An Argentinian Perspective of Leadership & Philanthropy in Israel

Posted: January 29, 2018

Written by Sebastian Palatnik, Inside Israel: The Eugene J. Ribakoff Fellowiship in Leadership & Philanthropy alum. Sebastian is an entrepreneur, cofounder of the company CLINC and a director of TechTrek. He studied Entrepreneurship at Tel-Aviv University and is a former Nahum Goldmann Fellow.

Over the past 10 years, there has been huge growth in the number of travel programs for Jewish young adults, focusing on everything from culture and tradition to tourism. Out of a personal desire to seek new challenges, I discovered The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and their young adult initiative, JDC Entwine who works to connect young Jews to the global Jewish community and foster a sense of global responsibility through their programs. My search would ultimately lead me to Israel, where I had the opportunity to learn about philanthropy with a 100% innovative platform using experiential education. As an entrepreneur, teacher, and director of an NGO that works with this methodology, I did not hesitate to apply for this fascinating program.

The JDC offered me a scholarship to attend and as an active member of the Lazos organization - a network that seeks to connect and empower young Jews from Latin America - I was fortunate to receive the necessary support to be one of the 18 participants on JDC Entwine's Inside Israel: The Eugene K. Ribakoff Fellowship experience. The trip was created by JDC Board Member, Charles Ribakoff, is honor of his late father, and former JDC President, Eugene K. Ribakoff, and, luckily for the participants, Charles traveled with us for several days of the trip.

Without much knowledge of what I was going to experience, I boarded the plane with few expectations of what was to come. My only thought was how important this opportunity was to travel with such a prominent and important Jewish organization, and that interesting things were about to happen.

After hours of travel and then meeting the other participants, our journey began in Jerusalem. Traveling among people from a different country with a largely different culture created a sense of responsibility to make a unique and meaningful contribution to the group, and perhaps provide a new point of view.

The first day of the trip we learned about the social situation in Israel, and how JDC works with the Israeli government and other partners to develop programs with defined goals and metrics to help alleviate some of the country's social issues, and protect the most vulnerable citizens. On the second day, the importance of JDC's programs became clearer as we got more hands-on, and visited the programs. Seeing and experiencing the programs was a critical part of the trip, since each participant is required to make a $250 philanthropic contribution for a mini on-trip giving circle. This means that we pooled all of the contributions, and together would decide which of the programs we wanted to donate to. Thinking about the programs through a philanthropic lens, was the best way to learn about fundraising.

During the subsequent days and projects we visited other programs, aimed at alleviating some of the social issues impacting Druze, Arab-Israelis, Orthodox, refugees - programs through schools, organizations, communities and others. The last project we visited was the one that personally motivated me, inspired me and the one I chose to support. A program called Eitan, which works to teach young people with disabilities Krav Maga and helps them become instructors. Participating in a class with Eitan was incredibly emotional.

On the last day of the trip we deliberated and decided to allocate the trip funds to an alternative education farm, decided  based on criteria we had defined prior to visiting the individual projects. This point is key because each donor has their own criteria, which makes it very important to know about them from the beginning. The experience had come to an end and with it the possibility of learning by doing, of seeing and living the other side and, finally, of helping. I speak about my experience not as travel because I have learned that experiences are journeys with wings: moments that make you fly and live something beyond a set of planes and trips.

I cannot fail to mention the involvement by Charles Ribakoff - a man of vision and legacy. Beyond personal opinions and thoughts based on history and experience, I must emphasize how inspiring it was to have him on the trip to inspire us to look at giving in order to guarantee a broader, more innovative Jewish future.

Inside Israel was 5 intense days of learning through new experiences, building friendships, and training to be a Jewish leader. These experiences left a huge mark on my life that I recommend to anyone who can participate. I think back to the Friday night of the trip, when the group came together - with all our similarities and differences - to share a Shabbat experience at the port of Tel Aviv, in front of the sea, with Jews from all over the world. I believe we are what we live, and that living experiences such as this one, prepare us to create the future we want to live.


 

 

Finding The Unexpected in Rwanda

Posted: October 26, 2017

Written by Inside Rwanda alum, Bobby Gross

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my trip to Rwanda. It was difficult to see past the long list of shots I needed to get, and the upcoming 24 hours of travel to get to the country. I looked forward to seeing my sister, Lauren, who has been serving as a Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow with Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), but wasn’t sure what to expect.  

So, in the last week of August I was off to Africa – and ASYV was not what I imagined. Though I had heard about the Village from Lauren, I wasn’t able to understand how incredible of a place it is until I saw it for myself. It’s a 144 acre piece of the world where there is a spirit that not only emanates from the land but from the people and the rhythms of each day.  This struck everyone on the trip almost immediately.

I saw Lauren with her family at family time, which is a 20 student house of freshman year students. I saw this person I’ve known my entire life, but with a softness that seems to have developed from interacting with these younger female students. Students that she had little in common with, but had grown to love in the months she had been in Rwanda.

Throughout the week, I began to understand her life here and ASYV as a whole. It gave me a much deeper understanding of her world and a newfound respect for her toughness. Usually one to enjoy the luxuries afforded to her from growing up in the USA, Lauren was thriving in this unique place where those creature comforts did not exist. The image I had had of my sister for all those years seemed to melt away and I saw a person I admired and connected with in a new and very special way.

Outside of spending time with my sister, the majority of the week was with other participants on Inside Rwanda. Having eleven other people to experience this adventure with added to the trip tenfold. We would share stories of our daily experiences with the students, bond over our mutual lack of enthusiasm for the food, or even just hang out and talk about things ranging from “Parks and Recreation” quotes to understanding the ways of the human consciousness.

 All of what was experienced during our week together was shaped by the incredible ASYV students. As the week went on, we learned more about these students’ lives and I was awe-struck. The love and kindness these young people had for others and life was so pure that it brought me to tears on a few occasions. The students are some of the hardest working that I’ve ever come across, and it seemed that they were fueled by a gratitude for the opportunity to be at ASYV – a place they knew was very special. Throughout the week we were exposed to the beauty of the ASYV and the students - whether it was during Village Time (a Friday night talent show), Muchaca (a 6AM jog on Saturday morning filled with chants and song), or church (with all different forms of Christianity and faith praying together) - I could write an entire blog post on each of these. When I left for the trip, I had no idea the mark that these students would leave on me.


 

 

An Occupational Therapist in Georgia (the country)

Posted: September 28, 2017

Entwine alumna Paige Bookoff traveled with Entwine on Inside Jewish Georgia & Azerbaijan this past July. Growing up in Baltimore, MD, she was an active member of her Jewish community and, today, lives in San Diego, CA where she works as an occupational therapist with children with disabilities. Paige became involved with JDC Entwine out of a desire to learn more about, and connect with the global Jewish community. Following her trip, together with San Diego Community Rep Simone Abelsohn, Paige, recently hosted a group of twenty young adults for a Georgian themed dinner. At the dinner Paige shared these reflections of her trip.

It was Thursday July 20th –the drum like sound of my alarm went off and the sun was shining through the hotel curtains. It was time to get ready and begin day four of the trip. I completed my morning routine and headed downstairs for breakfast with my roommate. Breakfast included homemade omelets, fresh fruits and veggies, and a plethora of other savory and sweet delights. After breakfast, our whole group hopped on the bus and headed to the Jewish Community Center in Tbilisi.

At the JCC in Tbilisi we conversed with a group of elderly Jewish women who shared their interesting and diverse stories with us. The ease with which this, and countless other conversations flowed throughout the trip, demonstrated the unspoken connection that stems just from being Jewish. At the conclusion of our back-and-forth dialogue, we bid them farewell and gathered at the exit to receive the instructions for our next excursion for the day—the home visits to at risk youth in Tbilisi.

I stood in a disorganized huddle with my fellow Entwine participants, excitedly and anxiously waiting for my assignment for the home visit. The pieces of paper were handed out at random by one of the trip leaders, except for mine. She turned to me and said, “I want you to go this specific family’s home—they have a child with special needs.” She hands me the piece of paper reading “The Bokuchava Family.”

The piece of paper provided us with some background information on the family as a whole and about the girl specifically. As a clinician, I began to scan the document to extract key words and phrases that would facilitate my potential understanding of the environment and this family who I was about to interact with: four children, ages 4, 5, 6, and 7, mother and father unemployed, refugees from Sukhumi, verbal stock was limited, problems with speech development, problems with use of dining items, asocial behavior, importance of education for parents and kids, mental retardation of early development, speech therapist, and psychologist.

My clinical brain might have kicked in reading all of this information on the bus ride to this family’s home, but when I arrived and began to walk up a set of steep, rickety stairs with PVC pipes to my right, my human heart BEAT much stronger. This background information was just one piece of a very fragmented and complex puzzle that is human life.

At the top of the steps, I reached a porch-like area that opened up into a single room that this family of six shared. This single room contained one bed, one table, a few chairs, and some other sporadic items. The mother was standing off to one side while the grandmother was sitting on a “sofa-chair” with the four kids encircling her. Later on, it was revealed to us that the father did not want to be present upon our arrival for he felt shame and embarrassment that he himself could not provide for his family.

We entered into the room and introduced ourselves to the mother, grandmother, and the four children. The verbal exchange throughout the home visit experience occurred through a translator. We said our names and what city/country we lived in. We asked the mother some general questions about living in Georgia, her family, and JDC. As the conversation was flowing, the children were running about barefoot between the porch-area and the single room we were all gathered in. When we asked the mother if she had any questions for us, she began to cry and stated, “thank you, thank you, thank you…” She said she was SO grateful for everything JDC had provided and will continue to provide to her family, and that she was sorry she was so emotional; it was too hard to ask us questions, but we could keep asking her! To this mother, we were individually and collectively representative of JDC, so she continuously expressed her gratitude towards us.

My fellow JDC Entwine participants turned towards me and said, “Would you like to have some time to interact with the girl Maya?” I responded, “Are you sure you are all okay with that- I would LOVE to, but I do not want to detract from your experiences.” Everyone agreed, and my indelible interaction with Maya began.

Incase any one of you had been wondering what princess coloring pages have to do with the Georgian community; you’re about to find out.

Through the translator, I informed the mother that I am a pediatric occupational therapist, and I work with kids with special needs on daily living skills, such as eating, using utensils, showering, getting dressed, writing, and many other skill areas. I asked the mother, “Would it be okay if I do an activity with your daughter Maya? The mother replied, “Please, go ahead!”

I shifted my position at the table, pulled out my princess coloring book and markers, and asked the daughter if she would color with me! She delightfully agreed. I watched as she searched through the book in awe, deciding what page she wanted to choose to color first. I told her she could pick any page she wanted and use all of the markers. I wanted to see what she did without any outside influence, so I simply observed for a couple minutes. She glanced at me, so I smiled and said, “You’re doing great, it looks beautiful!” After observing, I asked her if I could show her a trick for how to hold her marker when she colors—she said, “okay!”

After demonstrating this technique for holding a marker that involves a coin, Maya resumed her coloring utilizing the new technique. After a little bit, I asked her, “Is this easy, or is this hard?” She replied, “This is pretty easy!” I allowed her to keep coloring a little while longer, continuously providing verbal and non-verbal positive reinforcement and encouragement for what she was accomplishing!! After a few minutes, I asked her if she wants to try and hold the marker the way she is holding it now, but without the coin. I re-assured her, “it’s okay if you cannot do it, let’s just try!” Well, she COULD DO IT!!

With a smile spread across her face, Maya jumped into my lap and wrapped her arms around my body, and quite shocking to me, tears began to stream down my face.

I cannot remember the last time I cried—maybe it was the sleep deprivation, maybe it was the fact that I honestly did so little, yet she was able to feel and express such PURE LOVE and gratitude towards a complete stranger.

That’s the thing about kids—what makes them so unbelievably special—it’s that pure love. That love that life taints, but that we should all try and spend everyday striving to feel, and express, and hold onto.

JDC’s work does not provide people with diamonds, cars, or a mansion- it provides people with basic human needs: shelter, food, medical services, freedom, education, and to these communities--It is EVERYTHING!

 

 

Reflections from Houston to Havana

Posted: September 15, 2017

Written by Jessica Starkschall, Inside Jewish Cuba 2017 Alum

I have the most complicated bookends to the 2017 JDC Entwine trip to Cuba.  However, in between these bookends, are pages of the most captivating story of 30 young professionals who visited the majestic city of Havana, culminating in a Shabbat with the Cuban Jewish community that I will remember forever.

I live in Houston, Texas.  Houston is my home and has been since I was 3 years old.  Just days before our departure for Havana, Hurricane Harvey came barreling towards the Texas Gulf Coast bringing 50 inches of rain to my home.  You all know what happened - Houston was devastated by the mass flooding occurring throughout the city.  Luckily, my family and I were spared from the floods, which led me to a predicament I never would have expected.  Assuming I could make it to Miami, should I leave my home,  my Jewish community, which needed so much help, to spend 4 days with the Havana Jewish community?  

After a 4 hour drive to San Antonio, 5 different cancelled flights, and very little sleep, I made it to Miami and boarded the plane for Havana with the group, albeit a little apprehensively.  Now, I can say I will never regret the decision I made, as my eyes were opened to a warm and welcoming community of Jews who were so incredibly different from me in many ways, and were also so much like me in many ways.

I will never forget standing in the departures terminal of Miami International Airport before checking in for our flight, with everyone’s bags sprawled out across the floor as we consolidated supplies that we were going to bring to help stock the pharmacy run by the Jewish community.  Through a generous donation, the JDC was also able to bring 10 wheelchairs to the community, and I can only begin to imagine the good this will do for the community.  It was humbling when we began to unload the wheelchairs.  As soon as we got them off the bus, our group began to pose for a group photo and the staff eagerly asked us to include the wheelchairs in the photo.  They were both excited and gracious for what we were bringing.  To be honest, I’m not sure I will ever fully grasp the impact these gifts will have on their community.

After meeting some of the young Jewish Cubans from the community over dinner earlier in our trip, we had one of the most memorable Shabbat experiences of my life.  We learned so much about the Jewish community in Havana, and for as much as we hope the gifts we brought will help their community, they certainly helped us in return.  Having worked as a Youth Director in a previous job, I was extremely impressed to walk in to synagogue and see teenagers (17 and 18 years old) leading services.  Their commitment to their Judaism is inspiring.  These kids all take on extremely meaningful roles in the Jewish community, and even though I’d only met them 24 hours earlier, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride for these new friends who were reciting the same prayers and blessings that I have grown up with at services at my home synagogue in Houston.  It is amazing that even though our first language is not the same, we are united together by the Hebrew language through worship, because no matter where you go, the prayers are the same.  Fast forward 24 hours, and again, I felt a sense of belonging to this community as we wrapped our arms around each other’s shoulders and chanted the Havdallah blessings together. 

And now, similarly to how I began my trip, my first bookend - with a threatening hurricane, I write this as Hurricane Irma batters the Cuban coast line, my final bookend.  As soon as I got home, I went right over to a friend’s house to help her muck out her grandmother’s flooded home.  I only wish I could do the same for my new Cuban friends.  They are, and always will be, in my thoughts.

 

 

 

Ride For The Living

Posted: April 24, 2017

From 2015-2016 Jennifer Singer served as a Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Krakow, Poland working at JCC Krakow. 

While a JSC Fellow in Krakow, I’ve had many meaningful experiences. Krakow today has an active, thriving, and growing Jewish community, and that’s something of a miracle, considering the city’s - and the country’s - past. Every day is a celebration of the rebirth and growth of Jewish life in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Communism, and Krakow’s Jewish Community Center is a tangible symbol of the local Jewish community’s triumph over tragedy. The JCC has a packed calendar of educational, cultural, and social events. JCC members also come together to celebrate the Jewish holidays and for weekly Shabbat dinners with over 50 local members. And though I’d be hard-pressed to single out just one impactful initiative the JCC organizes, Ride For The Living definitely stands out (among others). I am proud to have been a part of this annual event that both commemorates Poland’s tragic Jewish past and celebrates a Jewish future.

The Ride is a 55-mile bike ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the JCC to honor the history of Jewish life in Poland and celebrate the community today. Participants start at a place of darkness and loss and cycle together towards the JCC, home to Krakow’s vibrant Jewish community. The Ride began in 2014 with 15 participants who raised enough funds to send 30 of our Child Survivors of the Holocaust to Israel. Since then, the Ride has grown to 150 participants and welcomed riders from eight countries. It also has a partnership with the Jewish Community Center Association of North America (JCCA) in which JCCs across North America host satellite rides to support JCC Krakow’s ride. Part of my role as a JSC Fellow was to help coordinate the Ride. I, along with the team of dedicated staff, spent countless hours perfecting the details. An important part of preparing was getting to know the riders and understanding the emotional complexities that the participants would encounter.

While our hard work paid off and the Ride went smoothly, it wasn’t until after the event that I was able to fully grasp its gravity and impact. Many of the international riders, who had family that was directly affected by the Holocaust, told us how their experience was healing and therapeutic. Like many of JCC Krakow’s 100,000 annual visitors, the international participants usually think about the Jewish presence in Krakow, and in Poland overall, in terms of the country’s tragic past. Therefore, they are amazed to find such a strong and lively community whose members are eager to reconnect with, and develop their Jewish identities. International riders have the opportunity get to know the local community, they cycle side by side with some of them during the Ride and have Shabbat dinner with them, thus becoming a part of the local community. The whole experience brings them an empowering realization that no matter where they’re from, they’ll always feel welcome and at home in Krakow’s Jewish community. 

The Ride also has a great impact on the local participants. Many of them have been to Auschwitz before, but told us that being a part of the Ride was a different and deeply emotional experience for them. Joining the Ride was their way to honor those of their family members who did not survive Auschwitz, and a way to continue their legacies by becoming part of Jewish life in Poland today.

For me, one of the most emotional moments of the Ride was when Pani (Mrs.) Zofia, 81 years old, a local JCC member and a Child Survivor of the Holocaust, rode on a tandem bike with JCC Krakow’s Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein at the beginning of the ride. Pani Zofia’s father was refurbishing a bike for her right before the war broke out and didn’t have the chance to teach her how to ride. He was murdered at Auschwitz while she and her mother survived on fake documents outside of Krakow. Pani Zofia never learned how to ride a bike because of the memories it brought up - the beginning of the Ride was her first time on a bike ever. She joined the Ride because she finally felt that this was her opportunity to ride for her father and honor him.

I feel grateful that I had the opportunity organize and participate in such a profoundly impactful event, an event that enabled experiences like Pani Zofia’s and so many like her. I am proud to have helped honor those we lost, while also seeing firsthand the resilience and strength of the Jewish people to rebuild a thriving and loving community that was once thought to be lost. 

As I continue to work at JCC Krakow, prepare for the 2017 Ride, and help rebuild Jewish life for the community who are now my friends and family, I will be forever thankful to all of them for how much they have given to me and strengthened my Jewish identity. 

Click here to watch a video of Pani Zofia telling her full story. 

 

 

 

Muraho (hello!) from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village

Posted: January 27, 2017

Written by: Darren Rabinowitz, JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda 

Welcome to Rwanda! 

It has been three weeks since the four JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows, Shayna, Lauren, MC, and Darren (me) have arrived in Rwanda. As our minds and bodies (and stomachs) acclimate, I find myself fascinated and inspired. Life takes time here. There is no rush. The pace at which people work and go about their daily tasks is slower. In Western cultures time is money and if things take longer, revenue is lost - but in Rwanda it is just the way things are. Rwandans enjoy their time together, allow conversation over milk to flood an afternoon and invite everyone to breathe in the views that are constantly around. Coming off of living in Washington D.C. for 4 years, one can imagine the immense difference in lifestyles. It has been a stark difference living amongst the wealthiest and most influential people in America, to working with the most vulnerable people in the Rwanda (to say the least). 

I write to you from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. ASYV or the Village for short, is organized in a way to restore the rhythm of life for Rwanda's most vulnerable youth. The Village is rooted in the Jewish values of Tikkun Halev and Tikkun Olam. During my interview process for my JDC placement, I did not know where in the world I could lend my skills, being an arts educator. I pictured myself in Europe or in Latin America engaging Jewish commutes via the arts but I quickly found out that there was a different plan for me. I still remember receiving the email stating I was being considered for Rwanda. One can imagine the initial shock and then internalizing this news. It took time but I am glad that JDC Entwine placed me in the most appropriate position for my skills at ASYV.

My specific role is working on Village-wide programming. I coordinate enrichment programs including sports and arts, as well as Village Time which is allocated every Friday for students to showcase their talents. I am constantly amazed at the raw talent the students possess, and their desire to share these gifts. In Rwanda, your talent is who you are and how you connect to others. Culturally, it is unacceptable to not share your talent for they bring light to the world.

I am also a ‘cousin’. The role of a cousin means that I have been inducted into a family of 24 (freshman year) boys in addition to two big brothers (graduates of ASYV) and a mama (a Rwandan woman who plays a maternal role in the family).

On the day to day, I forget that my boys don’t come from the easiest of lives. I do not know all of their stories, nor do I feel I should. Some have shared, while others keep it to themselves. As educators, what we do know is that most of our students have lost either one parent or both. Many are heads of households, often supporting several brothers or sisters. Most students come from backgrounds of neglect, abuse, and almost certainly made to grow up too quickly.

It often overwhelms me that, despite the hardships they have faced, the students have an incredible passion to learn, to try new things and to instantly adopt the family model ASYV upholds. For example, I have a few students who approached me and asked why Rwanda is not like the United States. We then proceeded to discuss comparative histories of colonization, the implications of resource extraction and lasting legacies of European expansionism in Africa. Other boys in my family ask me where they can find an English to Kinyarwanda dictionary so they can practice translation. I see these students carrying dictionaries around with them as if they are a Willy Wonka golden ticket. Even students who struggle with English intently listen to our debates, frequently checking with their neighbors for correct interpretation. Their understanding, at such a young age, that education is the key to success is inspiring.

At times, I think about the connection I have as a Jewish person to the lives of the Rwandan young adults I work with. What I think of is that we are both a people who experienced genocide. We both understand the immense loss, grievance, and repercussions of losing huge portions of our people. After visiting both genocide memorials of the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of what it’s like to live in a place experiencing the aftermath of overwhelming tragedy – perhaps similar to Jews who have migrated to Poland or Germany years after World War II. The religious center down the road, the old factory up the hill, the event space downtown are all places that were once part of life, and can now be seen as a reminder of death. I imagine that the older faces I see on the streets here in Rwanda resemble the faces of my Grandparent’s generation. The permanently furrowed brows. The cloudiness of their gaze, all lost somewhere in the past. I wonder who they were, how they were involved, and how they have come to terms with all that has happened a mere 22 years ago. 

Reflecting on why I came to Rwanda, and my experience so far, I realize it is not me who is lending a helping hand to the students at ASYV. Rather, that they are assisting me in healing, learning and understanding. We, Jews and Rwandans, have a mutual responsibility to help one another, brush each other off, and hold our heads high with dignity. That, as survivors, we have an innate, shared responsibility of shouldering this title. We all come with baggage, and it is our duty to one another to help carry each other along our own paths.

Murakoze cyane (thank you),

Darren

 

 

 

When West Meets East: A Powerful Trip to St. Petersburg

Posted: January 13, 2017

Written by: Gary Fayman (alumni of Inside Jewish St. Petersburg in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)

It’s almost 9pm. Fatigue consumes me. The plane is quiet, and almost everyone is asleep. As I get up to stretch, I look out the window. The breathtaking sunset glistens over the light blue ocean below. Looking toward the approaching skyline, it suddenly hits me: I’m clearly on the other side of the world. I sit down, amazed and excited. A minute later, the flight attendants announce we’re about to land. It now all felt real: We were about to land in St. Petersburg.

Landing in Russia was a huge “fish out of water experience” trying to navigate the daunting language barrier as I passed through immigration. Once I passed through customs and retrieved my luggage, however, the tension was gone. I joined the group as we met our tour guide and waited for the bus, all of us very aware that we were about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. I, for one, was not disappointed.

Over the next week, we learned, we engaged, we felt, and we celebrated. The experience was the perfect combination of sightseeing and service work. From the Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace to riverboat tours and the endless sunlight of summer nights, I was deeply impacted. Experiencing Russian culture was spectacular. The locals were kind and it felt good to practice my limited Russian. While the tourist portion of the trip couldn’t have been more incredible, it wasn’t the only reason I came.

I frequently think back to the partner sites we visited and activities we participated in, witnessing the impact of JDC with the partnership of my home community, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. We gardened in the rain to create a beautiful and better tomorrow for children, we participated in a Lehava (a young adult leadership development platform) member’s project, and traveled through a pitch-black tunnel to experience life as a blind person. However, the most meaningful part of the trip occurred when I met Irina.

When I heard that the Russian government only provided $200 per month for homebound elderly, I was stunned. How could someone survive on so little? These are people who need food, medication, medical attention, and sometimes around-the-clock care. Frankly, this was horrifying. I’m so thankful that our assignment prior to heading to Irina’s home was to stop at a local supermarket and shop for her. We were given a list with her requests, and we had fun picking out cheeses, yogurts, and vegetables, all while trying to decipher the Russian labels. Irina’s apartment was a short walk away. We arrived at a dilapidated building with an overwhelming odor in one of the poorer neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. After emerging from the elevator, the apartment door opened, and we were greeted by the friendliest, most charming woman I’ve ever met.

We shuffled through Irina’s tiny apartment and sat in her living room as she told us her story. Irina was a former English teacher and spoke the language quite well. Her parents had recently died, and she returned to Russia from Hungary to take care of them. Recently, Irina suffered a fall that left her homebound and practically immobile. Even walking from one end of her small apartment to the other was painful. At only 64 years old, Irina was limited, stuck, and depressed. Her only child, a son, lived in Hungary. She hadn’t seen him in a few years and though she couldn’t afford to visit him, they talk daily and remain quite close. When we presented Irina with the food we purchased, she was so humbled. Our hearts were heavy, but Irina told us not to be sad. After taking a group photo, I told Irina that we would stay in touch. She made me promise to do so, and she also made me promise to keep up with my Russian studies as I spoke it relatively well. I smiled, hugged her, and then followed my group downstairs.

The rest of the trip was truly incredible. On the final night, most of the group stayed awake, bonding over the shared experience before catching our 6:00AM flight back to the US. An international flight gives you a lot of time to process your thoughts, and I remember wishing the trip hadn’t ended. I was jealous of some of my new friends who either extended their stays or embarked on their own adventures throughout Europe. As we landed at LAX, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to go back. There was more to see, do, and learn. I now had two local friends in St. Petersburg that I could hang out with whenever I came back. I knew that this was not the end. 

Six months later, I still remember this trip fondly. I gave up a lot to go. Yet, it was all worth it. As I write this, the impact this trip had is almost indescribable. It’s as if it was meant to be. My friends and colleagues have been asking me for months to host a gathering to talk about my experiences. My work has only just begun. Now, it’s your turn to embark on a journey of your own. See the world and explore new cultures. Remember that every action you take has an impact on others and that every person has a story to tell. To paraphrase television producer Norman Lear, even this YOU get to experience.

 

 

 

Lessons learned from unexpected places

Posted: December 27, 2016

Written by: Alec Leve, JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Multi-Week Fellow

I gained a lot from my six weeks as a JDC Entwine-GPM Multi-Week Fellow in India. I met and built relationships with numerous people, I learned how to live on my own in a big city and foreign country, I had my first experience teaching, and perhaps most surprisingly, became more connected than I had ever been to Judaism and community. 

I came into India with a basic knowledge of Judaism. I was bar mitzvahed at a reform synagogue that I never felt particularly connected to - I didn’t enjoy learning about Judaism and in turn didn’t try to learn about the religion. Despite this lack of interest in Jewish content, I always felt a connection with Jewish people, which informed my Jewish identity and pride in being Jewish for most of my life. 

 I didn’t sign up for the program with the intention of becoming more Jewish. On our first Shabbat in Mumbai we attended synagogue and Chabad for dinner. I spent this first service doing what I usually do during services, thinking about whatever crossed my mind, unable to participate in the prayers. While I enjoyed talking to the community around me, my inability to relate to the religious aspect made it unfulfilling and a bit uncomfortable. Sometime after this first service, for no conscious reason, I downloaded an English translation of the Torah onto my phone and read it in about two weeks.

It didn't take me long to decide why the Torah is cool for so many reasons. I found that it’s a well told story of G-d’s relationship to people, and gives practical guidelines for how to live a moral life.  With this newfound appreciation for the Torah, I decided to try out actively practicing some of its teachings, most notably, the Commandment to keep Shabbat holy. For my last three Shabbats in Mumbai I attended local services, and embraced it as a day of rest by not doing any work. One of many things I gained from this was a deeper appreciation and love for Shabbat. 

Another great outcome was building of relationship with synagogue congregants. On Fridays I attended a Baghdadi Indian synagogue in downtown Mumbai, where I got to know a diverse group of Friday-night regulars. On Saturdays, I attended a synagogue in the same compound as my guest house with a core group of about ten Indian Jewish men. At first some were more welcoming than others, but towards the end of my stay the entire group had accepted me as part of their congregation. I look back on the relationships I formed very fondly – it’s so meaningful that these old men took me in as their own.

In addition to my newfound synagogue connections, I spent time with a woman who lived at the same guest house, as well as her son who is my age and would come over regularly. She took care of me as my mother or aunt would have, making me tea and making sure I was well fed.  I never thought that I would have an adopted Jewish mother halfway around the world. Reflecting on the experience, I find the connections even more powerful because they were forged through a shared global community, despite different personal histories and thousands of miles.

I have to thank JDC-Entwine and GPM for putting me in a situation where I had the opportunity to become a part of a relatively small Jewish community. In such a big city where pretty much everything was new to me, it was nice to spend some of my time being with people who I have always felt a connection with. The volunteering and travel was great, but I know the program would have had a very different impact on my life without the local Jewish community. 

I just returned from India with a lot to think about, but two things I know for sure are that I need to learn more about Judaism, and that I now have an extended Jewish family in Mumbai. 

 

 

Rwanda Recap

Posted: October 26, 2016

By Sherry Stolar

I honestly am not sure what I expected when I decided to apply for JDC Entwine’s Insider Trip to Rwanda, but there’s no way I could have anticipated how truly meaningful the journey would be, and the lasting effect it would have on me. Perhaps I’m still only beginning to fully realize and understand it, having returned a month ago.

It may seem strange to have booked a trip to a country recovering from a tragic civil war only 2 decades before to find peace and healing, but from the moment I read about Agahazo Shalom Youth Village, ASYV for short, and its mission, I felt compelled to go for that very reason. In fact, for me the trip was nearly 2 years in the making from the time I first applied. I had planned to go in 2015, was packed and ready to go, when the day before the outbound I flight my parents called to tell me my grandmother was about to pass.

It was the second time in two years that someone I loved deeply had passed unexpectedly, having lost my other grandmother the year before. And loss was something I had become all too comfortable with in that year; in addition to losing both of my grandmothers (whom with I was very close), I ended a 3+ year relationship with my boyfriend whom I had moved cross-country for, left a job that I’d loved, moved cross-country again to a place where I had to start all over. In the span of only 2 months, my entire life changed. I was grieving for many things I’d lost on many levels.

Perhaps that’s why ASYV and its mission called to me. The idea of a place of beauty and hope that gave people a chance to start anew, to heal and find peace, to build a new community and forge a new path forward together. I was desperate to find that myself and somehow knew subconsciously I’d find it at ASYV.

When the late Anne Heyman, founder of ASYV, embarked on this mission, she knew that the village had to be a place of beauty in order to inspire hope and peace. Modeled after similar villages set up in Israel after the Holocaust, ASYV was initially established to protect, care for and educate Rwandan’s youth who were displaced after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It’s hard to fathom, but almost one million people were killed in just a few short months during the Genocide, leaving Rwanda with the world’s highest orphan population per capita. Each year, ASYV takes in the most at-risk high-school aged kids from around the country, offering them a unique chance at building a new life.

The students live in family units for 4 years and are assigned a “Mama,” who cares for them as if they were her own children. They name their family after a person of inspiration (my family was named Margaret Ekpo, for the Nigerian women's rights activist). Multiple nights a week, the families sit down together for “Family Time,” talking about their days, singing songs or playing games. They eat their meals together at the dining hall, volunteer together on Saturday mornings. At 5:45am every Saturday they do an activity called “Mucaka Mucaka,” a run around the village during which they chant in Kinyarwanda, the native language, singing and cheering – an exercise in both physical and mental health. Friday nights are “Village Time,” a talent show held in the grand amphitheater overlooking the Rwandan hillsides.

I read all of this in the briefing packet before I went, yet seeing it firsthand somehow still felt novel and inspiring. Before I finally left for the trip – after packing for it a second time – I thought I was going to provide a direct service, that I would spend my days working on the farm, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, and teaching kids English in the classroom. I thought that I was going to give.

The reality was that I did none of these things (ok, I did chop vegetables twice). I wasn’t in a classroom; in fact, I didn’t step foot in the majestic school at the top of the hill until the week had nearly ended – and there were no students even there at the time, at sunset on Shabbat.

What I did was take. I took in the horrors of the Genocide – at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and at the Nyamata and Ntarama churches where mass murders took place. I took in hope, as I got to know the incredible students at ASYV and their stories, how they were taking advantage of every opportunity given to them and then some to build a brighter future for themselves and others.  I took in beauty, as I watched the sunset on the red dust hills surrounding the village, saw elephants and giraffes in Akagera National Park, and watched the millions of stars light up the sky when the power went out in our guesthouse.  I took in pure joy, as I ran through the village during Mucaka Mucaka as the sun rose, danced “Gym Tonic,” a Zumba-like dance workout, on the basketball court with my Margaret Ekpo family, and sang the Hebrew song “Sallam” with my fellow JDC Entwine volunteers on stage at Village Time, teaching the hundreds of ASYV students the lyrics and watching them sing along.

I’m told my presence there was in a sense giving, that my choosing to spend my time to travel there and meet the students and hear their stories and learn about their culture was a gift. But, I feel I got so much more than I gave.

In our group’s last reflection session before departing, we discussed how hard it was going to be to go back to our day to day lives, where problems were having “too much” to do, or the local Whole Foods being out of our favorite sushi. These aren’t real “problems.” Yet, loss – death, divorce, fighting with a friend or family, being let go from a job, losing a pet – all of these things are real problems. While it may manifest in different forms and circumstances, no one’s life is free from tragedy entirely. We’re all different, yet at the core we’re all the same.

If a country can recover from a tragedy as devastating as the Rwandan genocide, if children who have seen their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters murdered can commit to bettering themselves, not only to give themselves a second chance, but to provide one for others, if they can forgive and move forward as One Rwanda, surely there’s no tragedy that’s insurmountable. The power of community, of love and support, is incredible.

I returned from Rwanda to San Francisco, where I realized I have built myself a new community. It looks entirely different than the community I had three years ago, even one year ago – maybe I wasn’t ready for this journey yet then. Nothing changed necessarily when I returned from ASYV, but I did; I recognized and appreciated the new life I’d built for myself.

Even when life is at its darkest, knowing that you can always go somewhere new, that you can always meet new people who will make you feel worthwhile again, is proof that anything is possible with hope, love and belief. ASYV is doing just that for Rwanda’s youth, and I feel so grateful for having been any small part of its story – and having the opportunity to continue to be a part of its inspiring community.

 

 

 


 

 

Reflections on Estonia

Posted: June 9, 2016

So, today I’m sat at home, reflecting on the fact that last week I was in Estonia.

To get to Tallinn from Helsinki, you take a ferry. It takes two hours and it was a surprising chilled out ride and gave all of us a chance to reflect on what we’d done in Finland, and what we might see in Estonia.

On disembarking, we did exactly what you’d wouldn’t expect – all our luggage was bundled onto a mini bus, and then we were able to walk to the hotel.  It did seem odd; given how many times you get told not to leave things unattended!

After lunch we headed over to the community centre site, which also holds the school and synagogue – this building (Beit Bella) was built and dedicated in 2007 and was the first since the destruction of the original building in WWII. We met various members of the staff at the centre, and had the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum which is also housed there. It might be small, but in this case, small is beautiful. Our guide was able to translate most of the text in the exhibits – currently it is in both Russian and Estonian, but will soon be updated to include English. I believe they also have audio guides for those who currently want English. We were told that on a recent open evening for museums, approximately 400 people came through the doors.

The following day (Friday) was spent on our Estonian service project. Dividing into groups, some of us made challah, some made challah covers and those of us left over, and that includes me, were involved in decorating Shabbat candles.  Given that I’m at best ‘artistically challenged’, and our teacher only had a few words of English we had need of our wonderful translator to explain decoupage. But even so we managed to produce something, and I was actually quite proud of the results.

The results of our morning’s efforts were then packed up in nice baskets, along with fruit and chocolate, and again, with a translator, in small groups, we set off to deliver our bounty to elderly members of the community. The gentleman my group visited was very interesting – he had been evacuated from Tallinn as a small child further into what was then the Soviet Union, and they’re temporary home was bombed out, they escaped with just the clothes they wore from the resulting fires.  After that he received an education, and became a boxing champion at university, a fact that was to come into good use later on when as an engineer supervising prisoners rebuilding factories destroyed by the Nazis. He then went onto work on Nuclear submarines, before returning with his late wife and family to Tallinn.  Now, his grand children live abroad, and he was incredibly proud to tell us about them and his family in Israel.

But the real Shabbat miracle occurred with another group, they had gone to see a military veteran, who on discovering that one of the group was Israeli told them of family that he had lost touch with. But not for long, my Israeli friend asked for the address he had to be translated from Russian, and he was able to find someone in Israel who knew them and put them back into contact!

After that we went to the kindergarten, to see the children go through their Shabbat programme, which I have to say was beyond cute. Many people may have seen it here in the UK with our own kindergartens and primary schools, but it was somehow comforting to know that however different and diverse a Jewish community may be, there are somethings that still stay the same. Plus they gad the most amazing challah with streusel on the top – I tried to find someone who would get me the recipe, but I’m told the secret ingredient is that the chef at the kindergarten simply loves the children! Either that, or she won’t tell

Our Shabbat programme involved dinner with members of the local community. A nice moment – after Kiddush was made, but before hamotzi, one of the gentlemen called all the men out of the room, they returned a few moments later with flowers for every lady in the room, an incredibly touching gesture and a way to remember Estonia.

Shabbat morning saw us on a walking tour of the Old Town, which is stunning, and has many beautiful medieval buildings, and a gorgeously decorated Russian Orthodox church. Sadly, none of the Jewish buildings in that part of the city have survived until now.

Later in the evening, one of the community leaders, Gennadi Gramberg came to give us a talk on the history of the community (info can be found on the community website - http://www.ejc.ee/). That was followed by going out for dinner with more of our peers from the community, which included Havdalah.

Our Sunday, and final full day, saw us visiting Kadriorg Palace and ground, which was built by Peter the Great of Russia for his wife Catherine and their family as a seaside palace. Now it is an art museum and park.

The afternoon saw us returning to the community centre. We met with local Madrichim over pizza and found out about the youth programmes in the Baltic. But that wasn’t the best part of the day – that was seeing the completion and dedication of the first Torah scroll specifically for the Estonian community (http://estonianworld.com/life/estonian-jews-celebrate-new-torah-scroll/). That morning it have been taken on a symbolic journey around former Jewish sites before being brought the community centre for the final verses to be completed, two of the gentlemen of our group were invited to ‘write’ a letter, which was an incredible honour for them.  It was an amazing atmosphere and party, which looked like it was due to take advantage of the long summer days and run on late.

Sadly, we had to leave as we were scheduled to have dinner with young families and as that included their children, it meant leaving early so that the kids weren’t out too late. It was a fun evening; our hosts had made a music quiz for us, and what really made it was that they were so pleased to see that we were interested and willing to engage with the community that they had brought us some small gifts – I’m now the proud owner of and Estonia mug!

Monday was a travel day – you’ll be pleased to know that going home was much easier than getting there.

Overall, I’m glad I went, I met so many incredible people, heard wonderful stories and got to participate in what may well be a once in a lifetime event for the community with the Torah scroll.

What lessons can we learn – well the first thing is how united the community is there, while the Rabbi may be Chabad, the community is so small that every Jew is made welcome.

Secondly, they have fantastically well-developed programmes for their youth, young adults and families.  It’s something I’d like to find out more about – because I think it could be implemented here as well. A lot of them seem to be social and cultural, rather than religious based for the adults, and it helps keep people together and involved. The future leaders will come from this.

And lastly, at the risk of sounding like I work for Tallinn’s tourist board, I’d say go visit. There is a museum as I mentioned, and a kosher restaurant, apparently it takes 25 min to walk from the cruise terminal.

 

 

 

Reflections on Finland

Posted: June 2, 2016

Reflections on Finland

 

I wish I could make this complete, but as I’ve already shared my horrendous travel story with the group, it has to go here too.

First up – shout out to the parents who got out of bed at 3am to take me to the airport for a 5.55am flight to Amsterdam. So far so good, I check in quickly, there’s no queues for security and I head to the gate. Boarding is on time, everything looks great, then the Captain announces that there is fog in Amsterdam, and we have a potential wait of 1 hour and 45 min. I am meant to have 1 hour, 35 min on the ground in Amsterdam, but, he says the flight time is actually 55 min. So, I figured not a problem, it’d be tight, but I’d make it.

 

We take off at 7:40, an after an hour still haven’t landed, the Captain announces we are running out of fuel, and will be going to Rotterdam to refuel, and will then have to file a new flight plan and get a new slot for Amsterdam.  Anyway, it seems to take forever for this to happen, so I get my phone out, turn it one to see I’ve been rebooked onto the 2pm flight to Helsinki, so I message people to let them know what’s going on.

Eventually get to Amsterdam, where I manage to get my new boarding pass, and head to the gate, armed with a large bottle of water.  Then they cancel the Helsinki flight with no reason given.  Short version, I queue for over 3 ½ hours to be told I’m going to Prague for a connecting flight to Helsinki – the next day.   Another queue gets me into a hotel for the night, and I manage to make it to Helsinki the following day, 36 hours after I started, tired, hungry but ready to meet people.

 

I missed out on visiting the synagogue and the school, so I can’t say anything about those places sadly.  However I did get to meet people in time for our service project in Helsinki, which involved manual labour – just what I needed at that moment in time!

 

The old cemetery in Helsinki needed cleaning up – short version was it was incredibly overgrown, and there were a lot of leaves and branches all over the place. So we set too, and attempted to clear up. I think we did make a difference, it did look better afterwards. One thing to note is that there are the graves of Finnish soldiers killed in WWII, I didn’t know that they had actually fought against the Russians alongside the Nazis, and then fought off the Nazi’s afterwards. Several had been awarded an Iron Cross, but refused it.

The following day we went to Suomenlinna Island – I’ll leave you to look up the details, but believe me when I say it’s a beautiful place. And also has a place called the “Devil’s Church” which was actually a room used by Jewish soldiers.

 

Following on from that we visited the care home for the elderly. It could have been depressing, given that we were told that several of the residents were cognitively impaired, instead, it turned into an impromptu karaoke session to try and entertain the residents, I’m not sure all of us could a) sing and b)knew the words, but we tried at least, and after that we had the opportunity to meet a former Finnish soldier who had not only fought the Russians, but had fought with the IDF in 1948. It was inspiring to meet this man, and realise he was a genuine hero and part of history.

So – what have I taken away from this experience so far, and what have I learned that I could pass on to the community in Manchester. Firstly, the community in Finland might be small, but it is vibrant and people want to be involved. There are vibrant Youth programmes that develop future leaders from the teenagers/students in the area. Maybe this is something that the working group dealing with Youth issues on the Rep Council can look into.

Secondly – sometimes all it needs is people to volunteer their time, they don’t need to lead a group, just lend a hand and pitch in, like we did with the cemetery, or give an hour of their time to visit people at The Fed. I’m sure all we need to do is find the opportunities and ways to make them known, but I do know that is a lot easier than it sounds.
 

Also, Finland is a beautiful country and its people are very welcoming, and most speak great English. Go, visit, have a great time!

 

It’s on to Estonia now, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Experiencing JDC's Israel by Anjelica Ruiz

Posted: June 2, 2016

The first time I went to Israel was on Birthright. It was only three months after my conversion was completed and I fell in love with the country almost immediately. In my mind, Israel seemed like a better version of the U.S. in terms of social and racial equality. This was crucial to me at the time, because as an atypical American Jew (Hispanic-Filipino Jew-by-choice, which I sometimes jokingly refer to as a “super minority”), I desperately needed to know that there was a place where the characteristics that made me stand out in Dallas didn’t matter.  

So, when I had the opportunity to go back to Israel with JDC Entwine, I jumped at the chance. I loved my first trip with Entwine to St. Petersburg in 2014 and had since become active in the Dallas Learning Network. On the Israel trip, Entwine was piloting an on-trip giving circle model which I was very interested in. As a young professional, I try to give as much as I can to organizations I support, but it had never occurred to me to pool my donation with others. This seemed like a great way to make more of an impact. A chance to visit a country I loved and an opportunity to make an impact? It seemed perfect. What I couldn’t have predicted was  that while Birthright ignited my love for Israel and reinforced for me my decision to convert, this trip challenged me to think more deeply about  Israel, and even more so, my Jewish identity.

Each of the communities we visited is, in some way, part of Israel’s minority, people who exist on the periphery. We had the opportunity to meet the people who run TEVET, an employment initiative run in partnership between JDC and the Israeli government,  that is currently helping the Haredi and Arab communities in Jerusalem and Hura. We also visited Project Wadi Attir, a model for sustainable, community-based agricultural enterprise that combines Bedouin tradition and values with modern day science and technology, and JDC’s new Social Hub in Lod, which encourages social entrepreneurs to come together to solve Israel’s social issues through entrepreneurial community projects. I am still in awe of the dedicated people who run these organizations. They are shining examples of what Israel has to offer the world and to know that JDC is helping to develop these leaders and organizations makes me proud to support JDC’s work in Israel and around the world.

But perhaps the visit that affected me the most was with the Ethiopian community in Ramla. As Amos Levi, Resource Development Manager for JDC Israel, spoke about the difficulties and racism the community has encountered and how they are trying to keep their culture and heritage alive in the younger generations, it struck me how much I had in common with them. I never really had to think about something like the color of my skin until I entered the Jewish community. My status as a “super minority” has become increasingly painful for me as I’ve tried to find my place within the Jewish community that doesn’t yet know how to best welcome someone who doesn’t fit the typical American Jew profile.

Several times a day, I go from loving this community unconditionally to wondering if I will ever really fit in, because, after all, I didn’t grow up Jewish, I didn’t go to a Jewish summer camp, and I still have a hard time finding places to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays. Some people have asked me why I just don’t walk away. But, like the Ethiopian Jews, I can’t just drop something that is so important and integral to my identity. In fact, by exploring the vast cultural mosaic of Israel and in turn my own place in this landscape, I was able to develop a deeper relationship to the country than I had in the past.

