as I soon discovered that the records in JDC’s databases include things we’d never known, like which DP camp my father was born in, and that my grandparents considered moving to Australia.

(photo: JDC Archives)

More profoundly, it made me realize that the organization that had helped change my father’s life, and the lives of my grandparents and aunt, was not a relic of history, but a vibrant organization doing incredible work around the world today.

By getting involved with JDC, our generation of young American Jews now have the opportunity to help support and empower Jews in need around the world, while not so long ago many of our families were the ones in need of help and support. To me, it’s a symbol of the interconnectedness of Jews worldwide, and the Jewish community. Only one generation ago, my family needed help and JDC stepped in and changed their lives, and by doing so made every opportunity I’ve had in my life possible. In my lifetime, by working with JDC, I hope I can help at least one family make a better future for themselves, and that someday their children will be in a position, like me, to be the ones to give back.

 

 

Solidarity and Support in Times of Crisis

Posted: August 5, 2012

When you read about Greece in the news today the challenges seem enormous. The country's financial crisis has led to cutbacks in government services, a large increase in the unemployment rate, and overall political instability.

In the face of all these challenges, it's easy to imagine that Greece's Jews, as a small community of approx. 3,000 people, would be struggling and perhaps even be at risk of disappearing. Personally, I can't imagine what it must be like to live as a member of a minority community during such turbulent times.

Fortunately, although times are tough the Greek Jewish community remains strong and vibrant. Working together with JDC, the community is working to support individual members who are struggling and to keep their institutions afloat.

JDC is helping keep synagogues, schools, and community centers open to sustain the community today and for future generations. That's one of the things I find most inspiring about JDC's work around the world- that they always look to meet today's needs while also keeping an eye on helping communities build a better future.

I hope you'll be joining me at JDC's Inside Jewish Greece event this Tuesday to learn about the history of this unique community, and how they're facing their current challenges. I look forward to seeing you there.

 

 

Apr 15, 2013 4:04:42 PM
Jessica Nysenbaum uploaded new photos into Inside Jewish Turkey
Apr 15, 2013 3:43:02 PM
Nov 13, 2012 6:46:00 PM
Jessica Nysenbaum uploaded new photos into My family's history
Nov 13, 2012 6:39:17 PM

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Jessica Nysenbaum
Joined: July 30, 2012

 

 

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