We quipped that the the theme for the trip was “it’s complicated.” But in all seriousness, the trip illuminated the complexity and dynamism of Israel’s social fabric. Israel’s relationships with its minority communities - the Haredim, Arabs, and Ethiopian Jews to name a few - are complex. This theme also describes how I feel about Israel, a country I wanted to believe was infallible when it came to social issues, but I now understand is still very much in its growing stages and is not perfect, much like the wider Jewish community.

We are taught that while we are not obligated to solve all of the world’s problems, neither are we allowed to just ignore them.  JDC, with its amazing professional team, leaders and fellows, embodies that sentiment in action. JDC takes innovative, fledgling social programs and helps transform them into organizations that are tackling some of Israel’s (and the world’s) most dire social and economic issues. Being a part of this trip and the giving circle has reminded me that, despite any negative experiences I have had or will have, I do have a place in the Jewish community.

Through participating, I was able to understand Israel and my connection to the country on a much deeper level. I was able to connect with other Jews of color and understand how these minority groups make up Israel’s complex social landscape. After having seen some commonalities between myself and these communities, the trip also reinforced my commitment to continuing developing my Jewish identity in a way I can be proud of and, hopefully, in a way that can help break down some of the issues to which JDC is responding.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts from before my trip to Finland and Estonia

Posted: May 19, 2016

There really isn’t long to go now, and I should think about packing the suitcase I’ve left open on the bed in my spare room.

Perhaps I should explain that statement, in a few short days, I’ll be boarding a plane to Holland, and then onto Helsinki to meet up with a group of people from various places, such as the USA, Australia and Israel to meet with and see for ourselves what life is like in the Jewish community there, and then onto Tallinn as well.

It isn’t a holiday, let me make that clear from the start. But there are fun things planned, nights out with our Finnish and Estonian contemporaries, trips to see the sights and so on.  The plans include meeting members of the communities and their institutions – schools, community centres, kindergartens, facilities for the elderly and also working on service projects, for example in Helsinki they need help cleaning up the cemetery, while in Tallinn (and those who know me will say it is designed for me!) we get to bake challah and deliver it to those who need it. Guess I better pack my apron, I’m sure I can explain looking like a slice of pizza will enhance the taste!

I’m not sure quite what to expect from this, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this that has involved the service aspect, it’s one thing to come from the outside, look in and then go away again, but this feels like there might be a chance to make a lasting difference to people’s lives. And also, to learn from what happens in the Baltic, I’m sure there are lessons that can be learned, techniques that can be brought back to Manchester with me.  Maybe that lasting difference will be found back in England too.

 

 

 

Ponderings in the Philippines by Jamie Silverman

Posted: February 29, 2016

I was in the Philippines last week. Even as I write that sentence out, it seems surreal that a mere week ago, I was in that paradisiacal environment, volunteering with and learning about the Filipino culture and meeting the warm, welcoming people who reside there.

And though a week later, my tan is fading quickly and many of the warm fuzzies generated from my week long excursion with JDC Entwine are no longer at the forefront of my mind, I wanted to take the time to put down a few things I thought about while traveling:

  1. The terms of happiness are not universal - I spent my week in the Philippines traveling with a diverse group of people. We hailed from all over the globe from all different backgrounds. United by a common mission to volunteer and learn, we traveled half way across the world to do just this. While abroad, we met people from drastically different backgrounds than ours who struggled with very different daily trials and tribulations than many of us are ever likely to face. In our reflective, post volunteer session discussions, the theme of education arose over and over again—many of the people we met would only ever reach a fourth grade level of education and there was a lot of discussion about whether this contributed to their overall happiness. It was hard not to project that our criteria for happiness must be universally applicable and yet, in our time talking to them, I witnessed an overall happy, content, satisfied, group of people. Educated or not, they didn’t seem to be wanting in that particular facet of their lives,

  2. Don’t take walls for granted - Many of the Filipino people we met live in huts. Huts without indoor plumbing, electricity or walls. These huts are destructible and we heard tales of people residing in island fisher villages whose homes were literally torn apart during Typhoon Yolanda. When we asked if they had rebuilt sturdier homes post typhoon, their response was unanimously that they didn’t have the finances to build elevated homes. And so, they continue living in homes comprised of metal roofs and wooden slats with nary a wall in sight, with no shield from nature, no sense of privacy and no real shelter. While on the trip, I found myself describing—and complaining about—my crappy New York apartment to some trip mates. Taking a step back, I reflected that walls, and everything that they contain—and keep out—should not be taken for granted.

  3. There’s beauty in simplicity. The week before I left for this trip, work was absolute madness. Working until 11 pm each night, I was going out of my mind with exhaustion. I love my job, but I was having an inordinate number of thoughts along the lines of ‘why am I killing myself to make one more ad’?  When you’re running a million miles a minute all the time, it’s easy to lose perspective. So when I arrived in the Philippines and met these incredible people whose lives are so much…simpler, it gave me a dose of much needed perspective. When faced with people who have so little and seem OK with it, it really made me appreciate how much beauty can be found in slowing down every once in a while.

  4. Listening is hard when you can’t hear. After a late night run one evening, I jumped in the pool, came up for air, and announced ‘I can’t hear’. When jumping on one foot resolved nothing, I attempted to treat my ear with everything from swimmers ear, to capfuls of rubbing alcohol, to ear candling to a visit to a local doctor. All to no avail, I resigned myself to not being able to hear 50% of what was said on the trip and made a decision to deal with it when I returned home. Let me tell you, the poignancy of working with local disabled Philippinos while suffering from hearing impairment, was not lost on me. When I finally visited an ENT in New York, had the problem resolved and an onslaught of sound flowed once more into my ears, I was nothing short of ecstatic. It’s easy to forget how much you rely on something until it’s gone.
      
  5. There is a lot of good in the world I’ve met a lot of tremendous people in my lifetime. I also live in NYC, work in the cutthroat businesses that is advertising and have met a number of…not so nice people. It’s easy to write people off and make blanket statements that ‘people suck’. And sometimes they do. But when I spent a week abroad with 20 tremendous people who were willing to give their time, love and money to an incredible cause, when I met with local Filipino organizations to see what they are doing to help one another improve their lots in life and heard the stories of local people who didn’t have much to their name but gave of their time anyway—wow. What a beautiful reminder that there is so so much good in the world.

I feel truly blessed to have been able to be a part of the JDC Entwine program. Hearing about the work that the Joint is involved with, seeing how they work tirelessly to ease the burden of people around the world through donations, aid, education and endless amounts of love and dedication, was a truly life changing experience. I only hope that though my jet lag slowly goes away and my tan fades, my commitment to this cause will persist. And maybe, I’ll be more cognizant of slowing down every now and again and giving back just a little bit more. 

 

 

 

Posted: February 25, 2016

Our Jewish Bollywood Love Story: How this JSC Fellow discovered her home thousands of miles away
By Kimberly Duenas (JSC Fellow, Mumbai, 2013-2015)

Just like other love stories, it is appropriate to begin ours with ‘once upon a time.’ But unlike others, I should probably say, ‘once upon a time in India, an American girl in the Jewish Service Corps met an Indian guy at a Shabbat dinner in Mumbai’. That’s more like it!

Our unique story began in 2013 when I accepted the once in a lifetime opportunity to be an Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow. I had no idea how the experience would change my life in so many profound ways. It was a passion for Jewish community building and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) that ultimately led me to India, and at that point had no idea that someone in Mumbai shared that same enthusiasm that I did, and so much more.

Shay Birwadkar, who was born and raised in Mumbai, was an active member of the Jewish Community Center’s young adult movement, the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), and would regularly interact with the JSC Fellows to plan events for the young community. And this is where it all began…

 I can remember the day I landed in India so clearly. After a 16-hour flight, I picked up my luggage and approached the door leading to a new world, a hustling and bustling, vibrant city that I had never seen before.  On the ride to the hotel where I would be staying for a couple nights, I looked curiously through the window at what would be my new home in a dreamlike state. I felt exhilarated, a little nervous, and definitely jet-lagged. Just one hour after arriving, I was formally welcomed to India by the excited JSC Fellow who brought me to Shabbat dinner at what would be my future apartment. It was there where Shay and I met for the very first time.

 Typically, in Bollywood movies when two people experience love at first sight, the scene is set by ethereal music, bright decorations, and a cast of back up dancers. In our unexpected encounter, the sound of Mumbai streets, twinkling Shabbat candles, and a crowd of cool young Indian Jews created the same enchanting effect. Our friendship began there, and it wasn’t long before we started spending time together consistently.

I felt that not only were Shay and I destined to meet, but that I was meant to be connected to Indian culture and specifically to the Jewish community. I couldn’t possible have imagined the warm and caring welcome I received from everyone I met as I embraced the world around me. Planning classes and events for the Jewish community was an incredibly meaningful experience in that I was the student just as much (if not more) as I was a teacher.

Soon, my one year of service turned into a two-year stay in my now second home. And after two years of so much growth, learning, love and color, Shay and I were ready to take the next step in our relationship. With the blessings of our families, we became engaged in the most fitting way – on the final day of my JSC Mid-Year Seminar, in front of the Kotel.

The subsequent months seemed to fly by and before we knew it, the end of my placement was approaching. After two years in Mumbai, we made the decision to move back to my native California together. Though it was heartbreaking for me to leave the community, and though it would be Shay’s first time living outside of India, we took comfort in the fact that we would be embarking on this new adventure together.

On New Years Eve, Shay and I had a small family wedding in California- 'Part One' of our wedding celebrations - and are planning to celebrate our marriage 'Part Two' in Mumbai in a couple short years with the Jewish community and all our family and friends. Although our California wedding was many miles away, we made sure to infuse as much India as possible as you’ll see from the photos!

We should thank the JDC for bringing us together and playing an instrumental role in our Bollywood love story! We feel so blessed to have been brought together through the bridge of the global Jewish community and we pray that we continue to find ways to contribute to our Jewish communities, wherever we are.

And are living happily ever after… 



 

 

Inside Uruguay and Argentina: Travel, Heart, Leadership – Entwined

Posted: February 24, 2016

By Nicky Auster

Growing up in a thriving Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia and attending a Jewish day school, being Jewish was always a part of my identity and something that I perhaps took for granted. I have never been comfortable in leadership positions, preferring to focus on the smaller picture. Attending a party in Melbourne back in July last year where one of the Ralph I. Goldman fellows talked about his experience volunteering in the Philippines, I picked up a postcard for the JDC Entwine Young Professionals trips. When I read that the aim of these trips was to “explore JDC programs addressing community needs, meet with local leaders to discuss communal challenges and discover the culture and history,” I was hooked – the trip sounded like a great way to meet like-minded Jews, to see Jewish communities around the globe and reconnect with my Jewish identity. So within a couple of weeks, I applied to join the trip to Uruguay and Argentina, and happily, my application was accepted.

It’s a worldwide challenge for young Jewish adults to retain their Jewish identities once they finish high school and move into the wider community. There was a time when I didn’t think G-d was relevant in my life. I distanced myself from anything religious or “too Jewish”. I had lost interest. I managed to reconnect with G-d and Judaism through a religious friend. My renewed regard for Judaism prompted my interest in participating in this trip.

Fearing that I did not have leadership qualities, I found reassurance in a particular quote about leadership that I read in Laura Dannels’ blog “Life Lessons & Learning in India: Tikkun Olam”: “Being a leader is not about a position or title. Being a leader is about inspiring and engaging others in pursuit of something bigger. It is a mindset and it's woven into every action that person takes.” Participating in the JDC Entwine Inside Jewish Argentina & Uruguay trip certainly bolstered my leadership qualities and application to community needs.

Reading the biographies of other participants before going on the trip was a little intimidating. I doubted my community contributions, assessing them as less valuable by comparison. The other participants on the trip were high achievers with very important-sounding titles who sat on multiple boards in the Jewish community. However, despite everyone’s success “on paper,” it was interesting to learn that a lot of participants deal with similar issues that are common to many people around the world – finding a life partner, struggles about maintaining a healthy work-life balance, how to make a meaningful impact on the Jewish community, finding true happiness and self-fulfilment. Meeting people from all over the world identified the universal need to be valuable and authentic members of a community. Recognising a common Jewish heritage in very different communities gave me a sense of connection and belonging.

This journey is by far one of the most fulfilling trips I have been on, especially given that it was about connecting with other Jewish communities and leaders at local charities, instead of a frivolous trip with no higher purpose besides having fun. A couple of weeks before I went away, I caught up with a friend of mine who had spent 2 years living and working in Argentina and confessed to her that I was a little apprehensive about my trip to South America. Her advice resonated with me – she said, “Just go with an open heart and you will be fine.” Sometimes hearing wise words like this from a close friend is all you need. I discovered some incredible activities on my initial touring, prior to the group tour – a private tour of Montevideo which included a drumming lesson and seeing a lively parade for the International Day of Uruguayan Candombe; a night of symphony at the Solis Theatre; a local rock band at Tractatus Cultural Centre; a night of tango music…and that was just in my first 4 days in South America!

And then, meeting up with the JDC Entwine group, I felt proud to be a part of a community with real "movers and shakers" that focuses on "tikun olam" and setting an example to the wider community. I acknowledged my inner leadership qualities, realising that leadership is not about a position or title, it is about inspiring others to make a difference. I also remember feeling a deep spiritual connection to other Jews around the world even when we couldn't necessarily communicate that easily in words, but connected through the universal language of dance and song. A lot of the highlights of the JDC Entwine trip involved making connections with the elderly Jewish people with whom we interacted. I was moved to tears hearing an elderly resident in the high-needs ward of a Jewish Elders Home in Montevideo break into an impassioned version of Adon Olam in the same tune I learned growing up. It had particular impact on me given that I no longer have any grandparents alive. Another great experience was having lunch with some of the elderly residents at LeDor VaDor Old Age home. The lady at our table, Sofia, had an amazing story and showed us the same tenacity and will-to-live that is so common amongst that generation. Sofia was small in stature but a very tenacious and fun-loving lady. Her English was fluent having spent many years translating texts from Spanish to English and working as a nurse with the Red Cross for 40 years. She was also a very funny lady, particularly when she told me that that I was charming and had nice teeth! Given that she had no family left, Sofia really enjoyed our visit and even followed us out to the bus, crying for us to take her with us, which was very nice to hear but also poignant. Yet another fun experience with the local elderly community was dancing with a group of Jewish elderly ladies at AMIA. I love to dance and connect to the elderly and was particularly moved when I was able speak to some of them using Hebrew as the common language.    

Now, back in Melbourne, Australia, I feel reinvigorated and inspired to start volunteering more regularly in the Jewish community, such as CCare food preparation and deliveries, Jewish aged care home visits and mentoring Jewish high school students from underprivileged backgrounds. Once returned, there were quite a few difficulties to deal with. Friends had health issues, a girlfriend had to deal with the untimely death of her husband. I had to confront the fact that unfortunate things can happen to good people. Throughout these challenges, I was amazed at how supportive and caring our community is. Practical care for other people, cooking for them, raising money and working out rosters to care for someone who is going through a particularly difficult time, is an uplifting way to help. It made me very proud to be part of a caring Jewish community, which is a theme that was very prominent on the JDC Entwine trip.

I would highly recommend the JDC Entwine trips to anyone who is looking to reconnect with their Jewish identity and be inspired to make positive difference to their local communities. This trip was life-changing, life-affirming and definitely one of the best journeys I have undertaken.

 

 

 

Paying it Forward by Miriam Bader

Posted: February 16, 2016

In a little-known piece of history, the president of the Philippines welcomed 1,305 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to his country in 1938. This extraordinary act of generosity led me to visit the Philippines in 2016 with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). I too was welcomed. Smiles and ceremonies greeted me at every stop of this tropical archipelago. As did stories of giving. 

I came to learn about the JDC’s current work in the Philippines - about how they returned to this country in November 2013 after typhoon Haiyan struck. The work is a tribute to the generosity the Filipinos gave the Jewish refugees long ago, and which the JDC coordinated. They were one of the first organizations on the scene, bringing medical support, and expertise in disaster relief and recovery efforts. They are also one of the few organizations that remain in the Philippines, continuing to partner and rebuild two years after Haiyan's bitter wake. 

In the barangays of Ivisan, I met fisherfolk and farmers whose homes and livelihoods were struck by Haiyan. I heard stories of suffering and sickness, alongside tales of resilience. The stories of giving overflowed. It was not about simply recovering, but rather rebuilding stronger with a goal of decreasing vulnerability to nature’s whims. Diversifying livelihoods through the introduction of new tools, crops, and planning can help this largely agricultural society to weather more storms. 

One of my favorite programs to learn about involved the distribution of livestock through JDC’s partner in the region, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR). Isaac Bekalo, the head of the organization explained that the animals came with the condition that the firstborn be gifted to another. The recipients would do the same, thereby continually regenerating kindness and sustainability throughout the village. Similar models exist for farmers who were gifted seeds. They would share their harvest and knowledge with others so that they too could grow their own plots and continue to disseminate more plants and technological know-how to their networks. 

This regenerative form of giving inspires. It makes me think about the multiplying power of our collective action to make the world better. This is perhaps the most remarkable story of all.

 

 

Empowerment in India

Posted: January 26, 2016

Max Lit served as a Fall 2015 JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow

I made a decision about 2 years ago to get involved in community projects in the Durham, North Carolina area, my home back in America. This decision was the result of a series of conversations with friends and family. I came to realize that many of my life successes (good health, a college degree, employment, etc.) were not so much personal achievements as they were a culmination of a larger support system I had around me. I couldn't have gotten that degree without the support of professors pushing me to learn. I couldn't have done much of anything if I didn't have wonderful family and friends who removed all barriers to success and told me anything was possible. I decided that there is no better way to honor my support system than to make myself available to be a part of someone else's.

For those who are not familiar, Gabriel Project Mumbai provides education, nutrition, and health care to both adults and children in the slums of Kalwa as well as the areas surrounding the Shilonda Village. Volunteering as a JDC Entwine Multi-Week Fellow with GPM in Kalwa has truly been the intensely immersive, service-oriented experience I was seeking from the outset. Daily challenges include interfacing with extreme poverty and finding ways to be the most effective teacher you can be amongst varying levels of literacy. However, these challenges seem to almost immediately fall by the wayside as we arrive to a loud, boisterous greeting of “Good Morning Teachers!” from the smiling children and begin singing our daily hygiene-themed songs.  

So what's the main takeaway? Well, for me, the true beauty of volunteering in Kalwa rests not so much in our administration of informal education to low-opportunity youth as it does in what I would consider its more powerful by-product: empowerment. Reflecting on my life experiences up to this point, I am most appreciative of role models such as family, friends, teachers, and coaches not so much for the lessons I've learned from them (though those are also quite valuable), but for the underlying message within those lessons that communicated to me that anything is possible. By virtue of being present for the children in the classrooms of Kalwa, the work of GPM has the potential to increase the autonomy and self-determination of this community in such a way that it empowers the children to represent their interests in a responsible manner. 

 

 

 

The Irony of Relief Missions

Posted: December 13, 2015

Hayeem Rudy served as a Summer 2015 JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow

In May, when I told my friends and family that I would be volunteering in a Mumbai slum as a JDC Entwine - Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow, the reactions that I got bordered on one of reverence and sympathy. Reverence, because I was doing something adventurous, going into the ‘wild’, so to speak, in India – a place they perceived of as being ‘third-world’ and markedly primitive compared to our refined, modern life in New York City. Sympathy because it seemed to many that I was foregoing the long-awaited summer vacation between the completion of my college years and the beginning of my medical school career. These reactions influenced my perspective in the weeks leading up to my experience in India. Yet now, several weeks after coming back from Mumbai, what stands out most profoundly in memory are not the jarring scenes of poverty that I was fervently warned would rattle my emotional health in Mumbai (though they were very impactful), nor is it a sense of fulfillment and contribution that I was often praised for when I described what I would be doing as a volunteer in India. Instead, the pieces of the experience that are closest to my heart are those in which I was the observer, the learner, the one who benefitted.

The experiences that stand out in memory were those that arose from observation of the common, rather than being derived from sensational, emotionally-charged moments in time. For example, one came on a tired Sunday morning after our first two weeks in the slums. Having just celebrated our ‘settling in’ in India with a night out on the town, we were quite tired as we moseyed into the JDC headquarters to spend time with a group of kids from slums in Mumbai (not the one in which we volunteered). After brief introductions and a slew of morning activities, the kids were asked to line up for lunch. It is worth mentioning that many of these children eat one meal per day, and so I expected them to be ravenous and unorganized in this lunch process. To my surprise, the kids lined up in an orderly way and all was well except for the fact that one of the younger kids did not have a space in the line. This young one was a ball of sympathy; he peered haplessly out at the line with large, naïve eyes and a pair of matchstick legs jutting out awkwardly from his oversized shorts. I made to insert him into the line between two older boys, when one of them grabbed the little one and gently guided him forward in the line. The children in sequence followed suit, pushing the little one all the way to the front of the line, with the last child placing his hands on the young one’s shoulders in a display of responsibility and caring. I was blown away by the collective sense of responsibility that I witnessed from these young, hungry children.  

A similar sense of communal responsibility was also evident in our classroom when the older kids who had a better grasp of English would lovingly demonstrate support for the younger kids in the class who struggled with our lessons. One particular instance of this that stands out in memory was during an exercise in class in which we asked our students to draw a picture of their family members and label them in English. As the students concentrated on their paintings, a shy seven-year-old girl named Parvin tugged on my sleeve and indicated that she wanted to know the English words to label her family members. Hearing this question in Hindi, an older boy named Rahim leapt up from his drawing across the tin-walled classroom and yelled at the top of his lungs ‘Hayeem Teacher, No!’ and started to communicate emphatically with Parvin in Hindi. I looked up inquisitively at our translator, David, expressing my concern of Rahim’s sudden reaction: “He is afraid that she would not learn it the right way if you give her the answer, Hayeem Sir.” I looked back down to see Rahim and Parvin lying on the ground, stomach-down and giggling, now drawing the word ‘sister’ together above Parvin’s stick figure family.

These experiences highlight to me the irony of my trip, which is that I went to India looking to teach, but that I left India with the feeling that I came away with more than I was able to contribute. In relation to the Kalwa Slum in Mumbai, my experiences highlight to me the quality of relativity in matters of luxury, and served as evidence that supports the Jewish idea that ‘one who is rich is he who is happy with what he has.’ My time in the Kalwa Slum was remarkable primarily because of the spirit of its people – a quality that I believe would have been impressionable to me and most other people even in a vacuum that eliminated the circumstance of poverty from the equation. I will be forever grateful to my friends in Mumbai who helped me develop this hopeful perspective that I now turn to to inform my dealings with people both rich and poor in my everyday life.

 

 

In the fight against breast cancer, there is no greater resource than the survivors.

Posted: November 5, 2015

By Matthew Greenberg


That simple observation explains much of what myself and a group of young professionals experienced during a recent trip with JDC Entwine to visit the Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), a JDC program, in partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

One of the main reasons for our visit was to volunteer at the Race for the Cure in Sarajevo.  The Race for the Cure is a global series of fitness events organized by the Komen Foundation and its partners to raise funds and breast cancer awareness.  Before the Race, our group spoke with Nela Hasic, the Regional Director of WHEP in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, about the goals of the Race for the Cure in Sarajevo.  One thing Nela said stood out for me in particular: the Race for the Cure is a chance for women from all over Bosnia to come together and support one another. The sheer number of pink t-shirts, which are reserved specifically for breast cancer survivors, on the day of the event was a visual reminder of how many women are affected by breast cancer but continue to live their lives in spite of their illness.  I realized that our role as volunteers was really to help provide that forum for breast cancer survivors to help one another celebrate life and honor those who have lost their battle with this disease.

I saw a similar dynamic at play when our group traveled to Mostar to participate in an arts and crafts workshop organized by one of WHEP’s local partner organizations.  There, we helped a group of breast cancer survivors make heart-shaped pillows that women who have just gone through surgery can put under their arms to alleviate their discomfort.  It’s an idea that could only come from someone with personal experience of the recipient’s needs.  The session was a great example of what survivors can do with space and resources to implement their ideas about how to help others.

I joined the trip to Sarajevo to honor the memory of a dear friend that died from breast cancer earlier this year.  Following her diagnosis and throughout her treatment, she blogged about her experience and how she managed to stay positive and keep moving forward.  I know it was a message that inspired the women suffering from breast cancer that read her posts.  I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can best contribute to the fight against breast cancer.  My time in Sarajevo has convinced me that programs like WHEP, which empower survivors to use their own unique experiences to better the lives of others, will reach more women, more effectively than would otherwise be possible.  We saw a community of survivors in Bosnia that will be a resource for each other and for those who are diagnosed with breast cancer.  With continued support from organizations like JDC and Komen, I believe there is a great deal they can accomplish.

 

 

Ethiopia with Entwine

Posted: October 26, 2015
My trip to Ethiopia with Entwine was a life-changing, eye-opening, inspiring, and deeply moving experience that I have tried my best to put into words. Over the time we spent there, we formed strong bonds with each other, stretched far out of our comfort zones, and connected as much as possible with everyone we met. We made ourselves vulnerable and shared our deepest thoughts and dreams. We realized what unites us, as well as celebrating our differences. We played to our strengths and valued the unique perspective that each of us brought to the table. And most of all we embraced Ethiopia with open arms and open hearts. Most travel experiences add something to you as a person, but then there are those more profound experiences that you feel have changed you in some ways forever and that you will never forget. This was one of those experiences for me and I thought it important to share, whether it compels you to visit, to support the JDC projects, or it simply peaks your interest. Enjoy!
 
Day One
We arrive! And it is immediately apparent that we are a pretty awesome group of genuine, fun-loving, adventurous young adults. We are jetlagged but excited!

Day Two
We arrived in Addis Ababa and met Milli (Million) Johannes, who would be our amazing tour guide for the entire trip. He took us on a driving tour through the city, pointing out some key landmarks, like the Prime Minister’s palace and the building which was the former residence of the king. Sensing the group needed a boost of caffeine, Milli then took us to a local coffee house where we had a coffee ceremony. Coffee ceremonies are an integral part of life in Ethiopia. The host pours the coffee for all participants by moving the pot over a tray with small, handle-less cups and pouring from a height of 1 foot until each cup is full. The grounds are brewed three times: the third is called bereka, meaning ‘to be blessed’. The ceremony sometimes includes the burning of frankincense and the coffee is accompanied by a small snack such as popcorn. Coffee is a huge part of Ethiopia’s economy, and due to the Italian influence, macchiatos are especially popular. According to national folklore, the origin of coffee is rooted in Ethiopia’s history. The legend is about a goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. After discovering his goats to be excitedly dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries and decided that he must tell the monks. The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting awake all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions. And the rest is history!

With some  renewed energy in our group, we then flew to Gondar where we would spend the next 5 days. Our first stop in Gondar was the strikingly beautiful Fasilides castle.

Ethiopian Emperor Fasilides is one of most significant rulers of Abyssinia. He ruled over Abyssinia from 1632 to 1667 and founded the city of Gondar in 1636, which became the capital. During this time, he constructed a palace that would eventually grow into a large complex, as successors added their own buildings to the compound. Today, the palace is a mix of well-preserved architecture with European influences and rambling ruins. The castle itself still has its lower halls, reservoirs and steam-baths, and even enclosures for leopards and lions that used to prowl the grounds. The structure is made entirely of stone and is a representation of Ethiopia’s rich history. Right there in the main hall of the castle was a Star of David engraved in the stone.

We checked in at Hotel Goha, situated on a hill with magnificent views over Gondar, and made our way to the hotel restaurant for a traditional Ethiopian dinner of tibs, injera and shiro. Injera is a sour and spongy round bread, made of teff flour. Sauces and dishes are commonly poured on top of the injera. Driving around Gondar you can see fields of beautiful, wispy, green teff growing in abundance. Shiro is a delicious chickpea powder-based dish, sometimes including lentils and beans, slow-cooked with Ethiopia’s spicy berbere sauce.

After dinner we gathered around the fireplace and JDC's Africa/Asia and Int'l Development Program Manager, Tamara Fine Skversky, gave us an overview of JDC's key projects in Ethiopia, that we would be learning all about in the coming days.



Day Three
Today we started with a hearty breakfast at the hotel, before setting out on a 1 hour bus ride to the village of Dembia where we visited the Darna School. On the drive we saw many rural villages and were offered a glimpse into everyday life in the Ethiopian highlands. Many of the houses were made from aluminum panels. Others were made from wooden slats with cow dung used for insulation. In some villages we saw the traditional round huts made entirely from sticks and mud, with thatched roofs. The streets were filled with people herding goats and cows, donkeys carrying heavy bundles, and families sitting around a morning campfire making breakfast. The villagers wore vibrant, colorful clothing and many were barefoot. As we drove through, they all smiled from ear to ear and waved at us. The children would be especially excited and would jump up and down yelling ‘yuyuyuyu!’ In the more rural regions children would come running over the rolling hills from miles away to greet us as we drove by, and sometimes they would call us ‘ferengi’ (meaning foreigners). On the drive, we got the chance to get to know one another, sharing what motivated each of us to embark on this adventure. Participants work in a wide range of fields, such as medicine, law, and marketing. We also practiced some key phrases in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. The one word we used everyday was ‘Amaseganalo’ (thank you!).

As we arrived at the school we met a group of young adult volunteers from the NALA group in Israel. NALA has been partnering with JDC and working on facilitating water health education for children in the schools. As we arrived at the school, the kids were singing 'welome' to us and we soon joined them in their classrooms where NALA volunteers reviewed water safety practices with them. Each classroom is small but holds 50-70 children in each class. There are altogether about 2200 children in this school. JDC has built 30 schools in the country, which have brought in thousands of children who would otherwise have had to walk hours to get to a distant school each day or who may not have gone to school at all, if not for JDC.

We then helped the kids to make their own water carriers using plastic bottles and attaching straps so they would be easy to carry. We helped the kids paint their bottles to make them more personal and they proudly waved them in the air at us when they were done. JDC has been developing portable water sources in the North Gondar region for the past several years. To date, they have built 200 water sources across this region. JDC’s strategy is to make sure that every school has a nearby water source (well) and a latrine. There is a team that works on deciding where to put the well, building it and then maintaining it. Together with NALA, they engage community members, teaching them about operating the wells, avoiding all contaminated water, and spreading these good practices within the surrounding communities.

For lunch we sat in a peaceful field of teff in the shade of a giant tree. After lunch we split into two groups heading to different primary schools built by JDC.  We painted some educational murals on the wall of the school, such as maps of the world, flags from various countries, the alphabet in English and parts of the body. As we painted, members of the community encouraged us wth kind words. It was a good feeling to know that these murals would be a lasting educational tool that we could leave behind. We then returned to the hotel to reflect on our experiences over dinner.


Day Four
After waking up to watch the sunrise over Gondar and hearing the distant call to church resound over the city, we had a big breakfast and set off for the old Jewish village of Ambober. As we arrived at the village it seemed like the entire community was waiting to greet us as we stepped out of our Jeeps. The children each grabbed one of our hands and led us up the hill to a building site for a new High School that JDC is funding. We were excited to get our hands dirty and put in some groundwork on the foundation of the school. We mixed cement and laid the first layer of bricks on the school. As we worked, children came running over the hills to watch us and some offered to help. It’s amazing to think that in just a couple years this school will draw thousands of young people who would have had to walk 15km to the nearest school, if not for this new school right there in their village. And it’s inspiring to think that this very school will play a huge part in growing these young leaders who will go on to do great things in their communities and pursue their dreams.

After working on the school, we sat down to have a traditional coffee ceremony with the locals from Ambober. They welcomed us warmly and graciously and we simply enjoyed each others company as we shared this special moment. They thanked us for helping with the school and we made our way down the hill to the Ambober synagogue, which was the site of JDC’s main operations to assist the Bet Israel community before they made aliyah. Dr. Rick Hodes accompanied us, and as we sat in the synagogue, he talked to us about Jewish Ethiopian history.

One of the most common theories for the origin of Ethiopian Jews was the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon of Israel. This tradition states that a son, Menelik, was born to Solomon and Sheba, through whom all Ethiopian Jews descended. Over the centuries, they suffered much persecution at the hands of Christians and Muslims. Yet, they remained the oldest Diaspora community practicing Torah observance, pre-dating modern Rabbinic Judaism. Their greatest desire amongst  the generations was to return to Jerusalem.

Over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. Operation Moses, which occurred between November 18, 1984 and January 5, 1985 brought 7,000 Jews to Israel, and today, over 36,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.

A doctor named Theodore Myers carried a trunk full of medical supplies to Sudan after he learned that 400,000 Ethiopian refugees had fled there because of drought, famine and years of civil war. The following year, he returned to Sudan as a volunteer consultant to the JDC. He made more than 10 trips to Ethiopia, establishing village-based medical programs throughout Gondar province and then establishing the first clinic in Addis Ababa, that still provides medical care for 23,000 Ethiopians who have migrated from remote villages in the countryside. In 1990 he hired Dr. Rick Hodes to work at the clinic.

Rick Hodes said that during Operation Solomon in 1991, his job was to find kids who had severe medical problems to join the airlift so he could essentially save their lives, getting them the treatment they needed in Israel. The Ethiopian government was paid $35 million to cooperate with this operation, but it still had to be done in secret, since the operation was out of Sudan. 3,000 Jews from the region of Quara missed the flight, as they were traveling from a great distance and didn’t make it in time. Rick made sure that they were taken care of when they arrived in Sudan. He set up a transit camp in Teda where they all stayed and he examined and treated them. These people had never seen a white person before and were fascinated by Rick. They became fast friends as the people realized they could trust Rick and he taught them Israeli dancing. Rick then made sure they were all on the next plane to Israel.

After we came out of the synagogue, children were waiting to lead us back down the hill. When we got to the bottom of the hill to get in our Jeeps, one of the little boys began to dance and soon we were having a dance party with the kids. I left with goosebumps as I realized how much we’d been able to connect without words. There is so much warmth, friendship, and kindness that you feel with every smile and exchange, every handshake and high five.

Our next site visit was JDC’s Gondar Science Center, which was established in 2013 to serve students across the region, providing teachers, facilities, and equipment for subjects like computer science, mechanics, optics, and electrical engineering. We had the chance to talk to students about the science projects they had worked on. There were some really impressive projects, like a solar-powered oven and a water overflow sensor alarm. The students were so smart and very proud to show us how their projects worked. JDC aims to develop a mobile Science Center that could travel around the country to help students further their skills with after school programs and fully-equipped labs.

Our last stop of the day was to Gondar University Hospital, where we met with pediatric staff and alumni of the Nursing Scholarship program. JDC works with the hospital to screen students from rural schools for preventable and curable diseases. JDC also helps to facilitate important medical and educational exchanges between Gondar and various hospitals in Israel. Some of the students shared their goals with us to study further.

We ended our busy day with a relaxing dinner with Rick Hodes, who talked to us about the work he does and shared that he finds most of his patients on the streets of Addis Ababa. Some find him by word of mouth and many travel great distances to his clinic to seek his care. He has saved and transformed the lives of so many children. He raises funds through JDC for their surgeries overseas in the United States, Canada, Israel, and India. Sometimes donors become particularly invested in a child’s well-being and will continue to support them with funding for their educational pursuits. After dinner we had a nightcap in the lobby and unwound from an exciting day.


Day Five
On day five, we set off on a 2.5 hour drive to the spectacular Simien Mountains National Park. Our drive was gorgeous and made more special by the many smiles and waves we received along the way. As we set off on our hike, we saw large families of Gelada (bleeding-heart) baboons all around us. We quietly observed them and they didn’t take much notice of us. Babies were feeding or running and tumbling down the hills. Everywhere we looked we saw giant acacia trees, magnificent vistas and rolling hills of endless shades of green that, from above, looked like carpets of emeralds. Our guides told us that erosion over millions of years had created the deep valleys and sharp precipices that drop 1,500 m. The park is home to globally-threatened species like the Ethiopian wolf and a wild mountain goat found only in Ethiopia. We had all really bonded at this point it was wonderful to share stories as we hiked and just enjoy spending time together. There was a funny moment where a large baboon decided to take a path we were walking on and when the girls in front saw him coming towards them they turned to run in opposite directions, tripped over each other and fell in a heap laughing. All of our hearts were racing, but the baboon had quickly decided to take a different route at that point.

When we finished our hike, I led a meditation and asked everyone to take some deep breaths and focus on gratitude for all that we’d experienced on the trip so far, to think of all the people we’ve met and the impact that JDC is having on these communities. We visualized the school we worked on being completed, and the students thriving there and going on to pursue their greatest dreams. We reflected on all the ways we’d been able to connect with the locals and the positive experiences we’d had so far.

We then headed back to our hotel to get ready for a special dinner at The Four Sisters Restaurant. We were greeted by a man blowing a horn and friendly faces along the path to the restaurant. It was beautiful inside with painted murals all over the walls and ceiling. We enjoyed an incredible buffet dinner with all the traditional Ethiopian cuisine and were then treated to some Ethiopian music and dancing. The dancing was really expressive with a lot of shoulder shakes and impressive neck movements. The dancers then started to pull all of us up to dance with them. We made a train that went around the restaurant and soon every single person was up dancing!

I became emotional as I looked around me and felt so completely at home. I realized that one of the things I’ve been most homesick for, living away from South Africa, is the truly joyous spirit of Africa, the beautiful music and people, the way they express themselves. And to be experiencing all this with such a wonderful, genuine group of people who have become new friends, was really heartwarming. I had longed to experience all this again and had found it right there in that moment in Ethiopia. The people in Africa are unlike any people I’ve ever met. Some have so little and still have the most generous spirits I’ve ever experienced. In that moment, I realized that this spirit of Africa is in my being and that I carry it with me everywhere I go. I will never forget where I was born and grew up in South Africa, and now I will never forget this incredible country of Ethiopia. I want to stay connected and help support the life-changing projects JDC is making possible.



Day Six
On Day Six, we woke early to watch the sunrise in Gondar for the last time and enjoy breakfast on the patio. Our server, who’d worked there for 20 years, chatted to us and taught us a few more words in Amharic. We practiced the few words we knew and he sweetly corrected us so we pronounced the phrases just right. We shared with each other how sad we were to be leaving and how connected we felt to Gondar in just four days. We then left on a flight to Addis Ababa and just after arriving, we met up with Dr. Rick Hodes at his clinic, where a queue of people were waiting to see him.

As we all shuffled into his clinic, he talked to us about some recent cases and showed us x-rays of the deformed spines of patients he’d been treating. One of his patients was there and he had undergone surgery on his spine after months in traction. We saw a before photo of him standing next to Rick and could see how condensed his chest had become and after the surgery how much longer his torso was, standing alongside Rick for comparison. We met some of the volunteers who work with Rick and help with various tasks. One of the young men would often accompany the small children overseas for their surgeries. We asked him if the children were nervous beforehand and he said they were mostly excited and really brave. The kids can be as young as 3 or 4 years old.

On the way home we stopped at a Felasha (Jewish) village to buy some souvenirs.

We then checked into the Washington Hotel and gathered together for a shabbat reflection, sang some prayers, and lit the candles. We went around and shared some of our family traditions for shabbat and we talked about tikkun olam, the idea that we are all responsible for one another. We made a point to be aware of acts of chesed (loving kindness) that we had experienced during the week and that we had also had a hand in. And we were led in an exercise that got us to really think about the faces we see in everyday life, and how each one has a story to share. We then made our way over to Rick’s house for a festive shabbat dinner. His house was full of children, some being his own adopted kids, as well as some current and former patients of his. He passed around a box of funky, colorful hats and we all put one on. We spent time getting to know the kids. One of the teenagers and I bonded over books. He said his favorite is Tom Sawyer, as he really liked the good deeds Tom performed throughout the book. We then gathered in a circle holding hands, and sang ‘If I had a Hammer’ by The Weavers, as is tradition on shabbat in Rick’s home. Rick then asked us all to send good thoughts to his patients undergoing surgery in the next few days and to pray for peace in Israel during this tumultuous time. We also had a moment of silence for those who had lost their lives in the recent attacks. Then Rick blessed each of his children and proceeded to bless the bread, breaking off pieces to toss around the room to all of us, which is another fun tradition of his. We had a wholesome dinner and enjoyed the night with the kids, before returning to our hotel.


Day Seven
After a big breakfast, we took a walk through the Bole district to a coffee house for some macchiatos. We had some girl talk (sorry guys!) along the way and just enjoyed each others company. We then returned to the hotel to have lunch with Rick’s son, Dejene, and a couple of his closest friends and business partners. Dejene is in his twenties and has been working on a tourism business with one of his friends. They are all very entrepreneurial and work so hard to achieve success in what they do. They are collaborating to start various new enterprises in the realms of health, finance, and tourism. Some of the participants then went back to Rick’s to play soccer and card games with the kids there.

In the evening we gathered for a Havdalah ceremony and an exercise in thinking about how we connect with others and reflecting on the South African concept of Ubuntu that was developed by Desmond Tutu. The idea that ‘I am, because you are’ is the central theme and that we ask each other to be present, to show up, and to show compassion wherever we can. We looked through some cards that showed key projects that JDC is involved in around the world and chose one that especially connected with each of us. There was a Jewish camp for at-risk youth in Israel, JDC relief workers sitting with orphaned children in Haiti after the terrible earthquake, and men, who were survivors of the Holocaust holding their babies.

We then went to dinner at a large restaurant with a stage where singers and dancers entertained us for the night. We had some honey wine and local Dashen beer and enjoyed the show. At one point, we realized there was a wedding ceremony happening right next to us in this huge room with people from all over the world. The couple was surrounded closely by family and friends and were dressed in beautiful traditional clothing.

Then it was time to experience the nightlife! Milli took a group of us to Petrol Bar, where I’m pretty certain, as soon as our group walked in the music changed. Soon they were playing popular 90’s songs, some current pop songs, and just a few Ethiopian songs here and there. We definitely stood out and were no doubt the loudest group in there. We had so much fun dancing for hours and it was the perfect way to end our day.


Day Eight
We spent day eight at Kuriftu Spa in Debre Zeyit where we had lunch overlooking a beautiful lake. Afterwards some of us had massages and spent time relaxing, writing in our journals, and playing cards. The grounds were beautiful and serene.

We then returned to the hotel to meet Sam Amiel, JDC’s Senior Program Director responsible for projects in Ethiopia. He gave us a more in-depth understanding of some current programs, as well as informing us of some projects that are in the pipeline. One important program was focused on sending pediatricians out into the community to screen children at schools for scoliosis while checking for cough and fever symptoms, as well as heart problems. They are also doing research into why there are such a large number of children with severely curved spines in Ethiopia more than anywhere else in the world. JDC is also looking at how to train more doctors to carry on Dr. Hodes practices and treatment, following his methodologies. JDC really empowers communities to be self-sustainable and to thrive. When they develop a successful project or program, they often hand it over to the local government and move onto the next project so they are always on top of the current challenges in the region. We heard about an exciting new JDC project to do with beekeeping.

JDC plans to build a beekeeping facility and provide the first lot of bees, as well as training to local residents in the area, so that they can operate the facility and make honey, which is highly profitable. The Center will train village farmers to farm honeybees utilizing modern techniques. It will also train woodworkers and metalsmiths to build beekeeping equipment. Trainees will then take these valuable skills with them back to their villages, where they can help their community develop an efficient beekeeping industry that is able to compete in the domestic and global marketplace. We were really inspired by this project, among others, so we decided as a group to work on fundraising for these efforts when we return home. There was a lot of enthusiasm and every single person was on board with making a difference in the country we have grown to care so much about in such a short time.


Day Nine
On the last day of our trip, we visited WISE (Women in Self-Employment) where we met with some incredible women who run the program. They are a local NGO and partner of JDC and are dedicated to fostering sustainable livelihoods among low-income women. WISE was founded in 1998 and has been working with women to provide business and home economic education, as well as micro-loan and community banking programs. Beneficiaries learn to become self-reliant and greatly improve the quality of their lives. Their focus lies in the empowerment of women economically, socially, and politically. Many of the women become weavers, creating beautiful garments to be sold, but the projects can range from jewellery making to coffee production and distribution. Some of the women leave difficult home lives and find solace in WISE. Some have husbands who are not supportive, and others who are very encouraging. In most cases, the women are driven to be self empowered and will do all they can to make that happen. WISE fosters strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations in order to share learning and promote their own good practices. Through this, they have been able to expand their outreach to other parts of the country. Since its founding, WISE has reached over 28,000 women and girls in Addis Ababa.

After talking to these inspiring women, we browsed their store and supported them by buying some of the beautiful pashminas, jewellery, and pottery they had created. We then visited some of these WISE women in the community, at the market and in the alley next to their homes where they were selling crafts that they had made.

We left feeling inspired and headed to the biggest open-air market in Africa to do some final souvenir shopping before returning to the hotel for our last dinner together. In our closing reflection session we shared how we all felt that we wanted to return home with an action plan in mind to raise funds for the projects we care about, with each of us taking leadership over an aspect of the project.

 

We are excited to share our stories with our own communities and to see what develops from there. One thing this trip taught me is anything is possible and every little bit counts. Every life you can make a difference in is worth it all.

 

 

 

Visions of Rwanda: What a Buffalo and a Bird Can Teach Us

Posted: October 9, 2015

While on safari in Akagera National Park, a protected park of multiple ecosystems in eastern Rwanda along the Tanzanian border, one could not help but be struck by the beauty, warm winds and seamless flow of landscapes from African sahara to hippo-filled swampland in the span of a ten-minute jeep ride. After about forty-five minutes seeing topi after topi (topis are African antelopes, I would soon learn) I was getting a little weary. I could not help but think, “Where are the giraffes? Did I miss the zebras? Could we be the trip that actually gets to see the lions?” Ultimately, the lions were out of view because they sought shade from the heat, but the zebras, giraffes and the glimpse of two elephants grazing in the distance were everything that we could have possibly imagined. However, it is the image of the buffalo resting with a small white bird atop its back that has been singed into my memory.

As our wonderful guide and park ranger Emmanuel told us, the Cape buffalo is often spotted with the oxpecker, a small white bird by his side. One could not help but question, how could a buffalo possibly befriend a small bird in the dog-eat-dog, or more specifically hippo eat lion, world that is the sub-Saharan wilderness? We then learned that the oxpecker feeds off of the ticks and insects that seek to feast on the buffalo. The buffalo in turn protects the oxpecker from the prey that would feast on it but for the deterrence effect of a giant buffalo being by its side. The result is the mutualism and beneficial coexistence that occurs between the buffalo and the bird.

From the outside looking in, this mutual relationship seems absurd and unbelievable. As I watched the two creatures I imagined that thirty seconds later the buffalo would quickly grab the bird with his mouth and we would be audience to a true moment in the wild—lunchtime. We in fact  were witness to a true moment in the wild, but it was not the wild that I had imagined or anticipated. Perhaps that is because it was an occurrence seldom experienced in the human wild— the idea of peaceful coexistence to the point of mutual benefit. I thought, if the behemoth species that is the buffalo can find a way to live side-by-side with the meek and fragile oxpecker in a way that ensures both of their survivals, why can’t we?

After a far too short week in Rwanda, it became clear to me that Rwanda is a country of possibility and a beacon of hope in a world where it often feels like coexistence is a near impossibility. It is a jaw-dropping place from its vast rolling hills to the genuine kindness and heartfelt passion that I felt from the smallest human interaction. No person, like no country, goes through its existence unscathed. However the true test is how we as individuals or countries recognize our past histories in the effort to reshape our futures. Rwanda is an incredible model of how people can live together and coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial, though from the outside such an occurrence after so much devastation may seem impossible. In a country where twenty-one years ago neighbor took up arms against neighbor killing over one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates, how can security, government stability and social welfare be cornerstones for that same nation? How can Hutus and Tutsis now live in harmony and work side by side with the same goal of creating a stable and safe country? I couldn’t help but think “who is to say what is impossible?”

 I was privileged to spend a week at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (asyv.org) on a JDC Entwine Insider Trip. The ASYV is a youth village modeled after Yemin Orde in Israel, where 500 of Rwanda’s most vulnerable youth live, learn and grow in a safe and supportive community built on family values. Agahozo-Shalom was founded by the visionary role model, the late Anne Heyman. While in the Village, our group was given the special opportunity to witness incredible talents, share in thought-provoking discussions, dance, laugh, sing and experience the overflowing kindness and compassion of the magnificent students of the ASYV. Again I thought, who is to say what is impossible?

 In addition to the residential community, the Liquidnet Family High School, the sports fields and the extra-curricular buildings, there is a solar field built by Gigawatt Global on the beautiful 144-acre ASYV oasis. This one solar field alone has increased the electrical capacity of Rwanda by six percent in a country where only fifteen percent of the population have access to electricity. With Israeli inventors, Chinese products, French and German manufacturers and Rwandan contractors, the solar field is another model of mutual benefit. People can work together in ways that benefit all that take part and in Rwanda they do. Maybe we just need a little bit of a reminder of this possibility sometimes. I know I did.

 If there is a place on this planet like Agahozo-Shalom, a place on this planet like Rwanda today, and a place where a buffalo can befriend a little white bird, maybe anything is possible. Maybe after all, the past does not dictate our future.

Naomi Matlow is a Toronto writer who recently participated in an Entwine trip to Rwanda with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Together with composer Teresa Lotz she has written ThreeTimesFast, a musical that was previewed at the International OCD Conference in Boston this past July.

 

 

 

JDC Entwine: Inside Jewish Greece and Bulgaria, Day #2

Posted: June 24, 2015

Oh what a day we had, oh my where to begin? It started with a trip to the Golden Age Home for the Elderly - which is an annual camp experience for the Jewish elderly across Bulgaria, some of whom do not have access to Jewish community programming during the rest of the year. We visited with them, and though they did not speak English (some of them spoke Russian or French) there was still a lot of smiling and hugging. Then the kindergarten class from the Bulgarian JCC who we would be visiting later, came and preformed for the seniors. It was the cutest thing ever.


Afterwards, we broke into a huge Israeli dancing session. Instantly, I was taken back to my BBYO days where I learned Israeli dances and it all came right back. After this, the kindergarteners started dancing with us. Now I must say I had a major crazy dance session with 4-5 kindergarten kids (none of whom spoke English). We were jumping, twirling, and dancing like there was no tomorrow. It was a special moment that I will never forget. My iPhone was in my pocket and slipped out, falling on the concrete face down. The entire screen is now cracked, but it was worth it and I'll get my phone fixed when I return to the U.S.

After this we returned to Sofia where we had lunch at a local restaurant and then learned about the JDC's role in Bulgaria. Here I had a reunion Polly Zaharieva, an old friend from BBYO who was president of Bulgarian BBYO and was my roommate at February Execs and attended International Convention with me back in 2002 and 2003. It was amazing to see her and be reunited with her, especially all of these years later.  Polly now works for JDC as program coordinator for JDC Regions.  

I then had another unbelievable experience; we broke out into groups and made home visits to the elderly community members who receive assistance from the Jewish community. We visited with our new friend Sophie (pictured). We were warmly invited into her home where she prepared snacks, coffee and juice. We had a translator with us so we could communicate with Sophie and hear her story.

Sophie is a tiny old doctor who in World War II fought against the Nazis with the Soviet Communist anti-Nazi resistance group. She had an amazing story that I cannot even try to summarize here. Afterwards we returned to the hotel and ended the day with a festive traditional Bulgarian dinner experience. Not only was it a beautiful restaurant on a mountain and a 4 course meal, but we were entertained with traditional Bulgarian folk dancers (pictured) who also walked on coal. Apparently this is an act of Bulgarian festive celebrations, though my experience with it had previously been limited to a Tony Robbins seminar. The dinner was plentiful and entertaining and I had another opportunity to get to know and make new friends in my group. Overall a long, terrific, memorable day, filled with moments I will never forget.

 

 

Reconnecting with Morocco

Posted: May 22, 2015

     I sit aboard a silver, cylindrical time machine which, through the marvel of modern technology, transports me back sixty seven years in eleven and a half short soaring hours.

     In 1948, with the birth of the Jewish state, my father’s parents and 263,000 other hopeful Jews, gathered their belongings and left their homes in Morocco for a better life in Israel. As the government forbade aliyah at the time, my grandfather bid his parents Eliahu Ashash and Ester Ruini farewell, and escaped Fez undercover and alone. My grandmother and her family traveled under a fake medical visa from Fez to Ushta, in northern Morocco, and then to Algiers, where they camped in a park for a month awaiting their boat to Marseilles.

     Both grandparents, sporting fake German names despite their olive skin, were packed like sardines for eight seasick days aboard The Panyork to Haifa, where their excitement at arriving in Israel and receiving fresh bread was quickly dampened by the harsh living conditions.

     After meeting my grandfather through a family friend, raising three sons and working as a bus driver for the army and as a bank teller, my grandmother is now retired and lives in Haifa.  My grandfather, a carpenter, passed away from pancreatic cancer several years ago.

     I have never self-identified as Moroccan.

     Maybe growing up as Jewish, Israeli, American has forged a sufficient multiple personality disorder, or possibly associating with an Arabic country feels antithetical, but that half of my history has always seemed too distant to breach my individuality. After all, Morocco was a yet unseen country, whose citizens speak two foreign languages, which is insulated from my history by a two generation gap.

     Of course I cherish, and try desperately to replicate, my grandmother’s countless delicious holiday and Friday night meals, but the words Moroccan food have always been indivisible to me.

     And I remember laughing along contagiously at the incomprehensible Moroccan Arabic jokes while my family played cards at my grandparent’s kitchen table, and how my father teasingly called my little brother “Morrocai” during his childhood tantrums, but those experiences were always adjunct and tangential.

     As such, although I love both the anticipation and adventure of travel, the notion of visiting far-off treacherous Morocco was always too unfeasible and outrageous to top my destination bucket list. Upon receiving an advertisement for the Joint Distribution Committee’s “JDC Entwine - Inside Jewish Morocco” trip for young professionals, however, the honor of being the first family member to return to the kingdom of Morocco quickly dissolved any hesitations or apprehensions.

     Paint and buildings, names and borders, governments and rulers, change: land does not.

     After flying nearly 6,000 miles over land and sea, the views during the descent into Mohammed V International Airport, Morocco were shockingly indiscriminate. Maybe my organizational preparations eclipsed my emotional forethought, or perhaps the eight exhausting airborne hours elicited unfounded expectations of avian migratory instinct, but I was stunned by the pause of familiarity, meaning and ownership towards my first glimpses of the dirt and water.

     Aground, I logically accepted, but remained surprised, that the generic 80’s European style airport and freeways appeared remarkably nondescript. So after lunch at Casablanca’s Jewish Museum (the only one of its kind in an Arab nation) my tide of curiosity drowned my jet lag and fatigue as I glued my wide eyed face to the bus window to soak in and internalize that dirt and water on the road to Fez.

     For our first dinner in Morocco, we feasted on delicious lamb, salads and fresh bread in a wonderfully ornate palace, while belly dancers and fire breathers performed on stage and the wine slowly stoked my immersion. Stuffed and satiated, the performers yanked a fellow female traveler and me from our seats, and to the back of the restaurant, where I was dressed in a long gold and white robe and a fez hat, and she was adorned in umpteen layers of cloth, jewelry and head pieces.  In a grand celebration of the trip’s commencement, we were paraded through the crowd and on stage, danced to the music of the mandolins and drums and may have accidentally gotten married. 

     I remember my elation at receiving the coveted acceptance email, and my grandmother’s joy when she learned that my Entwine trip would be the first of its kind to visit my grandfather’s and her birthplace, Fez. I read over the itinerary several times before spotting an excursion to the Fez Jewish cemetery nestled within the hectic schedule, and understanding that consequentially I would have the amazing opportunity to visit my family’s gravesites.

     Fueled by vivid excitement, I spent many hours preparing for our second day’s excursion to Mellah, the Jewish quarter in Fez where my family used to live. I emailed my great grandparent’s names to our trip organizers, hoping that coordination would increase the odds of finding my family’s history and gravesites. I ordered yahrzeit candles from Amazon, nabbed a box of matches and packed my favorite kippah. I recorded pages of recollected family stories over Skype as my uncle navigated my grandmother through Google Satellite images in search of recognizable intersections or street names. Unfortunately, childhood memories are not often formed in birds-eye-view.  For those wishing to garner infinite grandchild mench points, help your grandparent recall their childhood memories: she started dreaming about her childhood in Morocco. 

     After stepping through the bright blue guarded and locked cemetery door, the friendly elderly groundskeeper ushered me away from the group’s tour and into a small white van for a ride to his worn and cluttered workshop 500 feet away.  He dislodged two thick black binders and we flipped through the reams of typed dates, ages, coordinates and names in search of Ashash and Ruini.

     I leaned closely over the tidy alphabetized books, awestruck while both my camera and cellphone flashed away impulsively and incessantly at the rows of family member’s names.  We walked to the nearby sector, listed to contain my great grandmother’s grave, where we found the words Ester Ruini hidden in the middle of a headstone’s inscription paragraph. I lit a candle, placed it on her grave and joined his soft mumbled Yahrzeit prayer.

     Although my great grandfather’s gravesite was harder to find among the worn but legible inscriptions in his dense sector of the cemetery, and I had to return to bless his gravesite after the amiable groundskeeper successfully continued his search, the amazing experience of finding my roots and history was so fatefully and remarkably easy. As the Fez cemetery was on our itinerary, in view and walking distance from my hotel room, and was so well-kept and organized, I felt deeply blessed for the once in a lifetime opportunity, and thankful to the JDC and the leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community.

     The rest of the trip was a tagine and tea-intoxicated, hyper-immersive, educational and awe inspiring look into the landmarks, politics, organization and aid of the Jewish communities and Moroccan culture in Fez, Meknes, Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech.  We witnessed the strong brotherly ties between Arab and Jewish high school students, we were dressed in robes and ferried by horse-drawn carriages to a Shabbat dinner in a former palace, and we drank tea at the historic home of the US Consul General, who sports a tongue stud and an ankle tattoo.

     Back home in San Diego, and able to see the forest through the trees, I can now understand that the moral of this story lies beyond the appreciation (and shameless advertising) for the astounding JDC Entwine program, the enlightenment of travel or a nod to Morocco tourism, but that truly meaningful and illuminating travel opportunities to rekindle even disjointed appreciation and understanding of family history, are paramount, feasible and incredibly rewarding.

JDC Entwine is a one-of-a-kind movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues. We do this by offering service experiences in Jewish communities around the world, educational events and programs, and leadership development opportunities.

 

 

 

Inside Ethiopia 2014

Posted: May 5, 2015

In October 2014, nineteen motivated young Jewish professionals from across the globe (Argentina, Australia, France, Hungary, Israel, Canada, England and the United States) were selected to take part in JDC Entwine's Inside Ethiopia trip. The program was a mix of education and service work designed to allow participants the opportunity to witness first-hand the meaningful work undertaken by JDC in Ethiopia as well as to "roll up" our sleeves and contribute to several of the JDC's rural projects.

Upon arriving at Addis Ababa we began to look below the surface, to see a side of the city and the local population that few visitors to the country are able to.  We met women who were pupils of technology and business training programs through the Organization for Women in Self Employment (WISE), a program supported by the JDC, and toured local communities to see the women transferring their education into functioning small businesses. We also spent time with female college students who had access to higher education thanks to the support of JDC.

“This is tzedakah in action. This is tikkun olam in action.” These are the words that one of our fellow participants, Naomi Matlow, wrote after seeing JDC’s work on the ground.

Our main focus in Addis Ababa was observing and learning from the incredible Dr. Rick Hodes. Dr Hodes is an iconic figure in the medical world, having dedicated most of his life to working with children in Ethiopia suffering from severe spinal and heart problems. What was an initial 12-month mission - Dr. Hodes first arrived nearly three decades ago to assist JDC with Operation Moses - has become a life-long pursuit. Dr. Hodes is responsible for saving thousands of children's lives, facilitating life-saving surgeries for which patients travel to Ghana and India, at times for lengthy periods of treatment. We met patients who literally traveled days on foot and bus from the most remote parts of Ethiopia just to be seen by Dr. Hodes and his staff (including three JDC Global Service Corps fellows).

Dr. Hodes' incredible ability to look at every individual as a special soul has been well-documented in award-winning documentaries and books. It was not lost on anyone in our group how fortunate and lucky we were to spend such considerable time with him and soak up all we could from his fascinating story.  

A highlight of all JDC missions is Shabbat dinner with Dr. Hodes and his family, and our Ethiopian Shabbat was no exception. We spent a memorable Friday evening with Dr. Hodes and his clan - in addition to the five children he has adopted, there are upwards of a dozen patients who are at different stages in treatment and recovery that share his home. Shabbat was welcomed in Dr. Hodes' sukkah, with us wearing funky hats and singing an ensemble version of “If I Had a Hammer," a Dr. Hodes Shabbat tradition for many years.

From Addis we ventured north to Gondar, which until the 1980s was the heart of Ethiopia’s Jewish community. Following the successful Aliyah operations, in which JDC played an instrumental role, Ethiopia has seen its Jewish population decline. However, the needs of the greater Gondar community remain - and a number of JDC projects in the greater Gondar region promote sustainability and education. Our group was incredibly touched upon visiting water wells that had been built as part of JDC water development programs.

One of the unique aspects of our Ethiopian mission was the service component. The time spent working in rural Gondar on local JDC projects (deworming school children, painting and constructing new school classrooms) will never be forgotten. With each day that passed we were joined by more and more kids from the surrounding villages - instead of feeling like outsiders, we felt like part of the community. In a short span of time, and despite language barriers, we were able to make a connection with the kids who joined us through the bonds of human spirit.

It was a humbling experience in our lives that will stay in our hearts forever. We were constantly reminded how fortunate our lives are but more so the importance of helping and giving to others in life less fortunate, whether that be in the clinics of Ethiopia, the 70 other countries that JDC works or simply just in our own local communities on a daily basis. Our experience etched home to us the importance and need to give back to others, and is one that we are forever grateful for and look to apply in our own lives. 

“We truly saw so much while we were in Ethiopia. When you see something, it is hard not to only say something but to see something else within ourselves. There is so much opportunity to do good in this world and there is no shame in piggybacking on the good of someone else, therefore allowing more good to be done.” – Naomi Matlow, Inside Ethiopia participant

 

 

Questions (and Some Answers) about Service

Posted: March 18, 2015

When I first told my family and friends that I was going to Bulgaria, the first question they asked me was, “why?” This was usually followed up by, “where?” And in general, I would respond with a shrug and say, “volunteerism,” and point to Bulgaria on a map. But in truth, I really didn’t have any answers until my return, at which time I also found myself with just as many questions.

Now that I am back, when asked, “who?” I can talk about the Sephardic Jewish community in Bulgaria, whose ancestors wound up in what was once the Ottoman Empire after the Spanish Inquisition. I can explain how some of the elderly Sephardic Jews speak Ladino, which is linguistically similar to Spanish, so as to allow me to communicate directly with a ninety year-old Bulgarian woman. I can explain how many of the elderly generation are also able to speak Russian and fully believe that their lives would be better if the Communists were still in charge. Or that the younger generations speak English and how this allowed them to tell us that they think democracy is the way forward, but that it presents its challenges in the short run; how we talked about American television and pandas on YouTube and our Jewish identity. And as a result, I found my answer to whom we should serve. Anyone. Anyone you can because, for me, serving someone you don’t know in someplace you have never been opens your world intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

When asked, “what?” I can now talk about brightening the day of the elderly Jewish Bulgarians. I can talk about the donations we brought from our local Jewish communities. I can talk about the time spent at Raffy’s over a few drinks between people who otherwise would never have met, sharing ideas and values that otherwise would not have been shared, a form of service in and of itself. I could talk about the deep reflections and conversations on the trip, which were best described by the Rabbi of Sofia, who upon finding out that I am studying engineering told me that this trip was a form of soul engineering. And in this way, the question of what is service was answered as well. Anything. We should serve in any way that we can because there are many ways to serve and all are important. They are especially important when what results is growth, not only for others but also for us.

The remaining questions of “when?” and “how?” are considerably more difficult to answer. Unlike why and where, I cannot just point to a map. Unlike who and what, there needs to be parsimony, because an individual’s time and efforts are limited. To when and how, I still do not have answers, but I have ideas. And as a good engineer, I have my pencil and a big eraser and I am going to try them out to see what I make of them.

What I have thus far for “when?” comes from John Burroughs, who said that, “The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention.” I believe when people think about service, they get frustrated by the starfish story* and think that they can’t possibly do enough to make a difference. They forget that service can be when you buy a hot cocoa for someone on the street. I saw this most in Mimi, a Bulgarian peer of our age, who not only spends much of her free time at the Sofia JCC trying to reinvigorate the struggling Jewish community, but who also chooses to vote, which is no small act considering most Bulgarian’s frustrations with the overtly corrupt government run by rebranded Communists. To her, it was an act of civil responsibility in order to voice her desire for change, a form of service in the purest sense, because it is small and consistent and with enough people it can change the world.

 

The question of how to serve is probably the most difficult of all. It is the Navier-Stokes question on this problem set and the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you $1,000,000 if you solve it. As such, I can only speak for myself. But what I think I have confirmed on this trip comes from Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” On the trip, this spirit is what we saw in Ina, Julia, Mimi, Andy, Hallie and others. The difference it makes in their work, for those they serve as well as themselves, is substantial. Think of the best teachers you ever had and ask why they were the best and if the answer is not because they were passionate about what they did then I will pay you $1,000,000. So when it comes to how we should serve, we must, for the sake of other and ourselves, find what makes us come alive such that in our service, two are served.

After visiting Bulgaria, I can do more than point to Sofia on a map. I can explain who the Bulgarians are and who they want to be and what we can do to help. I can talk about soul engineering. And of the questions that I am still figuring out, I am satisfied with serving in small ways when I can and following my passions, especially if they include the service of others. And if these are not the right answers, I will break out the big eraser and continue refining my understanding of who and when, in search of more questions and maybe some answers as well.

 

*The Starfish Story:

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance. As he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen.” "But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference." The boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied, “It made a difference to that one”. 

 

 

Skin of the Teeth: Celebrating Diaspora in Jewish India

Posted: March 17, 2015

My JDC Entwine Inside Jewish India trip began long before I boarded the flight to Mumbai. Much like other defining experiences, I was both overly prepared and utterly clueless for this life interlude. Staunch warnings, blurbs of excitement, overlong recommendations and countless reminders flooded my inbox and my Facebook feed for quite some time before departure, and even my Indian friends had conflicting—and sometimes slightly alarmist—pieces of advice to confer. ‘Don’t drink the water!’ ‘Inspect water bottle caps before opening!’ ‘Don’t eat the street food!’ ‘Do eat the street food!’ By the time I sat down to the 14.5 hour flight, I was in a surreal, incredulous state: it was actually happening, I was Going To India. I had to actively suppress mental comparisons to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the indulgent (but well-written) travel memoir Eat Pray Love. Like her, my rogue anticipation was tinged with dashes of almost-bliss, and not a little bit of malaise too.

But none of this was surprising. When it came to my bucket list, few things were higher than visiting India. My first experience with Indian culture and (unbeknownst to me) the Hindu religion came 5 years ago, in the Bahamas of all places. In December of 2010 I traveled to a yoga ashram on Paradise Island, a 20 minute walk up the beach from the Vegas-like Atlantis resort, to become a yoga teacher. When I got there, I was immediately taken aback by the religiosity of this purely vegetarian, devoutly hindu place, but also bemused by the fact that the ashram’s staff was almost entirely Israeli – the swamis, or hindu priests swathed in orange robes, were lapsed Jews on a (slightly different) spiritual path. I myself was in something of a religious lapse at the time, as I had spent most of my 20s running away from that which was familiar (and, more often than not, oppressive), and I found myself embracing much of what I learned there—yoga for the body, and for the mind and spirit as well. But it took a hindu ceremony during which I refused to prostrate in front of Ganesha, the elephant-headed cosmic remover of obstacles, for me to realize I still had a sense of Jewish identity. Having this authentic religious moment in such an incredibly joyous and foreign context made a giant impression.

So, as a practicing yogi and now slightly more seasoned yoga teacher years later, I was curious to further explore this dichotomy on a Jewish-themed educational tour in the Far East. And while the idea of India as a source, a ‘mother country’, was always present in my little yogic world, the possibility of actually traveling there had remained strangely distant. It was something I needed to work up to. I’m not quite sure why, but I felt India to be something I was not ready for just yet, in spite of all that prep at the ashram in the Caribbean. Even at departure, it still didn’t quite feel like the right time.

But karma obviously had had other plans for me. In the space of two weeks last November (just in time for my birthday), I lost my job, crashed my car, and was accepted into the JDC trip in one fell swoop. God, in all his/her/their/its names and forms, was telling me something plainly, flatly: get out of Los Angeles. “Go east!” And there I was, on the plane with over a dozen freshly-met American Jews, on a trip that felt more like an investigative mission than a pilgrimage. We were in search of something none of us knew a thing about – Jewish India. Another pop-culture reference jumped to the fore: Leonard Nimoy’s educational TV series In Search Of… from when I was younger. Only this time, we weren’t looking for Bigfoot.

After joining up with our international contingent upon arrival in Mumbai (our corps included young professionals from the UK and South Africa as well), we jumped right in. As we began our trek, exploring a cavalcade of synagogues that dot the west coast of India from Mumbai to Cochin, we were slowly able to take stock of where we were, of the context of these remarkable Jewish places in such a vast, new and gleefully strange land.

In terms of first impressions, it becomes apparent that there is something very ‘skin of the teeth’ about India. This is true not only of the traffic (‘traffic’ might not be the right word; ‘swarms of perpetually honking breakneck suicidal motorcyclists and rickshaw drivers’ seems more accurate)—it’s also true of travel arrangements, buying and selling, and virtually anything else. It’s a feeling that everything is happening exactly as it should, including that moment when the almost horrendously disastrous ultimately gives way—at the last possible bloodcurdling moment—to the intensely beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that you immediately forget there was any other possible outcome. Until the next maniac driver or ruthless merchant/hawker comes hurtling towards you.

Arguably, the most unique and beautiful thing—or things—about India are the sounds, horn-honking aside. I immediately noticed how my iPhone’s still photo camera, no matter how hi-tech, simply did not suffice. The music of the country, which invariably wafts in through your window at night no matter where you are, is nothing short of intoxicating. In order to capture it, coupled with the prolonged ceremonial sounds of religious activities such as pujas or arati (forms of hindu prayer), the use of a video camera or voice recorder was far more necessary than my regular camera.

Another pretty strong impression: India is a zoo. Literally. Cows, monkeys, dogs, camels, horses, cats, pigs, goats, insects, birds, bats and rats mix with the humans, all in dogged pursuit of the exact same thing: sustenance. Perhaps the most out-of-place are also the most welcome of all these species: the cows. Holy as they are, they lumber around, and due to their dumb weight, slowness and the ungainly way they occupy space, they look as if they are waiting for something; lost travelers themselves, with nothing to do but stand around and wait for the next train.

Our JDC group, however, never felt lost, as we were seamlessly transferred from one knowledgable tourguide to another, one fascinating and esoteric site to the next. Our task list was full, and the mission objective of uncovering the Indian Jew quickly seemed far more within our grasp than initially thought. While Jews in India indeed make up a needle-in-a-haystack portion of the general population, the mark they have left (and still leave) on the country’s many-colored cultural fabric is far more vital than the stuff of urban legend. Due to that very sparseness and rarity, their mark is even more vibrant and filled with the desire to be felt. One need only to visit the Mumbai JCC, cloistered on the third floor of a building in a busy area in the southern reaches of the city, where any number of activities take place for Mumbai Jews both young and old.

But the reality is, the Jews of India are getting by on the skin of their teeth themselves. For the bouquet of eclectic synagogues and other Jewish institutions we visited as part of JDC Entwine, things would have to be happening at a far greater amplitude for this meager population to stand out as an even marginal member of the national Indian community. And it’s all the harder to stand out in a country where religion and religious expression is so tactile, so everywhere, much like the streets themselves. Everywhere, meaning it's highly accessible to anyone, practically anywhere, at any time. That is indeed one of the most interesting aspects of religion, Judaism included, as seen through the prism of India: just how quotidian and lacking in pomp it feels. As opposed to the often opposing, always sequestered-feeling synagogues of Europe and the US, temples of all kinds (Jewish and otherwise) find a way to cram themselves quite matter-of-factly into both the urban and rural landscapes in India, much like the burgeoning population does as it teems through the streets and overcrowds every transit hub.

Oftentimes, temples are found in corners or side streets you wouldn’t even think to notice, and that goes for small makeshift altars as well as the touristy larger monuments. Even in their opulence, India’s more substantial religious structures can still contain something of the mundane—this was illustrated perfectly by a couple spotted holding their baby at the impressive Jagdish Hindu temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan, after the JDC portion of my trip ended. Flanked by grand elephant statues and accessed by a dizzying high staircase, the temple attracts a steady stream of tourists all day, but this decidedly local pair squeezed themselves in between them all to offer their own prayer, which had something to do with their child. In its casualness, its efficacy, its utilitarian nature, the couple’s rushed prayer held more meaning than I was used to seeing, for instance, at the highly social shabbat gatherings at swanky synagogues in certain American metropolises.

In stark contrast was the decidedly non-swanky synagogue we visited in the Konkan Villages, which is a ferry, bus and rickshaw ride away from Mumbai. There, we happened upon perhaps the strangest and most appealing synagogue of all – a pink shul that managed to be both breathtaking and feel completely hidden away at once. It is kept up and maintained (with the help of the JDC) for just three Jewish families who remain in the area. The structure was situated across the street (or village path) from a house adorned with hindu imagery and inexplicably filled with goats—yes, predominantly young goats who had run of the place—and immediately next to the gated entrance to the shul, another small makeshift hindu temple sat.

As I entered, I could also discern the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, which is when it hit me: India is a mad traffic jam of religion. And in its ubiquitous, jam-packed nature, somehow everybody seems ridiculously cool with everybody else. For their meager numbers, the Jews of India have historically had less experience with anti-semitism than their counterparts elsewhere in that abstract concept known as the Diaspora—the heinous attacks in Mumbai in 2008 notwithstanding. Instead, the reasons given for this population’s large-scale exit from the country over the years mainly involve industry, or the simple desire to live in Israel. In their place, many many other religions have flourished in India to far greater numbers than the Jews, with little to no friction between them either. I for one don't know how they all got it so RIGHT.

Ultimately, this trip to India helped me understand what ‘Diaspora’ actually is. On the Friday night of our program, we walked from our Mumbai hotel to the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, which like the Magen David temple we saw on the first day of our trip resembled an overly frosted baby blue birthday cake with white trim, both in a state of gentle disrepair. The synagogue was not even half full, but there was an air of celebration owing to our presence. As the Kabbalat Shabbat service began, I was deeply pleased to recognize the tune the congregation selected for Lecha Dodi, and as I eagerly joined in I had something of an aha moment – or maybe an oy-ha moment. It’s difficult to appreciate the real meaning of the term ‘Diaspora’ in the United States, which has at least as many Jews as in Israel itself. Diaspora is not a sad, biblical notion evoking Jews who are lost, spread to the four corners of the big scary world to fend for themselves; that idea is sorely outdated. On the contrary, India revealed the Diaspora to me to be a contemporary and even beautiful thing, something that can stand and be honored for its own sake. In that Indian synagogue, it was thoroughly clear to me that Diaspora refers to Jews of all colors, languages, creeds and cultures, sharing in an often similar devotion, with rich and fascinating differences that make us, in as much as a collective ‘people’ as we may be, all the stronger.

 

 

Life Lessons & Learning in India: Tikkun Olam

Posted: January 30, 2015

Mahatma Ghandi said it best.... "Be the change you wish to see in the world".

This post started months before I set foot into India. A friend from the San Francisco Jewish Community told me about the inspiring work JDC was doing all over the world, and suggested I check out some of their upcoming trips. When I visited the Entwine site I was so excited and surprised to find numerous opportunities to get involved abroad! In fact, there was an India trip coming up in just a few short weeks. There happened to be a cancellation and a last minute spot available on the India trip. Despite the fact I had minimal vacation time left, I knew I had to take the opportunity of a lifetime...to travel with JDC Entwine to India!

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew the age-old idea of Tikkun Olam would be a key cornerstone of my life. Now, working in the field of Employee Engagment and Leadership Development I've learned that I am not alone. In fact, "making an impact" is a top of the priority for both Millenials and Gen Y seeking satisfaction. As we grow our careers and continuously reinvent ourselves, studies show our generations tend to drift more and more to roles which allow us to feel we are really making a difference. Although I make time sporadically to get involved in the non profit world, I havn't been able to dedicate as much time as I would like.

I often find myself asking, "why is it so hard to take time to give back? Why do I get so caught up in day to day life and not make time for what is really important? How can I, how can we, together, make Tikkun Olam a central part of our lives?"

The trip to India was really eye opening and provided a lot of insight. When i got back to San Francisco a few days ago, I found it very difficult to deal with the usual corporate hodge pogde in the office. There are so many people in the world who are struggling with bigger issues. I couldn't help but think of our first day in Mumbai.

We had spent almost a full day traveling and finally reached our hotel late at night. When we woke up the next morning the air was thick with smog. From the corner of our hotel window there appeared to be water only a few blocks away. My roommate and I were dying to get a glimpse of India, so we left the hotel to go exploring before it was time to meet the group that morning.

As we walked toward the Arabian Sea, the vision of a beauitiful beach was quickly replaced by a horrid smell and piles of trash billowing up along the walls. As we got closer small children (maybe 3 or 4 years old) ran past us barefoot, dirty and alone. I'll never forget the excitement and smiles on their faces though, playing just as if they were behind a white picket fence in middle America. By the time we reached the edge of the walkway we could see the beach... except this beach wasn't your typical sandy shore, but a mass of trash, shacks and debree.

It was like a dagger to the heart. Men, women and children emerged from the rubbage they callled their homes to start thier days. Don't get me wrong, I have traveled, quite extensively in fact, but I had never seen this level of poverty. My stomach felt a little sick and my chest physically hurt. I just couldn't understand how people lived this way. We have all heard the TV commercials and stories of what it's like in places like this, but to see and feel it first-hand is a whole different experience. Back home, we're so blinded by day to day problems it's easy to forget what true struggle means. 

Later on that day I had the opportunity to learn about the work Gabriel Project Mumbai and JDC are doing in India. The Gabriel Project provides hunger relief and education for children who live in the local slums. Spending the afternoon with them we were able to truly understand the impact this program has on their everyday lives. Without The Gabriel Project, many of these kids wouldn't have had breakfast or lunch, and most definitely wouldn't have spent the day learning and playing. We laughed, sang, danced and played all afternoon. The smiles on thier faces lit up the room and they were so excited we had come to spend time with them. All I could think about all day was quitting my corporate job and pursuing a fulltime career in the non-profit world where I could make an impact every day.

In the corporate world employees regularly ask the question, "How can I become a leader?" My response often catches them off guard, "Being a leader is not about a position or title. Being a leader is about inspiring and engaging others in pursuit of something bigger. It is a mindset and it's woven into every action that person takes."

I've realized in the past few months that just as a true leader is not determined by title, embracing the idea of Tikkun Olam (reparing the world) doesn't require me to quit my corporate job to make a difference. JDC Entwine provides countless opportunities for young adults from all over the world to come together and make a difference. It's up to us to embrace these opportunities and create new ones for those who come after us! When I returned home I took out my calendar and started filling in some weekends and time to dedicate to volunteering. I have found that blocking this time and getting involved with organizations like Entwine are the best way to hold myself accountable to what's really important in life (not to mention a way to meet some really amazing people).

Embracing Tikkun Olam takes discipline, but it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I can't wait to see what the future holds and hope I can truly impact others across the world.

 

 

Communicating Without Words

Posted: January 16, 2015

Our parents and teachers have always taught us the importance of expression and connection through language and words. We spend the bulk of our academic pursuits strengthening our vocabularies with elaborate SAT words, and reading the works of famous novelists in efforts to understand every element of the human condition that we possibly can. We use words to help us understand one another. We build sentences to build connections. Words help us express ourselves. 

Well, today I didn't need words. All I needed was an open heart. 

We woke up at 6:30 this morning with just enough time to daven, eat breakfast, pack lunch, and arrive promptly at Zanmi Beni (Blessed friends in Haitian Criole). Zamni Beni is home to 64 displaced children, many of whom are severely physically or mentally disabled. I was nervous. I could not fathom the possibility of communicating with these children under a language barrier. The notion seemed impossible to me. How could I efficiently relay any type of message without the ability to speak or understand? 

I was quite mistaken. Within moments, I had children tightly grasping each of my hands, pulling me in different directions. The connection was instantaneous. Hours flew by as we ran around playfully laughing along with each other. We played sports, drew pictures, danced, and played games. I didn't need a word of Criole, and the children didn't need a word of English. We were speaking the same language regardless of where we came from; the language of laughter, wholeheartedness, and sincerity. I learned today that all of humanity shares an intrinsic language. It's loud, and it's clear. All you need  to uncover it, is an open heart. 

 

 

 

What Holds Us Together

Posted: January 9, 2015

As a trip member on JDC Entwine's first national college trip, I met the other trip members only upon arrival in Bulgaria. Soon after, we became quickly immersed into the Jewish culture of Bulgaria by being briefed on the region's most pressing issues, its most vibrant programs, and experiencing Sephardic cuisine and music. At first, the dual experience of meeting new groups of people left me overwhelmed. Between my trip members and the Bulgarian community members, there are at least 7 languages spoken. 92 years between the youngest and oldest Bulgarians I've met so far. Dozens of schools and academic interests. Countless religious backgrounds. It can seem like we have nothing in common. So what holds us together? 

I'm so happy to be a part of my second JDC Entwine trip because these programs allow a space to not just acknowledge, but appreciate these differences because they all lead back to one place- each person's unique spot in the Jewish community. The Jewish people differ in the languages they speak, the currency they use, and how many layers they have to wear outside (in Bulgaria, many). Yet, there is an intangible power when a group of Jewish people join together in song, dance, or conversation, even if they have never met before. My community would not be nearly as thought-provoking, humorous, or meaningful without every person it comprises. 

I could see the joy in an elderly man's eyes when, after his choir performed for our group, we discovered that as a Ladino speaker we could communicate if I spoke in the linguistically similar Spanish. Visiting the home of my new friend Berta, an elderly Holocaust survivor with countless stories and just as many snacks, I feel like I scored another Jewish grandma. And today, as I played with 4 year old kids in the Gan Balagan Jewish preschool class, I can confirm with confidence that everyone speaks the language of Legos. I'm fortunate to meet these new members of my community, that I didn't even know existed. 

With two more days, including Shabbat, in Sofia, I can't wait to appreciate my remaining time with new friends and a renewed sense of community! 

#onejewishworld

Leah Naidorf 

University of Virginia, Class of 2015

 

 

JDC Receives the Presidential Award in the Philippines

Posted: December 12, 2014

There’s a particular kind of surrealism when you look back at moments in life and almost can’t quite believe the particular event was real. Sometimes though, this occurrence happens during the moment itself.

On Friday afternoon, 5th December, I was privileged to shake the hand of the President of the Philippines as he conferred a Presidential Award to JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The award was given to JDC for the work I have been a part of this year, assisting those who were affected by Typhoon Haiyan, and for services provided to Filipino migrants working in Israel and America. During the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, over 6000 people died and 11 million lost their homes and livelihoods as the storm tore through the Philippines with wind speeds of 235km/hour and gusts of 275km/hour.

Soon after the typhoon struck, JDC’s disaster response team was mobilized and has been present in the Philippines ever since, assisting the relief and recovery efforts of our wonderful local partner organizations in the areas of education, agriculture, fishing, psycho social support, and disaster risk reduction, whilst focusing particularly on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled and marginalized communities. More than 15,000 people have already been directly supported by JDC in the Philippines in the past year.

Secretary Imelda Nicholas, from the Commission of Filipino’s Overseas, had selected us for the Presidential award and highlighted JDC as the only non-Filipino organization to be commended.

As I walked on stage with my colleague Ilan Cohn, and heard the announcement that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was being honored by President Aquino III, I felt an overwhelming pride in our community for raising and investing millions of dollars to assist those in need, regardless of race or religion, epitomizing the Talmudic phrase ‘whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’ Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

During the ceremony however, there was an underlying tension in the room.  A new threat was about to hit the Philippines - another potentially devastating typhoon, the 18th to enter the country this year. Typhoon Hagupit, locally known as Ruby, would pass through the Philippines, with wind speeds of 175km/hour and storm surges of 5 meters in some areas.

In just over a year since Haiyan, there are still communities struggling to regain their livelihoods, build back their houses and work through the trauma of such a catastrophic natural disaster. Yet, during Ruby, the resilience of the Philippines and the dedication of our local partner NGOs was remarkable.  With JDC’s support, early warning systems were activated, fisherfolk were able to secure their boats out of the storm’s reach, and evacuation centers were prepared with supplies of food and water.

Once again, the Philippines will start to rebuild. Farmers will plant a new crop of rice, fisherfolk will go back out to sea, damaged houses and schools will be repaired and churches all over the country will be filled with prayers that the next typhoon will be less destructive.

And JDC will be there, supporting and assisting where we can. After all, as Rabbi Tarfon said ‘It is not upon you to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.’ Pirkei Avot, chapter 2, mishna 21.

Hannah Gaventa is the Philippines Coordinator for JDC, as well as the JDC-Pears Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow 2014/15. She is spending 1 year working in the Philippines, bringing with her 3 years of international development experience after working in the UK, Ghana and India.


 

 

Inside Israel 2014

Posted: November 28, 2014

Day one and two
We arrived in Jerusalem full of anticipation, settled in with some ice-breaker sessions and got to know one another a little better. We also received a warm welcome from Charles Ribakoff, chair of the JDC-Israel Committee who told us how happy he is to have us there and that the week ahead was sure to be amazing. Afterwards, still full of adrenalin and energy, a few of us decided to take a walk through the old city to see the Western wall. I could hardly wait to see it for the first time, and as we made our way down the cobblestone streets, through old archways and past historic ruins my excitement grew. Being at the wall is a very moving and powerful experience. It was midnight and there were still large groups of people taking a moment to pray, to make a wish, to simply feel the energy of this ancient symbol of fortitude. I slipped a note in the wall with one simple wish, and as we left I felt emotional, but I also had an indescribable feeling of belonging. I fell asleep with an instinct that the journey ahead was going to be life-changing.

We squeezed a lot into our first day of the trip. After an amazing Israeli style breakfast and enjoying the view from Mount Zion Hotel, we were ready to head to our fist site visit. We arrived at the JDC's offices where we were given a briefing and overview on Israel's key social challenges of today. JDC's TEVET Partnership with the government was created to raise the level of marketable skills among Israel's most vulnerable communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox and the disabled. We learned that JDC in Israel is like an incubator for social issues. Some of the focuses are the high percentages of at-risk youth and the disabled and elderly who are looking to have a quality of life that is supportive and empowering. Our first day focused on learning all about the Haredi Jews in Jerusalem and the challenges that they face.

We were taken on a walking tour of neighborhoods Me'a Shearim and Geula, by Aharon, a specialist on Haredi issues. I had known very little about Haredi Jews before today, about their values and challenges, and the intricacies of their everyday lives. I may have had my preconceptions, but I wanted to go into the experience with an open mind. We heard from two Haredi Jews themselves and I got the impression that they really wanted us to believe that their lives are very similar to ours and that their families are loving and very happy.

We learned that there is a very low employment rate amongst the Haredim, especially the males. For the men, their sole purpose in life is Torah study and they devote most of their time to it. They have large families with eight children on average and the wives have most of the responsibility of raising the children. The women often get part-time work that helps them to support their families and this has it's own set of challenges. They seek jobs that are flexible, close to home and that respect their values and traditions. They live somewhat insular lives and often don't have televisions, radios or computers in their homes. Real estate is especially expensive for these large families, and young couples have had to move further away from home and establish new communities. There is concern about how the existing communities they settle in will respond to them. We were informed of a JDC program which offers information and guidance to help Haredi Jews with training and finding jobs. We visited a call center where several women had been trained and are currently working.

One might think they live a somewhat sheltered life and that their children grow up with a more narrowed experience than other children living in Israel. I personally believe that being exposed to all the good and the bad in society and choosing to do the right thing builds a strong character and identity. From the perspective of the Haredi Jews, they are not sheltering their children, but rather not unnecessarily exposing them to temptations that are not beneficial for spiritual growth. The experience was definitely eye-opening. I believe that they lead happy lives but at the same time I wonder if there may be resentment or hardship beneath the surface.

At dinner that night we had the opportunity to discuss and share our thoughts from the day. We openly discussed what bothered us, what inspired us, and what was unexpected. Some said they were surprised by how welcoming and open the Haredi men were that spoke to us, thinking that we might be treated more as outsiders. One thing that stuck with me was how much the women have on their plates, with raising so many children and creating a supportive environment for the whole family, as well as being in the workforce. I couldn't help but raise the question of why roles in the family can't be more balanced. Would it not be less taxing and more meaningful to share the raising of children more equally as parents, to share the experience of studying torah together as well as apart? And would it not be empowering to each be working to support the family? I think that due to financial hardships this is a question they are having to face more and more. As of 2013, 27,000 Haredim men and women have participated in JDC-TEVET employment programs; 14,436 have been placed in jobs, and 2,500 are currently enrolled in training programs and hopefully the numbers will continue to rise. I think that with understanding and respect a great deal is and can be done to help the Haredi Jews build skills, find their niches in the workforce and collaborate with one another.

 

Day three
Today we shifted gears to learn about the Ethiopian immigrants of Israel and the programs that are in place to help them with finding work, keeping their sense of identity and culture, and raising children in Israel. We visited an after-school activity center in Kiryat Gat where the program Parents and Children together (PACT) was being implemented for children at early development stage and heard from a local coordinator who is an Ethiopian immigrant himself. He explained that integrating the Ethiopian children with Israeli children is very important and what PACT is all about. The program brings psychologists into the classrooms to identify special needs, plan and implement interventions, track the children’s development, aid the teachers professionally, and provide the parents with counseling. There are subsidies and a lot of support available to families through this program.

There are a large number of single parents in the community and they are grateful to have extra support. In Ethiopia mothers often carry their children wrapped around their backs and the children don't always make direct eye contact with an adult when they are speaking as a sign of respect. These are things that in the western culture we are not accustomed to, so when the Ethiopian families first came over to Israel this program did a great deal to help them to  not only adjust, but to thrive. PACT has integrated classes with various activities that promote positive social, emotional, and behavioral development among the children. One of the activities we joined in on had the kids building paper huts that look like the houses made from straw and clay in Ethiopia. In many ways the Ethiopians are still keeping their cultural traditions and identity alive, as this is very important to them. 18 kindergartens benefit from this program in Kiryat Gat, and altogether 14 000 Ethiopian children are benefiting from this program throughout Israel. We had a chance to sit with the children and observe their activities, watching them sing hebrew songs. They seemed very excited to have us there. As we were listening to a talk earlier in another classroom the children were playing outside and kept smiling and waving at us through the window. I waved back and smiled at one of the kids and later as we walked out, he found me, waited for me to put away my notes in my bag and then gave me a big hug. It was a really special moment and I could have spent all day there.

The local coordinator of PACT told us the story of how his family came to be in Israel, fleeing the Civil war and a great drought in Ethiopia. It was a really tough journey and he was only 2 years old at the time so he shares the story his parents told him. He said that his family always believed they would come to Israel one day and it was only a matter of when. They set off on foot for Sudan, and along the way were stopped and warned that if they went on they would likely not make it. If friends or family members passed away along the journey, they had to bury them and then move on, trying to have faith that there was something better that lay ahead for their families. Israel was not just a safer place to settle for them but a chance at a better life for their children and families, a chance at an education and a successful future. And this story is not unique. There are millions of Ethiopians who made this same brutal journey, not knowing if they would make it.

We then headed over to a clubhouse next to a small forest where programs are held for youth-at-risk. These youth have often had really tough family lives and experienced hardships and neglect. They end up leaving school and resorting to drugs and violence. We learned about the Nirim in Community Program from founder, Shlomi. He told us that the program provides critical support and life skills to these youths through community service, tutoring and retreats in the desert and wilderness. These children usually start out being resistant to the activities and abrasive with everyone, but through the program they learn to trust one another, they bond with their leaders, and realize that they can learn some valuable life skills there. We were led through some of the exercises they do, like pulling yourself across a rope bridge on your stomach and being blindfolded and led by voiced instructions through the forest. The exercises were fun, challenging and definitely took us out of our comfort zones.

From there we went to a center where the program Better Together is put into practice. They focus on early childhood development and have many enrichment activities for children from disadvantaged communities. The program also aims to engage parents, teachers, and community leaders in strengthening communities. We were led to a classroom where they had volunteers teaching free art classes to children in the community and you could see how much fun the children and volunteers were having getting creative together. This is something I do in my own community and I'm so happy to see the power of creativity and how it brings people of all ages together.

We then headed to a boutique brewery in the Negev for a tour and taste of some local beer. Everyone was really impressed by the delicious amber ales and stouts that they had to sample. It was great to relax after an intense day with a cold beer in the peace of the desert. After dinner and reflections on the day, we spent the night at Kibbutz Kramim Chalets where we roasted s'mores around the bonfire and bonded over music, stories and our shared experiences. It was a very meaningful day and heart-warming to see all that is being done to support children and parents and to build stronger communities of diverse cultures.

 

Day four
We started out the day visiting the Eshel Senior Day Center and learned of the programs in place to combat loneliness amongst the elderly, such as bringing in high school students as volunteers to read to the seniors and join in on creative activities with them. While we were there they were molding clay ceramics and we were told that it is not only very therapeutic, but also soothing to their rheumatoid arthritis in their hands and fingers. There are programs in place that deliver hot meals and medicine to the elderly that are homebound, and this is especially critical during the times of conflict, when it is too dangerous for them to leave home. Many of the elderly there are survivors of the Holocaust and it means a lot to them to be able to talk and relate to one another in a unique way.

We met up with Avivit from The Inter-Agency task force on Arab-Israeli issues. Members of the Task Force believe in social and political equality for all inhabitants of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike. The Task Force aims to generate awareness among the North American Jewish and Israeli public to advance civic equality in Israel, where Israeli Jews and Arabs can contribute, participate and benefit as full citizens.

We then visited a Bedouin community in the Negev where we had a chance to learn what life is like for bedouins and the very complicated issues they face when it comes to identity and ownership of land. Some of them said they identify as Bedouins but they are first and foremost Arabs and Palestinians. We spoke to two 23 year old girls and they were very open with sharing with us what their lives are like and what their traditions are. They were both studying and had a lot of ambition. The one girl said that she volunteers at a school with Palestinian and Jewish children and that everything is very integrated between the two cultures. They are taught both Jewish and Palestinian songs and she said it warms your heart and gives you hope for the future to witness it. We learned that, during the conflict when the rockets were falling, the Iron dome system always tries to protect recognized Bedouin communities. However, the unrecognized communities aren't even on the map and are therefore more at risk. These communtities often don't even have electricity or running water.

We then made our way to Jaffa and ended off a busy day with an amazing and very unique dining experience at Na Laga'at "Dinner in the Dark." The waiters are either completely blind or have limited sight and we dine in a pitch black room. At first as we walked into the room in a train with hands on the shoulders of each person in front. I felt a little anxious about the idea of eating and drinking in the dark and being the klutz that I am, was quite certain I was going to break something. Soon after being seated I really started to enjoy it as it became peaceful and all my other senses were heightened. We managed to pour wine and make a toast in the dark and pass things to one another surprisingly well. I felt as though everyone was really listening a little more than usual. The meal was delicious and dessert was a surprise that we had to guess at. Our waitress shared her story, what she was studying at university and what her experiences have been working there. It was a special, unique experience and I would definitely recommend it.

 

Day five
Israel is full of social entrepreneurs and successful start-ups and on day five we visited two guys who told us all about their projects. One project aims to raise awareness of smartphone addiction by getting people to participate in a phone-face-down challenge while out with friends, while another was a resource for graphic designers who are navigating the freelance world and need help finding work, quoting and juggling clients and creating the best resume they can. They also spoke of how they were a part of the unplug for Shabbat effort that has been making it's way around the world and that we joined recently in San Diego.

We then visited a center for young adults with disabilities and learned about the challenges faced when it comes to finding a good job. Here we met with Jewish service corps fellows who will be working in this field in Israel for a year. We discussed what it means to have a disability and what people's perceptions might be, how as a society we may underestimate the disabled. Often they are just as capable as we are, though their abilities may be different.

We took a break for lunch in Shuk HaCarmel where we enjoyed hummus and pita and had some interesting debates. We discussed disabilities and the fact that there are sometimes options available to improve someone's life who has a disability. If you are a parent with a deaf child, and you have the opportunity to get them cochlear implant surgery with the ability for them to hear, would you take it? Or do you feel that there is nothing missing from their life and they are happy and successful just as they are. If you are a deaf parent with a deaf child, do you worry that they
will leave you behind and enter a different world that you are not privy to? We also discussed hidden disabilities versus physically apparent disabilities. It can be really difficult to have a physical disability that causes others to form snap judgements about you, and it can also be challenging to have a hidden disability where people think you look just fine but have no idea of the pain or discomfort you might be experiencing daily. This experience was a reminder to me that as a society we could be doing more to make sure the disabled don't feel isolated, unconsidered and underestimated.

Afterwards we headed to Lod's Center for young adults which offers immigrant and disadvantaged young adults the skills and information needed to lead successful lives. Community-building and leadership opportunities are always available through the center. We then spent some time weeding in a beautiful community garden with some bubbly ladies from the community. They sent us off feeling rejuvenated and healthy after some fruit from the garden. We ended off the day with an incredible meal, hosted by Charles, at restaurant Herbert Samuel where we were joined by some more Jewish Service Corps. fellows working in various programs, and the room was alive with interesting conversation. We then headed off to Sorona Beer Garden in the hub of Tel Aviv where we had a great time and unwound from a busy day.

 


 

Day six and seven
Today we learned that there is a lot of support for refugees, asylum seekers, and their children. We visited a school for children of refugees who often have extremely challenging backgrounds and have needs far beyond basic education. The staff work hard to care for the children's unique needs and emotional well-being. As we walked around and observed the children playing and engaged in different activities, I noticed that they were very respectful and supportive of one another. Three girls were sitting together while one of them read from a book to the others and there were other kids helping their friend walk who had fallen and hurt herself. It seemed like a very caring environment, where the children could have fun, and feel safe and secure at the same time. As we stood in a group with children running around us in all directions, in a room with flags from many different countries and symbols of peace painted on the walls, I felt inspired and hopeful. It also reminded me how much I love being around children.

We then went on a tour of Tel Aviv through areas where there are a large number of african refugees and an ethnic neighborhood where we visited Levinsky market for lunch. We spent some more time in the market looking for some wine and baklava for Shabbat. That night we all headed down to the beach for a candlelight Shabbat service and to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful night and we sang prayers and each shared our reflections on an exciting, stimulating week and our intentions for Shabbat.

Over six days we had learned of so many critical issues and significant challenges in Israel and the most amazing part was seeing how many caring, selfless and dynamic people were putting in their time, energy, hearts and souls, and embracing those with different cultures and lifestyles to their own. I can only speak for myself, but I think that In the process we all learned a lot about ourselves, what pulls at our hearts, and makes us lean forward. As each of us return to the routine of our daily lives, some experiences will resonate more, some memories will linger longer than others, and whatever we choose to do with that, I think we are all different people from it. We all take something away from the experience, and the beauty is, that we all have the ability to create change, to spread the word, and to share our experiences within our communities. As I sat in a circle of of new, wonderful friends from all over the United States and the world, I felt at home. And as I stood with my feet in the Mediterranean and thought over the past week I felt both restless with energy and ideas and at the same time grounded and at peace. I realized that what grounds me is surrounding myself with good people who I connect with, it's using my creativity for a greater purpose, it's leading and mentoring and working with children. I hope that each and every person I shared this experience with walks away feeling inspired.

As we spent our last day of the trip simply enjoying each others company and a walking graffiti tour through the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, I realized how much I had bonded with these great people and how much we had learned about one another in such a short time. I left Israel feeling a deeper connection with my roots, a greater understanding of the Jewish homeland and yes, I'm an eternal optimist, but I do have hope that in spite of the terrible things that have been happening between Palestinians and Israelis, and although the issues are complicated, there is progress being made and people working together for the greater good. And with all my heart, I hope and pray for peace.

 

 

 

To Visit a Song

Posted: November 25, 2014

Made my way to Beltsy today, a place I had only known from a popular American Yiddish theater song I first heard three years ago, never imagining I would ever visit.

Managed to teach Hanukah songs to a small group of local retirees.

Schmoozed in a mongrel Yiddish-Russian-Hebrew with a bunch of old Jewish women and may have accidentally agreed to marry one of their granddaughters.

Between the muddy roads, dilapidated wooden houses, makeshift Orthodox shrines, sheep and cows not far off in the fields, and the sounds of Yiddish, it was the closest I'll ever get to a real shtetl.

And then I met this woman. She's 90 years old, survived WWII and its Stalinist aftermath. Orphaned at a young age, she left school to work and take care of her younger siblings. She lives alone, virtually homebound. Between her saying "spasiba vsyem" (thank you everyone) and tearfully showing us pictures of her siblings' graves, I was fortunate enough to speak with her in Yiddish about her life. At the risk of romanticization, I can't remember the last time I had a human encounter quite like this one.

When people ask me why I came to Moldova, I will tell them about today.

 

 

The road towards a renewed Jewish community - Jewish in India

Posted: December 29, 2013

On a sunny and humid day in December 2013, a group of Jewish young adults from San Diego and Mumbai traveled on a full size bus through the windy and narrow roads of Cochin, located in the state of Kerala. It was the second and last day we would spend together and we all wanted to make the best of it by connecting with each other.

On the trip between visiting two synagogues, I randomly sat with Shimon, a 24 year old Indian engineer from Mumbai. I could tell Shimon was fun, open, and friendly. Shimon and I embarked on the "getting to know each other" road by asking the usual questions. I learned about Shimon's career, family, and friends. He learned about mine. As we conversed, we stumbled upon one thing that we are both passionate about: Israeli dancing. We started to name tunes we knew and to my surprise he had a playlist on his phone. We played the songs and compared notes on which choreographies we both knew. The bus was moving fast and the roads kept getting windier and more difficult to navigate. Yet, that did not stop Leya, a Cochini Jew and Kimberly, a JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteer from Orange County from showing us some moves to the Israeli and Indian tunes at the front of the bus.  

During our time together, we learned that Mumbai and San Diego Jewish young adults share similar challenges. In Mumbai (as in other cities in India), the Jewish community is rapidly dwindling. Many moved to Israel while others have assimilated. Nevertheless, JDC is providing an independent and secular space in Mumbai (Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center) as well as staff support to implement a leadership development program for young adults: Young Jewish Pioneers (YJP). YJP is led by Salome Abraham, a vibrant, smart, and passionate young woman who is the driving force behind it.  

Back in San Diego, our Jewish community is also threatened by assimilation. Yet, JDC Entwine is revitalizing the San Diego Jewish young adult scene by providing us with opportunities to explore Jewish communities around the world. As we learn and explore, we find ourselves reflected in them, strengthening our sense of Jewish global responsibility. 

By the end of a full and meaningful day in which each and everyone one of us made a conscious effort to connect with one another, we gathered at the hotel multipurpose room. Shimon connected his phone to the speakers and played Israeli and Indian songs. Leya, Shimon, Kimmy, and Salome showed us different choreographies. Some, more than others, graciously succumbed to the music and effortlessly connected with each other by dancing and laughing.

Both Mumbai and San Diego Jewish young adults face narrow destinies, but we've learned that we have each other and JDC to help us navigate the windy roads. 

 

 

El Joint - Jewish in Cuba

Posted: February 21, 2013

Participating in Shabbat services at El Patronato, a beautiful synagogue in Havana, Cuba, was the highlight of my last traveling adventure. My experience included chanting Shabbat prayers among dozens of Jewish locals and visitors, weaving in sections in Spanish sparkled with a charming Cuban accent. The services were led by a Cuban young woman and man, and at the end we listened to the array of programs offered to the local Jewish community (from Hebrew classes to Israeli dancing workshops). All these were tangible proof to me that El Joint (as the Cubans warmly refer to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) has been able to effectively revitalize Jewish life in Cuba. 

Through my work at Federation, I have had the opportunity to experience the impact of El Joint in Israel and heard about their work all over the world - from responding to crisis in Haiti to caring for our seniors in Ukraine. Clearly embodying the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another”. Still, it wasn’t until now that I could appreciate how their operations are sustainable and cultural competent. El Joint has been revitalizing Jewish life in Cuba from within. 

I learned that due to the Cuban Revolution there was a mass Jewish exodus in the late 50’s and it was not until the beginning of the 90’s that El Joint was asked to intervene and help keep Cuba’s Jewish community alive. Since then, El Joint has worked using the community’s strengths, rather than implementing their own way of “doing Jewish”. Their role is to provide vital resources to make Jewish life happen in Cuba - from offering transportation to attend services and programs to serving free Shabbat dinners.

Other valuable resources are the representatives of El Joint on the ground who live and work in the community. A charismatic Argentinean couple, Alejandra and Luciano, are dedicated to Jewish life. Cuban Jews feel comfortable interacting with them as they share similar cultural values. From casual conversations, I learned that their purpose is to empower its members to take leadership and be in charge of all that “happens Jewish” in their community. I believe this is a vital sustainability strategy of El Joint. By empowering local leaders to take ownership, it prevents the community from becoming dependent on El Joint’s presence and services. During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet these dedicated and passionate Jewish leaders and was extremely impressed with how empowered they are as they shared their insights on Jewish life in Cuba. It gave me the impression that El Joint and these leaders have created a partnership that is dependent on resources that would not be available otherwise, but without crossing the fine line in which a partnership becomes paternalistic. 



Now that I have witnessed how El Joint does its work in a sustainable and culturally competent way, I believe in their mission more than ever. While I was in Cuba experiencing how El Jointrevitalized a Jewish community, I learned about the extreme weather conditions in Eastern Europe and how El Joint was literally saving lives there simultaneously. El Joint has wide arms and a reach that makes it possible to care for all our brothers and sisters who are in need, wherever they are. That is why I encourage everyone who believes in the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another” to become familiar with the amazing work that El Joint does on our behalf. At any given moment, on any given day, for millions of people around the globe, El Joint is there. 

 

 

Welcoming Georgian Teens to our Jewish Community

Posted: October 28, 2014

Whether in the United States or all the way across the world in the small country of Georgia, Jewish teens excitedly await the opportunity to meet their peers. For the first time, BBYO has reached out to the Jewish community of Georgia to connect Georgian Jewish youths to the greater BBYO community. BBYO teens from Argentina, the United States, Slovakia, Turkey, Uruguay, and other countries compiled a video together. I was fortunate enough to show the video to our entire Jewish community of students, parents, and grandparents in Tbilisi. Though only recently shown, the video has set in motion a genuine ripple effect. 

Sometimes we take things that are especially made for us for granted. I don't know how many times while in college that I brushed aside videos and emails that were sent to me in an effort to get me to join a group. Here in Georgia, it was a completely different story. Becoming enthusiastic about engaging in something is difficult for many Georgian teens. They go to school, they do their homework, they see their tutors religiously, and they love to have fun.  It's generally difficult to get teens motivated about things like volunteering, writing letters to Jewish peers abroad, leading and participating in Shabbat services, and even sometimes attending holiday festivals. But this new introduction seemed to ignite a spark.

Since then, we have started an "international circle," group. This group will consists of teens that are sincerely interested in becoming active leaders in the Jewish community. We will plan and organize large volunteer projects, as well as smaller ones like tutoring and making shalach manot. We will meet monthly for Shabbats at my place (adding a personal flair), plan holiday festivities for the little kids in our Mazel Tov group and for the elderly, and meet weekly to write letters and Skype with our new friends in BBYO around the world. I have a feeling that a small country in the Caucuses is about to take part in a very exciting and infinite journey that will bring everyone closer to their Jewish heritage. 

 

 

 

Rosh Hashana in Eesti

Posted: October 7, 2014

The following is an excerpt from my blog, The Baltic Babushka, a journal of my JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corp year in Estonia. You can read the full post and keep up with my updates here.

It was Rosh Hashanah right when I got here. The first Rosh Hashanah related event I attended was a Klezmer concert. It was awesome. I was still really jet-lagged but the sounds of Hava-Nagila really helped to perk me up (many of you received snap-chats of this concert).

I also attended the anniversary party of Aviv, the Jewish kindergarten. The event was something I wish I could properly describe. There were two clowns. It was all in Russian. The clowns asked parents and kids to act out a Russian fairytale. Maybe? That is the most I understood about the scenario. There was lots of cake and chocolate. it was a good time!

The next day I went walking through the Old Town. I had been so excited to do this. When you google “Tallinn,” there are pictures of the Old Town. Oy, it's beautiful. It is a preserved medieval town! They sell Elk soup and roasted nuts. It's just a great thing.

Afterwards, I got a call from Yoel, who is a madrich (youth leader) in the community, to come to the community for a Rosh Hashanah program. Another element of my work here is with the madrichim and School for Madrichim. In Estonia (and the other Baltic countries) the Jewish youth participate in a 2 year training program to become madrichim. Training takes place on Sundays and focuses on both leadership development (hadracha) and Judaism. Once kids in the School for Madrichim graduate from this program, they are certified leaders in the community and can lead programs for their peers and be camp counselors!

I had the opportunity to meet both the madrichim and the kids in the School for Madrichim after the program. They are so amazing. After we spent shabbat together (which is when i discovered that Estonia has the greatest chocolate ever), we had a dance party. We danced to a mix of Russian and English songs. After my summer at Biluim I swore I would never listen to “I’m so fancy,” ever again. So much for that. It is a favorite here too. Of course, in between dance-partying I was being taught all the dirty phrases in Russian. I wont repeat them here. Every utterance of a dirty Russian phrase was followed by ten 15 to 17-year-old boys dying of laughter. I love it here.

Also I've been renamed because “Jordana” isnt a name here. The teens gave me some options of names I could choose from. When one of them read out the name “Aurora” from  list of Russian names, I immediately chose that one. I of course love it because it is the name of the princess in Sleeping Beauty. But turns out that Aurora is a big ship in St. Petersburg, so all the teens started laughing because I named myself “Big Ship.” Not exactly what I had in mind. So much for my princess idea.

I went to services on Rosh Hashanah. It was, of course, all in Russian and Hebrew. There were some parts of me that missed hearing the service in English. But mostly I am still loving the novelty of hearing Russian all the time.

On Saturday, Shayla, from Latvia, came to teach Israeli dancing for the whole day. I thought that this was going to be more instructional. Turns out the teens are all expert Israeli dancers. This was not rikud at CKB on shabbat. This stuff was the real deal and I was horrible. I have enough trouble learning to dance when someone is explaining it in English, let alone Russian. The good news is that I made many people laugh.

On Sunday, I ran my first program with the School for Madrichim. I taught them some of my favorite ice breakers. It was the coolest thing to see the games I love playing at camp transposed in this new environment. Camp games are just the worlds most relatable thing.

You can read the full post and keep up with my updates at The Baltic Babushka.

 

 

Agahozo-Shalom

Posted: October 6, 2014

Packing up and getting ready for Rwanda, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was off to volunteer, working with orphan children at Agahozo-Shalom, a youth village in a relatively remote part of the world.  Mentally, I prepared myself to teach and educate.  Boarding the plane in New York, I felt ready to impart my years of Western education and experience to all the young children I would meet, but in the days following my arrival it became clear that although I had gone to teach them, it was they who would be teaching me.

Agahozo-Shalom is home to five hundred and twelve of Rwanda’s most vulnerable children.  The older students are children of the Rwandan Genocide, and the younger ones have almost equally debilitating stories.  Seeing how well they have blossomed and thrived at the village is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.  This to me was the great lesson of Agahozo-Shalom, as I watched children of poverty prospering their way to successful careers.  Youngsters, previously beset in all manners, now excelled at sports and liberal arts,  the ferocious violence of their past replaced with new families and unbounded love.

During their four year stay at the village, students live together as families, sixteen students and a Mama to each house.  Most of the Mamas are widowed and lost their own children to the Genocide.  A big brother or sister, and sometimes a cousin, are also part of the family.  Visitors, like myself, are paired with a family when they come to the village.  A nightly gathering of the entire family, called “Family Time,” is replete with activities that can range from games (Trivia night, “I Got The Ball”) to serious discussions (birth control, taxes).  There were prayers, hugs,  and a great deal of laughter.  My favorite time of each day, Family Time was a chance to be with the children as they unwound in an environment full of love, care and devotion.  The end of the day was an antithesis to the places they’d come from.

One afternoon, several volunteers joined about two dozen students in constructing a new house.   We made cement and used it to layer adobe bricks across a running bond pattern in what would become a modest three room home.  The surprising aspect behind the activity was the whereabouts and situation of the new house.  Located outside the village, about a kilometer up the road, it would belong to a nearby resident who was currently living with three small children in a shack no larger than my Manhattan bathroom.  The construction was one of several community-based projects in which students participate.  Giving back to society is the basis of Tikun Olam – from the Hebrew words meaning “fixing the world” – and one of the two principle tenets taught at Agahozo-Shalom (the other is Tikun HaLev, or “fixing one’s heart”).  Having reached a place of new hope in their own lives, the children of Agahozo-Shalom waste no time in extending kindness and charity to those around them.

It isn’t possible to convey all my experiences at Agahozo-Shalom, but in the short week I spent there, the children I met demonstrated new definitions of hope, courage, care and love.  Having taken these new meanings to heart, it is easy to see who the real teachers are.

 

 

No Half Measures: Reflections on Inside Rwanda

Posted: September 29, 2014

The Rwanda of 2014 is not a country that does anything in half measures. The scenery is strikingly beautiful, the animals amazing, the people genuinely kind-hearted and welcoming and, sadly, the poverty and vulnerability that effects large parts of the population, all too clear to see. Even in the commemoration of the genocide that scarred the country 20 years ago, there are no half measures. The national memorial in Kigali clearly narrates the events of the genocide and memorialises its victims. Church memorials such as Ntarama and Nyamata do nothing to disguise or sanitise the mass murder that took place, displaying thousands of skulls and bones. The country is as unflinching in its commitment to remember its past as it is in its belief in a reconciled and united future.

Most striking of all though, when it comes to action over words, in Rwanda there are no half measures. The country is committed to building a better future, quite literally. Striking modern buildings are appearing all over Kigali, new schools all over the country and efforts are being made to expand access to electricity and the internet. But there is no clearer example of a full measure of actions trumping words than the Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village.

That such a beautiful oasis of hope could ever appear in the heart of rural Rwanda is testimony to its founder, Anne Heyman's, commitment to action over words. And in all aspects of its day to day operations, ASYV is an inspirational tribute to Anne's memory. The village does not just talk about being a family, it lives like a family. The respect and admiration that the kids have for each family's mama is incredible and when they call each other brother or sister, it is meant in the most literal sense. Tikkun Olam is not just a catchphrase, but a genuine commitment by the village to directly improve the lives of the rural community that hosts it, by building homes, teaching in schools and assisting in clinics and to indirectly improve the lives of all Rwandans. Sustainability is not just a buzzword, but a series of incredible projects, not least a solar farm that provides 8.5% of Rwanda's electricity. Most importantly, the village does not just talk about a commitment to its children's future, but offers them unbelievable enrichment opportunities and career development opportunities to ensure that these young people really will become the future leaders of their country.

As we sat down as a group on Sunday morning to process our trip and think about how we could bring it home, we came up with idea after idea of how to support the incredible children and staff of ASYV. As the dust settles and we go back to our regular lives, let's hope that if we only remember one thing from the trip, it's that in whatever we choose to do off the back of the trip, there can be no half measures if we are to support the village and Rwanda as it builds a better and sustainable future.

 

 

A Jewish Revival for All Ages

Posted: September 22, 2014

When I hear about the “Jewish revival” in Russia, it’s easy to imagine new families exploring their identities or young individuals more malleable to change. I just assumed current eighty or ninety year olds who chose to stay in Russia would not be interested in making Jewish communal groups a center of their lives—but I was wrong.

As we walked into the center devoted to the elderly “Hesed” in the Jewish Community Center, I could immediately hear Israeli folk songs. We later learned that this was a weekly group sing-along for the older volunteers in the organization. Together we sang (and some danced) Am Yisroel Chai. It was a song that, despite the gulf in language, age and culture, we all knew and it served as a universal string tying us together.

In the room next door, we were eagerly greeted by a dozen or so seniors. The seniors were curious, wanting to know who we were, where we came from and “why Obama was inserting himself into Russian and Ukraine business?” Unprompted, one elegant woman with a straw hat began explaining to us the importance of the center.  She had lived through the Nazi siege of Leningrad—eating grass to survive. But when her husband died a few years ago, she was depressed—didn’t want to go outside, didn’t want to go on living. A friend dragged her to Hesed and it saved her life.

The next day we visited Ella in the apartment in which she was born in and in which she had spent her entire life. Ella spoke lovingly of her family, especially about her father, a prominent obstetrician. Because of his position she had been evacuated from Leningrad with her family during the siege.

It was fascinating to talk about her Jewish identity—she said that while she had always known she was a Jew, she had never once visited a synagogue until last year with Hesed. Ella never felt she experienced anti-Semitism, adding, “I pick my friends well.”

While Ella was delighted to speak with us, we saw her checking her watch throughout the conversation.  She was happy to speak with us she said but she was waiting for a shuttle to pick her up to take her to one of her favorite weekly activities—her neighborhood Hesed group. 

 

 

 

A Little Bit of Paradise

Posted: September 15, 2014

This week I visited a little bit of paradise. Located in the land of one thousand hills, overlooking Rwanda's Lake Mugesera, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village stands in stark contrast to the country's brutal history. Founded in 2008 by philanthropist Anne Heyman, ASYV serves as a life force for Rwanda's most vulnerable teens and as a reminder that it is possible to make the world a better place.

The first time I had heard about Rwanda I was a teenager. I have vague recollections of the 1994 genocide. I recall thinking the names of the people - Hutu and Tutsi - sounded silly and cringe as I think of my younger self. As an adult, confronting this history is challenging. It's similarities to my own family's experience with the holocaust are painful to reconcile. Over the course of one hundred days, roughly one million people were murdered in Rwanda. The journalist Philip Gourevitch explains that at no other time in our history were so many people killed so quickly or so intimately. As I stood in a church where pews piled with clothing gave testimony to the human brutality, I couldn't help but question the futility of it all. What does never again mean? Can we ever do enough?

Histories link people across cultures, geography, and time. At ASYV, lessons from the holocaust are applied to Rwanda's present situation. Its name reflects the challenges of survival. Agahoza is a Kinyarwanda word for a place where tears are dried. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. At ASYV, students don't just get a high school education, but gain a family, and the resources to embrace themselves and their futures. Through tikkun ha'lev and tikkun olam, students work to literally heal their hearts and heal the world. While its students are some of the most vulnerable within the population, consisting of orphans and the severely impoverished, they thrive at ASYV. And as they gain a sense of belonging, self worth, and empowerment, they become uniquely qualified to heal the wounds of their past. At ASYV, students are transformed from statistics to teenagers that are self-reliant, confident, and caring citizens.

When you pass through ASYV and meet its students, their smiles, faith, and resilience seem magical. ASYV's existence and success reminds one that the world can be better. It is a place where our capacity as humans for destruction is matched by our potential for betterment. Anne Heyman's legacy is proof that one can change the world. As the ASYV motto states: If you see far, you will go far.

 

 

Special thanks to the Jewish Joint Distribution Community for organizing the Entwine program that brought me to Agahozo and to ROI for its financial support with my enrollment.

 

 

 

This site is not in anyway endorsed by or affiliated with the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.



 

 

 

 

RAFI School Opening in Daanbantayan, Philippines

Posted: September 8, 2014

"You are not just building school classrooms, you are building the future of our school children in our town.” - Mr. Gilbert Arrabis, Vice Mayor of Daanbantayan


With support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI), the Maya and Bagay Elementary Schools held a ceremonial opening on Tuesday, September 2nd. RAFI and JDC rebuilt 12 classrooms that were damaged due to Typhoon Yolanda in November of 2013. Despite heavy rain, over 100 community members, parents, teachers and students attended the event.


Click to see more photos of the school opening.



 

 

Reflections on Jewish St. Petersburg

Posted: August 2, 2014

Those who know me are familiar with my fascination with Russia and the Former Soviet Union. I had studied and written about the society, honed my language skills and, until recently, all but traveled to Russia to experience the culture first-hand.

Thanks to JDC and the Eizenstat family, I visited Russia for the first time this past July.

Just two short weeks ago, a group of perfect strangers from a variety of time zones and backgrounds met at JFK to embark on a weeklong excursion throughout St. Petersburg. I was one among those strangers, in addition to being a stranger to JDC. This was my first experience with the organization and I really didn't know what to expect, but perhaps that was for the best. I'm sure that, had I arrived with any expectations, they would have been greatly exceeded. 

St. Petersburg dazzled me as a Russian cultural capital should. Aside from its fabulous architecture, grandiose relics of the Tzarist era and other stunning and unmissable tourist attractions, I was perhaps most impressed by the spirited revival of Jewish life in Leningrad of yesteryear.

The significance of this renaissance cannot be overstated. Part of the reason it had taken me 24 years to finally visit Russia is because of my own family's background. My parents' memories of the Soviet Union are (rightfully) colored by the blight of anti-Semitism that was so rampant during the time of their youth. In essence, the insidious hate and discrimination they faced as Jews under the Soviet regime was the driving factor that led to their immigration to the States, and the reason I was born American. 


Thus, arriving in St. Petersburg to see things like a synagogue towering proudly over the streets; a Jewish preschool with a waiting list comprised of Jews and non-Jews alike; a modern JCC to rival some that we have here in the U.S. -- all these things, had my family known about them a few decades ago, would have seemed like nothing short of fantasy. Thinking about it now, I can't believe I had even hesitated to wear a hamsa or Star of David out in the streets.



When I returned from my travels (which ended up including an additional three days in Moscow, apart from the group), I told my mother and father about the experience. Somehow, they had failed to make the connection that JDC was, in fact, "The Joint."

"Joint? The Joint? I didn't realize that was the organization," my mother said. "The Joint was the reason my father's family moved to Crimea. They worked on Jewish agricultural settlements there, supported by the Joint."

It's humbling to know that the same organization that helped my grandfather earn his livelihood is still helping Jews around the world to live and to thrive as a people. A century later, the JDC's impact on Jewish life has come full-circle, and I'm honored to see the fruits of their labor.

 

 

Baby Help: It's for the kids

Posted: July 15, 2014

My experience volunteering at JDC's Baby Help in Summer 2012 was magical. I worked with the caring teachers and became a tia (aunt) for the kids, showering them with love and making sure they knew they were special independent of their backgrounds and family situations. 

 Since 2003 Baby Helpa center helping at-risk Jewish children in Buenos Aires followed by the country's economic collapse in 2001, has helped hundreds of families and babies aged 1-3 have a safe place to go while their parents work and most importantly a community on which to lean and gain support. In 2014 as part of JDC's efforts to transition critical social welfare services to local community institutions, JDC partnered with the Tel Aviv School, an elementary school based in Buenos Aires, to transfer Baby Help's daycare services into the existing structure of a local academic institution. While this is amazing for the long-term sustainability of the project, the families have entered into unfamiliar terrain and still need the support they were receiving at Baby Help. Money is being raised to make sure tuition will not hinder these kids from going to the school and to ensure these kids have the same food and materials as the kids around them. 

I have had the opportunity to return many times this past year toBaby Help and to the new center at the Tel Aviv school. AllI want is to ensure that the children continue receiving the same services they had at Baby Help and that money will not be a hindrance to letting them attend the school, eat, or interact with their peers.

When thinking about wrapping up my year, I wanted to do more than just what I can do with my own hands but also invite my family, friends, and community to support a project that is extremely important to me and to the continued success of Argentina's Jewish community. So far I have joined with a few other past Baby Help volunteers to support this incredible program. Our kickoff project was a merienda where we gathered our friends and ended up raising about $300! 

I am reaching out to all of you with the opportunity to join me in supporting this wonderful project. Thank you in advance for all your generosity, your gift means so much to the families of Baby Help and to me. 

If you are ready to make your donation, please click here.
Thank you again, please let me know if you have any questions or want more information! 

 

 

Watch Diaspora Diaries: India

Posted: July 9, 2014

Global Jewish Life is Hilarious

What do you know about Jewish life in India? We sent comedian and JDC Entwine Steering Committee member to India to meet the Jewish community and film everything! Watch for yourself: http://youtu.be/DLis4Cnepo8

 

 

Why I’m Co-Chairing Inside Israel 2014

Posted: June 19, 2014

Growing up, I visited Israel with my family a couple of times. As I got older I kept going back for a variety of reasons. These reasons changed based on my age. When I was 18 I went on Birthright Israel and learned about Israel’s history and really got a feel for what it would be like to live there, not to mention meeting a bunch of American Jews that were in my age range. After visiting Israel on Birthright my reasons changed. I wanted to learn more about the issues Israel was facing in education, asylum, the diversity in Israeli culture and the multitude of social issues that Israel will face in the future, not simply to have fun with my friends. My interest in these issues grew as I matured. Now, as a 28 year old graduate school student I am eager to return to Israel to revisit these issues and see with my own eyes how Israel is dealing with them now. Over time, these issues and the ways in which Israel addresses them become more complex. There are some exciting things going on in Israel and now is the time to see them for yourself.

Today I look for trips with the most exposure and with organizations that have years of experience leading them. I would tell everyone and anyone interested that attending a trip to Israel led by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the best possible thing you can do. As an organization JDC has existed for 100 years providing services to Jewish communities in need throughout the world. Their work in Israel is something unique. I would encourage people of all ages to attend a JDC trip anywhere in the world because JDC’s programs are simply amazing. Again, seeing JDC’s work in Israel is something different. JDC’s work in Jewish communities around the world is focused and addresses the most pressing needs. In Israel, JDC plays a much larger roll in addressing issues both within and outside of the Jewish community. JDC is committed to having and maintaining a far-reaching effect on Israel’s most vulnerable and to better Israeli society as a whole. No other organization in the world can give you exposure to all of Israel’s issues and also potential solutions.

And through JDC Entwine, young people have a chance to engage with this work first-hand.

JDC has deep roots in Israel and works hand in hand with the Israeli government to build programs that address the many issues that Israel faces today. The programs are cutting edge and can be applied in many different places around the world. 

It’s important for any Jew to know and understand the State of Israel. It’s also important that every Jew gets an opportunity to put his or her feet on the ground in Israel and really experience life. Whether you’ve been to Israel many times before or have never been there is no better way to experience the country then on a JDC led trip. I would highly recommend and urge anyone interested, from the casual observer to the experienced traveler, to apply for the JDC Entwine Inside Israel trip this November. It will educate every attendee while simultaneously connecting them with young Jewish professionals from around the United States. join me for exclusive briefings with top JDC professionals, nightlife in Tel Aviv, connecting with local young Israelis, and exposure to critical work that is strengthening Israel. This is a can’t miss opportunity.

Apply now for Inside Israel 2014!

 

 

Top Ten Reasons to Attend JDC Entwine’s Inside Jewish Ukraine Event in DC!

Posted: June 16, 2014

by Elizabeth Kurtis and Melissa Weiss

We're co-chairing the INSIDE JEWISH UKRAINE event in DC Tuesday, June 17! You can RSVP here.

Here are 10 reasons why you should join us tomorrow night.

(1) It’s a great opportunity to learn about people just like us on the other side of the world -- and Adams Morgan is about 4976 miles closer than Ukraine!

(2) Meet Hillel’s Associate Director of International Operations, Yasha Moz. Yasha will discuss how American Jewish organizations are reaching out to young Ukrainian Jews, and will field questions about life in Ukraine.

(3) Check out the JDC photo gallery, featuring lots of incredible photos from JDC Archives!

(4) What better way to learn about current events so that you can impress your next JSwipe date, -- heck, bring him/her along!

(5) You’ll get an inside view into Jewish life in Ukraine!

(6) What else are you going to be doing? Getting sweaty in your work clothes while you watch the Nats play the ASTROS? #boring

(7) It’s less embarrassing to be in Adams Morgan on a Tuesday evening than it is on a Saturday, amirite?

(8) Your grandparents are worried about your safety -- get a first-hand glimpse into the country everyone is talking about without leaving the country! Do it for Bubbe.

(9) You’ll learn about Ukrainian history as it’s being made -- what’s more of a draw than that!?

(10) Complimentary food and drinks!

See you tomorrow night! RSVP here

This event is planned for a young adult audience by the Washington, DC Entwine Planning Group. This event is in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

 

 

Shavuot: Georgian Style

Posted: June 17, 2014

The Young Jewish Club (YJC) of Tbilisi, Georgia celebrated the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday where Jews rejoice in the receiving of the Torah from Mount Sinai by studying Jewish texts and rituals, and commemorate the beginning of the harvest season in late spring. YJC was able to celebrate both aspects by going camping in the Bojormi National Park and studying ancient Jewish texts there.

We arrived on Friday for a shabbaton with the theme of Shavuot. The first thing we did after our arrival was set up camp, which was interrupted by heavy rains. Finding good wood for a fire after the rain was difficult as most was soaked and not usable to start a fire. Finally, the campsite was ready and we were able to start preparing for Shabbat.

Although most of the time spent at the campsite it rained, and at one point even hailed, the group of participants never let their smiles down. We went on a few hikes through the park and explored some of the sensational landscapes Georgia has to offer.

We came back to the campsite for bonfires, singing Hebrew and Jewish as well as regular campfire songs. The group played many games and prepared food over the campfire, and had a study session on the Ten Commandments, and Havdallah.

Before we left the Bojormi National Park we went on one last hike to the top of a mountain and got a beautiful view of the park. All the participants had a wonderful time and cannot wait until the next camping trip.

 

 

HELLLOOO Croatia

Posted: June 2, 2014

Thank you Bosnia for your sausage, open arms and rich history and HELLLOOO Croatia.

Yesterday we left Sarajevo and traveled down Bosnia and Herzegovina to Mostar. Mostar is famous for its green river, bridge jumpers, and strong-willed women. Like Sarajevo, Mostar has beautiful stone streets for walking and countless open storefronts with boundless stories and treasures inside.  

Our beloved bus driver Harris then took us to Split, Croatia where we were met by many bubbly Jewish kindred from all over the former Yugoslavia. I say kindred because over the last twenty four hours we have discovered the intrinsic interdependence and unbounded love we have for one another based in the Jewish heritage we share. Despite different tunes on Shabbat and contrasting preferences when it comes to eating fish with their heads still on, we have been able to flourish a Jewish family that will thrive across borders of nationality even once we all return to our homes. This week we have talked a lot about community.

No matter how we each define this term, I think we could all agree that there is no ambiguity in the open, communal environment Judaism allows for us. I am so grateful to have encountered such spirited and bright people who I can always depend on like kin. I look forward to carrying this newfound knowledge and community with me throughout our time in Zagreb and when we return to the states. 

 

 

"The air peculiar to us": Reflections on our second day in Morocco

Posted: May 28, 2014

One of the reasons that I wanted to go on a trip with JDC Entwine was to have the opportunity to interract with a Jewish community outside of the US or Israel and to explore the concept of global Jewish peoplehood. Our second day in Morocco gave me that opportunity.

We spent the day visiting different organizations that JDC helps to support in Casablanca which included an all Jewish primary school, a Jewish and Muslim high school, a free health clinic, and two residences for the elderly. It was incredible to see how JDC helps to support the Moroccan Jewish community throughout the life course.

Throughout our visits, one word kept coming to mind: "language." More specifically, I kept thinking about the role that language played in uniting or dividing our group with the members of the Jewish community who we visited. I do not speak French or Arabic, the main languages in Morocco and many of the people we visited with do not speak English- this created a natural barrier between us. It is much more difficult to really learn about someones life without being able to engage in a meaningful conversation with them and I found it frustrating!

Despite my frustration, there were incredible moments of connection during our visits. We found that a number of the elderly residents, particularly those who were originally from northern Morocco, spoke Spanish. A few members of our group are fluent in Spanish, and while I have not really made use of my Spanish since high school, I can understand a lot when I hear it. Suddenly, a large language barrier was diminished. I also witnessed language being defined as much more than native dialect as I watched our group connect with the Muslim and Jewish high school students over soccer, Justin Timberlake, selfies, and plans for the future.

Amidst all of the connections that I witnessed, what was most striking to me was the impact of having a common Jewish language. In the primary school, the students were too young to have started learning English, which meant that most of us interacted with them through gestures and games. When we went into classrooms to observe, however, they pulled out their siddurim and I felt an immediate connection. Sure, they were using a different version than I do at home, but the liturgy was the same. As they began singing prayers for us, I found myself joining in on common tunes. In the last class we visited, we sang "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" together, a reminder of our shared love for Israel. In the old age home, we also found ourselves singing Hebrew songs with the residents, many of whom could not interact verbally with others in any language.

As we went through the day, I couldn't help but think about an article I read in graduate school by Leon Wieseltier entitled "Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Judaism" (2011). Wieseltier's main claim in the article is that American Judaism is in trouble because American Jews are largely illiterate in Jewish languages. This illiteracy means that American Jews can neither fully learn about their people’s history nor can they create authentically Jewish works. Now, I don't think that this is the time or place to engage in a full conversation about this article, but it definitely came to mind as I thought about the commonalities that unite Jews across the world and the role that Hebrew knowledge does and could play. In the article, Wieseltier writes that: “Our language is our incommensurable inflection of our humanity, our unique way of presenting, not least to ourselves, what is our unique way through the world. Our language is our element, our beginning, our air, the air peculiar to us” (Wieseltier, 17). On our second day in Morocco, I think that we learned that language can be defined in many different ways and that Jews all over the world do share many things in common. Our visits are also challenging me to think about the ways that we can strengthen our common language and thus our connections to one another.

 

 

Blog post 3 from India!

Posted: May 27, 2014

Wassup wassup! Mira and Matty M here and ready to give you the inside gloop on what happened when we left a youth camp full of edm (electronic dance music) and arrived back in glorious and humid Mumbai. Can someone say smoke, sweat, and eau de toilette???!

After a satisfying breakfast at FLAVAS, we set off for a morning chock full o' site seeing. First stop was the super exclusive David Sassoon library. If you're not in with our boi Joshua, you def can't get in. David Sassoon was a predominant bhagdadi Jew who, according to our Indian peer, Israel, David founded the largest bank in India. The building was beautiful, and was built in a neo-gothic style.

Following the library, we went to one of Mumbai's subway stops, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Mumbai's subway is not at all like Boston's T. While they share common rush hours, Mumbai's stations have marble floors, exquisite columns with the country's coat of arms carved into it, etc. fancy, huh? We were impressed but weren't allowed to take pictures, so you'll have to just use your imagination and believe us on how cool it was. Also fun fact: the station we went to is home to the bridge that is danced on in the final scene of Slumdog Millionaire. (Another tidbit: the server at Flavs just asked me where my friends were and why I was sitting alone at breakfast....seems like Matt is running on IST (Indian Stretch Time) and we've made a name for ourselves here. Wait JK, he was busy checking the NCAA on his Indian wifi ).

Jumping back on the bus we continued to a huge market full of different spice, fruit, nuts, and everything else under the (invisible) Mumbai sun. We all finally got to try some fresh mangoes at the Crawford Market. Hopefully we don't get hepatitis! JK lol we all got shots for it. Now time for the Jewish stuff, ya feel? We visited the beautifully aqua painted Magen David Bhagdadi temple. This towering synagogue was filled with pews, Jewish stars, challah covers, and books. The temple also has a school next door to teach local Jews. Fun fact: the majority of the students at this school are actually Muslim!

Next stop was the Tifereth Israel Synagogue, home to the Bene Israeli Jews. The treasurer of the temple, Aaron, was extremely proud of the building, celebrating its 128th anniversary, because he and his grandfather basically built up the presence and infrastructure of the temple. Four for you, Aaron. You go, Aaron! (Mean girls anyone? No? No? Ok.) Anyway, he was awesome and the temple rocked.

Our next morning stop was the inspirational home of Mohandas Gandhi where he lived from 1917-1934. We saw his room where he spun his own cloth and walked through an exhibit highlighting the important events of Gandhi's life through detailed dioramas. The coolest part of the museum was seeing the letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler right after the start of World War II, expressing Gandhi's desire for Hitler to realize that only he has the power to singlehandedly stop the war. Favorite part of the day: lunch.

Almost unanimously voted as the best meal of the entire trip thus far, lunch at the famous Ganga Vihar blew us away! Salome and JDC accountant, Helen, dominated ordering for us, getting an Indian tostada aka masala papad, dumaaloo (ambiguous red sauce with a broccoli and potato "meatball", a white, sweet and savory vegetable dish with paneer, navratnakofta, a ton of spiced rice, bomb dal soup (translate: lentil), all the naan in India, and a sizzling ice cream brownie sundae.Think TGI Friday's in India. Follow us on social media and you can get the secret recipes. With full stomachs, sweaty foreheads, and frizzy hair, we ventured over to the JCC and watched a video about the JDC's projects throughout India.

Since time was ticking, we quickly got back on the bus and headed to the JDC's senior home, the Bayiti, in Panvel, picking up some of the Indian yüt that we met at the camp. The Bayiti was great. Seven elderly Indian Jews live at the apartment, and we were able to have some lively dance, song, and deep convos with them. One resident used to draw comics in the newspaper, one resident used to work at Goldman Sachs in NYC, and one was Salome's grandma (she was big on the double kiss). Thankfully our peers came to help translate for us because pantomiming can only go so far.

The day wrapped up with dinner, a learning session, and a long bus ride back to home base (the Ambassador). All right folks, hope this gave you Chai chuckles (because that's a holy number) and left you feeling mildly informed of the crazy shenanigans that are occurring on the other side of the world. Peace, love, and curry. We'll see you in a few.

Deuces,

Mira Mira on the wall

Matt attack

 

 

Day 1 in Sarajevo

Posted: May 27, 2014

As our first day in Sarajevo, Bosnia comes to a close, we are happy to report a successful day of travel and cultural exchange. We enjoyed breakfast in the Munich airport, lunch at a traditional Bosnian restaurant, and dinner at "Cinema City" with a group of welcoming Bosnian high school students.

When we first arrived in Bosnia we were greeted by Nela, a woman who is guiding us through our time in Sarajevo as a raconteur of personal and national history and leading us in our service with the JDC Women's Health Empowerment Program. Nela is the Program Director of WHEP and shared with us her deep personal connection to the wellbeing of women in this area.

Nela described WHEP as a program that both breaks taboos for chronic female illness and builds bridges by uniting the colliding cultures of this region. After a beautiful night downtown with our Bosnian peers, we are excited to begin our service tomorrow morning.

 

 

First Day In Morocco

Posted: May 26, 2014

It is hard to believe that our first day in Morocco is already over! For many of us, I think that today was spent attempting to register that we were actually in Morocco and battling jet lag. I would argue that some of us were more successful than others.

Our flight was an early indication of the things and people we would encounter when we arrived in Morocco: young families and college students returning home for visits, other Jews coming to explore the history of the Jewish community, school groups travelling to the country to study french, Muslims who prayed in the airport before we left, and so many others.

Once we retrieved all of our lugguage, we hit the ground running in Casablanca. We made our way to a Jewish club for lunch and a breifing. On the way, we learned some history from our tour guide, Rafi. We have an incredible resource in Rafi, who is a Moroccan Jew who left Morocco as a child, only to return later in life to dedicate his time to researching and educating others on the history of the Jewish community in the country. He told us about the two Jewish communities in Morocco, the "settled" Jews and the "thrown out" Jews. The settled Jews are those who are descendents of the Jews who came to Morocco after the destruction of the second Temple and the Berber converts to Judaism. They largely lived in the southern parts of the country. The thrown out Jews are those who arrived as a result of expulsion from Spain, and they lived in the north of the country. These two Jewish communities lived seperately for many years, though it appears that the destinction is less clear in the modern Jewish community.

Rafi told us that at its peak, the Jewish community in Morocco was nearly 300,000, though now the community numbers around 4,000 individuals. The largest portion of the community lives in Casablanca, and I was surprised to learn that despite the small size, Casablanca is home to a large number of synagogues, Jewish butchers, kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, and Jewish clubs. According to Rafi, though the community is small, it is fairly traditional in its observance.

We had the opportunity to meet with the US Consul General to get a greater understanding of the relationship between the US and Morocco. We were also briefed on the history of JDC in the area, and JDC's work in Morocco. These briefings gave us a great context for the rest of the trip, and will be especially helpful in the site visits that we will attend tomorrow!

We finished the "content" portion of our day with a visit to the Jewish Museum, which is the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Inside, we got to see an amazing collection of Judaica that were collected from old synagogues, genizot, and members of the Jewish community from across the country. This museum highlighted the rich history of the Jewish community in Morocco, which we will get to learn even more about as the trip progresses. I was really interested to learn that the king of Morocco has been very intentional in mandating that all Moroccan students learn about the history of the Jewish community in the country and about the Holocaust.

We ended our day with some much needed rest time and a delicious dinner. It is exciting to see our group start to gel together! We are 17 young adults from across the country with very different careers, backgrounds, and levels of engagement in the Jewish community, yet we have come together with a shared interest in exploring this unique place and Jewish community. I am so excited to see what the week holds for us!

 

 

Blog post 2 from India!

Posted: May 26, 2014

After four wonderful days getting to know our Indian peers, we wrapped up our time at the youth camp this afternoon. Our first day at the camp was packed full of activities like paintballing, team building activities, and zip lining which helped us get to know our new Indian peers.

The second day was even more exciting with activities like parasailing and rappelling that challenged us all and brought us together to overcome our initial reservations. The third day was Shabbat, during which we bonded through sharing our respective religious traditions and exploring our place in "One Jewish World", the theme of our camp experience. The Shabbat committee did a wonderful job of organizing a special Shabbat service that incorporated elements of both of our communities.

Saturday evening, after celebrating havdallah together, we learned a Bollywood dance and had fun dancing to music from both of our cultures. We concluded the evening around a campfire singing songs and reflecting on our days at the camp. Finally, today we traveled in bullit carts to a nearby village and were invited to look inside the homes of some of the villagers and ask questions about their way of life. Although this was a difficult experience for some people, we were able to share our concerns with one another and the experience provided a lens for all of us into a unique aspect of Indian culture.

Throughout these four days, between activities we participated in learning and reflection sessions in which we shared our perspectives of Judaism and the global Jewish community, but some of the best conversations were those that occurred naturally with each other. All in all, our experience at the camp was one that created a bond between two vastly different Jewish communities from opposite sides of the world that we will carry with us through the rest of our Jewish lives. We are all excited to visit the bayiti old age home tomorrow to gain a different perspective of Indian Jewry!

 

 

Day 1 in India!

Posted: May 22, 2014

Today was our first full day in India! After our 15 hour plane ride, we arrived in Mumbai at almost 10pm and went right to sleep. We were all very excited to start our adventure today. We began the day tracing back the Indian Jewish routes. The Jews arrived in the Konkan Villages over 2,000 years ago. To get to the Konkan Villages from Mumbai, we took an hour ferry ride where we enjoyed a beautiful view of the surrounding islands. Once we arrived we experienced an auto rickashaw ride-- it was quite an experience. Gemma's hat even flew out the back!  (Luckily she got it back) We then visited an old Jewish cemetery. It was very moving to be able to put rocks on the gravestones, a ritual that seems so familiar in such an unfamiliar place. Following the cemetery we visited a synagogue that popped up right in the middle of the village. It was interesting to keep finding these pockets of Jewish life. It was difficult to hear that the Jewish population in this community was close to dying out, but it was nice to see the hope people had. Finally we went to a traditional coconut oil press, which was the traditional job Jews held when first coming to India. 

We are definitely embracing the humidity and smells of India, and we are so excited to continue to learn about Indian Jews and to continue our adventures. So far no one is stomach sick!!!!! Tomorrow we meet the Indian Jewish Youth and depart for the Youth Camp for a few days. 

 

 

Tbilisi Youth Celebrate Lag Ba’Omer

Posted: May 19, 2014

On May 18, 2014, the Young Jewish Club of Tbilisi went to a campsite near the city to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer. Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot, as a explained by one of the group’s leaders, and signifies the day that many of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying of an illness during the time of war between the Jews and the Romans. During those 33 days it is traditional to mourn, as told, and one of those ways is not to be festive.

As a contrast though, on Lag Ba’Omer we are supposed to be happy so we dance, listen to music, play games, eat lots of food and have large bonfires. Participants from our group did just this by leading song sessions, teaching new games that simulated a battle between the Jews and the Romans, played a few rounds of capture the flag, and had a large bonfire similar to those in Israel today.

At the end of the day we went on a short hike. Only the group leader knew exactly where we were going but when we arrived we saw some the most magnificent landscapes in the country with only nature all around. There the group took many pictures, and said the blessing for seeing a beautiful sight.

 

 

Ready, Set, YUGO!

Posted: May 9, 2014

It didn't take long for the room to be filled with chatter at our first orientation. Some of us knew each other from previous Bronfman events or have seen each other in passing so conversation sparked quickly. Orientation one included “speed dating” and age-by-age recounts or predictions to allow us to get to know each other better. After the ice was broken we jumped right into learning about our trip, which was only a mere three weeks away. We spoke about traditions and culture and the aspects of each, which we will and will not be able to learn by visiting the Former Yugoslavia. Few of us had much previous knowledge of our destination or the JDC but we were (and still are) eager to learn and engage in what will come with our trip, which is now in less than two weeks!

The next orientation involved laying out some ground rules. We all signed a contract for the trip. We signed an agreement to: foster an inclusive, open learning experience, to use “yes, and, also…” language, to be open to questions, allow for productive discomfort, be open about how we are feeling, make an effort to connect with local peers, assume good intentions, have at least one group song session, recognize moments of wonder, respect boundaries, define Jewish terms, embrace our diverse backgrounds, take silly photos, and be there for one another.

Moving into orientation number three we had set a foundation of trust and excitement. Three young women from the JDC Entwine office joined us at our final orientation and opened our eyes to some of the work that the JDC has done and is currently doing. After only two weeks of being together in a group setting, I think we can all say with confidence that this is going to be an amazing trip.Stay tuned as we get ready, get set, and YUGO!

 

 

 

Why a 'Kippah Door Fee' for Inside Jewish India

Posted: May 1, 2014

For Inside Jewish India next week, we're asking guests to bring one kippah as a donation to India's Jewish community. We will send the collection to India via JDC after the event.

Why are we doing this? Here's the background. Many Jewish institutions we visited in India had a lack of Kippot; all the shomers would be very strict about recollecting the Kippot that they loaned out.

If we could supply them with additional kippot that would be less of a stressor. And perhaps more importantly, sharing a Jewish item is a token of the global Jewish world recognizing their needs Jewishly and helping in a meaningful way.

RSVP for Inside Jewish India here.

 

 

 

What I Learned About San Diego's Jewish Community By Traveling to Jewish India

Posted: May 1, 2014

Dovi, above in the old synagouge in Cochin, was a participant in JDC Entwine's Insider Trip to India in 2013 and is a co-chair for Inside Jewish India: From San Diego to Mumbai on May 8.

As I was walking down the street, I all of a sudden got an amazing feeling when I realized that for over two thousand years, Jews have been walking down those very same streets.  It was a feeling that connected me with the global Jewish community both through time and through space.  It was a feeling that I last felt in the old city of Jerusalem. But this was not Israel, it was India, and I was walking through the Konchin Villages with my JDC Entwine group.  At first India felt so foreign to me, but in the homeland of the B'nei Israel I was suddenly at home.

Before my Entwine experience I knew that there was a community of Indian Jews, but I did not know anything about them.  Their rich history amazes me.  The colors, smells and tastes of their Judaism is a reminder that being Jewish can be a diverse experience.  What amazes me the most is that despite all of our differences, despite the two thousand or so years of separation, our Judaism binds us together.

When I decided to participate in a JDC Entwine trip to India, I did not know what to expect.  My reasons for going were to learn more about Jewish life in India and to learn more about the JDC's work abroad.  Looking back at my experience, the biggest impact it had on me was strengthening my commitment to my community at home in California.  Being around people who are struggling to keep their communities alive, reminded me not to take my community for granted.  An impactful visit to an older adult community in the suburbs outside Mumbai reminded me that it had been too long since I had been to Seacrest Village, a local nursing home in San Diego.  Visiting the home of an elderly man in India who relies on JDC support made me thankful for similar programs run by Jewish Family Services in our community.  Dancing with children from the slums at the JCC with the JDC-supported Gabriel Project Mumbai reminded me that our local Jewish Community has the capacity to make life in San Diego better for everyone.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have an amazing experience in Jewish India, but I am more thankful to be able to bring that experience home and be a better member of my own community.

I hope you'll join me on May 8th for Inside Jewish India in San Diego.

 

 

Rebuilding in The Philippines

Posted: April 29, 2014

Adam Steinberg is currently serving as a Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service

Last week, I attended a groundbreaking at the Bagay Elementary School here in The Philippines. JDC is building nine new classrooms that were destroyed in the typhoon. 

It was a moving ceremony were the JDC was applauded for its generosity and kind heart.

I was also able to say a few words which focused on the power of education as a theme in all our work. 

JDC responded immediately to the typhoon and I was fortunate to be involved in the initial assessment team that evaluated the immediate needs on the ground.

Since then I have been based in the Philippines working closely with local organizations to develop partnership programs for disaster-affected communities. These programs span education, livelihood, psychosocial support and disaster risk reduction.

I am particularly proud of the fact that JDC’s focus is on ensuring long-term sustainability and impact. We partner and train with local groups to carry on these programs after we leave. Our proud legacy is helping local communities help themselves.

You can read more about JDC's work in The Philippines here

Adam is currently serving as a Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service. Applications are open for the 2015 Fellowship - more here.

 

 

Why I Care About Ukraine

Posted: April 29, 2014

Amy Randel is an event chair for Inside Jewish Ukraine in San Francisco on April 30. She is also a former JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow.

Ukraine. You've seen it in the headlines, but why does it matter to you as an American? Why is Ukraine particularly important to you as an American Jew? I remember the call I received when I learned I had been selected to spend a year as a JDC Jewish Service Corps fellow in Kiev, Ukraine. Besides Googled images of stunning gold capped churches and rolling countryside, this former Soviet nation was a black box to me. Like most Americans, I had very little exposure and knew very little about the former Soviet Union and this rich bed of Jewish cultural history. As far as I was concerned, Jewish life in Ukraine the old country, shtetyl life was a past tense reality.

Over the course of my year working in Ukraine I did have the opportunity to visit sites of significance in Jewish history, and was able to flesh out some of those shtetyl stereotypes. Standing at the sites I had only read about impacted me deeply. However what really changed me forever about my time in Ukraine was experiencing the present tense Jewish life.

 

Amy, far-left, as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Ukraine

As American Jews, we have a way of taking our peoplehood and identities for granted. However Jewish life there is not a given like in the states, but something the community is slowly carving a path for in an uphill battle, in a complicated nation. Nearly every aspect of Jewish life in Ukraine is a point of contention and active debate. 

Maybe you have a connection to Ukraine through family roots, maybe you grew up hearing stories of the old country and want to know more. I encourage you to come this Wednesday learn about the current situation in Ukraine, and what's happening on the ground. I invite you to begin to more deeply understand the questions of identity and peoplehood that your Jewish counterparts, and peers, are being forced to confront right now.

I encourage you to come and step outside of our comfortable American Jewish experience. Transport yourself for a few hours to a place where young Jews- people who are no different except the make of their passport- are asking themselves, what does it mean to build a future in a nation where things are tumultuous. Come engage with planning for a future where nothing about the future is guaranteed.  If nothing else you can get up to speed on current events, but I wager you walk away from this evening with a deeper appreciation, and more pointed, penetrating questions. Hope to see you Wednesday evening!

 

Join us for Inside Jewish Ukraine on April 30 in San Francisco!

 

 

In Defiance of Judenfrei

Posted: April 28, 2014

Jonah Adams is serving as an Entwine JDC-BBYO Global JSC fellow in Tallinn, where he helps to bring experiential learning to Jewish youth and teens in Estonia.


Above, a Jewish community event in Tallinn, Estonia. 1932. Photo: Estonian Jewry Archive

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Six months into Nazi occupation, Estonia was declared Judenfrei: free of Jews. The Estonian Jewish community had not been deported or confined to a ghetto, it had been destroyed, and a chapter of Jewish history was closed. Yet I stand here today, as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow, alongside the flourishing Estonian Jewish Community, in bold defiance of the label Judenfrei.

We study the great intellectual, spiritual, and material wealth amassed by the Jews of Europe. We remember fondly the Pale of Jewish Settlement; the Shtetles of Poland, Vilnius the Jerusalem of the North. Estonia was never a part of the Pale of Settlement, prohibiting Jews until the 1830s and only reaching about 4500.

When the Nazi blitzkrieg arrived, most of Estonia’s Jews had already left under the Soviet Union, willingly or not. Records detailing the brutality and efficiency of the roundup and murder of the remaining 974 members were mostly destroyed. Righteous Among the Nations - some awarded, some unknown - are remembered as saviors, for “whoever saves a life, saves the entire world”. The chief Rabbi, Aba Gomer, refused to leave while there were still Jews in Tallinn resulting in his execution outside of what is now my residence. Estonia was declared Judenfrei even before the Final Solution was declared in January, 1942.

Thousands of Jews from across Europe arrived to a system of labor camps. Those unfit for labor were sent to the isolated valley of Kalevi-Liiva where nobody would hear the never-ending firing squads. As the Red army finally pushed back the Nazi war machine, their first sight of the final solution was in Estonia. They came across the half-liquidated concentration camp of Klooga, a former summer holiday site, piles of ash laying next to piles of corpses, the butchers running off in haste. This was where the biblical term for a sacrifice fully consumed by fire, Holocaust, became the term for the most ruthless crime against God and mankind yet seen.

Poem from an unknown prisoner at the Klooga Concentration Camp:

“A shaken Jew with frozen eyes
Lies bloated from hunger
Stretches out on the ground
We extinguish there…like candles
No one mourns the orphan with the funeral wail
One after another die…
We set like stars in the morning sky
No one remains to speak,
So that all might know of our great sorrow”

These were the atrocities that “ended” Jewish life in Estonia. Then why am I here? Since the clouds of war parted, Jews have come back to Estonia. The Jewish Community has been growing in members and prosperity. With support from the community and organizations like JDC, there is a Jewish day school, beautiful synagogue, elderly center, and now a brand new Jewish kindergarten.

I volunteer at the Tallinn JCC. The third floor contains a memorial to those lost in the Holocaust. All 974 Jews who witnessed the Nazi invasion were extinguished in a flash. The community has enshrined each and every name into four glass panes. The mantra I grew up with, “six million that we can never forget!” shows the incomprehensible magnitude of the Shoah but this number -974- strikes a blow to the heart. It is a strange feeling to mourn a number killed in the Holocaust small enough that I could have met each and every one of them after only one year in Tallinn.

 

Jonah, students from the local Jewish day school, and local teen leaders pose for a photo in Tallinn.

It is important to take a day to remember those gone forever. To remember all of the good that they brought to the world, and how easily that world was consumed by evil. It is important to remember so that we can ensure that it never happens again. Beyond remembering, I have found that the best way to honor the memory of those who were lost is to pass on the Jewish values, traditions, history, and courage that they could not.

One floor above the Holocaust memorial is the youth center where I work with volunteers from the Jewish Day School to run fun and educational activities for the community youth. We teach about Judaism, Jewish History, Israel, and what it means to be a Jewish Community in Estonia. Every Friday, those 974 names watch as Jewish children run upstairs, excited to learn what being Jewish means. Those children stand in defiance of the label Judenfrei as the Estonian Jewish Community flourishes.

Read more from Entwine JDC-BBYO Global Fellow on his blog, http://tallinnitlikeitis.tumblr.com.

Learn more about JDC's work in Estonia and throughout the Baltics today here.

 

 

Reigniting Jewish Identity with a Visit to Turkey

Posted: April 28, 2014

In the spring of 1995 I was finishing my term as President of the NFTY Mid-Atlantic Region, trying not to fail calculus so that Brandeis wouldn’t rescind its offer, and throwing my hat in the ring to run for president of NFTY (I lost). It sounds like my life was very Jewish and that I was on track for it to stay that way. But that spring was the last time I have committed so much of myself to Judaism or being in my Jewish community.  I wasn’t sure what being Jewish meant to me anymore, so I focused my energy on other aspects of my life and let this one hibernate.

Until now.

I just came home from my first trip with JDC – Entwine to Turkey and I feel differently now for the first time since my 18 year old self aspired to lead a national reform youth movement.

I am still contemplating the beauty and history of Turkey, but even more than grasping its complexity as a secular Muslim country, is how to fathom living there as a Jew; keeping one’s religion unspoken among friends outside of the community, not speaking of Israel or one’s culture aloud, changing one’s first name so it doesn’t sound Biblical. I took a walk alone on our last full day and sat outside at a tiny café tucked in the streets behind the Galata Tower. The waiter asked my name. “Deborah.” He looked perplexed and my stomach dropped. I was afraid -- everything we’d heard from our new friends fell in to place right in my chest.

We spent most of our week there introducing ourselves to the old and young, the Chief Rabbi and the lay leaders, scholars and students. We toured centuries old synagogues, and 21st century community centers. We had a group lunch with the elderly in an old age home in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, futzing our way through Spanish or Hebrew to get to know each other or just to find something to laugh about. We heard how rigorous the Jewish School education is and spoke one-on-one with the teenagers there to hear about their hopes for themselves. They want to come to the States for university or move to Israel. They want to get out of Istanbul and be free to be themselves.
Debbie snaps a photo with Inside Jewish Turkey participant Heather Eudy and Reysi from the local Jewish school

Friday night we joined the community for Shabbat services at Beth Israel Synagogue. The ladies sat in the gallery and at the end a few of us walked outside before realizing the others were waiting for us in the main room. Attendees had to leave in small groups, the timing organized by security and the streets blocked off by pillars that rose from the ground to stop traffic. There is an awareness of safety needs at all times; it really struck a chord in me.

I never felt that my Jewish community was small because I’ve always lived in one – be it the DC suburbs, Brandeis University, New York City or Los Angeles. I never felt that practicing Judaism was a political act or that my choice to be religious or not was anything more or less than just that – my choice. But now I wonder. I wonder if being Jewish is more than religion, more than culture, more than an education. Perhaps it is also an exception, a privilege, and a legacy.

It has been 18 years since my last immersion with Judaism – maybe it’s just a coincidence or maybe it’s a spiritual reckoning. This Shabbat, I am taking myself to services at IKAR, a few blocks walk from my home in Los Angeles. And I won’t be afraid to walk there and there won’t be cars blocked from the streets, but this time I won’t take it for granted. And next Friday I will observe Shabbat again.  I will re-immerse myself in Jewishness – whatever that ends up looking like for me – but I will do it consciously and with gratitude, because by virtue of having this choice, perhaps I can do it for those who don’t.

 

 

Matryoshkas and Menorahs: Exploring Jewish roots through Russia's past, present, and future

Posted: April 21, 2014

By Gabrielle Hakimian and Misha Karton

Gabrielle and Misha are co-chairs of JDC Entwine's Inside Jewish St. Petersburg, July 20-27.

St. Petersburg has been and remains one of the world’s largest, historic and cultural cities. One will always come across its name when studying the history of Europe, World War I and II, Soviet Union, and Russia. Simply following the changes to this city’s name guides the course of history of Eastern Europe and the world. From St. Petersburg to Petrograd, then Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg, it has endured over 300 years of various regimes.

From Peter the Great era to the inception of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Communism. From World War II to the fall of Iron Curtain. The city was the residence of many tsars and empresses and it’s no wonder it was a capital of Russia for many years.

Its historic architecture and landmarks remain a popular touristic destination. Some of the world’s most beautiful palaces and cultural centers are located here including the Winter Palace, the Hermitage museum, the cruiser Aurora, many cathedrals, and seaports. Its entertainment includes the Great Russian ballet and football (soccer). The world’s greatest authors and poets including Tolstoy and Pushkin, were inspired by the city’s vast culture and beauty and commonly used the city’s images and history in their works. 

Its people have endured uprisings and destruction throughout the years, yet remain in good spirits and have thrived, making St. Petersburg a great place to visit and enjoy its culture.

So what role has St. Petersburg and it’s Jewish community played in Russia’s long and storied history?

Having the opportunity to experience it firsthand will be a unique experience. St. Petersburg, once the capital of Russia, has always been at the epicenter of wars and revolutions. How did this shape St. Petersburg and its citizen’s cultural and religious rights? During the Communist era, ideals and laws were imposed upon its people disallowing the freedom to practice religion. This is a common theme in most countries that have been ruled under communist law. In St. Petersburg, like the rest of the country, many measures were used to discourage religious activities and by the 1960’s hundreds of synagogues were shut down. Did 70 years of communism cause the Jewish community in St. Petersburg to forget their culture and heritage? Or, because of St. Petersburg’s more progressive and cosmopolitan environment, were its citizens afforded eased religious freedoms? How has JDC engaged with local community groups to help revive traditions today? And how does the local Jewish community, with support from JDC, take care of it’s most vulnerable citizens, like the elderly, sick or children at-risk?

There are so many questions to be answered about Russia, its history, and how hundreds of years of various regimes helped shape its modern day society.  We are so excited to be traveling with JDC Entwine on its first Young Adults trip to St. Petersburg to explore Russia’s history, St. Petersburg’s rich local Jewish culture, and how communism has shaped current life, traditions and practices.

A few highlights we are looking forward to exploring:

-       Russian history and culture

-       History of Russian Jews and their role in building and rebuilding of St. Petersburg

-       JDC involvement and current Jewish programs

-       Neva waterways and why it was considered “the Venice of the North”

-       European and Baroque style architecture

-       Hermitage museum – one of the largest and oldest in the world

-       Russian Cuisine: Blini’s, perogi’s, goulash, and of course caviar and vodka

-       Traditional Russian ballet

And a special note: This trip is in honor of Frances C. Eizenstat z”l, a great Jewish leader. Ms. Eizenstat’s commitment to improving the lives of those in need around the world was evident in nearly everything she did, including her 12 years as a JDC Board Member.

Though our trip and follow-up actions, we intend to honor Ms. Eizenstat’s commitment to budding Jewish life and welfare needs in post-Communist countries. We are so appreciative to her family for making this trip possible.

We hope you'll join us in July.

More on Inside Jewish St. Petersburg here.

 

 

Reflections from Argentina

Posted: April 17, 2014

Last year I was fortunate enough to participate in a service trip to Argentina through the partnership of Brown/RISD Hillel and JDC Entwine. Immediately after returning from the trip, I was filled with the normal post-euphoric sentiments: “I made friends for life”, “I feel like I really gave back to the community”, “Buenos Aires was such a vibrant city”, “I tasted the best ice cream in the entire world”. While all of those statements were true and an important part of my experience, having had time to reflect fully on the trip, I am able to extract the deeper aspects of the trip- the ones that stick with me even as time passes and memories begin to fade.  So, as I sit at my desk, drinking Mate (the classic tea-like Argentinean beverage, so dear to their culture) I would like to share the three most important things that I learned on this trip:

1)   Question your service: Before going on this trip, I had done my fair share of community service, consisting of collecting canned goods for the less fortunate, serving dinner to the homeless, and singing holiday carols for senior citizens. I had always entered and completed these projects with a sense of satisfaction and content at “having made a real difference.” More or less, I expected this trip to follow the same pattern of self-fulfillment. However, in our nightly discussions, our group of 14 really delved into the ideas of service and what it actually means to help a community. In Rosario, we refurbished/painted a home where paint chipped hallways and discolored walls were the norm. We then travelled to Buenos Aires where we donated items and our time to the Baby help center and had interactions dancing with elders. In our group debriefs, we took time to consider whether painting a wall that would likely chip away in 6 months, donating clothes to 20 children when 1000s are in need, or spending our precious time and resources dancing away, were really the most impactful ways for us to spend our time in Argentina. While some people debated this, ultimately I was able to rationalize the worth of our work by the single interaction I had with Hichmay, one of the old men living in the community of houses we repainted. He said,  “my only dream was to be able to see these houses repainted”; to our group, it was an unprofessional paint job in a few rooms, but to those inhabitants, it was a vast improvement in life and a gesture of kindness that they could have never imagined would be extended to them. To be able to question my service and not just go through the motions without thought, changed my perspective to an extent I never otherwise would have come to.

2)   Broaden your community: having finished my freshman year at Brown, I finally felt like I had found a comfortable and steady group to surround myself with. Entering the trip, I was hesitant about having to go through the uncomfortable small talk with people who I would only get to know for a week and couldn’t even see fitting into my solid group that I had already established at school. Thankfully, on our 12-hour flight, I had enough time to convince myself to be open minded and really open myself up to this group. The thing is, that the people who sign up to spend their last week of summer traveling to a new country to help a community in need, is also the same kind of people who are willing to go salsa dancing in the basement of an Armenian community center, try a questionable looking piece of blood sausage, or do an impromptu zumba at 7:00 in the morning to keep warm. Since returning,  we have had several lunches, afternoon hangouts, and Shabbat celebrations together. Being open to this new group of people not only made my trip an incredible experience, but also enriched my life greatly at Brown.

3)   Use Judaism as a tool: My family has raised me in a Jewish household filled with an abundance of Jewish heritage, culture, and pride. However, I have never been much of a spiritual Jew. Due to this lack of spirituality, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable with all the aspects of Judaism and the higher levels of commitment that come along with religion. To my surprise, this trip opened me up to a lot of new aspects of Judaism and the benefits that this community offers. One of the Jewish youths we met in Buenos Aires, gave us a great analogy of Judaism stating that Jewishness is like a subway sandwich. Some go down the line and get turkey, other order tomatoes and onions on their sub, while some go for the gourmet route and have a meatball footlong. In the end however, no matter all the different ingredients that are put in, they are all just a sandwich in the end. Some Jews are Orthodox, some Jews are Reform, some Jews put a lot into their practice, and others put in less. But we are all Jews who make up a connected Jewish community. The Jews of Argentina have a strong sense of reliance, bond to one another and constantly talked about Jews helping other Jews, whether it be to give other Jews a job, a basic unit of living, or a social setting to get together. This trip has helped me realize the full potential that Judaism can serve me if I open myself up, and use it to support myself and others within my Jewish cultural identity.

The JDC Brown/RISD Hillel trip to Argentina was not just a wonderful trip, but it was an inspiring experience. This trip has influenced me and many of my other peers to continue on with our service for the community of Argentina and Providence, while also cultivating our minds to think in a new and more selfless way. 

 

 

A Beautiful Day

Posted: April 9, 2014

By Kelly

Our Saturday in Buenos Aires consisted of a wide variety of meaningful experiences. After a lively Friday night Shabbat, we continued the festivities by visiting one of Buenos Aires’ reform synagogues. Services included live music which, of course, prompted our group to get out of our seats and dance! The atmosphere in the sanctuary was lively and filled with a strong sense of community. The synagogue’s congregation and Rabbi welcomed our group with open arms and even let us enjoy their delicious Kiddush. The bagels with lox and cream cheese were a big hit and a familiar taste of home! (Shout out to Grandma and Grandpa B!)

We were lucky enough to get to interact with the congregation’s Rabbi after services. He was particularly insightful and happy to share his wisdom with us. The Rabbi told us that in his mind the true beauty of Judaism could be found in making normal, everyday things holy. Challah, he told us, becomes holy when we place it on our Shabbat table. Wine when passed around in a Kiddush cup and candles when lit on Friday night are normal things that become holy as well. Most importantly, he told us, was our ability to make time holy. Through carrying out Jewish traditions or simply engaging in tasks that are most meaningful to us, we have the ability to make time, the most precious of resources, holy. It was evident that this was true as I looked around the table at fifteen of the kindest, most intelligent and adventurous young people I had ever met. We were spending our week engaged in service, learning, and prayer, one of the holiest experiences we had ever had.

After leaving the synagogue full of energy from the Rabbi’s talk (and the lox and cream cheese bagels), we were able to explore the city of Buenos Aires and take in all that it had to offer. Experiencing the Latin elements intertwined with Jewish culture was particularly fascinating for many of us. In such a global world, it is important to understand how different cultures can come together and really create something beautiful.

Beautiful: The best word to describe our Saturday in Argentina. We found beauty in every corner, every song, every person we interacted with. It is often difficult to put the most beautiful, most life-changing experiences into words—not the most helpful realization in writing a blog post. However, I have realized that this Saturday will forever be imprinted upon our hearts and minds and this is far stronger than any written words could ever be.

 

 

The Meaning Behind Logic Models

Posted: April 9, 2014

Sara Reef, center, pictured with JDC's staff in Ethiopia, is one of JDC's Ralph I. Goldman Fellows in International Jewish Service this year. More from Sara at sarareef.com

For my 2nd RIG Fellowship placement, I was charged with joining JDC’s International Development Program (IDP) Team to collect data and create logic models for several of JDC’s programs in Ethiopia. Since I first received the RIG Fellowship, Ethiopia was somewhere I knew I was interested in spending time in order to learn more about JDC’s work there, familiarize myself with the history of the Ethiopian Jewish community, and to gain more international development experience. During my four weeks in Addis Ababa and Gondar, I was able to accomplish all of my goals along with having a meaningful personal experience.

I arrived in Ethiopia after spending three months in Israel working with JDC’s Tevet, IDP, International Relations, and Global Planning initiatives. During my time in Israel, I was able to interact with several different individuals and departments at the JDC which proved to be a great introduction to the organization. In Ethiopia, I was looking forward to having a more focused experience. Upon arrival, I spent the first few days in the office in Addis Ababa with two Israeli colleagues getting to know the local staff. They are a wonderful group of professionals who went out of their way to make me feel welcome, to answer all of my questions, to teach me about JDC’s work in Ethiopia, and to help me achieve my placements goals.

Once a schedule was created for my time there, I spent several days visiting the Addis Ababa based projects. The first visit was to Unity College to learn more about the women’s scholarship program, and the second visit was to various female microfinance grantees in-and-around Addis Ababa. I was able to participate in microfinance workshops and training sessions to meet grantees, and to hear their stories.

Once the visits were complete, I spent time in the office gathering data on our projects in the north before departing for Gondar with Alemu, the Director of JDC Ethiopia. Alemu introduced me to our Gondar staff who accompanied me to visit rural schools, a rural medical outreach project, hand dug  wells and spring wells in various communities, microfinance partners along with project grantees, Gondar University medical exchange partners, JDC’s new Science Center, and female scholarship grantees at Gondar University.

One of my favorite visits was to a rural school I had seen previously when I joined a JDC Entwine trip a month earlier. The school children came outside to welcome me by clapping their hands and singing welcome, welcome. They gave me handpicked flowers from their community, served me coffee after I participated in the famous Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and gave me the honor of cutting bread to hand out to the villagers elders and students. Afterwards, I was invited to participate in a dialogue with the principle, teachers, and village elders to learn more about the community. It was wonderful to be so welcomed into the community, and to have the opportunity to learn about their achievements and challenges.

Another highlight of my time in Ethiopia was spending time with the local Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows in Addis Ababa and Gondar. It was rewarding to hear about and see their work, and to join them for site visits in Addis Ababa and Gondar.

I arrived back in Israel with nine logic models and several spreadsheets of data that can be used to analyze JDC’s impact in Ethiopia. Gathering this information and participating in site visits was a wonderful experience that I will always treasure. I am grateful to everyone that made this experience possible. 

Applications are open for the 2015 Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship in International Jewish Service. Learn more here.

 

 

Hola Amigos!

Posted: April 6, 2014

By Alicia and Josh

Today was yet another eventful one; this time in Buenos Aires! We started off the day visiting the Tel Aviv School, which is a Jewish day school for children from the ages of three to thirteen. Our group of fifteen Cornellians were split into two groups, with each one playing a variety of games with either four or five year olds. While we made this group of cute kids smile and laugh in the morning, our group had a greater impact on the Jewish elderly community when we visited them in the afternoon.

The Jewish elderly home, L’Dor V’dor, allowed us to work with those in the home on occupational therapy projects like knitting and artwork in preparation for Passover. We got to interact with them and learn their stories of their backgrounds and history. We were lucky enough to have lunch with them and interact even more. Although the young children and the elderly are years apart, we experienced so many similarities when interacting with both groups.

We then had the unbelievable opportunity to visit AMIA, the Jewish Federation of Argentina. We learned its history and the impact they create in this amazing country, and the services they provide to everyone in the community. We got to experience this firsthand as we took a dance class with the elderly of AMIA.

At AMIA, we experienced the liveliness of Buenos Aires’ Jewish community while watching and participating in a dance class for the elderly. The room was filled with smiles and laughter as we swayed to Argentinian hit songs, Israeli classics, and Psy’s one-hit wonder, “Gangnam Style”. After leaving this amazing highlight of the trip, we were able to prepare for Shabbat.  We had Shabbat services at an independent minyan where sang, danced and enjoyed fantastic food. We ended the evening singing for hours around the dinner table with both our group and the Argentinian community that was present. We had a fantastic day and a restful Shabbat! 

 

 

 

Finishing Touches in Rosario and Hello Buenos Aires

Posted: April 6, 2014

By Hadar Sachs and Ben Horowitz 

Today we woke up bright and early, excited to put the finishing touches on our service project. For those of you who are new to the blog, we have spent the last few days refurbishing and painting an apartment owned by the Kehila, the local Jewish communal organization and JDC's partner in Rosario. A new family within the community is expected to be moving in within the next few weeks.

When we arrived at the service site we were excited to see the improvements we had made so far and complete the project. We put up final layers of paint and filled in the cracks and crevices ensuring that the house was ready for its new family. 

After we cleaned up, we were joined by the kehila's governing board, the rabbi, and other members of the community including current tenants in the nearby apartments. We said some final parting words, thanking them for hosting us in Rosario and exchanged some Cornell Hillel gear. 

Next we began the undoubtedly most meaningful part of the project and the trip so far. The local rabbi led us in the ceremony of hanging the mezuzah. A mezuzah makes a home a Jewish home. Every Jewish person places this symbol on their door frame to bless the house and their family's future in it.

Rabbi Scott, Hadar, and Alicia placed three mezuzahs up in the apartment complex. Looking at the joy on the local residents' faces, our group truly felt the impact we made in the community. In this moment we felt as though we transformed the house into a real home or as you'd say in Spanish: "transformar una casa en un hogar."

After concluding our time in Rosario, we hopped back on our bus, heading to Buenos Aires. We were all in a reflective mood on the bus ride, thinking about our experience in Rosario and ways to maintain our new relationships. We arrived at our hostel in the Palermo neighborhood after 4 hours and got a chance to explore the area before heading to the local Hillel for dinner (AMAZING KOSHER MEAT!!!!). We had a great time at dinner and afterwards got a chance to check out some of Buenos Aires' night life. 

Looking forward to spending the next few days in the capital and enjoying this vibrant city! 

 

 

Day 3!

Posted: April 3, 2014

Today is the third day in Rosario and we are exhausted…and covered in green paint.  Our day was composed of two main parts—a city tour and a continuation of our service—broken up by lunch at USAR, a local community organization similar to JCC in the states. 

Despite being an urban center, Rosario is loaded with parks that were filled with people running, walking their dog, or most commonly, drinking Yerba Mate, essentially Argentina’s national tea drink. First, we stopped at the Flag’s Monument, where we ascended the tower and experienced a panoramic view of the city and the Paraná River that borders it. Afterwards, we made our way to a church in a nearby park, but not before crossing a treacherous bridge and a looming pot of fire (to clarify, it was just a stone pathway and candle-like statue, both of which symbolize the determination of Argentinian soldiers). 

Overall, our tour showed us how the city visually reflects the culture and national pride of its people.  The coolest aspect of the tour was how divided the people are over fútbol (soccer, to us Americans). We were lucky enough to be in town on the day of el clásico, the name for a soccer game between two rival teams in Spanish-speaking countries. The divide between fans was so strong that buildings and traffic lights were painted team colors, and we heard a celebratory yell outside of our hotel when a team scored a goal. It was a great, spontaneous way to experience the local culture firsthand.

After the tour, we continued our service project.

We made great progress and worked really cohesively; we all got straight to work and had a great time doing it. Unlike yesterday, though, some of us took some time to speak with a local resident about his life. It was so meaningful to hear the man’s story and interact with the person who is going to be living behind the walls that we painted.

We then took an hour break for (VERY) necessary showers before our second reflection session, where we talked about what it means to be a part of a community. Although we may each have different definitions of “community,” we came to a consensus that being part of a community, whether Jewish-related or not, is a dynamic relationship of both giving and receiving.  After our deep discussion, we went to dinner at a restaurant similar to a Hard-Rock Café, where we chatted with local peers we met yesterday over what seemed to be an eight course meal.  As we leave Rosario tomorrow, still with a full stomach, we look forward to culminating our service project here and starting a new one in Buenos Aires!


 

 

Where does a pirate who wants to meet Latin-American Jews go on vacation?

Posted: April 2, 2015

…Arrrr-gentina!

This post is by Amy and Rebecca

We like Latin-American Jews too, and we got to hang out with tons of them today! We started off the day at the Jewish day school in Rosario, which educates students from 6 months old to 18 years old. We first watched cute 4 year olds dance before splitting up into three groups and interacting with students who are 5 years old, 12 years old, and 16-17 years old. The group that interacted with 5 year olds taught them the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” although the children ended up teaching us more Spanish than we taught them English! We visited the 12 year olds during their English class, where they presented us with information on Rosario’s culture in English, as well as some yummy homemade Argentinian treats. The group with the teenagers spoke to us about their culture, shared some popular Argentinian songs with us, and even showed us how to dance the tango! We engaged in informal yet meaningful conversations with them, and it was a lot of fun.

We enjoyed lunch in an outdoor area of the Kehila while contributing to interesting conversation about the Jewish community of Rosario with a Rosario Kehila leader and the community’s rabbi. Rabbi Scott noted that although the Jewish communities of Rosario and the ones we know in the United States are very different, we share many of the same challenges in maintaining Jewish life. With full stomachs, we started our main project in Rosario, refurbishing a housing unit for a mother and two children who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford housing. We got hands deep in some paint, transforming the unit into a more livable space.  We realized in our debriefing session that because there are Jews all over the world, we can feel at home almost anywhere we go, including Argentina. Being able to help provide an actual home for our fellow Jews has been extremely meaningful. We discussed how a community is made of people with shared interests, passions, goals and struggles. As we met many Argentinian Jews throughout the day, it became clearer that we were really all part of one community despite language barriers, music taste, and cheek kissing habits.

We finished off our night at Beit Scopus, a center for Jewish young adults. We enjoyed pizza with curious toppings such as hard-boiled eggs and parsley while dancing the night away with our Argentinian friends. We look forward to meeting more Argentinians as well as continuing our service projects tomorrow!

 

 

Jewish Life in Rosario

Posted: April 2, 2014

Though it feels like we just got here, today marks our last full day in the small city of Rosario. I have thoroughly enjoyed becoming more familiar with the Argentinean culture on a smaller scale before heading to Buenos Aires. I’ll take the opportunity here to share a few of my most interesting observations.

Yesterday afternoon, I was able to make a home visit with 6 fellow Hoos to an apartment where 3 men in their sixties live, in an apartment paid for by JDC. We met with two of them, Marcelo and Ernesto. Marcelo was a talkative man, beginning our stay with the claim that “He conocido 23 paises,” in other words, he has lived in twenty-three countries. As an electrician, he is unable to maintain steady work, and only earns money when he receives a call from someone who has seen his flyers advertising his services around the city. Obviously, this income is not stable enough to support a healthy standard of living, so JDC subsidizes the funds for his rent.

Ernesto, on the other hand, receives a small monthly retirement pension from the government. He also continues to earn some money when possible selling hand-crafted goods in some of the parks of Rosario. With chronic shoulder issues, he is constantly in need of costly medical treatment. It was heartbreaking to hear him briefly mention how lonely he is in Rosario. Without a wife, children, or other family in the city, he attends the Kehilah (the synagogue and a center for Jewish events in Rosario) at times to receive some human interaction. When asked by a member of our group, both were quick to talk about an utter lack of Jewish upbringing in their childhood, never celebrating even the major holidays.

After this meeting, my smaller group reflected on the values of JDC and why these men might have received their aid. Though they do not necessarily observe Judaism in a traditional sense (or even in a non-traditional sense), they felt comfortable enough with their Jewish identity to ask JDC for assistance. JDC’s goal is to help needy Jewish people around the world, regardless of their level of observance or circumstance. The idea is not to “make someone more Jewish,” it is simply to help them.

We spent the majority of today continuing to paint and refurbish housing units used by Jewish community members. It would appear from my clothing that very little paint managed to make it onto the house itself, but when pictures are posted later, you can be the judge. Between two three hour sessions of service work, we returned to the Kehilah to eat lunch. During this meal, we met with several board members of the synagogue, who spoke quite optimistically about the direction of the Jewish community there. Though small, this vibrant group is working to provide a solid education through their Jewish day school down the street, and continuing to plan events that truly make membership at the Kehilah a way of life, beyond a religious location. At one point in the lunch, there was a dialogue between the leaders and our group incorporating English, Spanish, and Hebrew all at once. This fluid mix of languages was a good reminder of the global Jewish community that exists beyond our synagogues or university Hillel at home.

We learned a few lessons today- the song “Let it Go” is best left performed by Idina Menzel, it’s difficult to paint adjacent surfaces two different colors, and the Argentinean sun is a force to be reckoned with. Though paint may remain on our bodies a day or two, and our sunburns a bit longer, the impact of our few days of work will have a larger effect than we can anticipate. While I painted one of the door frames white, the man who lived in the apartment where I was working walked by me, quipping that “el rosado es tan feo” (the pink is so ugly, referring to the previous color of his apartment walls). It’s satisfying to get the chance to do some work that will improve the residents’ feelings and pride toward their less than ideal living space.

Next up is our second reflection session. The session yesterday flew by, and it was great to see every member of the group excited to participate. I’m excited to hear some more thoughts from everyone and meet some more Argentinean peers tonight!

To conclude, the best life advice I can provide to our family and friends at home is this- next time you get your house painted, give the painters a nice tip. Really.

Leah Naidorf, CLAS '15


 

 

 

Who’s got two thumbs and is ready to have some steak and wine?

Posted: April 2, 2014

Our first full day in Rosario started off early and quickly for us. We began the day with a 9AM bus ride, but since we are an hour ahead of our usual time zone, it felt very early. After a long day yesterday, it was difficult to get the motivation to go downstairs at 8:15 to get some breakfast. Thankfully, coffee and fresh fruit was waiting, so the day started off well.

Our first stop of the day was the Argentine Flag Memorial downtown. When we were making our way there yesterday, the biggest concern was getting there in time to be allowed to go to the top to see the view before it closed. Today we learned its history and what it’s about. It’s the only memorial in the world that is dedicated to a flag, and apparently it looks like a boat (though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boat with a huge tower right at the prow). There are Argentine flags lining the steps leading up to the memorial, but those don’t have the sun in the middle of the white stripe. For those of you history buffs: these flags are different because at the creation of the flag, only the colors were used. The same Congress that created the original flag got together 4 years later in 1818 and put the Sun of May in the middle of the flag, creating the war flag. This was later adopted as the national flag, though civilian flags often still do not have the sun in the middle, to signify a peace time. Google is apparently very knowledgeable about flags, so I guess we can be too. And thus concludes “Fun with Flags”.

We took some time to visit a church while we were downtown, which had some really interesting architecture. My favorite part of it by far was the stained glass windows, which were illuminated by the bright day outside. One of them contained a flag in it, which we just talked about. Sorry, I promise I’m done with flags. Our next stop was a massive bridge, which links two of the provinces in Argentina. We went down a bunch of steps so we could see, but mostly it was so some of the girls could take pictures while jumping. Apparently Erica can jump pretty high. Before heading for lunch and service work, we stopped for a visit at a Jewish day school. The children are just now getting back from their break and starting a new school year, so we caught them on one of their first couple of days back. A few of the people on the trip went into a Hebrew class and spoke with the children who were learning, and they sang a song for us. A bell rang, and pure chaos ensued as all of the children ran out of the classrooms for recess. At this point, we had a chance to engage with the students in both Spanish and English, both sides practicing their conversational skills. Apparently these kids love FIFA as much as I do, which is good to know that soccer (okay fine, futbol) is a universal language.

After a quick lunch, we headed over to start our service project. This consisted of sanding and painting the walls of apartments. These apartments are owned by the JDC and house individuals who would not otherwise have a place to live. While we were painting, a third of the group went to go see a family that was affected by the economic collapse and that the JDC is helping. The work was fairly tough, especially sanding the walls by hand, but it was rewarding. It’s only our first day of service and I know we’ll be tired from it, but it’s good to be reminded of why we’re here. Some of what we’re here to do is sightsee, sure, but we’re here to learn about what happened and why we’re here to help, then actually help. It felt good to get dirty and be able to see our efforts paying off in a tangible way. After a lot of paint, dust, singing, dancing, and elbow grease, we were able to get a few coats of paint on a large amount of the apartment complex. I’m glad that we have chosen to do something that will directly benefit people and improve the quality of this building.

We’re about to go have a group reflection about our experiences today. It will be interesting to see what other people have gathered from what we’ve learned and seen so far, and how people are reacting. I’m intrigued as to how the group who met the family today feels after personally meeting someone who has been struggling but is receiving help from the JDC. I think it’s important that we’ll get to have this reflection, because it will help us assess where our understanding of the situation is, as well as let us think of our impact and how we can make a bigger difference.

Otherwise, who’s got two thumbs and is ready to have some steak and wine? This guy.

Jake Rosenberg, CLAS ‘15


 

 

 

Welcome to Argentina!

Posted: March 11, 2014

 

Per usual, I was one of the last to arrive at our meeting point in Reagan National Airport (DCA) at 11 a.m. Although I do not know all that goes on in Jenna’s master planning, I suspect that we arranged an early arrival for our 2:59 p.m. flight in order to watch our last game in the regular ACC tournament. Our group of 20 students scrunched into one long table at the Jet Rock Bar & Grill, anticipating our perfect finale…Fast forward 36 hours.
The 30+ degree change hit us hard in the Aeropuerto Internacional De Ezeiza, as we trekked through the familiarly long customs line. With almost everyone on their smartphones trying to connect to the WiFi network, our group met up with Kate Belza (COL ‘13), a JDC Fellow in Argentina, and Yael, our trip’s local coordinator. After an exhausting travel schema (24-hour, for some),  we hopped on a bus to Rosario, Santa Fe, home of legendary soccer player Lionel Messi. This is the first of our two destinations.
After being given less than 30 minutes to freshen up at the hotel, we headed over to the Kehila for lunch, where we met Viviana, who oversees JDC’s social services in Argentina, who provided us with a comprehensive introduction to JDC’s work in Argentina, and gave us an overview about the impact of the economic crisis and how it affected the Argentine Jewry. During our lunch session we talked about what JDC programs were addressing community needs and how we, UVA students, would help. 
We went on a walking tour of the city, where we learned of the city’s founding, societal customs, and history with regard to the Dirty War that took place for approximately 20 years until 1976 as a result of the coup d’etat reaction to Juan Peron‘s government. After walking through several memorials, the civic center, and San Martin Square, we ended our tour at the Monumento Nacional de Bandara, a memorial dedicated to the Argentine flag, which was created in Rosario.
We ended the day with a pleasant discussion led by Hallie about our experience so far. Remarks were made (generally) along the lines of shock and sympathy toard the Argentine people. “Hearing the story from someone in the middle class who was so affected by [the crisis] really hits home. It’s different to hear someone say it first hand.” We reacted to the JDC’s immediate and efficient involvement in saving the Jewish community and responding to its sizable needs. More than 10 years later, with many local Jewish institutions’ health restored, the JDC has resumed its historic role in Argentina as a community-development expert. I, along with my peers, am looking forward to spending the next few days on hands-on engagement with the community.
Anat Gilboa, SEAS ’15 

 

 

 

First Stop – Rosario!

Posted: April 1, 2014

Cornell Hillel is Rosario, Argentina! This post is by Dan Cohanpour and Sarah Cutler; photos by Alicia Glick.

This is so exciting – we made it to Argentina! After a 10-hour red-eye flight (complete with turbulence) to Buenos Aires and a four-hour bus ride replete with snacks and games of Contact, we made it to our beautiful hotel in Rosario!

We got a very insightful debriefing from Viviana, the local coordinator for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Argentina. She gave us some much-needed historical information about the socioeconomic situation for the Argentinian Jewish community after the economic collapse. We learned about the governmental influence behind the crash, as well as the steps made by charity organizations – particularly the JDC – to help support local organizations within the Jewish community. The lecture provided some background before we began doing service work in the community.

We left the hotel to go on a quick walk to get our bearings in Rosario. There were several lawyers’ and doctors’ offices (including a “Hernia Center”…good to know), bakeries and a ton of beautiful parks. Since we took up a lot of sidewalk and crosswalk space, we interfered a fair amount with Rosario’s traffic, none of which is governed by any visible traffic lights.

We returned to the hotel for much-needed showers, then went out to a delicious dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Paraná River. We ate rolls, salad, mozzarella sticks, chicken, pasta and ice cream…we’ve all agreed we’re going to gain a significant amount of weight – but as Rabbi Scott reminded us, this is a Jewish trip, so that seems only fitting. We felt even more out of shape as we looked out of the restaurant’s windows to see what appeared to be the entire population of Rosario exercising outside the restaurant – at the gym across the street, on the trail near the restaurant, and in a small field with pump-up music.

We ended the night bonding as a group and getting to know each other further at the hotel, dancing a long to some Argentinian music as we enjoyed some traditional Argentinian Malbec. We are so excited about these next few days and cannot wait to meet the local community members! Viva Argentina!


 

 

Gearing up for Argentina!

Posted: March 26, 2014

Hello from snowy Ithaca, NY! Hadar here, reporting on behalf of the 15 of us Cornellians awaiting an amazing experience filled with growth and learning. Welcome to the Cornell Hillel JDC blog- a way for us to document our travels and adventures while we take on Argentina (and for mom and dad to know that we are safe and in good hands!). The last week before break is coming to a close and we are all ecstatic for the trip to come.

This semester we met a number of times for orientations to get an overview of Argentina, the communities we will be working with and to understand the specifics of our trip. We’ve broken through the awkward first meeting jitters and feel comfortable with the group as a whole. Last week we met for a Spanish Crash Course led by myself and Sophie to give everyone a basic understanding of the language that we can all hopefully build off of throughout the trip. We are looking forward to learning about the Jewish community in the Buenos Aires region, sharing experiences with the Argentinians we meet, and lending our time to support our new friends. Thanks to the leadership and organization of Hallie and Jenette from JDC Entwine, and Rabbi Scott from Cornell Hillel, we are ready to embark on the spring break of a lifetime this Sunday!

Stay tuned for updates and photos throughout the week!

 

 

Why should Jews go to Haiti?

Posted: March 19, 2014

Erin Beser (far right, baseball cap) traveled to Haiti with Entwine in February 2014.

The Caribbean is a popular destination for February break, offering sun, sand, and an escape from the frigid New York climate. I went to the Caribbean too, last February break, but instead, I went to Haiti. A lot of people were concerned for my health, my safety, even my sanity, asking, “Why are you going to Haiti?” After a week of service with 13 other Jewish young professionals from the US and the UK, I think I finally have an answer.

I went to Haiti because I am curious about how other people live their lives, propelled by my own gratitude and privilege for the life I am able to lead in America. I went to Haiti because I am challenged to become a little bit of a better person each time I am confronted with drastic inequality in our globalized world. I went to Haiti because before the earthquake, there was a long brutal history of violence and political unrest and poverty and disease and hunger. And then there was an earthquake.

I went to Haiti because I am a Jew and what happens in Haiti is just as much my responsibility, my obligation, my problem, as what happens in Westchester. Why should Jews go to Haiti? Why is it a mitzvah, an obligation to care for the non-Jewish sick, the non-Jewish poor, alongside the Jewish sick, the Jewish poor? Our tradition teaches us that we do this to preserve the way of peace, mipnei darchei shalom. This is a question that JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the organization that sent me to Haiti, asks all the time.

JDC partners with several Haitian NGOs that work to further Haiti’s development post-earthquake. PRODEV, one of these Haitian NGOs, has set up four schools throughout the country to serve Haiti’s children until 9th grade. For one week, we served in Ecole Zoranje, the school in the little town of Zoranje, 30 minutes outside of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Many Haitian children and their families were displaced in the aftermath of the earthquake and most of them have significant gaps in their schooling. This year, Zoranje graduated its first class of 9th graders, some of whom were unable to gain acceptance into the next level of schooling. Instead of leaving them to fend for themselves in their vulnerable teenage years, PRODEV decided to form a Young Farmer’s Association and help these young people develop a business model for a sustainable agricultural project. When we arrived, PRODEV had recently acquired a large plot of land for the association to begin farming. Our morning project was to help them clear the land, plow the land and get it ready for planting.

Baking under 95 degree Haitian sun, wearing traditional Haitian straw farming hats, we 14 Jews, many from snowy climates, rolled up our sleeves and learned how to use machetes to help these teens clear their farm and clear a path to their self-reliance and future. It was not easy, though it was pretty comical.

We worked side by side with the Haitian youth, unable to communicate at first. Haitian kids speak Creole from birth, which isn’t as similar to French as one would like, but they learn French in school. So each of us, relying on middle school French, began planting the seeds of a relationship; smiles, gestures, basic questions about family and interests, eventually breaking through to handshakes and warm hugs.

In the afternoon every day we rotated through each class of the school, from Kindergarten through middle school, teaching songs, dances, English, sports, hygiene, whatever we had to give that was new and different, that could enrich the mind of a child by opening up their perspectives and expanding their horizons. The children warmed to us immediately and ran up to each day with smiles, hugs and a delicious chanting of, “Ellen, Ellen” (Haitians switch R’s & L’s.)

The more cynical side of me might ask myself, why bother? What can really be done in a week? Why go at all? But in our closing circle on the last day, through tears of gratitude and sadness, our Haitian counterparts thanked us for getting their project off the ground and into the realm of reality. They admitted to us through Creole translation, they are scared. They don’t know anything about farming and they don’t know how they will manage without the added workforce of 14 Jews.  But we gave them the push to get started, the motivation to tackle a challenge and the support of random strangers who for some reason believe in their potential.

Was that moment worth a week of my life? To reach out to a stranger, a fellow human and say, “I’m here. I care about you and your life for no other reason other than we are both human and occupy the same planet and both like smiling?” For the chance for seeds to grow into something so much more? I think so. And if only for the moment of Jewish and Haitian young adults working together in the fields that were once plowed by slaves who sought freedom and earned it on the very same soil is at least certainly a way of peace. In my opinion, it’s the only way forward at all.

Learn more about JDC's work in Haiti here.

 

 

JDC Entwine at Tribefest

Posted: March 12, 2014

Noah Gardenswartz, (center, in gold hat) will be performing at TribeFest 

JDC Entwine will be at TribeFest! Will you be there? Email Alison Laichter and alison.laichter@jdcny.org to meet up.

Here's a rundown of our sessions.

  • A Wandering Jew's "Global Jewish Comedy Show" | March 16, 4:15pm - Noah Gardenswartz, JDC Entwine Steering Committee member and comedian, pulls from his diverse array of experiences for "A Global Jewish Comedy Show," a look at Noah's encounters with global Jewish communities. [more]
  • Repairing the World: Our Shared Responsibility | March 16, 5:30pm- JDC Entwine staffer Alison Laichter looks at what the Jewish community is doing domestically and globally to make the world a better place – from disaster relief to alleviating poverty - and how you can make an individual impact. [more]

 

 

Adventures in Argentina

Posted: March 8, 2014

We will begin our adventures in Argentina tomorrow, so make sure to check back for blog updates, photos, etc. In the meantime, see below and read what the group has been doing prior to their departure!


Written February 4, 2014:
We’re just a little over a month away from take-off, but our mindset is already in Argentina. The 20 of us have already begun planning for our JDC Entwine trip where we will have the opportunity to help Argentinian Jews over spring break. This trip will be a fantastic way to interact with the Jewish culture in Argentina and help those who were affected by the economic depression a few years ago.

But, the challenge doesn’t begin when we get to Argentina. We’ve already had two orientation sessions which consisted of plenty of embarrassing ice breakers, but also opportunities to learn more about each other, why we want to help, and our previous service work. I can say with confidence that my fellow volunteers have very impressive resumes and this trip is guaranteed to be a good one.

At these orientation sessions, we’ve also established two committees for getting prepared while we’re still in the U.S. The fundraising committee, led by Jessica Kocen, has come up with all sorts of ideas to raise money and reach their goal of $7,200. Similarly, the in-kind goods committee, now being led by Whitney Perlen, has come up with many ways to collect goods for the Baby Help Center in Buenos Aires. Both groups have already started working over the break and throughout the month of January, but we’re really excited to get these projects moving even more over the next month.

Overall, these orientation sessions have been exciting, educational, and productive. Jenna, our trip leader, has been so thoughtful and provided us with bagels and orange juice at each session. Its surprising she has been so generous since I continue to argue with her over whether Bodos Bagels can really be considered a quality establishment (but that’s probably just my New York condescension showing). Regardless, we’re very lucky to have Jenna and everyone else involved with this trip. I cannot wait to see what we are able to accomplish!

Samantha Magnes, CLAS ‘17

Written on March 6, 2014:
On Sunday, March 2, those participating in Hillel's Argentina ASB trip gathered at the BJC for the last of three pre-trip orientations. Everyone was giddy, with only one week away from departure. After so many months of just talking about this trip, it now actually felt real.

We were lucky enough to be joined by JDC's own, Hallie Cohn, who will also be joining the group for the trip. We started off the morning with a fun "get to know you" game where two people paired up and acted out embarrassing stories about one another. Then, we had a Skype date with Kate Belza, a JDC fellow and former Hoo, stationed in Buenos Aires who will also be joining us for our trip. It was great to be able to ask her tons of questions, ranging from the country's current economic conditions to what kind of convertor we will need for our phones. The last part of the orientation was updating the group on what the individual committees were doing and accomplished. The in-kind goods committee was able to collect from Charlottesville businesses and received an amazing amount of donations of children's clothing, toys, and shoes from Congregation Beth Israel. The fundraising group shared the success of the delicious spaghetti dinner the prior week which raised over $300.The goods and money raised will all go to The Baby Help Center in Argentina that we will visit and volunteer at next week.

The whole group is getting more and more excited by the minute, sending Group Me weather updates every day. Personally, I already set my weather app to Buenos Aires.

Vamos a Argentina!

Sheryl Greene, COMM ’15

 

 

 

How Does One Give? Reflections on Ethiopia

Posted: February 24, 2014

Lexie Kahn, left, volunteered in Ethiopia with JDC Entwine and UMD Hillel in 2013. More on our college trips here.

During my interview for the University of Maryland Hillel and JDC alternative break to Ethiopia, I was asked why I wanted to go on this trip. My freshman year I spent my spring break volunteering to help the hungry and homeless men and women in the Chicago area, and in 2012 I lead the University of Maryland alternative spring break trip to Nicaragua alongside the American Jewish World Service where we built a water reservoir and spent the week getting to know the local community.

So what now?

I have had the deep conversations about social justice and why we go on these trips. I have had the moving pluralistic shabbos that helped me understand how my peers relate to their Judaism, even though it is so different from my own.

So why Ethiopia? Why was this different?

My response was because I wanted to feel uncomfortable. My last two trips were truly amazing, and I did have many experiences that were difficult to see and comprehend. However I never had a strong feeling of discomfort. That moment where I just wanted to get out. How am i supposed to understand the struggles that others endure if I feel perfectly fine in the same environment?  I wanted to feel how others felt. Understand what their lives were like. I thought that Ethiopia would be the perfect place for this experience and that is why I wanted to go.

After spending eight days in Africa, I can tell you that I was able to accomplish my goal. Ethiopia is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen, and one of the most impoverished as well. We spent four days in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and a place filled with urban poverty, and four in Gondar, a spectacular mountainous city that epitomizes rural poverty.

Our days were jam packed. In Addis, we spent some time in a small room that acted as a clinic. The doctor and patient both stood during the visit, as there was not enough room to fit a chair or an examination table. We also went to visit the WISE center, an organization that partners with JDC to provide Ethiopian women with the funding and education needed to run their own businesses. This was only one of the several microfinance projects run by the JDC that we had the opportunity to visit.

In Gondar, we donated school supplies, helped build a laboratory and a library, went into three different classes where we ran English programs, games, and learned about life in Ethiopia, and we worked at a clinic run by the JDC where we helped de-worm kids, some of whom hope to one day make Aliyah. We also had a chance to visit the village that Ethiopian Jews used to inhabit, including the shul where they use to daven.

Though there were many of them, when I think back on my discomfort throughout the trip 2 stand out in my mind. The first took place in Addis, only several hours after we landed. We went on a walk through the mercado - a massive market place that is reminiscent of the shuk in Israel, but about 5 times the size and with much narrower alley ways. As the 25 of us walked through the largest market in Africa, we were stared at by almost all of the locals. While I understand that we were an unusual sight for those who usually inhabit the mercado, it made me feel like an outsider, like someone on display. They would yell things at us and when we would respond with a hello or a smile, as none of us spoke Amharic, they would laugh in return. We were called "firenge", which means "white person". Though it is not meant to be derogatory, no one has ever referred to me by my skin color, until then. I spent 30 minutes trying not to slip, get lost, or have anything stolen all while feeling like I was in an exhibit, a feeling that I had never had before.

The second took place in Gondar. Everywhere you look there are children. Sometimes we saw them because they came to our worksite. We would start off the morning with 20 kids, and end with 70. Other times we would see them every 40 or so feet on the side of the road. Children ages 3 - 8, with no adult. Children standing outside in the heat, without shade or water. Boys without pants or underwear, and girls with torn dresses and broken shoes. And almost every single one of them asked us for money. It was as if that was the only English word they knew. And for some, it might have been. What do you do? If you give to one you must give to all.

But how could I not give? Think about how far $5 can go when the exchange rate is 18 burr per dollar, and a liter of water is only 9. But will handing several children money really solve anything? Or will it cause problems amongst friends and family members, who believe that they deserve the money more. For every 5 kids that I give to, there will be at least 20 more asking for the same courtesy. Alternatively, what will those $5 actually accomplish? That bill is temporary relief. It doesn't teach the value of work, but rather that if you ask enough times you will have dinner that night. It is far more effective to act in a way that will support the country's overall economy or education system, a sustainable investment. Give them the tools to take care of themselves, instead of allowing them to be entirely dependent on American tourists. But the child in front of me still doesn't have dinner. What do I do?

One conversation that takes place on every alternative break asks the question "what's next?" How can we take this experience, and put it into effect when we return back to our comfortable and privileged lives in America. How do we continue to help others, and tell the stories that we were told. What do I do with these feelings of discomfort?

I'm honestly not entirely sure. It is different for each person, and changes at every stage of ones life. What I can tell you comes from one of the texts that we learned on the trip. After discussing quotes from vayikra, the Talmud bavli, and d'varim, we ended our conversation with final words from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks - "we have a duty" he says, "not just to ourselves, our families, and our friends, but also the ever widening concentric circles - community, society, humanity - of which we are a part. We are responsible for what we could do, but did not, to alleviate the human condition. To be sure, these responsibilities are not open ended: we can't do it all. We have limited time, energy, and resources...but what applies to community applies to society, and ultimately the world: we are worth what we are willing to share. Each of us has a contribution to make."

Not only because we are human, but because we are Jews, do we have an obligation to help those less fortunate. Even the poorest is required to give. But what to give? What you can give is different from what I can give which is different from someone else can give. And that's the point. Yes, donating money is great. And so is giving of your time. But those aren't the only ways to help. Give with what you have - are you an artist? A singer? Do you have a story to tell? While in Ethiopia we spent a lot of time with Dr. Rick Hodes - a Jewish American who immigrated to Ethiopia over 20 years ago in order to help those who need medical help. I personally can give by sharing what I saw, and I hope to also raise money to help build a well or to sponsor a child so that he or she can go to school. I hope that I was also able to give through my actions, through everything that we did while in Ethiopia. By showing them that we care. Everyone can give something. And it is through that giving that we can improve the world.

My discomfort has helped me think. It has inspired me. And I hope that it has inspired you as well. Because it is only through caring for one another, including the stranger, that we can really repair the world.

 

 

An Incredible Cultural Restoration in Cuba: My Time in Havana with JDC

Posted: February 24, 2014

Sam Fuchs participated in our Inside Jewish Cuba Insider Trip in December 2013. More on our trips at http://jdcentwine.org/trips

Sitting on a flight headed home to Washington, DC, I felt as though I had just left a completely different world. The bright Miami skyline stood in stark contrast to that of Havana’s, and I was returning emails on my smartphone. However, for the past four and a half days, I had been only 90 miles away – and in the same time zone as home – meeting people with similar values and traditions, even though we spoke different languages.

A few of the particularly powerful moments and feelings we experienced in Cuba were:

  • Seeing young adults lead Shabbat services attended by people of all generations;
  • Joining 150 people for Friday night chicken dinner after Shabbat services (this is one of the few opportunities people have to consume a protein-rich meal);
  • Linking arms with people of all ages at Havdalah services;
  • Realizing that even in a country where people face so many hardships and limitations (living on an income of $20-$25 per month, limited food rations, and in crowded apartments) – people rarely complain and simply make do with what they have. 

During our short trip to Havana, we met with Jewish community leaders, visited the local Jewish cemetery, ate in paladars (small restaurants operated out of a person’s home), toured Ernest Hemingway’s home, and learned about the city’s history. Walking around the old Jewish quarter, we saw where the Kosher restaurant once stood and encountered a local barber shop at which two people in our group opted for quick $6 haircuts. We also met Jewish-Cuban young adults and spoke with them about their daily lives. We taught them Zoomba choreography, and they taught us how to Salsa (I think they were better at Zoomba than we were at salsa, though).

It is incredible to see how much the Cuban Jewish Community, in collaboration with the JDC, has accomplished since restrictions on religious practices were lifted in 1991. The Cuban Jewish Community has a tremendous sense of pride in their heritage and has taken ownership of their community. For example, they do not need a manager or director to help guide Friday night chicken dinners – people simply pitch in, help prepare the meal, and pass out plates without being asked. My visit with the Cuban Jewish Community reminded me of something Steven Spielberg wrote when he visited Havana several years back, a quote that was framed on the wall at the Patronato synagogue: “When I see how much cultural restoration has been performed by you and others, it reminds me again about why I am so proud to be a Jew." I feel privileged both to have spent a long weekend in an incredible city with an amazing group of young adults and to have experienced such a wonderful, welcoming community. I never thought I would be able to say I that I spent Shabbat in Havana.

Maybe next time we can come for Purim!

 

 

Mondays with Cecelia

Posted: February 14, 2014

Hannah Miranda Miller is a JSC Fellow serving in Odessa, Ukraine.

In the nearly six months since my arrival in Odessa, my Monday afternoons at 32 Golokovskaya Street remain a rare constant in my ever-evolving weekly and monthly routines.  Regardless of what’s going on in the office that day or what my plans are for the afternoon, my Monday lunch breaks are spoken for. Every week, I ride the rickety #21 tram to Moldavanka where I can picture exactly what will be awaiting me.

This week, however, my Monday lunch break with Hesed client and poetess Cecelia would help me to see the importance of the work I left behind on my desk even more clearly.

It will take two, sometimes three knocks--that prompt the hungry howls of the scrawny speckled yard dog—before Cecelia unlocks the door and ushers me inside. Her tidy apartment appears practically untouched with each visit. The same earthy, pungent odor of root vegetables pickling in murky brine meets the faintly sweet smell of fried pumpkin pancakes. The same slightly splintered wooden chair awaits me by the window where her stacks of poetry translations, new work, and old revisions are neatly arranged in tall piles.

One of the most respected authorities in the Hesed day center’s weekly literary circle, Cecelia devours books and is constantly writing and revising new poetry of her own. She speaks with tenderness about her favorite writers as if Pushkin, Lermontov, Shakespeare, and Robert Frost might soon stop by for a cup of tea with lemon.

Wednesdays at 2:00 is the highlight of her week- a chance to discuss and share translations and new interpretations of the poetry she loves with equally devoted readers and writers.

Cecelia hasn’t been to the literary circle in over a month because of the snow that’s rendered her creaky wrought iron staircase an icy ladder. We’ve begun a literary exchange of our own since she’s been unable to attend the circle. I brought her a dog-eared, neon highlighted copy of Daniil Kharms’ “Incidences” from my university days. She gave me Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” with a loopy cursive inscription: “To the nice and charming girl Hannah! From, Cecelia in Odessa.”

She won’t leave home to attend the literary circle until the streets are no longer slippery and we both know that we’ve only just begun to see the depth of the Ukrainian winter.

This is why her eyes lit up when I began to speak to her about a new project I’m working on: the creation of a mobile Jewish library that will serve clients of [the Jewish welfare organization] Hesed Shaarey Tzion throughout Odessa Oblast. A van loaded with books will travel on the Hesed “meals on wheels” routes throughout the region to offer homebound clients the opportunity to borrow books on Jewish themes and topics and written by Jewish authors.

I asked Cecelia her opinion as a quasi-literary figure herself. In addition to many questions and helpful suggestions, she was effusive in her support for this idea and delighted that her beloved Sholem Aleichem would be the first to be celebrated.

“We are the people of the book, after all,” she added with a smile.

An exciting component of this mobile Jewish library will be a monthly literary program put on for Hesed clients that will be planned by the teens and madrichim active in JCC Beit Grand’s Jewish Youth Club “Derekh” . We have planned a yearlong literary calendar of events that will provide the inspiration for the teens’ program and our inaugural event will be a celebration of Sholem Aleichem’s 155th birthday. Each month, these young volunteers will travel to a different Hesed location within Odessa Oblast and put on a short cultural program, provide refreshments, and give out audio disks of the works of the particular author being celebrated that month.  The Hesed clients in attendance will also have the opportunity to check out books from the mobile library on these days.

Monday with Cecelia underscored for me not only of the need for this mobile library and the potential impact it could have but also of the value of the inter-generational component of this project. Watching her react to the idea of attending a teen-led program reminded me of the importance of remembering the concept of “L’Dor Vador”- from generation to generation. Bringing Jewish teen volunteers and elderly members of the community together to share an experience will be a tremendous growth opportunity for both groups involved.  As the “people of the book”, it is truly fitting for these monthly meetings to revolve around a Jewish literary calendar

I hope to see Cecelia at our first event in March. I have a feeling she might just brave the snowy streets to hear young voices read the stories of one of her old favorites. 

Check out more blog posts from Hannah at http://anchorsawayodessa.tumblr.com

 

 

Our Service Work in a Poem

Posted: January 14, 2014

Our day began by saying goodbye

We all split up in three car rides

The first one went back to the construction site

Continued yesterdays efforts without a fight.

 

The second caravan visited the Sera Warka school,

Playing games and teaching them english was really cool.

Health concerns for locals have been an underlying issue,

So the group handed out de-worming pills, that's right quite a few.

 

Why not paint a mural on the side of a JDC classroom?

The third group's project made learning fun to consume.

They were welcomed by the young and the old

They knew with a painting of the world these young minds could mold!

 

After our projects were completed for the day

We went to the Gondar Science Center for a short stay.

Their labs seemed quite basic in comparison to the U.S.,

But their efforts are still growing, no need to guess.

 

Lastly we met with a few female nursing students 

The JDC gives them scholarships that cost much more than a few cents.

Young women hoped to work at the hospital after the program

Such a promising and pleasant group, even though they were studying for their exam.

 

The day was constructive and enjoyed by all

We were a little disappointed to stop before nightfall.

Tomorrow will be another busy fun one,

Stay tuned for our next adventures enjoyed by everyone.

 

 

In Gonder, Ethiopia

Posted: January 14, 2014

Stepping off the propeller plane in Gondar was definitely a culture shock for our fourth day in Ethiopia. The airport was one single building and our plane was the only one in sight. In the parking lot we met the JDC fellows living and teaching English in Gondar, Jason and Maggie. As we were standing there we realized that the 7 SUVs were our new way of riding in style through the unpaved roads of Gondar. We piled in, got our cameras out, and started the second leg of our trip in Ethiopia.

As we drove through the villages the Ethiopian children were waving to us and chasing after our fleet of SUVs full of Americans, or "Ferenjis. " We arrived at the famous Fasilides Castle in Gondar for a quick tour and many touristy photo ops. Afterwards, we drove up a windy, bumpy, terrifying hill to our new hotel, Goha. We ate a quick lunch and then headed out to see an old synagogue, clinic, and a school. As interesting as these stops were, we were all a bit distracted by the difference between Addis Ababa and Gondar. The children, houses, clothing, and roads were closer to what most of us had envisioned Africa looking like. Little did we know what was in store for the next day...

We spent the day in a village very far from Gonder, building a new school for the children to attend. We rolled up our sleeves and put on some sunscreen and got to work. First we had to move the sand and cinder blocks over to the building site. Afterwards we watched as the pros added water to the sand to create mortar. Once this was all done we used wooden tools to spread the mortar and pile the blocks. Meanwhile, we had the local Ethiopian children asking for picture so they could see what they looked like for the first time. Thanks to Dr. Rick Hodes' Amharic we learned that we were the first white people this village had ever seen. This was definitely an eye opener, for we never fully understood that some of the people from these rural areas really only know what they have.
After we built 5 layers of blocks we left to go visit one of the many wells the JDC has built in Ethiopia.

The well was surrounded by women because it is their  responsibly to fetch the water every day. Some of us attempted to carry the full jerry-cans that the women lug back and forth several times a day...we didn't get very far. We ended the day with a reflection period focusing on the importance of water in different cultures, religions, and areas. We were all left feeling somewhat confused about the situation.  However, as Manlio explained, "it is better to leave having more questions than when you came."

 

 

Shabbat in Addis Ababa

Posted: January 14, 2014

Last night we spent Shabbat dinner at Dr. Rick Hodes' house with his family and a bunch of other visitors from different places who are here for different projects and purposes. Dr. Hodes brought out crazy hats at the beginning to wear during the blessings. We began by gathering in a circle, holding hands, and singing "If I Had a Hammer." Then we did the blessing over the challah and Dr. Hodes threw pieces around the room to all sixty-something of us. After, we had conversations with many of the kids and played with the two younger ones. They were children who are patients he lets stay in any of his home while they recover. We didn't get to meet any of his adopted children because they are away at school. We truly enjoyed talking and eating with people from around the world experiencing Shabbat at Dr. Hodes' house!

This morning, we had two options to choose from. One group went on a walk around the city. I went with the other group on a hike to the Entoto Hills, located at the outskirts of the city. On the way to the Entoto hills, we passed small women ranging from teenagers to elderly carrying backbreaking amounts of sod or eucalyptus branches at least twice their size. During our walk, we saw a September 11 memorial that was created by the US Embassy and the Ethiopian government. On the way back, we walked all the way down the hill/mountain and stopped at the spots that overlooked the entire city. It was hard enough walking down without a huge load to carry, I can't even imagine how these women do it every day!

This afternoon, we had lunch with girls who have received scholarships from the JDC to attend a private university, called Unity College. We got to talk to them about their lives in college. After lunch, we broke up into discussion groups with them and addressed topics like education in Ethiopia and how these topics affect the country. It was so interesting to hear the Unity students' opinions, and see that on many topics we mostly had the same mindset about the importance of these issues. Then we had our first debrief of the trip. Tomorrow, we leave at 5:15am for Gondar!

 

 

Update from the ground

Posted: January 10, 2014

Recalling whatever limited Western portrayal we've seen of Istanbul, nothing could have prepared us for the real thing. Arriving in the late hours of the night, our bus from the airport weaved through the massive sprawling metropolis with speedy proficiency.  As we passed by stone city walls that represented hundreds of years of history, I realized I was glad my first view of the city was at night.  Enormous mosques and palaces were illuminated by orange and blue hues that emitted an awe inspiring first impression of one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited.

Our first day in Istanbul was spent doing community service for the elderly, some Jewish, some not.  Almost none of them spoke English, but most of the students on this trip speak Spanish, so they were able to communicate.  One participabt was left to ponder how to contribute.

His answer came later in the day we visited another old age facility, where most of the residents required 24 hour assistance. He had brought my guitar along with me and began to walk around through the rooms playing what songs I knew.  As he started singing and playing Hallelujah, and from across the hall we heard an elderly bed-ridden woman start to sing the word “hallelujah,” though we're not sure if she knew what it meant or was just eager to sing along. 

He walked into to her room and started singing with her.  She smiled and ecstatically sang the world “hallelujah” through a toothless grin as I sang the chorus over and over. By this time, everyone on our trip and the hospital staff had entered the room and had started singing with us.  When leaving the facility, I was thanked by the Turkish staff.  It may sound corny, but all I could reply was “my pleasure.” Making that elderly woman happy for even a few minutes with music was extremely meaningful.  Not only were we halfway across the world, but we just made a positive difference with someone who didn’t even speak my language.

Later in the day, we toured the world famous Bazar, the largest interconnected one of its kind in the entire world.  Needless to say, it was unbelievable. Huge underground labyrinths of stone alleys exceeded any expectation we had. We shopped until we dropped, and also found the locals to be quite pleasant, and even sat down with them to drink some (strong) Turkish tea.  We could have stayed for hours, as the alleys literally stretched farther than my eyes could see, but that probably would have worried our trip leaders. 

As we enter Shabbat, I’m excited to see the Turkish cultural influence on the davening and religious practices, and cannot wait to explore more of this amazing city. 

 

 

Hello from Ethiopia!

Posted: January 10, 2014

Today we enjoyed our first full (well-rested) day in Ethiopia. In the morning, we split up into groups and visited different businesses across the city that were created through the JDC micro loan project that provides business-enabling loans to mothers who would otherwise be unable to get money. It was amazing to see how these women were able to create and grow profitable businesses - a restaurant, juice store, and fruit market stand - with nothing more then a small loan and the support of their community.

After this, we went to have lunch and meet Dr. Rick Hodes, the JDC medical director for Ethiopia. Dr. Hodes has been in Ethiopia for over twenty years, and currently works with patients with heart and spine problems. In the afternoon we visited the hospital he works at and got to meet some of his current and former patients, including a dozen heart problem patients who the JDC are sending to India to get heart surgeries. Meeting and speaking with these men, women, and children, who have suffered so much and are getting a second chance at life through the JDC medical program, was an incredibly moving experience.

We also visited the Ethiopian Ethnographic museum, and were able to explore many of the dozens of different cultures and practices that make up daily life for different groups living in, or originating from, Ethiopia. Later tonight we are going to celebrate Shabbat at the home of Dr. Hodes; I have no doubt that this will be a Shabbat that none of us ever forgets!

 

 

Welcome to Lugansk, Ukraine

Posted: January 9, 2014

The following text was written by Vadim Yarylchenko and translated from its original Russian by Ezra Moses 

The Jewish community of Lugansk, Ukraine, has many partcipants between the ages of 12-16. “Hesed Ner,” the community center, has a teen club for them. Every Sunday we have programs for them between 2-5:00 pm, as well, we gather to celebrate Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays.

We have over 40 participants in our teen club, which is managed by Natalie Sitnikova, who invests a lot of time in developing strong Jewish programming for this age group. Our focus has been developing teen leadership and the values of volunteerism and community involvement, which has helped us win grants to further our development as a group. Our successes have been incredible as our teenagers have become ever more active and conscientious of the entire Jewish community in Lugansk. They are now much more interested in the development not just of the teen club but of the community as a whole. The significance is massive as the members are coming to plan the programs of the club, the major events, how we celebrate holidays, and the planning of seminars.

We want to note two programs that the teenagers have not just been involved in but have taken the leading roles in since last year called “EcoTorah” and “Active.”

In the project “EcoTorah” participants discover for themselves the world, how they can protect the world, study Jewish texts on this subject, and, of course, volunteer programming. The participants went on three seminars with tents and a four-night camp, in which 60 people from all of Lugansk joined them to learn about Judaism and Ecology.

Our other project “Active” was run by our Madrichim (leaders) and motivated members in the community. The result was a lot of strong volunteer based programs. At the end of the project our volunteer leaders ran a seminar for teenagers from Lugansk in a nearby town. At the seminar of 50 people, they shared their experiences and exchanged ideas for future development. The seminar was full of leadership based activities and programs on Jewish culture and traditions.

Check out our video slideshow from EcoTorah at this link http://vimeo.com/59568011

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Day 3!

Posted: January 8, 2014

 

Though our time here as been short, today might have been my favorite day. We started off by visiting a market in the Sofia Mall where we grocery shopped for a small gift/treat to bring with us to our home visits. Stephanie and I decided to get some delicious looking pastries for our hosts. 
We then spent some time at the JCC dancing, eating, and cooking. From here, we split off into our pairs and were off to our home visits. I was fairly nervous at first because I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The couple welcomed us into their home with such a warm approach, and I could feel their genuine happiness in having us there with them. Stephanie, and our Bulgarian translator Natalie, spent over an hour talking with the couple about their Jewish roots. 
A common thread that we were able to find was the idea of "it is never too late." This concept is one that we discuss with Hillel - in that it is never too late to get involved within the Jewish community, Jewish culture, and your Jewish identity. 
Talking with the couple about how during communism they were unable to practice or learn about Judaism and how it wasn't until after WWII when they were able to return to school that they were able to connect with Judaism. 
The couple told us that being Jewish is not about being religious, and that it is rather about making a choice to identify and develop a personal identity and connection to Jewish culture. 
Finally, our day concluded with a great dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. I have been anticipating a meal like this for weeks - and it didn't disappoint. It was nice to have this time to relax, eat, and laugh. 
- Lyndsey Havens

 

 

 

Day 1!

Posted: January 7, 2014

We’ve just finished our first full day in Turkey. At the surface, Izmir looks like many other modern cities in Europe and Israel - at least until you see the Roman ruins across the street. We started the day with a visit from the city’s Chief Rabbi at our hotel who answered many of our questions about the Jewish community. From there, we went to a women’s meeting at the Jewish community center. Many of the women were in their 70’s or 80’s - they were incredible singers! We swapped songs and stories over lunch (baklava!) and then headed out for a tour of the community synagogues. They were absolutely incredible. We were also surprised at the synagogues’ proximity to each other- some were as close as across the street! We learned that when whole congregations moved here in the 16th and 17th centuries, they didn’t want to change their personal customs, so they founded multiple synagogues. After a short rest at the hotel, we had a delicious dinner with many of the high school students involved with the community. Activities included comparing music, discussing Judaism, Israeli dancing and looking at pictures of the Turkish Justin Bieber. We can’t wait to see what the rest of the trip will bring!

 

 

 

Day 2!

Posted: January 7, 2014

 

Today we started off our day by going to the 3rd largest synagogue in Europe. The architecture in the building was rich in color and design.  

After our tour of the synagogue, it was off to the elderly day care where we got to hear a group of men and woman sing traditional Sephardic songs. Our group got up and danced around, and sang them the KU Alma Mater. One of the elderly men who was playing the accordion went up to Alex Null and serenaded her with "Love Me Tender".

In the afternoon, we headed to the elderly home where we participated in art therapy. We got the opportunity to speak with them and hear their stories. Although they didn't speak English, we found other ways of communicating, either by speaking Hebrew or Spanish. When we were walking out of the home, the director showed us the courtyard which was donated by the Kansas City Federation.



Tonight for dinner we went to the Sofia Moishe House, which is a home that young adults 22-30 live and host different activities for the Jewish community. We got to interact with our Jewish Bulgarian peers and learn about what they are doing in their community to improve or educate Jewish young adults. 

- Ellie Stropes

 

 

 

Day 1!

Posted: January 7, 2014

We finally arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria after a long day/night of traveling!

The weather in Chicago caused us to be a little delayed, but we were able to catch our flight just fine from Vienna to Sofia!

We checked in our hotel and began our journey with an interactive tour of the beautiful city of Sofia! We met up with several local peers and learned about important landmarks throughout the city! We concluded our evening with icebreakers and a yummy dinner at the JCC of Sofia.

Rock Chalk Jayhawk!
-Alex Null 

 

 

 

A Special Weekend

Posted: December 26, 2013

For me a good work week includes overseeing and advising the continued development of Jewish teen programs in Ukraine. But to see three of those programs in action; that is incredible. And to be able to show off our successes to the presidents of International BBYO, Michaela Brown and Mika Stein; that is special.

We started off the weekend in Kharkov. The presidents planned a short program for teenagers for Shabbat while the teenagers from Kharkov planned icebreakers and led kabbalat Shabbat. It was a great cultural exchange between the two groups and it made the teens in Kharkov feel closer to the teens of BBYO and the global Jewish community.

Next stop: Poltava. Immediately after Shabbat ended, we jumped onto a bus and arrived at Hesed Nefesh, which serves as the community center in Poltava. The presidents were welcomed with a Russian song called “Mayo Serdtze” – “My Heart.” The spirit felt during havdallah was palpable, as 20 Jews from around the world met in the small city of Poltava as a proud and united Jewish people. Here is the Instagram video of the song played to the BBYO presidents http://instagram.com/p/iO5IbPMVwr/

In the morning, we travelled from Poltava to Sumy to see the Sunday School, and different activities for children and teenagers. Then as we were in the synagogue the teenagers started breaking out into Israeli dances. When the teen program began and the presidents were able to present about BBYO and their experiences we all started to sing Hinei Ma Tov Uma Nayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How Beautiful It Is As Brethren to Sit Together.

It really was a moment of pleasantness that must get replicated more and more often. As Lera, a 14 year-old from Sumy, stated so eloquently, “What you have in your hometowns, in the United States, as groups of Jewish teenagers, sounds really similar to what we have here in Sumy. It makes me proud to be a Jew.”

The physical distance between Jewish communities is of zero importance because wherever we are the song rings true: How beautiful it is for us to be together as the Jewish people.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like those in Kharkov, Poltava, and Sumy, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Not Just Odessa Mamas but Odessa Teenagers

Posted: December 19, 2013

One of the things I love about my work is getting to sit down with new people and hearing their Jewish stories and connections to the Jewish world and their communities. This week I got to sit down with a 16 year-old from Odessa named Amalia. Amalia is from Odessa, Ukraine who speaks perfect English and will be joining me and a few other teenagers from Ukraine at BBYO’s International Convention in Dallas, Texas in February.

I met Amalia on Sunday, at Beit Grand, the JCC in Odessa for a program led by a few participants of Metsuda (a Ukraine-wide young adult leadership program). The program was for the active teenagers at Beit Grand and was based on how people spend their time. Each of the 17 participants estimated how many hours they spend doing different activities per week (school, sleep, hanging out with friends, on the computer, etc.) and the average total of hours was almost twice that of amount of hours actually in a week. We discussed how it is possible for us to use our time so that we can maximize our life priorities.

I returned to Beit Grand on Tuesday to meet with Amalia to discuss going to International Convention. I walked into the youth room and it was full of teenagers playing board games with one another. I was stupefied. Most of these teenagers were just here two days before for another program and here they are again.

Amalia explained that on Sundays the teenagers come for a discussion program, on Tuesdays they come back for board games night and on Fridays they come for Shabbat. Upwards of 20 teenagers are meeting at Beit Grand three times a week for teen based programs. Ask any Jewish youth group leaders of any Jewish organization in North America, I think they would agree that this is one of the most successful teen programs.

 They have teen madrichim that plan a good portion of the programs and the one local Shabbaton per year. Beit Grand is not just a meeting place for them but also a Jewish home for them.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like the one in Odessa, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

 

Inside Haiti Through A Child's Eyes

Posted: December 12, 2013

In February 2013, Dorron Lemesh participated in JDC Entwine's Inside Haiti trip. As part of the experience, Dorron and fellow Entwine Insiders visited Ecole Nouvelle Zoranje, a school launched by The Foundation for Progress and Development (PRODEV) with the objective to train a growing number of teachers and provide under-privileged children of Haiti with the education they deserve. || FULL PHOTO SET HERE

When we visited the school in Zoranje, JDC Entwine asked us to come up with activities to do with the kids.  
I remembered being inspired by a project which I once heard about in India, or maybe it was Nepal, regardless it was terrific, where school kids were given disposable cameras, and asked to photograph their friends & family, at their homes, where they play, any way they wanted to.
I said "that's what I want to do." So we gave cameras to the best students in each grade, and let them go to work!

The results were, not unexpectedly, astonishing.
A few photos are here, and a full album with some photos from each of the eight students is here: 
I loved the idea of being able to see the world unfiltered through a child's eyes, and hopefully get (and we did) a more honest look at the world they inhabit. When one travels, there can be a tendency to inadvertantly create "docu-pornography" or getting shots that either show the majestic side of a location / situation, or the gut-wrenching can-you-believe-it tragic extreme, that one can show off afterwards -- who wants to look at boring photos?
The kids taking pictures removes the ego from the story, and shows an unvarnished, if seemingly less exciting and more mundane, truth. And therein lies the story, that life, despite bombastic headlines, and the myriad of daily struggles, is magically mundane, and that is no bad thing. 

Check out another inspiring JDC Entwine Inside Haiti 2013 here, where Carrie Watkins posts about an unexpected jam session involving a ukele and young student rapping.

See, help out and learn for yourself:

Applications are now open for JDC Entwine Inside Haiti 2014!

 

 

Kirovograd's First

Posted: December 12, 2013

The following was written by Elizaveta Bulgacheva and translated by Ezra Moses

On November 29, 2013, at Kirovograd’s Hesed Community Center there was a celebration for Chanukkah. The organizers of this program were from our brand new teen club and this was their first program.

The program was called “Jewish Family Restaurant” which was attended by the elderly poor in the community: grandmothers and grandfathers of 65 years and older. Before the program we ordered the food for a meal and sufganiot, all of which we prepared nicely with drinks for our fellow Jews. Then we organized the room and tables, and on every table we put a chanukiah.

We played music for the audience from the 1960s to the 1980s as well as special Chanukkah music which everyone enjoyed.

Every table had their own waiters, a teenager, that helped get everything the clients wanted. Each client was free to choose from our menu what food they would like and ordered it through their waiter. The orders were then taken to the kitchen where the food was prepared by others teenage volunteers.

Besides the delicious food, the teen club prepared the entire program including the music, Chanukkah sing-a-long, and the prizes that all the clients got at the end of the program.

At the beginning of the evening program we brought in Chanukkah with the lighting of the candles together. Afterwards, we had a 9 year-old from the community sing a song about the holiday. As the night continued, one of the guests told a story about Moses and started singing songs in Yiddish.

 The most unexpected thing was that the guests also prepared something for the end of the program. They brought all of the volunteers Chanukkah gelt.

As the participants were leaving the doors a few said some really moving words:

“The program was very original and unique. Unlike normal, you thought of a whole menu. Please invite us for future events and holidays.”

“Thank you so much! We had an amazing evening. The teenagers were so smart and cute. We really hope that this will not be the last holiday we spend together!”

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs, like the one in Kirovograd, throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Why It All Matters

Posted: December 6, 2013

This week significant changes have happened in Ukraine's Jewish communities. They might not be seen by the entire community but the impact will be lasting and strenghen the future of Ukrainian Jewry. And where has it all begun? With teenagers and their motivation to transform their Jewish communities.

Let's start with Sumy, Ukraine: Their teenage madrichim (leaders) planned a community Hanukkah event called “Hanukkah Casino.” The teenagers ran stations for different Jewish board games, dreidl competitions, Hanukkah memory games, a counter to buy tickets, and a counter to exchange tickets for prizes. The program was attended by 50 community members of all ages, but run by the teenagers.

In Kharkov, the teenage madrichim took a large step towards the ultimate goal of programs being completely thought up and run by themselves. While talking about this week’s program the madrichim took the lead completely. They thought up the idea of the program (a scavenger hunt throughout the JCC) and starting planning each station. In fact, they planned the entire program themselves with minimal alterations made due to logistics. We cannot wait to see how it will go!

(Picture from last week's Hannukah program - making decorations for the entire Jewish Youth Club Association)

Our newest addition of teen madrichim came this week out of Dnepropetrovsk, a city with the largest Jewish business center in the world. Constantine Kanivets, the youth director of the JCC, had three teenagers that wanted to start a teen club, and this week they had their first meeting to plan and talk about its future. They have their first event later this month and they could not be more excited to invite all their friends to see what is going on.

But why does all this matter?

When the teenager in Sumy gets to plan a program that is attended by the entire community they are no longer participants. They are leaders, their connections to the community becomes stronger, and we ignite a flame within them that they will always want to improve the community. It becomes their community.

I video-conferenced into the meeting with the Dnepropetrovsk madrichim with the madrichim from Kharkov. The most important part was that these teenagers got to see and learn from each other about the values of communal involvement. They got to see that they are not the only ones delving into Jewish life. When the leaders of both teen clubs lit the Hanukkah candles together over Skype – we got a small glimpse of what the future of a unified Jewish Ukraine and Jewish world will look like.

That is why it matters.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teen clubs throughout Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Starting a Trend

Posted: December 1, 2013

Arik Einstein Z’L an influential Israeli musician passed away suddenly last week. I remember at a young age while studying at Solomon Schechter Academy, in Montreal, a song he wrote about idealism and working together entitled “Ani V-Ata” ­– You and I: “Together, we can change the world / together, others will follow / others have said this before me / it does not matter, together, we can change the world.|

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Poltava, Ukraine, to speak at a seminar for Ukrainian youth directors about teen programs, how to empower teenagers to take on initiatives and local programs, and about a partnership with BBYO. I was invited to speak by Alla Magas, the youth director at Beit Dan, Kharkov’s JCC. Alla and I have been working tirelessly to help develop teen clubs throughout Ukraine.

I am always impressed by the devotion of staff members in Jewish communities. People that work for non-profits are known for working long hours and are devoted past their remuneration. These youth directors, from large and small cities throughout Ukraine, heard the call about forming strong teen programs in their communities. Those communities that did not have teen programs declared that they would now start them. Those communities that did have teen programs announced that it was time to empower their teenagers to become teen leaders.

The best example, occurred the next day. The youth director from Sumy, a city of approximately 300,000 people, organized their first Teen Shabbat event. With only one day of planning, they put together a small but significant program.

By Sunday, they already had their first teen madrichim (leaders) meeting.

Alla and I might be the faces in Ukraine but JDC and its partner BBYO are leading together to change the world. And yes, like Einstein famously sang, together, with us, others are following.  

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Sumy, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

 

 

Kharkov's Teen Club Videos

Posted: November 20, 2013

At the beginning of November Kharkov's Jewish teenagers took part in a BBYO program called Global Shabbat. They videotaped some of their favorite moments of the program.

Two of our incredible teen madrichim (leaders) Stanislav and Violetta then put together this wonderful video montage of the past three years of teen activities at Beit Dan, Kharkov, Ukraine's Jewish Cultural Center.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Kharkov, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762


 

 

A Dream of Teen Shabbatons

Posted: November 14, 2013

Ella attended a family shabbaton two weeks with the Jewish community from Poltava. Ella goes to many programs in her community ranging from teen programs, Sunday school, and Shabbat activities that are funded by both the local Hesed and the Progressive Jewish congregation Beth Am Poltava.

Ella is also a fantastic basketball player. She arrived at the shabbaton late because her basketball team beat the second best team in Ukraine for her age. Actually she beat the second best team. The final score was 60-30, and she had 40 points.

The shabbaton was a wonderful weekend where we celebrated b’nei mitzvah of two teenagers, Alexei and Anna, concurrently with a teenager in the twin Reform congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, California. The theme of the weekend was Chanukah and how we can bring Chanukah back home.

We had many programs just as teenagers that were based on Chanukah including a dreidl competition, an acted out version of the story of Chanukah, and a discussion on what the real meaning of Chanukah was. The amount of knowledge and understanding that Ella had about the holiday was surprising, as Poltava does not have a Jewish day school or many Jewish organizations but her understanding, and many others, of the holiday was no less than Jews anywhere else in the world.

In our last group session, Ella made an announcement. She loved the weekend, but she would have loved it more, if it was just teenagers. And then she continued, “Let’s have shabbatons only for teenagers, with Kharkov, and Kiev, and Odessa, and Dnepropetrovsk, and every other city in Ukraine.”

Let’s make Ella’s dream a reality.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like Ella, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

Kharkov's Milestone

Posted: November 7, 2013

This week the teen club at Beit Dan, Kharkov’s JCC, had a milestone, one that we hope to see more of throughout Ukraine. Organized by two volunteer leaders of the Jewish Youth Association we initiated our first teen board, or as we call them teen madrichim.

What is a madrich? From the Hebrew root derekh which means direction, a madrich is a leader that shows the way. And that is just what these four teen leaders want to do.

Over the past two years, as the teen club has been built and developed in Kharkov, teenagers have engaged and been inspired by Jewish traditions, culture, and community. When asked why they now want to be leaders, their answers were simple: “we love community, and we want to add to it,” “we want to learn to create and develop programs too,” and “we’ve seen other leaders, and have been inspired, now we want to inspire.”

This process of empowering teenagers is a test for everyone involved. For the teenagers it is a test to see how much they are willing to be initiators rather than observers. For the volunteer leaders they will be learning how to pass on the knowledge that they have accumulated over the years to the next generaion. And for the community, as a whole, it is an experiment of training leaders in their adolescent years to think about major issues.

Before the meeting ended, I mentioned a small project that I wanted to do. Simple – make a video of the four teen leaders saying Shabbat Shalom to our partner organization, BBYO. Their answer was less simple, “Why just the four of us?” They wanted this Friday’s program to be the entire club making a 3 minute video, about who we are and what we do, and share it with BBYO.

I think we are already passing the test.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Kharkov, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762


 

 

Letting go while doing good in Turkey.

Posted: November 5, 2013

Derek Miller served as a 2012/13 JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow in Turkey, where he worked to enhance existing teen programming and youth leadership initiatives, as well as develop community-wide programs.

When I graduated from Tufts University four and a half years ago, most of my friends headed to graduate school or full time jobs in major cities. I, on the other hand, headed to Spain for a year to teach English. My father always told me that once “real life” started it would be hard to take a break, and one of his biggest regrets was not taking time off before becoming a doctor. So, since high school I had planned on taking a couple of years after college to travel, explore, and learn, and doing the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps was part of my fulfilling that plan.

After returning from teaching English in Spain for a year fluent in the language, I worked for two years in a Spanish restaurant near my hometown in Connecticut as Sommelier. After two years, my wanderlust kicked in, and I decided what better way to spend my last pre-career year than living abroad, helping a Jewish community, and learning a new culture and language? I couldn’t think of one, so I boldly moved to a new country that I had never visited before.

Living in Turkey for a year was better than I could have hoped! The community was warm and welcoming. The country was full of history and beautiful. For example, I was amazed by Pamukkale,  an ancient city built near limestone deposits (travertines) about 3 hours from Izmir. And the food was out of this world! As expected, there were challenges – adjusting to a new culture, living in a place without speaking the language, making friends. However, every speed bump I overcame helped me grow. For example, meetings in Turkey are very informal by American standards. No one takes notes; there’s rarely a strict agenda, and they usually start ten to thirty minutes late. Once I let go of my “American-ness” and embraced the “Turkish-ness” when encountering minor cultural differences, it was smooth sailing and I was able to work productively within the community. I even learned to speak Turkish, and now have many friends in Turkey.


After my year in Turkey, I got a job doing sales at a start-up in New York City. I’ve returned feeling like I’ve spent my time since I finished college in a productive and meaningful manner, and I’m ready to start “real life”. I look back on those years with fond memories, and look forward to joining my friends in the “traditional” workforce.

Applications are now are open for the 2014/15 JDC EntwineGlobal Jewish Service Corps! This is a paid, professional opportunity overseas.

 

 

 

 

Ukrainian Teen Programs: Odessa

Posted: October 31, 2013

By Alisa, 14, of Odessa - translated by Hannah Miranda Miller

Last week, I attended a shabbaton hosted by Odessa’s JCC, Beit Grand for teenagers in Derekh – the youth club. The shabbaton’s theme, loosely based on Harry Potter, “the magic of knowledge” was held at a hotel, appropriately named Snow Queen.

Everything was, indeed, magical. We were sorted into three Hogwarts styled houses, each one with a specific Jewish focus like history and culture. My house focused on Jewish traditions.

(Just like in Harry Potter, the sorting hat chose a group for each of us when we arrived at the Shabbaton and mine was "Grisherin", which focused on Jewish traditions)

The new information and the knowledge that came with it served us well in the magical games we played throughout the shabbaton.  Every new holiday or tradition our group learned had to be drawn on large posters which helped us learn the material. Most importantly, it was fun and interesting!

(This is me (on the far right) with members of my group explaining the rites of passage that a Jewish girl will go through in her lifetime-from naming ceremony to bat mitzvah to chuppah)

At times we were assigned secret missions via SMS to obtain extra points for our house. The funniest and strangest mission was to steal all the madrichim’s (staff members’) toothbrushes.  At the end of the shabbaton points were counted. Unfortunately, my house did not win – Jewish culture did, focusing on different Jewish artists, musicians and films.

(This is me learning about rules of modest dress according to traditional Judaism)

Of course we also celebrated Shabbat! Like a family, we gathered around a table – girls said the prayer over the candles and boys over wine and challah. The next night, we bid farewell to the Shabbat Queen over Havdallah.

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This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Odessa, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

 

A Melting Pot in the Kalwa Slum

Posted: October 29, 2013

Leah is a Year-Long Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) fellow serving in Mumbai, India
India is known for having hundreds of languages, but rarely do you come across a classroom in the slums where children are shouting hello in English, Italian, Hebrew, Afrikaans, and Samoan. But last week, there were three such classes in the slums outside Mumbai where we, as volunteers with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), teach informal lessons every day. We are an eclectic, international group and because our students do not have the opportunity to see the world, we decided to bring the world to them during an "International Week". 

We flew to Israel and had each child put a wish into the Kotel; we flew to South Africa for an animal safari; we made pizza and ate pasta in Italy; in London we met the queen; in New York we saw the Statue of Liberty; and in Samoa we learned a song about walking, talking and love. For us as volunteers, it was amazing to see the children’s ideas of what the world holds expanding as they enjoyed the cultures of our homelands. But what struck us most was the feeling of unity (unità; achdut; eenheid; fa’atasi; and, the new one for us, ekta) between all cultures represented.

 

 

Chess: The Universal Language

Posted: October 29, 2013

In March 2013, Lindsay Pearlman traveled with fellow students from Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center to Kiev, Ukraine with Entwine to learn about the local Jewish community and serve alongside Ukrainian Jewish peers.

We had arrived at the JDC-supported Hesed (Jewish Community Center) in Kiev, on a sunny morning in March, eager to spend time with the elderly within. I entered the recreation room taking care not to track in snow from outside.  The piano abruptly stopped and chairs squealed, heralding our entrance.  


The air inside was warm, the faces kind, and the sounds of voices unfamiliar, but not unfriendly.  Our group of young American travelers was immediately encouraged to sing with the members of Hesed choir, but three men around a chessboard in the corner caught my eye.  Like the others, they were well-dressed and lively, but it was the intensity of their focus on the pieces before them drew me closer.  I leaned over one player’s shoulder, curious how a man his age could move his hands about the board so quickly.  When the game ended, they quickly talked amongst themselves and invited me, with hand motions and grunts, to challenge their best player; I graciously accepted in my awful Russian. 

With a touch of trepidation, I took my seat across the board from the Hesed’s reigning chess champion. Despite his frailness, I felt small in his shadow.  He watched with hawk-eyes as I made my opening move, than shook his head, as did the other men.  I had already lost.  In a few moves, he decimated my army and declared checkmate.  I bowed my head, acknowledging my loss; he offered his hand instead.

It must have been a curious scene for onlookers, the small American girl in a chess showdown with a Hesed hero. The three men were certainly entertained, as they asked me to send photos of the chess game when I got home.

Oddly enough, it was during this chess game, while being good-naturedly beaten by someone my grandpa’s age, that I first felt at home in the land where my family had come from.  These men did not know me, but they whole-heartedly welcomed me.

Two people of very different ages, different languages, and different upbringings shared a common meaningful experience that did not require direct communication. In my opinion, this is what JDC trips are all about, the reinforcing of fundamental connection.  I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to have visited the Jewish community in Ukraine and encounter my heritage face-to-face.  However, I also learned an important lesson: an organization can help get you somewhere, but, if you want to grow as a person, you and only you can make that decision to sit down at that chessboard.

 

 

 

Ukrainian Teen Programs: Poltava

Posted: October 25, 2013

Poltava is a beautiful city in Eastern Ukraine with a population of 350,000. There was a time when the Jewish population of Poltava was 40 percent of the city. Walking through Poltava, you feel that you are in a Jewish city. Many buildings look and feel like they are Jewish, and if you stare at it long enough, you will find hidden Stars of David or start recognizing them as synagogues.

Today, there are about 1500 Jews in the local Hesed’s (Jewish community center) database, and they believe there are at least 3000 Jews in the city, if not more.

Every week at the Hesed, they have Shabbat programming that attract a couple dozen young adults and teenagers. This week I got to know them more personally by spending the weekend in Poltava. We sang and danced during Kabalat Shabbat, had Shabbat dinner, and an Oneg Shabbat for the young adults afterwards.

I talked to a few of the teenagers, after Kabbalat Shabbat about activities that they like doing. One girl, named Anna, said that she loves playing basketball. A few of the other teenagers said that they too enjoy playing basketball. This is a novelty, at least for me. I find it hard to put together a pickup game of basketball, but in Poltava it was quite easy to organize. We agreed that on Sunday after Sunday School we would go play basketball. Another girl, named Ella, was by far the best on the court sinking nearly all her shots.

There are 18 Jewish teenagers in the database at the Hesed. Every week they have programs on Sundays that attract minimally 12 of the teenagers to the program. This week they did skits about the weekly Torah portion and had a full discussion amongst them on the importance of family.

These teenagers love the Jewish community. They spend their entire weekends at the community center, their summers’ at Jewish family summer camps, and the infrequent family shabbaton.

This year, we are trying to connect Jewish teenagers, like those in Poltava, in Ukraine to each other through seminars and retreats and to BBYO international. Every week, I will be showcasing a different community and their teen club. Help us strengthen the Jewish world by connecting Jewish teens to one another. Learn more by clicking on the following link.

http://www.jdcentwine.org/cause/762

 

 

Serve in Ghana with JDC Entwine

Posted: October 22, 2013

Want to work overseas NOW? 

We have a brand new, year-long, paid placement with the Global Jewish Service Corps in Ghana starting immediately. 

Living near Accra, this fellow will facilitate formal and informal education for children suffering from spinal disease at FOCOS (Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine), a partner of JDC.

Be a part of our 2013-2014 cohort of Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellows! (http://jdcentwine.org/jsc)

E-mail GlobalService@jdcny.org for more information.

Earlier this year, Menachem, a JSC Fellow serving in Ethiopia, detailed his efforts to transport spinal patients from Ethiopia to Ghana for JDC-supported surgeries. Read more here: http://jdcentwine.org/blog/924

 

 

 

The Rhythm of Hebraica

Posted: October 15, 2013

Kate Belza is serving as an Entwine JDC-BBYO Global JSC Fellow in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Read more from Kate on her blog, Un Año en Buenos Aires.

After being here over a month, I've settled into a rhythm. Three mornings a week I go to the JDC office, four afternoons I go to Hebraica (one of the largest JCC's in Buenos Aires), and Saturdays I travel outside the city to Hebraica's country property. Hebraica has over 7,000 members, 500 staff, a thirteen-story building and a country club outside the city. At any moment activities abound including lighting Shabbat candles, elderly ladies learning how to use a computer, Rikkudim classes, basketball games, youth directors and madrichim planning upcoming activities, aerobics, informal Jewish education activities, and then some.

I work in the youth department, with 1,300+ kids 2-17 years old, and 100+ madrichim (counselors) who lead the programs (18-21 years old). Madrichim plan programs for the kids aged 3-14 and then teens aged 15-17 go to a madrichim school! When you graduate from the madrichim school, you become a madricha. There are directors for each of the age groups and then a director for the entire youth department, Jessi.

I work most closely with three groups: the madrichim school, a program called Mitnadev, an ongoing volunteer project, and on Hebraica's relationship with BBYO, the world´s leading pluralistic Jewish teen movement.  I plan programs and help teens in the madrichim school connect with Jewish teens around the world. In February I will accompany teens from Hebraica to BBYO´s International Convention in Dallas.

My typical day at Hebraica:

Monday: Teens interested in learning more about BBYO and connecting with teens from around the world meet for fun activities such as Google Hangouts with teens in America.

Tuesday: I attend meetings with the "anala" which includes all of the directors of the different programs in the youth department. 

Wednesday: The madrichim school meets for about two hours at night, so I go to help where I can and participate in the activities.

Friday: I help out with Mitnadev´s ongoing volunteer project, where they plan activities for a group of children who do not have the opportunity to have afterschool activities. For example, they had a scavenger hunt which included getting my signature.

Saturday: I drive an hour outside the city to Pilar, Hebraica´s camp-like country club to see all the youth programs in action.


Each Saturday at Pilar, hundreds if not thousands of people take part in activities and enjoying time with friends and family. Many of the young adults I have met at Hebraica told me although they had friends at school and in other activities, all their best friends today are still from Hebraica.

____________

You too can serve & adventure abroad: Applications for 2014-15 JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps are now open! http://jdcentwine.org/jsc

 

 

 

 

Field Trip: From the Slums of Mumbai to the JCC

Posted: September 18, 2013

Brianna Fischer is the first recipient of the Fishel Fellowship, a two-year paid fellowship sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Brianna is currently serving as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Berlin, Germany, having recently wrapped up her time in India with Gabriel Project Mumbai.

Teaching in the slums of Mumbai has been an amazing experience.  We’re really starting to build relationships with our students who are young Hindu and Muslim children, and they’re learning so much, so fast. We recently took them on a field trip to the Gan Katan (JCC). For most, if not all, it was their first time out of the slum, ever, which was difficult for us to comprehend. Their parents dressed them in their nicest clothes; the girls wore colorful, sequined festival dresses, and the boys' hair was oiled and combed. Most of the kids stared out the bus window for the entire hour-long ride, pointing at new sights with huge smiles on their faces. A few were rather disoriented and got nauseous, this being their first time on a bus! But in no time, they all started singing "Wheels on the Bus" and "I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas," songs we taught them in class. We were so proud.

Before we arrived at the JDC's Gan Katan program, I wondered how our students from the slums would mix with the middle-to-upper class Jewish children at the JCC, it being so obvious they came from completely different worlds. Turns out not only did they get along, but they blissfully played games and sang songs together, utterly oblivious to their differences. I was surprised to learn the more well-to-do JCC kids didn't even need any prep for the encounter; they were simply told new friends would visiting them and that together they are going to learn about science. Apparently, in India, one is constantly in the presence of people from all sorts of economic backgrounds right from childhood, so acceptance comes naturally! 

I have never seen our kids so well-behaved, especially with all the excitement around them, but they really were just happy to be there, and meeting new friends.  They were amazed by the simplest things like paper towels and the toilet which they would never see where they come from, and to which they were graciously guided by the welcoming JCC kids.

We played games, did science experiments and learned about the solar system and the water cycle. The JCC also provided 2 meals for our kids, complete with ice cream at the end. I don’t know if any of them had ever tried ice cream before- it definitely didn’t look like it! On the bus ride home, most of the children fought hard to stay awake but eventually zonked out after such a long, exciting day.  Didn't take too long before I zonked too, content with the feeling of time well-spent, and amazed by a harmonious melding of cultures.

Read previous posts by Brianna and follow her further adventures in Mumbai on her blog.

Volunteer in Mumbai with JDC! We're currently recruiting for the 2013 – 2014 Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps in India in partnership with Gabriel Project Mumbai.

WINTER 2013-2014: December 17-January 14

(Deadline: October 15)

More info here.

Email globalservice@jdcny.org for an application.

 

 

Cuba: Unplugged… from the eyes of a visitor

Posted: September 3, 2013

I spent 5 days & 4 nights over the Labor Day weekend learning about Havana, Cuba & its Jewish community. Here’s a summary of the life of a Cuban & the details of the vibrant Jewish community. At first I thought I was going to bring aid to a deprived community losing faith (due to their small population), but the truth is that I was sent to celebrate a different way of living a Jewish lifestyle & sharing their story with all of you! Thanks to JDC Entwine (Joint Distribution Committee www.jdc.org/ www.jdcentwine.org ) for making this dream a reality!

Money:

Cuban residents are paid in pesos. The average person receives 2,000 pesos = $20 (in US currency). Pesos buy the rationed items that everyone is entitled to at much discounted costs so there is enough for all Cuban residents. These items include eggs, rice, meat… all the way to sanitary products for women.

CUC’s (“cooks”) are the dollars that tourists bring in which is what you would receive if you went to a currency exchange. $1 (US) = 1 CUC. These items can buy anything from non-rationed food, electronics, clothes, etc. The tourism industry is Havana is HUGE because this is how this money comes in. People go out of their way such as handwritten notes from housekeepers thanking you for your service, regular individuals “renting” their cars as taxis to earn CUCs & tons of new businesses opening (in people’s homes) where they can use their specialty & bring in CUCs. As I am sure you can imagine, CUC’s have huge value for Cuban residents… especially when the income of solely 2,000 pesos does not go far.

In reality it is hard to live on this small income so people really do need to find extra income…. 2nd job, receiving money from relatives in the US (primarily Miami), etc. Can you imagine living on $20 a month for your family? I didn’t think so….

Free?!

Education – Cuban residents go to school for free all the way through university. They are able to choose their course of study such as medical, science, education, etc.

Medical Care – Doctor visits are indeed free as well. No insurance needed! The only problem you ask? Your preferred doctor may not be able to see you right away as they have other appointments and clients to tend to. Free is great… but is it worth the wait? Medicines, on the other hand, are far & few between. Finding what you need in a country with limited resources & unknown arrival of items (such as medicine) makes it difficult to get what you need. Luckily, the JDC has started a pharmacy in El Patranato (one of the synagogues) to provide FREE (yes, I said free) medicine to local residents… Jewish or not. These are provided by individuals, such as myself, that come on a trip and bring “gifts” for the community. Feel free to “inquire within” if you’d like to get a copy of this needs list and/or better understand the needs of the community to help them out.

Surprisingly we learned there is also a great need for Ziploc bags to separate the medicines… it’s seriously the simple things that we take for granted b/c we can just run to the grocery store to buy these. Living in Cuba there’s no such thing as “running to the store” because the store has limited items & no one has extra spending money to buy wanted items versus NEEDED items to support one’s family.

Housing: When Castro & his Communist party took over, the entire country (and everything in it) became property of the government. Therefore all housing units (homes, apartments, etc.) became Castro’s to delegate and give out as desired. Therefore if you have a connection to Castro may be you were given a priority to have a nicer home, but the regular citizen was just placed where there was space.

Now keep in mind that generations tend to stick together in Cuba. This means that there can be 4 generations living in one household…. Great grandparents, grandparents, parents & children. There are hardly any new properties or construction projects in the works & therefore there is no space (or money, for that matter) to go. There is a recent law that changed regarding being able to sell homes… but who has the money?! In the past people have found someone else to just swap homes with if they wanted to be closer to work, wanted a change in pace, etc… but there isn’t money involved in this exchange. Otherwise people tend to live in the same home for their entire life…. And with their extended family in (on average) 2-3 bedroom houses or apartments.

There is also a no eviction rule throughout Cuba… so once you are in, you are in!

Transportation:

Public: Talk about a huge issue in Cuba… it’s the public transportation! First of all, there’s not enough! Therefore people walk a LOT and if they want to “hitchhike” a ride through town they better plan an extra FEW HOURS to make their final destination. Whether they are jam-packed in the public buses and/or in a taxi cab with 5 other people… the choices are limited.

I must add, however, that there is not an issue of obesity in Cuba because there are “0” fast food restaurants, no one has money to splurge on dinners out and people walk everywhere!

Private: I am not sure this is even relevant…. A small percent of the population have cars (or bikes). And, if they do, they are from the 1950’s (and before) so they require a lot of upkeep, money and physical labor to keep them going.

Traveling:

Getting Out: In order to travel outside of the country, there is a visa process (including a hefty fee in CUC’s) given to the government you wish to visit to interview to see if you are eligible for a travel visa. If that government suspects that you would travel outside of Cuba & then try to escape (meaning never come back to Cuba) they will not give you a Visa. Therefore it is VERY difficult to obtain a visa to travel…. needless to say, one also needs money to go anywhere… beyond the visa application fee. By the way, regardless if you are approved or not, the fee is nonrefundable.

Wanna pay a visit: If you are from the United States and want to take a trip on your own, forget it! (I imagine you can insert the historical details to figure out why). You can, however, go on a coordinated trip such as through a religious organized or tour group approved by the US government… but the average visa is approved for 3 nights & 4 days. Short, huh?

Religion – Judaism:

In the early 1990’s Castro changed the laws about religion turning the country from an atheist entity … to letting individuals practice their religion while still aligning themselves with the government. Therefore there are MANY religions practiced in Cuba and religious groups come on “missions” to bring aid to their population & ensure that their communities are thriving.

There are approximately 1,500 Jews in Cuba & their pride is HUGE! Due to mixed religion marriages, the Jewish population is growing as couples are choosing to celebrate Judaism as their family religion. Many individuals just recently learned (since the early 1990’s) that they were Jewish & the community was in a strong period of growth & rebuilding. Three synagogues were formed with varying levels of religious traditions, but typically the residents will just go to the synagogue that is closest to them… regardless of its classification. Thanks to the support of JDC, there are ritual meals provided with nearly every worship service & religious festivity (which can easily be a few times a day). Therefore a huge incentive to remain active in the Jewish community is to be able to receive meals & be nourished!

There are different groups for the varying age ranges (although the community has a very solid senior citizen population) so it focuses a lot on the youth & ensuring they are ready for the future. Ever seen a 20-something lead a Shabbat (Friday night) service? Well we experienced a young couple leading it & it was truly amazing. These young adults are truly huge components to the success of this community & are well respected leaders in the community.

I also have to mention that there is no Rabbi (the Jewish worship leader) anywhere in Cuba as the Jewish community cannot support one… as it solely runs on donations from individuals like you & me…. And hiring a Rabbi (housing, food, etc.) is not in their budget. Therefore they have community “spiritual leaders” who have been trained to lead services and stepped up to the plate. JDC also assists the community by sending in a Chilean Rabbi every 2 months to educate the community on how to keep their Jewish practices strong & provide religious support wherever needed.

So, even without the religious leaders, community volunteers have stepped up to lead services, become Presidents of the Jewish communities to ensure their needs are met & rally together to ensure that they are one strong unit working in the best interest of the people.

It is truly inspiring.

How did I get there?

JDC Entwine has networks in 9 cities throughout the US & UK including,  San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York, Washington, DC and London where young Jewish activists are working with Entwine to raise awareness and take action on behalf of Jewish needs around the world. There is Entwine staff to support individuals, such as myself, to get the community more involved & be a voice for our Juban (Jewish Cuban) “family” who are in dire need of financial help… but are happy, loving & excited for their futures as a Jewish community.

JDC’s Entwine runs trips for young professionals to learn about various countries with  diverse Jewish communities and non-sectarian communities as well) Some of these trips are service-based, featuring up to five hours per day of volunteer work to meet needs in international communities. Others focus more heavily on issue-based learning. Trips include diverse locations such as Morocco, Ethiopia, China, Israel and more…. http://www.jdcentwine.org/trips.

Therefore my Cuba trip is replicated many times throughout the year in varying countries & individuals are given the tools to bring their experience back to our homes & figure out ways we can continue the support.

…. So that’s the scoop! It was a trip of a lifetime & I look forward to keeping up with my newfound love for Cuba & continue to find ways to support the community. After all… the country has hopes for great things in its future. I do too. 

 

 

 

Sending love from Havana!

Posted: August 31, 2013

Imagine a country where living off of $20 per month is the average person’s salary. This $20 includes your food for the month (with is partially on a ration system to ensure that everyone has a little bit of the basic needs – meat & eggs for example), clothing, and other household items. Your healthcare is free, your housing is taken care of & education (through the university level) has no costs. Welcome to the life of a Cuban resident!

Since Fidel Castro (and now his brother, Raul) have taken over in 1959 when the Revolution started. People who owned land were forced to give up their property (every single cent, piece of furniture, etc.) to the Cuban government & live under Communist rule. MANY people left the country as fast as they could with a backpack on them and as many personal belongings as they could… but MANY remained, forced to live under the new Castro leadership.

The life of a Cuban resident may seem difficult on the outside, but on the inside there are welcoming individuals (of all backgrounds) graciously greeting tourists from the outside who are supporting them by bringing in money (informally known as CUCs) so they can purchase other items that they desperately need beyond their monthly salary (which is given in pesos).

Before the Revolution there were 15,000 Jewish individuals making up a vibrant community. Now, in 2013, they are roughly 1,500 Jews throughout the island… primarily in Havana. There are 3 synagogues that take care of these individuals through the support of Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) http://www.jdc.org/ & http://www.jdcentwine.org/trips/inside-jewish-cuba. The highlight is the weekly Friday night Chicken Dinner that is open for all Jewish community members to enjoy a meal (high in protein) with their friends, family and loved ones.

I am currently on a trip to learn not only about Cuba, not only about my Jewish “family” here in Havana, but to break down the stereotypes that we, Americans, see/hear in the news. Cuba is a beautiful country full of life, culture & love.

Stay tuned as I continue this journey & share pictures with you soon too.

Sending love from Havana!

 

 

 

Familiarity Breeds Congeniality: Lessons from a Moroccan Classroom

Posted: August 29, 2013

Before embarking on JDC Entwine’s Inside Jewish Morocco trip, I had mixed feelings in general about putting resources and energy towards Jewish communities worldwide where there is social and economic hardship. I thought, isn't this why Israel was created? For Jews all over the world who are experiencing any sort of difficulties to be able to go live freely in their ancestral homeland? Additionally, I was not keen on the idea of financially supporting a community like that of Morocco when I know the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora is not only large and strong, but also fairly well-off.


During the first few days, my feelings were solidified when we met several community members who told us about their children and even grandchildren living abroad and doing very well economically. I said to myself, “if their diaspora does not want to help, why should my community back home worry about this small and shrinking Jewish community in Morocco.” I thought India, Ethiopia, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, and the recent immigrants to Israel were all places and people who in my eyes have a greater need for outside funding and less of a diaspora capable of helping. I felt this way up until we visited a Jewish high school that had a mix of Jewish and Muslim students….

I expected to see the students divided into two groups, Jewish and Muslim. I also figured it would be easy to tell them apart. To my surprise, I could not. In fact, until everyone said their names, I had no clue who was Jewish and who was Muslim student. The way they interacted and what they said about their experiences learning about each other’s cultures left me in awe.

These communities fulfill one of the Jewish people’s most important mitzvoth which is to be a light upon all nations. For example, we learned about a campaign that was organized by the local Jewish community of Casablanca that distributed wheelchairs to handicapped elders regardless of religion. What better way to show the local communities the importance and value of having Jewish neighbors than through a campaign such as this one.

For more than a century the JDC has been at the forefront of helping these communities through their work on the ground and through their financial support. In order for this organization to be able to continue its work, it needs my generation to get involved. This trip opened my eyes to the importance of JDC’s work and I look forward to getting involved both on a local as well as national level in the near future.

Join JDC Entwine  for JEWISH MOROCCO: Then & Now on September 10th in Los Angeles and September 11th in San Diego (I'll be at this one and would be happy to share stories with you.)  Through the lens of fellow Jewish young adults and JDC Archives's historical photographic collection, join us for a exploration of Moroccan Jewry's traditions, triumphs and challenges.  

 

 

Camp Szarvas: A Transformative Experience

Posted: August 28, 2013

Shaun Goldstone is our 2012-13 JDC Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service.

During the last three weeks, I have been fortunate enough to not only witness the magic that is Camp Szarvas, but to also become fully integrated by participating in all the camp has to offer.

Throughout my time at camp, I began to understand the reasoning behind the influential power and values that this camp instills in its participants. As an American Jew that has also lived in Israel, I spent the years of my youth feeling connected to Judaism and Israel due to my surrounding environments, including my friends, family, and societies that supported my beliefs.

As many of the European Jewish youth are growing up in post-communist societies, they are apprehensive in creating strong connections to their Judaism within their own countries. Camp Szarvas provides a place for these participants from a variety of countries to learn more about Jewish values, build personal relationships with others, and to have fun with those that share many similarities as well as interesting differences.

Discussing the impact of Camp Szarvas on the Jewish identity of madrichim, unit heads, and camp leaders led to a unanimous and rather impressive cohesive thought: that Camp Szarvas is a pluralistic community, a safe place that has largely influenced the Jewish identity of its participants.

Many of the campers have either traced their roots to Jewish family members with the help of Camp Szarvas, have become involved with Judaism solely through their exposure at camp, or have gained strength to become more comfortable with their Judaism in their own country due to the pluralistic, accepting nature of the camp and its leaders.

Camp Szarvas has lit a fire under much of the youth to become more involved with not only the camp year after year, but their own communities through youth movements, JCC involvement, and attending synagogue. This camp, as well as my placement in Eastern Europe, opened my eyes to Jews that live in a much different world due to societal norms. 

It’s easy to see that Camp Szarvas is imperative to restoring Jewish life in the next generation.

Learn more about the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship here.

Read more posts from Shaun's year of service here.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom, Argentina!

Posted: August 26, 2013

Today we fell in love with Argentina.

After lunch with our favorite Argentinian rabbi (see Friday's post for more details on that one), we took a tour of the city of Buenos Aires and were overwhelmed by it's beauty, history, and passion. T

he Porteños (Buenos Aires residents--yeah, we know the lingo) have a zest for life so strong it is only matched by the matè that's constantly in hand.

We hit all three of the Abrahamic religions: cruising past the largest mosque in South America, standing under the dramatic entrance of Argentina's  oldest synagogue, and finally visiting the Pope's former domain at the national cathedral. 

Our fantastic tour concluded at what must be the most expensive post-mortem real estate in the world, Argentina's most famous cemetery. I

t was at once haunting and impressive, a city of graves that both local and international celebs call home.The day ended in good spirits with Shabbat shopping, Shabbat snacking, Shabbat strolling, and some Shabbat smooching (you know who you are).

In all seriousness, we had a moving Havdalah that demonstrated how close our group has become in just one week. It was beautiful to see how that closeness manifested itself into the Jewish tradition. We'll refrain from going into detail about the rest of the night, but let us say that McDonalds at 6 am in Buenos Aires is just as good, definitely more crowded, and certainly more partial to sparkly clubbing attire than your average American Mickey Ds. 

With that, all that's left to say is Shalom ArJEWtina y gracias por todo!

 

 

The Buenos Aires Jewish Community

Posted: August 26, 2013

Today was our first full day in Buenos Aires.

We gained a deeper understanding of the Jewish community through interacting with both the oldest and youngest members of the clan. We began the day at the Baby Help program.

After a thorough introduction, we were thrown into the mix: playing, singing (off-key for the most part) and dancing with babies and toddlers. An interesting contrast followed when we had the opportunity to have lunch at the elderly home and gain a bit of insight into their lives. Many of us were shocked at the economic disparity present in the same building.

Even so, the intergenerational community at Ledor VaDor set the stage for an unforgettable Kabbalat Shabbat with incredibly cute kids and amazingly interesting elderly people. 

Our day continued with a tour of the AMIA and a very well-planned memorial service for those people who were killed in a terrorist bombing at the building in 1994. The memorial service, although only a few minutes, served as an important point of reflection and perspective. 

Shortly after, we headed next-door for a special event with more of the elderly community. We sang many Jewish songs that were both familiar and unfamiliar. Some of our group noted that the music provided a way for us to connect with the elderly (even despite choppy Spanish, awkward hand gestures, and dance moves from a few of us that we never thought possible...).

We were received with incredible warmth and some of us were even pressed to dole out our Facebook information.  The spirit and fun of our rather intense song and dance session was a perfect segue into Shabbat. 

Before attending an independent Minyan, members of our group led a thought provoking program that made all of us think carefully about our personal connections and experiences with Shabbat. The diverse religious backgrounds of the group made for an interesting discussion that continued throughout the evening with different Argentinians.

Throughout Shabbat we discussed weighty topics such as the practical meanings of the Torah portion, similarities and differences between our respective communities, and most importantly, the moral dilemmas of Friends vs. Seinfeld, Jen vs. Angelina, and Britney vs. Santana (we were shocked to find out that an Argentinian rabbi in his late twenties was such a Gleek).

Shabbat shalom!

 

 

From Rosario to Buenos Aires!

Posted: August 25, 2013

Hola amigos y familias! We had a very memorable last day in Rosario. Upon arriving to our work site, we were greeted by a bitter cold. The group joined together in an impromptu zumba session to warm up our bodies. Even some of the boys on our trip bounced around in the back; admittedly they refused to actually dance but the bouncing was considered progress.  Once the work site was ready, we all did an hour of cleaning the house before our inauguration ceremony. I especially enjoyed singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" together as we worked. The morning proved to be very productive and abnormally musical. 

One of the neighbors, Lillian, came up to me while we were working. She had spoken to us two days before to tell us her story and had taken a liking to me because I had the same name as her deceased aunt. She invited me back to her house to meet her beloved cat, Peggy. I invited Nathan and Natasha to join us because I am incredibly allergic to cats and had no intention of actually going near Peggy. 

I'm glad we went because it was so interesting to see her home. It was two rooms (much smaller than the one we were refurbishing) and covered with artwork she had painted and magazines she had collected. She loved explaining everything in her house and telling us about all of her furniture and decorations. It was nice to see what items were important to her but also sad because she said she never had guests over and wanted to show us everything. 

At the inauguration ceremony we presented the house, received thanks from the Kehila members we had worked with, and presented the gifts we had brought them.  It was really heartwarming because Lillian held onto me the entire ceremony. She kept rubbing my back and kissing my cheek. Afterwards, she walked me to the bus and gave me her address so we can be pen pals. I'm actually really looking forward to it.

Everyone on the bus slept on the way to Buenos Aires, with the exception of Natasha and Jake who appeared to be playing a competitive game of backgammon. Once at Buenos Aires, we used our free time to shop and explore. Everyone seems to love the city - it is  like a mix between Soho in NYC and historical Madrid.

After dinner, seven of us (and Evan) went to take tango lessons. The venue was a dance floor and a bar in the basement of an Armenian community center. The odd location was never explained. Tango is hilariously and uncomfortably sensual. We were  chastised  by the instructors all night because we were giggling  with each other when we were supposed to be learning. Evan (often referred to as "Dad") reminded us all of a middle school dancechaperone: he stood in the corner and gave us space while taking pictures and providing encouragement.

We even got a tango or two out of him. 

The night was such a fun time because we all tangoed with the local men and then told stories of our awkward dancing encounters. Sophie and I were the first to quit when the difficult moves and our lack of Spanish dance vocabulary became overwhelming. We preferred to sit on the side and watch our girlfriends dance like masters. After making friends with a very attractive Swedish man and his sister wewalked back with our arms around each other still giggling about how increibly fun our night had been.


We all agree we love this city and we can't wait to explore it more. 

 

 

Day 3 - Service Work in Rosario

Posted: August 25, 2013
Buenos Dias from Argentina! Day two of our painting extravaganza got off to a busy start around 9:30 AM. There was still the entire interior of the house to paint, as well as a large stretch of wall outside. We got out rollers, brushes and scrapers and set to work. Pretty soon, everyone was covered in paint and laughing at each others' messy faces. It was helpful to have the two tall boys to reach high places, but a lack of height did not stop any of us ladies from getting on stools or using long-handled rollers to paint the ceilings. To give you all a picture, the house is off a small hallway and has a kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and a small inner courtyard at the back that joins on the neighboring house. We painted the outer walls and hallway a cream color and the inner walls white, and then painted the doors, windows and doorways a beautiful, cool gray. The walls around the back courtyard were painted canary yellow. Our workday was brightened by music, laughter, and another visit by our friend Jaime, who lives there, and his beautiful dog, Daphna (who happens to be my best friend).  In between all that work, we returned to the Kehila for a quick lunch and got to say hi to our old friends from the previous day. From there we visited Rosario's only Jewish day school, which teaches from kindergarten all the way through  high school. The walls were very colorful, with everything from murals to paper snowflakes to a 3D topographical map of Israel made from styrofoam. We stopped in for a quick and slightly disruptive visit to an 11th grade Hebrew class, and then it was back to work.  It took quite some effort to get all that paint off our skin and out of our hair, but we had to look good for the night's upcoming party. We went for dinner at Beit Scopus, the building that houses all the activities and parties set up by and for the Jewish youth of Rosario. The house was very cutely decorated in a way that kind of reminded me of an artisan coffee shop. There the Jewish Rosariños, as they call themselves, plan and attend Israeli self-defense lessons (krav maga),  Israeli dancing, music lessons, parties, etc . We mingled with university-age Argentinean Jews and ate homemade pizza. We talked with them about where we are from and what we do, and heard about their lives from them. Conversations took place in a broken mix of English, Spanish, Hebrew, noises and gestures, but I don't think anyone had a problem getting their point across. It was incredible to see how similar we all were in terms of our interests and pastimes, even as our respective lifestyles are somewhat different. One interesting thing I noted was how deeply the Judaism of the Argentinian peers is connected to a love of Israel and a desire to spend time there.     Soon enough, dinner evolved into a little dance party that lasted late into the night and was a lot of fun.  Hasta mañana! Until tomorrow!

 

 

Day 2 in Rosario!

Posted: August 21, 2013

Hola everybody,

After a long first day of traveling and getting acclimated, yesterday we had our first day of real service work! 

We started the day with a tour of Rosario, which highlighted a few of the city's most notable plazas, monuments, and viewpoints. Our tour guide, Melanie, who was around our age, was able to shed light on the history of the city as well as on how young people in Rosario live and experience the city. 

After our city tour, we focused in on Rosario through a Jewish lens. We stopped for lunch at the Kehilá (the Hebrew word for "community"), which is the home of the AIB - la Asocacion Israelita de Beneficencia - the central organization of the Jewish community of Rosario that provides crucial aid to needy community members. We met leaders of the AIB as well of the rabbi of the synagogue housed at the Kehilá, who all told us about the status of the Jewish community and about the work that they do on a daily basis. 

From the Kehilá, we drove to the volunteer site, a couple housing units on the outskirts of the city. It was time to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty!

And within a couple minutes we were painting. We worked primarily on the crumbling, ugly walls outside of the houses, as well as a few smaller spaces inside. We covered a lot of ground and will be finishing the project today. The highlight of our experience, though, might have been our conversations with the residents of the building we helped renovate. Half of us spoke with Liliana, while the other half spoke with Jaime, both of whom told us about themselves and their life stories. 

I think the conversation with Jaime was my favorite part of the day. Listening to Jaime talk in such an animated way about how much he valued the work of the Kehilá, about how highly he thought of the members of the Jewish community truly, and about how much he was struck by a group of Jews that traveled halfway around the world to volunteer made an impact on me. And I think even over the course of our brief conversation we established a powerful connection. I know I'm not the only one who is looking forward to more conversations like the one we had with Jaime. 

Today will be another full day of volunteer work. 

Hasta luego! 

 

 

 

Hola from Rosario!!

Posted: August 20, 2013

Buenos dias family and friends!

We arrived in Argentina safe and sound! I think i speak for the group when i say we are all so excited about this week's upcoming events and activities! After a lovely flight to Buenos Aires, we met Yael, our Local coordinator. We then hopped on a bus and drove four hours northwest to Rosario. Our group took advantage of the ride and most of us napped. 

The highlights of the day included a brief walking tour around Rosario, which resembles more of an urban city than many of us had anticipated. It reminds me of a cross between Detroit and  Mexico - but not to worry - we have a security guard, Claudio, who will be with us for our journey. 

The food has been really interesting so far.  On the bus, we enjoyed three Argentinean sandwiches -all had the crusts cut off and had multiple layers of bread.  One sandwich was Swiss cheese, egg, and mayo (lots of mayo). Another had turkey, tomato, lettuce and more mayo. Thus far, we have realized that Argentineans love mayo. We were all pretty hungry at dinner time, which was around 8:30 (however, for Argentineans, this was a very early dinner). The meal really challenged us to try new things. We had 4 courses of different cow parts, including but not limited to: grilled intestines, blood sausage, and finally, two different cuts of steak. I was most surprised by the textures of the blood sausage and the intestine, both of which were my first and most likely last times trying these items.   It was one of the most unique meals I have ever had and it was apparently a very traditional Argentinean meal. Finally, we finished dinner off with the most delicious ice cream and dulce de leche. 

Our group is really bonding and everyone is so nice. On the bus we are taking turns  sharing funny stories about our summers and everyone looks forward to the bus rides!  Tomorrow we start our first day of volunteering and we will be refurbishing houses. I'm really looking forward to that!

I hope all is well in America! Look out for another blog post tomorrow night!

 

 

 

Shabbat at Szarvas: A Two-Day Festival at Summer Camp

Posted: August 4, 2013

Sarah Goldenstein is an Entwine JSC Fellow currently serving in her third year-long placement, this time in Belgrade, Serbia (she was previously in Berlin.) This summer, Sarah also spent time at Camp Szarvas, in Hungary, the JDC and Ronald Lauder Foundation-supported camp that provides an unforgettable experience for 1500+ Jewish campers from over 20 countries every year.

Shabbat at Szarvas begins well before sunset.

Friday morning, following breakfast, the dining room fills with children eagerly waiting to make their own personal challah for Shabbat.

In the next room, non-stop Israeli dancing. On the porch outside, a Shabbat wishing wall, where the campers and staff can leave their Shabbat wishes.

In the synagogue across the camp, children sit with Meir, the seasoned singing teacher of Szarvas. Meir patiently explains and teaches songs and prayers that the kids will sing later in the evening at services.

In a few hours, 400 kids will have passed though challah making, dancing, the Shabbat wishing wall and the synagogue.

At Szarvas, Shabbat is a two-day festival.

Marking the official start of Erev Shabbat (Shabbat evening) at Szarvas, the camp directors along with the madrichim (counselors) lead a Shabbat parade. Passing by each of the cabins they pick up the children along the way while singing together in Szarvas spirit.

Eventually the parade comes to a close at the central square where the Szarvas Shabbat tradition of writing a wish on a filled helium balloon takes place.

On the count of three, all four hundred of us simultaneously release our balloons, a sight that is once in a lifetime.    

Shabbat services take place at the Kupla, the largest indoor space at camp. For many, Shabbat at Szarvas may mark their only (or one of few) Shabbats during the year. For this reason Kabalat Shabbat at Szarvas transcends upon the kids in song, dance, and cheer. It is an experience that doesn’t leave you sitting in your seat for long.

Shabbat at Szarvas ends with Havdallah on the river.

Saturday evening, well beyond dusk, you follow the path to the river by the light of the stars. Somewhere along the way, a hand reaches out and you receive a candle. Further down you feel another hand or an outstretched palm, reaching to give you Havdallah spices.

Havdallah marks a moment of pride, as Jewish identity is actively happening through ancient traditions and at the same time a feeling of sadness, as camp is now half way over.

When you reach the end of the path and are seated on the dock, it becomes clear that it is time to light your candle. When everyone has arrived, the light illuminating from within the group gives the impression that a spotlight has just been shined on you.

All 400 of us receive a candle. The weight of the havdallah experience is shared among everyone.  

With that, Shabbat comes and goes in true Szarvas-style.

 

Follow Sarah's further (and previous) adventures on her blog.

 

 

14 Lessons An American Jewish Girl Learns in Lithuania... at Summer Camp

Posted: August 5, 2013

Jen Berman is an American JSC Fellow working at Olameinu, a JDC-run Jewish summer camp in Lithuania.

An enthusiastic veteran of many summers at camp herself, Jen reports on how JDC’s Jewish Summer Sleepaway in Lithuania is simultaeously so one-of-a-kind and so much like home.

14. Phones are surely not forbidden - yes, 10 year-olds do email...and text...and...


In English, this is a "selfie."

In Lithuanian, this is a "selfie."

13. More Russian than you’ve learned the entire year.

Translation: “And G-d said 'Let there be light!' ... and there was light.”

12. Two words: Baltic Bieber.


Your camp may have the Bieb, but nothin’ beats #balticbieber.

11. Against all odds, Scream-Jumping at song sessions *immediately* after lunch still doesn’t make you sick.

10. Soccer balls are the ultimate sign of the Alpha Dog.


A soccer ball doesn't have quite the same impact with American campers.

9. Borscht.

Unusual yet effective way to earn street cred.

No longer the face of a foreigner.

8. It takes 160 kids to build an exact replica of Noah’s Ark...

...and it floats.

7. Israeli dancing: not to be taken lightly.


6. Dressing for Shabbat: definitely not to be taken lightly.

Campers:

Me:

Yeah. I think they win, too.

5. "Camp Disco!" translates to 'Dance ‘til Your Feet Fall Off!' in Lithuanian.

4. The most popular activity, by more than a bissel: Judaism.


Same prayers, different language.

3. There’s no such thing as ‘too tired’ at 8:00am.


Snoop Dogg and One Direction blasting over loud-speakers to wake everyone doesn’t hurt (actually it does, but it works!)

2. No matter how exhausted counselors are, they still love their jobs. A lot.


1. Kids are the best regardless of where they live - and each and every one is special.

Okay, so he’s my favorite camper. 

Read more from Jen on her blog, Jenstonia.

Learn more about the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps here. Applications for 2014-15 open this Fall.

 

 

The Bubbes of Mumbai

Posted: July 29, 2013

Melissa Rutman is currently serving in Mumbai, as a Summer 2013 Entwine JSC / Gabriel Project Mumbai Multi-week Fellow.

It’s been fascinating and fun to engage with the Jewish Community of India in Mumbai.  In addition to the great amount of time we spend working with children in the slums of Mumbai, we also get to interact both with youth and elderly at the JDC-supported Gan Katan (JCC) and Bayiti (old-age home) respectively.

While the Jewish community is small, families are generally enthusiastic and open about their heritage. In India, people of all faiths take pride and feel comfortable wearing their religion on their sleeves...literally: bracelets, clothing and make-up tell you right away what religion each person belongs to. This strikes me as surprising, given how polarizing religion is in America, and how few Jews there actually are in India.

You can feel the enthusiasm from the moment you enter the Gan Katan / JCC, where the Jewish Indian children let loose, run wild and learn some Hebrew while they’re at it. It’s exciting to see kids write their names in Hindi and decorate a hamsa for their family’s door. Many of the kids even have Hebrew names like Maayan, Emuna, and Ziva.

Late on a Sunday afternoon, we first visited the peaceful Bayiti / old age home outside the city. For a moment, I thought I’d left India and was transported to a bubbe’s living room in New Jersey -- so welcome we were made to feel! We sipped chai and ate samosas with the elderly Jewish women wearing their Indian patterned nighties. We celebrated the birthday of Batsheva – who suffers from dementia and tells us happily that this is her 21st birthday. Several spoke excellent English. It was easy to converse about favorite actors (George Clooney), musical artists (Adele) and their efforts to learn Hebrew, earnest even at age 88.

One energetic woman was particularly thrilled to have us there. She started belting out traditional Indian songs about love and got us to dance with her, in spite of her recent hip surgery. She couldn’t resist the temptation to pinch us on our hips and smother us with hugs and kisses – I guess some traits are universal to Jewish grandmothers.

Read previous posts by Melissa and follow her further adventures in Mumbai on her blog Sorry I'm Not Sari.

Spend time this fall or winter serving in Mumbai with JDC! We're currently recruiting for the 2013 – 2014 Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps in India in partnership with Gabriel Project Mumbai

FALL 2013: October 15-December 10 (Application deadline: August 15)
WINTER 2013-2014: December 17-January 14 (Deadline: October 15)
Email globalservice@jdcny.org for an application.

 

 

Reflecting on our time in Haiti

Posted: May 28, 2013

This post is the final post from Tufts Hillel's trip to Haiti in May.

Today (Monday) was our last full day in Haiti. We're all feeling a little sad about our trip coming to a close, but we still had a great day!

We spent a full day at Zamni Beni, a Partners in Health-run home for children in Port-au-Prince. Zamni Beni houses about 60 children and has a staff of 100, meaning each child is given a caretaker who functions as a parent. Zamni Beni is working towards complete self-sustainability through running a tilapia farm and a bakery, each of which provides an income for the program.

Some of the children at the home have mental and/or physical disabilities: most have experienced trauma prior to arriving there. Zamni Beni is equipped with PIH staff that do physical therapy, special education, and social work to help the kids succeed.

Our work at Zamni Beni involved painting a fence and bench, and sorting the books in their library by level and language. We all had a great time looking through their collection, which included a French version of Harry Potter and a TI-83 calculator manual.

If anything, though, the takeaway lesson of the day was one of flexibility. Let me explain. When we arrived, our group of 15 was divided into two: one group to organize the library and one to restore and reinforce the wooden barriers that outlined the center's soccer field. I (Eitan)was in the latter group - the group that quickly learned the tools necessary to work on the barriers wouldn't arrive for the next three to four hours.  Haitians, like Jews, tend to run on their own fine time aka not really fine time at all.  Though disgruntled at first, I and many others found the inconvenience to be a blessing in disguise. Not one of us had travelled to the poorest country in the world to sit around and do nothing, so we elected to use our free time to interact with the disabled children at the facility. Hands down, it was one of the most gratifying experience this trip had to offer. Brining smiles to the faces of children with no parents, no means, and no chance of healing was a sobering yet intense reality - a very human experience to say the least. True, we could do the same in the States, but there's something to be said about these efforts in Haiti, language barrier and all.

We later learned that some - and I hesitate to say fortunate - children would receive life-changing operations in the States in the coming years. I certainly hope they receive the treatment they need, free of complications. Unfortunately for many of the children, they're fated to remain at Zamni Beni for the rest of their lives. Bringing them happiness is the best we, or anyone else, could do. And so we did, to the best of our abilities.  Some ensconced themselves in their wheelchairs at first, but their timidness soon faded. We laughed and played with the children for the remainder of our time there.  But none of it would have been possible had we not exercised an ability to adapt to the current situation. From our flexibility came a mutually beneficial experience.

-Kayla and Eitan

 

 

An Unexpected Jam Session In Haiti

Posted: July 16, 2013


In February I made a proposition to my friends, family and colleagues: help me fundraise to go on the Inside Haiti trip with JDC Entwine, and I will bake you cookies. Donations poured in, and I found myself unbelievably grateful for the support and up to my elbows in snickerdoodle requests.

My goal was to get a taste of the “real” Haiti, not just what we see, and, more often, don’t see, on TV. I also hoped that the program would fulfill and further fuel my desires to pursue tikkun olam.

I was wary of how our media often portrays this country as nothing but tragedy and was turned off by their ignoring it after Hurricane Sandy because overturned yachts make better images than an emerging cholera epidemic. I wanted to see the place for what it was so I could give people a personal connection to this country so close to our own.

My experience was nothing like what our media had led me to anticipate. Haiti is a living, breathing country, filled with beauty, love, nationalism, and a vibrant culture. While it is certainly in worse shape than many places, people go on living and working to make the best of it. So many times more prominent than the crumbled buildings were the smells of street food, the mango trees laden with fruit, the smiles, the songs drifting from churches, and the brightly painted advertisements on the walls.

Avi, a fellow Entwine Insider, and myself both brought our ukuleles. One afternoon while we were sitting playing “I’m Yours” in the shade by the school in Zoranje, a boy of about 11 walked up to us. A crowd began to form. This boy leaned over to Karl, a 19 year old who speaks English, and whispered in his ear. “He wants to rap,” Karl told us. Um, OK. Sure. We stopped singing and continued the reggae rhythm and the kid stepped forward. What followed was unequivocally the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me:

Watch the jam session here.

Later, I asked Karl what the boy was rapping about in Creole. “Oh,” he replied. “He was saying that he has hope. He knows that one day Haiti will be a better place.”


 

 

 

I Got Rhythm, Who Should Live So?

Posted: June 27, 2013

Jeremy Borovitz is a 2012/2013 JDC Entwine JSC Fellow in Kiev, Ukraine.

A good dancer I’m not. Maybe it’s a combination of my stubby legs, protruding gut, and lack of coordination or perhaps its just my Jewish genes, but I’ve shied away from public displays of twisting and shouting since I can remember. So how is it that as soon as I heard the music of Varnichkes, a Lviv-based Klezmer band, I started bouncing around the room like there’s no tomorrow?  Ada Itzchakivna, that’s how.

Ada is director of the Lviv Hesed-Arieh Jewish Community Center, and a woman with whom no one argues. Alternating roles as the head, heart, and legs of this 6,000+ member JCC, Ada calls the shots.   

When I first met Ada, Varnichkes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3txedK7rFzs) were performing in the Lviv Hesed dining room. Like a newly minted Spartans cheerleader, suddenly I got rhythm. I was bumping in my seat, and soon the whole joint was jumping to the buoyant Klezmer beat & melodies. Ada grabbed my hand and yankld me onto the dance floor. Never mind I was surrounded by colleagues and my boss. Never mind I was working, staffing a mission of Jews from my local Jewish Federation, most of whom knew my parents! Never mind I wasn’t drunk. Ada took my hand, and the music pulled me out of my chair. 

Ada is about twice my age, but the two of us were briefly transformed into Motel & Tzeitel dancing it up Shtetl-style. Sholom Aleichem was laughing in the corner as Marc Chagall painted the scene. The fiddling and singing and the emotions and the undiluted Yiddishkeit of it all conjured the dirt roads and cobbled floors of our ancestors. 

How did such a magical old-shul band come to flourish in Ukraine? Ada, that’s how. One day in 2007, she called singer Alexandra Somish into her office, looked her in the eyes and said, “you will start a Klezmer band. It will be the pride of our community.”  Sure, music and Yiddish culture had always been a part of Alezandra’s life, but she was one person and knew nothing of starting a band.

But her husband played guitar. Her friend Yevheniya played the clarinet.  And Ketharina Braish, a German volunteer at the Hesed, volunteered to sing as well, learning the Yiddish words with ease along the way. The started to jam and called themselves Varnichkes. Fast forward to Purim 2007. Without having performed their first concert yet, Ada informed them that they would play for the entire community!  So they practiced every day and on Purim, infectious Klezmer music drowned out the sound of graggers.  

A few hundred people attended that concert but by the end of the week there wasn’t a Jew in Lviv who hadn’t heard the news. No big record contract came in, no invitation from MTV. But a young Jewish vocalist showed up at the  next practice, asking if she too could be a part of their music.

Today, Varnichkes is 12 members strong, ranging in age from 16 to 73. Some members have moved away over the years, but new ones reliably come to take their place. Alexandra is still singing, her dear Alyosha is still on the guitar, and standing in the corner, Ada Itzhakivna is orchestrating a future for Lviv’s Jews.

In the near future, I'm looking forward to checking out Varnichkes at the 5th annual LvivKlez Fest on July 27. Hope to see you there!

 

 

One Night in Krakow, Seven Synagogues

Posted: June 20, 2013

My first stop in Poland was Kraków, to attend JDC’s 7@Nite Festival. This annual event presented seven different programs (music, art, photography, multimedia) in seven unused and unique synagogues over the course of one evening. The theme of the night was Jerusalem – a city of many cultures and traditions. It started at 10pm with the celebration of Havdalah on the JCC rooftop by Rabbi Boaz from Israel and ended at 2am. I was amazed at the turnout, there must have been at least 800 participants in the overflowing yard of the JCC.

After Havdalah, we headed to the Tempel synagogue to hear a concert by Shtar – an Israeli Jewish hip hop group based in Jerusalem composed of Orthodox Jews. They rocked the house in a synagogue that was built in the 1860’s. After an hour of listening to their inspirational music we headed to the JCC for an exhibition of incredible photographs of Jerusalem prepared by the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw titled “Jerusalem – the Light from the East.”

The Kupa Synagogue which housed another exhibition was founded in 1643 by the Kazimierz Jewish district’s kehilla and was built in a baroque style with a square prayer hall inside. The interior was absolutely magnificent!

The Isaac Synagogue housed the local Chabad. Falafel was served while they played a Polish-narrated movie about Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Western Wall. The description of this stop was “Jerusalem is the center of the earth, the Temple is the center of Jerusalem.” Since we were so close to the center of the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz which is famous for the best Zapikankie in all of Kraków, we decided to enjoy the local Polish fast-food delicacy. To our surprise, everyone in line was holding a 7@nite flyer and clearly we weren’t the only ones in need of a snack as the Falafel ran out due to the sheer number of event participants.

The High Synagogue was built in the 1550’s in the Renaissance style. During the occupation of Poland in World War II, Nazis stripped the interior of all equipment. The ceiling and roof were destroyed. At present only the stone niche for the Aron Kodesh and the wall paintings uncovered early in the 21st century by art conservation remains. This synagogue had a virtual walk through the Old City, starting with a passage through the seven gates of Jerusalem. Additionally, there were photo exhibits of Jewish families that lived in Kraków from before the war.

Old Synagogue, is the oldest still standing in Poland, and one of the most precious landmarks of Jewish architecture in Europe. Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it was one of the most important synagogues in Kraków as well as the main religious, social, and organizational center of the Jewish community. There was a multimedia and interactive story about the real and mystical characteristics of Jerusalem. Ancient paintings, menorahs, and many more Jewish artifacts were on display.


The Popper Synagogue, built in 1620, housed a blank canvas that was beautifully painted with a colorful collage of theold city. This synagogue was one of the most splendid synagogues in Kraków. Its rich interior was destroyed by the Nazis and the synagogue ceased to function as a house of prayer.

The Remuh Synagogue, completed in 1557, was the smallest of all the historic synagogues in the Kazmierz district of Kraków. Additionally, it is currently the only active one. Since Jerusalem is the only city in the world known by more than seventy different names, they had the corresponding street names hanging from the ceiling.

It was so wonderful walking around the streets of Kraków with thousands of people celebrating the history of the Jewish people in Poland and the Jewish State of Israel. To witness such thriving Jewish life while realizing that we were less than a 2 hour drive away from Auschwitz where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated 70 years ago during WWII is nothing less than miraculous.

 

 

YU in Odessa - Day 5 (with photos!)

Posted: June 12, 2013

On Sunday, we headed to Migdal, which is one of the two Jewish centers in Odessa that promotes various Jewish activities for Jewish families in Odessa and their children. There we met the program director together with the rest of the staff at the center, had the opportunity to interact with the youth group of the center via singing, dancing,  painting, and a small kumzitz (gathering) with the children and young adults. This was followed by lunch and meaningful verbal exchanges with our peers.

During the Kumzits, Elya, a university student and an active participant of Migdal, had enthusiastically volunteered to speak to the crowd on behalf of the youth of Migdal. She spoke about her experiences at Migdal, and discussed her Jewish roots. She expressed that although the vast majority of our group was not able to maintain a fluent conversation with many of the peers without translative services since many of the peers spoke limited or almost no English, it is Judaism that functions as the uniting thread that brings us together as a people and had done so for so many generations.  As she said that and recounted her Jewish roots, her eyes began to water, and tears were flowing down her cheeks. I was truly touched by Elya and her sincerity  and passion about investigating her Jewish roots and realized how truly fortunate I was to have been raised with a good sense of my Jewish identity -- something that I do not think about and fail to appreciate often. 

 

 

After lunch, we headed back to the Migdal Center where we baked pastries for Jewish seniors of Odessa with the help of our Migdal peers. The group was then divided into three, where each group had the opportunity to deliver these pastries to these Jewish elders later that day. 

 

Each group was sent to pay home visits to a few seniors where they presented the cookie packages that we made earlier with our peers and exchange words with the Jewish Ukrainian seniors. The seniors welcomed us with treats, freshly picked cherries, and a lot of excitement. My group met Olga, Marina, and two other seniors who discussed growing up and living in Ukraine. All of the women came from educated backgrounds, where three of the four had been engineers prior to retiring.

They discussed their families and their Jewish heritage, and trying to maintain their Jewish identity living in Odessa. They also emphasized how difficult it is for seniors to survive in Odessa, as their government provides very limited pensions and financial aid for seniors that is barely enough to meet a fraction of their needs. What I found most interesting is that, during our exchange, when the group inquired whether they would prefer to go back to the times of the former Soviet Union or preferred their current government instead, all four women were very much in agreement that they want to go back to the Soviet times. Although their freedoms were suppressed in the former Soviet Union, they were still taken care of, and these women were willing to have that over religious freedom. 

Later that day, we visited a Jewish orphanage where we had the opportunity to meet and interact with 60 kids ranging from ages 2-16. The facility was in need of great repair, as the walls were in need of new paint, the basketball hoop was rusted and bent out of shape, and the yard was filled with weeds. Despite this, the children at the orphanage were happy and there was an incredible sense of a strong, unified family amongst the children. This insatiable brotherhood was beautiful, yet heartbreaking to observe as these children, for the most part, rely upon one another for support and lack the guidance of a parental figure. The group also had the opportunity to take pictures with the kids, utilizing the Polaroid camera that we brought with us. Observing the conditions had really struck a chord with many of the group members which was discussed by the group later that evening, during the debriefing session. 

Later, we headed to bowling (in Ukraine!), which was followed by a two hour heart-pouring debriefing session prior to calling it a night. During the session,  the group had the opportunity to reflect upon the day and share their feelings. At the end of the debriefing session the room was filled with people crying and others pondering, as they recounted their experiences. 

This journey has been incredible thus far, challenging me emotionally spiritually, personally, and intellectually. It may only be day four of the experience, but I feel like I have never grown as much in four days as I did in this journey. The kids we interacted with, the people we have visited, the seniors we have interacted with have just been so warm and open, and with this I felt as though I was able to grow together with them.

In this regard, on behalf of myself and the group, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Aliza, Elana, and Inna for coordinating this trip and making this a truly remarkable and memorable experience for myself and the group! 


- Ilana Shimunov

 

 

 

YU in Odessa - Our Very Own Pot of Gold

Posted: June 10, 2013

In our Shabbos in Odessa, Noah Small - one of the participants in our YU group -  spoke about a man's hunt for a pot of gold. He hunted far and wide only to discover that the gold was hidden in his very own home.

Similarly, we traveled from miles away on a quest of discovery. We had hopes of learning and giving to the Jewish community in Odessa. We expected to perform unending amounts of Chessed and in the process to learn about this crown jewel of Ukraine. 

On Shabbos, I discovered the gold. In the opening prayer of Lichu Niranina, YU students and Ukraine's Beit Grand peers joined together in unison to welcome the Shabbos queen. We danced and sang and the kedusha was no doubt emanating from the room. 

Throughout Shabbos, this happiness and holiness was palpable. With so much excitement, we joined the Grand Choral community for Shabbos lunch and the Chabad Shul for a bar mitzvah celebration.

We have spent three days in Ukraine thus far and the gold that I- that we- have found is overwhelming and impactful. We found a community filled with love and dedication. They are strong, they are thriving, and they are an inspiration to us all.

 

 

YU in Odessa - Day 3!

Posted: June 7, 2013

Today we visited the Chabbad orphanage of Odessa. It was so inspiring to not only hear about the efforts of the Chabbad community to ensure comfortable lives for these children, but to actually interact with the children and witness firsthand the love and support that the children receive. We met an eight-month-old baby who was born in a train station and who along with his sister was saved by the Chabbad community. They live in the orphanage and while they do not have a mom and dad to raise them, after visiting the orphanage it is clear that they will be raised in the most warm and loving environment.

We then headed to the Beit Grand JCC where we split up into groups. Some of us helped paint a mural while the rest of us conducted an educational program with 7-12 year olds teaching them about Shabbat. Each child then made his or her own challah cover. We taught the children Shabbat songs, played games with them and could truly see the excitement on their faces. Little do they know how much we are gaining from them.



Following the children's activity we had a special Kabbalat Shabbat with the elderly members of the Odessa community. We might not have been able to speak the same language, but the joy we brought one another was clear and did not need to be spoken. We sang together, danced together and laughed together. I think what we all learned today is that inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes.

We're looking forward to spending a beautiful Shabbat with our Ukrainian peers and cannot wait to see what the rest of this journey has in store for us.

- Naava Teitelbaum

 

 

YU in Odessa - Day 1-2

Posted: June 7, 2013

Today (Thursday) our wonderful group of YUers started off our day bright and early davening shacharit just a few blocks away from our hotel at the Chabad Synagogue. The community was so warm and even let our own members participate in the services. We had a delicious and hardy breakfast in the Synagogue and were joined by the Rabbi, who told us of his wife's family's history of being the rabbinic family in Odessa before World War II and about how he only discovered that he was indeed returning to his family's roots after he had moved here. The group enjoyed hearing about what Synagogue life was like in Odessa before World War II and the Rise of the Soviet Regime.

The group was then privileged to hear from Professor Glebov, a very influential and well-known public figure in Odessa. He brought us up to date on what the social and economic situation is like in present day Odessa. We learned that doctors earn an equivalent of $300-$400 a month, that there is virtually no financial aid for anything, including healthcare. It was fascinating seeing that despite all of this, Professor Glebov maintains his hopes and dreams for the future of Odessa and loves calling it his home. 

Next, we went to the JCC-Beit Grand and met people who give their lives to the Hesed program here in Odessa. Their work is a welfare program funded by the JDC which provides food, debit cards and other basic necessities to impoverished members of the community. We were able to ask questions and learn about exactly what type of work and how much time, effort and financial support must go into helping these individuals. We then headed out to do our own shopping at a local supermarket to pick up food and treats for the extremely underprivileged people we were about to meet.

In small groups we went to the homes of the elderly. Many of the people we met are no longer able to leave their homes.  Our visits truly brightened their day but what they did for us was even more amazing. These individuals, despite having not seen seen sunlight for years, were instantly able to brighten up a room with their smiles as soon as they saw our groups walk through their thresholds.

One group met with a woman named Larisa. Larisa is 87 years old; she is a Holocaust survivor and sadly has lost her son and husband over the years.  Towards the end of the group’s time with her, someone asked her if she could wish for anything what would it be?  Without missing a beat she said, "I'd like to see Jerusalem."  She could have asked for anything, and yet her request was so sincere, and simple.  She's heard of Jerusalem all her life but has never had the opportunity that so many of us have had to walk the streets of Jerusalem. It was again an eye-opening and inspiring experience where we were reminded of how fortunate we are and how much we have to teach other Jews from our experiences that we've been so privileged to have. Our members who will be in Jerusalem this summer look forward to their task of visiting Jerusalem and bringing Larissa's letter to stick it into the Western Wall. We then visited the Migdal-Shorashim Museum of History of Odessa Jews, where we were able to learn more about Odessa's Jewish history and see many of its artifacts.   

We were then privileged to hear a fascinating shiur from Rabbi Belizon on the Jewish laws surrounding surrogacy and Jewish identity. It sparked a lot of conversation about the precious, holy individuals we have been meeting who may not be Jewish according to Torah law but still have a "Jewish Name".  This will surely be a topic revisited throughout our week here.  This was all followed by mincha/maariv at the local and beautiful Grand Chorale synagogue. It was so nice seeing how vibrant the services felt and how at home we felt praying there. The gold mosaic ceiling of menorah is particularly stunning.

We ate dinner at the Chevron restaurant with peers from the community.  One peer who we particularly enjoyed meeting is Masha, the head of the youth group at the Beit Grand JCC who has so much spark for Judaism and life despite the fact that she only discovered that she is Jewish about six years ago, when she was 16. 

We look forward to sharing more about our incredible trip!!

- Rivka Kaminetzky 

 

 

 

Day 3-7 (Youth Camp)

Posted: June 4, 2013

Sorry for the late blogging! We didn't have wifi at the youth camp!

What an incredible experience. We joined a group of Jewish Indians that were the same age as us and spent the three days at an adventure resort. The theme of the camp was Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness). We were split up into four teams and did a ton of team building exercises and activities (rock climbing, ziplining, archery, etc) as well as text study that related to the theme of camp. The Americans and Indians become so close despite the vast differences in lifestyle and culture. We learned so much about their Jewish community in India just by interacting and observing their customs. The best part was when those customs matched up with ours! Spending Shabbat with them was especially unique because many of the prayers were sung in the same melodies that we are used to in America. It allowed us to truly feel the global impact that Judaism has. Here is a compilation of pictures from some of the activities we did:

 

These pictures do not give the experience justice. We also couldn't take pictures on Shabbat unfortunely. 

On Sunday, we traveled to Alibag to visit the synagogue there, as well as an oil press and a Jewish cemetery:

The three handprints are a substitute for a mezuzah:

On Monday, before we left for the airport, we joined our Indian peers again for an emotional goodbye at the JCC. We ate delicious mango, danced a little, and got hennas, which will serve as a reminder of our trip for the next few weeks! 

Bye India! We will miss you!

 

 

Day 2

Posted: May 29, 2013

Another crazy day! We started off  with a little more touring of Mumbai.

As we made our way to Ban Ganga Tank, we walked down through a neighborhood filled with beautiful temples. We were able to witness Hindu rituals being performed as well. 

We saw a cow in the middle of the street!

Our tour guide, Joshua, showed us a famous place to get chai tea:

Then we saw the temples:

The swastika in India is actually a symbol of the four stages in life and stands for non-violence according to Jainism:

At the tank:

 

 

This is a Jain temple that was celebrating a festival at the time:

 

 

We then went to the Kamala Nehru Park, which showcases a beautiful view of the city of Mumbai:

 

And we found a shoe statue there:

Two of our beautiful staff members, Erica and Rachel:

 

We then visited the Hanging Gardens, which actually didn't have anything hanging, but is known to be the highest point in Mumbai:

 

 

We then saw this interesting system called the Lunch Box Distribution. Women make lunches for their husbands and put them in lunch boxes. This system then delivers the lunch boxes to the husbands at work so that they do not have to carry their lunch boxes around all day:

 

 

We visited the Om Creation Trust, which houses mentally disabled people and teaches them to become productive in society. They make many arts and crafts and several healthy foods! We were able to buy some of their goods and donate to this amazing foundation:

 

We then split up into two groups and visited a home of a person who is receiving financial assistance through JDC. They had amazing stories to tell and songs to sing:

 

Our next stop was the Thane Synagogue. We interacted with the Jewish community in this Mumbai suburb by praying with them, chatting with them, and at the end of the night, singing with them:

 

 

Everyone fell asleep on the hour bus ride home, but we are all so excited to be leaving tomorrow for Youth Camp! For the next three days we will be bonding with 25 Jewish Indian youths through outdoor and teambuilding activities. Stay tuned!

 

 

Shabbat in Jacmel

Posted: May 28, 2013

After spending 4 days in the port au prince area in an urban setting, our whole group is really excited to be moving south and seeing some of the countryside of Haiti. First, though, we visited the only state sponsored rehabilitation clinic in Haiti.

As we walked in we saw patients receiving world class care for physical injuries using innovative tools similar to the ones we saw at the AFYA clinic. We were greeted by the female doctor who ran the clinic who illustrated for us the challenges of bringing the notion of rehabilitation into Haitian culture but also illustrated the success of her clinics work demonstrated by its growing number of patients.

I (Brad), as someone who is interested in the health profession, found it remarkable that this physician was able to use her knowledge not only to help people improve their health but also to combat social stigma. Our visit to the clinic was very informative but very short, so we were soon on our way into the mountains for the ride to Jacmel, where we planned to spend Shabbat. I (Julie)  had been observing these mountains from Zoranje all week and was floored by the true beauty of this country. Although I tried to capture the amazing vistas with photos, it's really impossible especially inside of a bus.

Both of us were captivated by the natural beauty of this country, but were also saddened in a way that the lacking infrastructure and actual government support for tourism in Haiti has caused this native resource to be totally under appreciated by the majority of the world. After seeing an hour or so of jaw dropping views from our bus, we stopped to visit an area called Fondwa.

Our first visit was to the Heart to Heart Clinic where we began by touring the facilities the clinic uses to treat their patients. The clinic relies on volunteer doctors and staff to provide their services and are currently working to build a lab to increase their testing capacity. We found it remarkable that this clinic, which is located in a very isolated location, was able to provide healthcare services to this population that is so far from the typical societal map. Next we visited the partner school to this clinic which had been originally destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.

They're currently operating in a temporary school, but construction is underway to build a new more stable school. The sister who is in charge of this school told us one of the craziest statistics we've heard to date: that students walk 3-4 hours (hours!!) to school everyday and still attend class on a consistent basis. Because of this hurdle of accessibility, we were surprised when we were informed that this school has had the highest performance in the region on Haiti's standardized exams.

We could see how the farmers coalition of Fondwa, which has organized the community and supports this school, has really promoted education as a value and taken a holistic approach to support the youth of their community through healthcare, education, and social engagement. Our last stop in Fondwa was the for profit food co-op run by this farmers association. They provided us with an amazing spread for lunch in the typical Haitian style, and for dessert we each got an entire mango, which we peeled and ate with only our mouths and hands. They were absolutely delicious, a fact which was solidly supported by the orange goop smushed all over all of our faces and the serious need for toothpicks to remove all the orange strings from our teeth.

We hopped back on to the bus and drove for another hour until we reached Jacmel. Our hotel was situated on a cliff on a beautiful cove with sparkling blue water, and we were thrilled when we saw that our rooms had ocean views framed by the towering mountains in the background. We cleaned up and reconvened for Shabbat, courtesy of the Shabbat committee (Rachel, Amanda, Cece, Dani, and Julie).

We had a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the hotel and walked down to the beach for kiddush and motzi. We had a traditional Shabbat dinner with our Haitian baked challah and cherry manischewitz. Apparently Haiti is the third largest consumer of manischewitz worldwide, only following Israel and the U.S. The wine is sold in multiple flavors on all the markets. After dinner we played a game called salad bowl, a mix of charades and taboo, and turned in for the night. The next morning we slept in, or at least Julie did, while everyone else woke up early and got a lesson in traditional Haitian breakfast food poolside.

After breakfast the group went for a walking tour of Jacmel, the highlight of which was an art gallery with a garden in the shape of Haiti. We found the New Orleans French quarter style architecture beautiful and really didn't want to leave! For the rest of the day we mostly lounged around in true Shabbat style and some of us ventured down to the beach to take a dip in the ocean. Spending Shabbat in a tropical locale was something that few of us have done before and definitely added some additional relaxation to this traditional day of rest. Clearly we enjoyed these past two days in Jacmel, and are looking forward to spending the day in the area tomorrow!

 

 

Bassin Bleu and Beyond

Posted: May 28, 2013

Today we woke up bright and early at our beautiful hotel in Jacmel and after a delicious breakfast we checked out and started on our way to Bassin Bleu.

I did not know what to expect from the site, all I knew is that we would be swimming. We drove up a huge mountain where we could see a gorgeous view of Jacmel until we got to a small village from which we had to walk the rest of the way up to Bassin Bleu because the path is very rocky and narrow.

Our fifteen minute hike lead by a few local tour guides took us up and down the mountain and over a few creeks. When we finally reached our destination in front of us was a beautiful natural basin of water inside a cavern. We all slipped into the cool water and swam out to the rock in the middle of the natural pool where we could marvel at the beauty of this basin.  

We were surrounded by tall rock walls and a waterfall. I took some time to just lie on my back and stare up at the blue sky far above me thinking about how beautiful the country of Haiti really is.

After swimming and jumping in the pool for a while we had to leave the basin. Our hike back felt much faster and easier since we were more experienced with the trail. After quickly changing and drinking some coconut milk straight from the coconut we continued on our way.

Our next stop was a visit to a community called La Montagne. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch and then learned about this incredible community from Lucia (a Tufts alum, go jumbos!). La Montagne is a rural area high in the mountains of Haiti. One of the main problems with the area is that the majority of the youth seek higher education and jobs outside the community and do not return.

Consequently the community suffers from an attrition of talent. In response members of the community living in Jacmel decided to return to La Montagne and form OPADEL which now runs a series of community programs.

OPADEL helps build subsidized houses, schools and communal coffee processing equipment. In addition they have experimented with cheaper, local building materials. After taking a tour of a house they built and some of the other community spaces we were given the opportunity to talk with OPADEL members.

They stressed that they are creating sustainable solutions for their community. Unlike many NGOs OPADEL does not give anything for free. For example building a house may cost up to 6,000 USD, however OPADEL will build one for a family on the conditions that they contribute 2,000 USD and help in any way with the building.

Over the last few years OPADEL has succeeding in building a stronger rural community and has even sent students to university who have returned to aid OPADEL. Before we left we were treated to a dessert of mango, pineapple, and Haitian apricot, which actually tastes more like apple. We loaded up the bus and started on our three hour drive from Jacmel to Port-au-prince.

- Julia and Kara

 

 

Day 1

Posted: May 28, 2013


Our first day was filled with nonstop excitement! 

We spent the morning touring the city of Mumbai while traveling in our (air-conditioned) tour bus. Our first stop was the Gateway of India:


 

Then, we visited the Magen David Synagogue:

 

Hundred-year-old chair that they perform the bris on: 

 

Next stop was Tifereth Israel Synagogue:

 

A cool lamp that we enjoyed:

 

 

 

We stopped at Mani Bhavan, the Mumbai house of Mahatma Gandhi from 1917-1934:

 

 

We saw this beautiful train station, but were unfortunately not allowed to take pictures inside:

Here's a funny selfie:

We stopped at Dhobi Ghat, which is an open air laundromat in Mumbai:

As we were driving through the city, our tour guide Joshua pointed out this massive skyscraper. It is the most expensive house in the world with 27 floors (6 of which are just for parking), 600 workers, and only 5 people who live within it:

Then we stopped for lunch at this great vegetarian restaurant:

 

 

We then visited the JCC where the Director for AJDC India (Elijah Jacob) talked to us about the work JDC does for the Jewish community in India. Here is a poster that was put up before our arrival:

We traveled to the Jewish old age home known as Bayiti, which houses 6 residents. We learned about their lives and painted a mural for them:

 

 

After a long day, we had dinner at the Bayiti. It was such a rewarding and inspiring day, but the jetlag definitely hit us hard:

 

Tomorrow comes another crazy day! Stay tuned!

 

 

Take Off!

Posted: May 28, 2013

Here's us at Newark airport about to get on our 14 hour flight to Mumbia, India! Wish us luck!

 

 

 

Recap of Thursday

Posted: May 25, 2013

Hello from Haiti!

Once again we woke up, had a pretty great breakfast (today we found cold milk) and headed to zoranje.

I've recently discovered an obsession with Haitian mangos, and made sure to make a mess during breakfast. Driving in Haiti seems to always be experience; between the beautiful mountains, craziness of markets, tap taps and the insane traffic there really is a ton of action. After arriving in zoranje we met up with the twenty locals who went through a leadership training.

We broke off into groups and had a discussion ranging from the differences in last names (when Americans introduce ourselves we just say our firsts, Haitian usually give you their full name) to community development. It was relieving to me that the Haitians had similar concerns with the project and that they worried the community would not keep it clean as we did. After the conversation we went to paint the kiosk and received a lesson in Haitian time: the paint didn't arrive for another hour. Once we got started the project went quickly.

A problem we ran into was that many Haitians wanted to help, but we only had enough supplies and food for those who had committed to the project.  Naturally we would encourage and appreciate the extra help especially in that community .  

But if we allowed the Haitians to help that weren't committed to the leadership training course, they would have been disappointed because we would not have been able to offer them lunch as well. This would have caused division among the community members, which is something we wanted to avoid.

After lunch a DJ came to play music. We danced and chatted with the hundreds of Haitian children that had just gotten out of school. It's safe to say we all had a lot of fun because we ran late to our next activity.  Our next activity was a visit to Afya's warehouse in the countryside.  At the warehouse some of us labeled crutches and wheelchairs and others played soccer with the locals. It started raining so, we packed up and headed back to the hotel to get ready for our night out.

 

 

Introductions!

Posted: May 25, 2013

Hello readers!

We are all getting really excited for the amazing experience and journey we are about to embark upon! In this blog, you will find photos from our trip and descriptions of our various adventures as we travel through India. You can join us virtually as we explore and connect and learn our way through the next 10 days! 

Here is a brief introduction of each traveler:

1.  Nathan Gelman is a sophomore at Stern (also CAS, as he is doublemajoring in Art History). His hidden talent is that he is a good writer. Nathan's favorite summer song is "Lover's Spit" by Broken Social Scene. 

2. Jackson Montana Krule is from Teaneck, NJ. He is a senior. Jackson's favorite summer song is "Somebody Sweet to Talk To" by She & Him. 

3. Rachel Bashein is from Sharon, MA. She is a sophomore. Rachel's favorire summer song would have to be "American Girl" by Tom Petty or "Raised on the Radio" by The Ravyns. She claims that they aren't really about the summertime, but for some reason, they are just great songs that she associates with this season. 

4. Tori Grant is a sophomore from Westchester, NY. Her hidden talent is so well hidden that she can't find it. 

5. Shoshana Gindi is a sophomore from Los Angeles, CA. Her favorite summer song (at least right now) is "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line. 
 
6. Natalie McCauley is a junior in CAS. She is from Austin, Texas. Her hidden talent is that she can tap dance.
 
7. Jackie Retig is a senior from Philedphia. Her favorite summer song is "In the Summertime" by Mungo Jerry. 
 
8. Laurena Patarkatsi is from Rockland County, NY. She is a senior. Laurena's favorite summer song is "Lego House" by Ed Sheeran. 

9. Johanna Bitton is from Fort Lee, NJ. She is a junior. Johanna does not have one favorite summer song, but she likes "If I Lose Myself" by OneRepublic and Alesso. 

10. Camille Cohen is a junior at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study with concentrations in art history and marketing. She is from a town in Florida called Jupiter. Camille's hidden talent is... reading tarot cards!

11. Arielle Braude is a junir in the School for Social Work. She is from Cherry Hill, NJ. Arielle's favorite summer song is "Lookin' Out My Back Door" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

12. Jaimee Goldschmidt is a sophomore studying nursing. She is from Westchester. Jaimee's favorite summer song is "Summertime Sadness" by Lana Del Rey.

13. Beckie Hamroff is a sophomore in NYU's Global Liberal Studies program. She is from Westchester, NY.  Beckie's favorite summer band is Guster.

14. Charlene Yomtobian is a recent graduate of New York University's College of Arts and Science and will be entering NYU's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service in the Fall of 2014. She hails from Great Neck, New York. Charlene's hidden talent is her double jointed-ness in her fingers and toes. 

15. Mady Maio is from San Diego, CA. She is a sophomore. Mady's favorite summer song would have to be either "We Don't Care" by Kanye West, "Time to Pretend" by MGMT, or "Second Hand News" by Fleetwood Mac. 
 
16. Sol Adler is a junior. He is from Great Neck, NY on Long Island. Sol's favorite summer song is "Treasure" by Bruno Mars. 

Next time we blog we will be in India! Stay tuned!
 
 
Pictured below is Sol Adler, Arielle Braude, and Beckie Hamroff holding up our "Group Norms" chart that we completed in the India orientation session! 

 

 

Discovering Turkey's Jewish Life

Posted: May 24, 2013

Visiting Turkey has been on my list of countries to visit since my first geography class. 
It was then that I learned about the Bosporus and the Aegean Sea and the rich history surrounding those two bodies of water. 

When I first learned about JDC's trip to Turkey, I had no idea there was a historical Jewish existence there. The country, predominantly Muslim, also features a Christian community as well. The idea of this co-existence intrigued me. I had to learn more. 

Once in Turkey my curiosity took over. The country is just as beautiful as you would imagine in it. The two bodies of water it is built around bring a sense of peace and tranquility to the country with an unsurpassed beauty and charm to it. I learned that the Jews in Turkey also take advantage of the country's beauty by vacationing along the gorgeous coastline in the south.

Relative to the country's total population, the Jewish community in Turkey is small. The beautiful, ancient synagogues captured my attention, especially seeing the way the Jews there respect and admire the establishments and everything they represent to the Jewish population in Turkey. 

As I spoke with the Turkish Jews I learned more and more about how they felt about life in Turkey. What I learned was eye opening and encouraging: this community is strong and determined, committed to their culture and country.

Join me on June 5 to learn more about Jewish life in Turkey with JDC Entwine in Los Angeles. RSVP: http://jewishturkeyla.eventbrite.com/

 

 

 

Co-Existence in Casablanca

Posted: May 24, 2013

Jennifer Goldman lives in San Francisco. She traveled to Morocco's Jewish community with JDC Entwine in May.

Morocco is a vibrant country filled with color and culture. One thing that makes Morocco truly unique is its thriving Jewish community among its predominately Muslim population.

Morocco’s Jewish community, while small, is extremely tight knit. As a Jewish American, I felt an instant connection with the Jews of Morocco as a result of our common thread.

The tight knit Jewish community of Morocco has flourished among the acceptance of their Muslim neighbors. We witnessed this acceptance first-hand with a visit to a Jewish high school in Casablanca.

Because of the high school’s excellent academics many Muslims chose to also send their children there. We had the opportunity to spend time with the high school students, talking about everything from how they like to spend their weekends to their college aspirations. However, what made these students most impressive was the friendships they have forged with each other. 

In many places in the world coexistence seems impossible; but these students were proving otherwise.  

Join me on May 29 for closer look at this incredible community.

RSVP here: http://entwinemoroccosf.eventbrite.com/

 

 

In Ethiopia I Found Out Mom was Right: I Love Teaching

Posted: May 23, 2013

Max Sandler is a JDC Jewish Service Corps fellow in Gondar, Ethiopia

For the past 10 months I have been teaching English to 9th grade students at Fasiledes Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia. When I arrived in Gondar, I understood that I would be teaching in a government (public) school, but besides that, I was a bit unsure as to what was going to transpire. I never taught before, so had no idea what it would feel like to stand in a classroom in front of seventy 13-16 year olds eager to learn.  It was overwhelming at first. There was not enough room for everyone; kids sat on the floor, on desks, on top of each other!

Turns out, after conquering my nerves it did not take long for me to get comfortable in the classroom. and the students quickly warmed to me. My mother always told me I would make a great teacher, and the truth is I have never had so much fun working in my entire life.  The students even enjoy practicing their English with me outside of class.

Some students are fully conversational in English while other don’t even know the alphabet. So the most challenging aspect is creating lesson plans that are interesting and cater to the needs of every student.  These challenges are worth it; spending time with the kids and watching them actually learn is one of the most gratifying feelings I’ve ever experienced.

As my time in Gondar comes to an end, I can’t help marvel how in the beginning no one would participate in class for fear of being laughed at by other students, but now, the students have become much more confident.  I even started an English Club to provide a more intimate learning environment for the most advanced learners.

One day, a student named Selamlock gave me a short Ethiopian history book. In a country with  few books to go around this was really touching. Nearly every day I am asked to help the school get more educational materials, so being on the receiving end was remarkable. Everything about teaching here is remarkable. Thanks Mom!

 

 

Behind the Scenes of Spinal Surgery: Lots of Leg Work

Posted: May 23, 2013

Menachem Weiss is serving as a JDC Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he primarily assists Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s Medical Director for Ethiopia.

It takes a lot of leg work to get 34 spinal patients from Ethiopia to Ghana.

For two weeks, fellow JSC fellow Sam Lewin and myself went through many steps to do just that. On behalf of our boss, Dr. Rick Hodes, who runs JDC’s medical clinic in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, we zigzagged around the city. We made stops at embassies, hospitals and travel agencies, procuring passports, visas and plane tickets, as well as blood test results, yellow-fever vaccination cards, and medical consent forms so we could hand it all off to our Ethiopian colleague, Berhanu, who would be flying with the patients, itself a complicatied scenario as several would be in wheelchairs, paralyzed from compressed spinal cords.

For necessary medical and travel information, we interviewed patients in cars, hospital waiting rooms, and street corners, sometimes translating from Oromifa [WHA] to [Amharic] and then into English.  Their spines were all contorted from Tuberculosis or Scoliosis, many at angles greater than 180 degrees. The patients were to be delivered to Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei who would be performing the complex spinal surgery at his FOCOS Hospital in Accra, Ghana.

A last step in Ethiopia, was a final meeting with patient’s families at our clinic. Dr. Hodes explained the risks of surgery. Even us non-Amharic speakers understood the worried facial expressions of parents signing power of attorney and consent forms for their young children. I watched Dr. Hodes, knowing he understands well from both sides -- several of his own children have had similar dangerous spine surgeries. At one point, we all stood up together to pray – Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Protestant families, Dr. Hodes, myself, and our staff. Our nurse closed the meeting by assuring the parents that they do not need to pack pots and pans for their children. To assuage, she describes in detail the amenities of hospital the kids were heading towards, and its lovely caring staff. She warns that there is no Ethiopian flat bread, injera, and so that they may want to pack some to comfort the children.

What a joy to witness success stories first hand. Tesfaw, pictured with blue neck brace, started walking again after surgery! Dr. Hodes himself recently visited the group on his way to the US, bringing them nearly 50 lbs of their beloved injera. They will all return soon enough, with straighter spines and in less pain, able to return to middle school, work, medical school, or perhaps start the new life they’ve been dreaming of.


 

 

 

 

 

Zoranje Day 2: Time For School

Posted: May 23, 2013

Today was the day we had been waiting for; the promised highlight was that we got to visit a middle school classroom and the kindergarten at the Ecole Nouvelle in Zoranje, Haiti (the amphitheater we are working on is directly adjacent to the school, in between the school and the community center)!

We had an early morning, all getting up at the ungodly hour of 6am. After a quick breakfast, we made it to Zoranje in time for the school's raising of the flag. It seemed almost ritualistic - even the tiniest children knew exactly what to say and do as the flag was being hoisted. Then it was back to work on the amphitheater. We continued our work from yesterday, again with the help of the Zoranje locals. Shosh and I (Barbara) both take French at Tufts, and felt more comfortable trying to strike up conversations in French with the people we were working with. They had lots of questions for us, and we had so much to ask them too! All of the community members were very curious, but kind and receptive to what we had to say (and they beared with our broken French). Shosh's crowning moment was when she explained where her home state of Ohio is to all the community members. 

All of us had a chance to go to the kindergarten; we went half at a time while the other half went to either a middle music or English class. In the English class, we taught them how to play hangman and used their English workbook vocabulary words. We also found common ground while singing Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. It was a little unexpected how much they wanted us to be involved; we were just expecting to observe but we ended up having fun with them all.

The highlights of the music class included teaching them "The Wobble'" performing Journey and Spice Girls songs, and learning a rap in Creole that they performed for us at the start of the class. They all had so much energy, and so much swagger when it came to rapping.

The kindergarteners were precious! They were so happy to see us and loved to climb all over us.  It was hard to refuse when the kids asked to wear our hats, and even harder to ask for them back. Monkeying around with the kindergarteners and their smiles and laughter was the highlight of our day. 

We ended our day by testing our haggling skills at le marché en fer, or the iron market. We are going out to dinner tonight and are looking forward to some live Haitian jazz!

Bisous!! (Kisses!!)

 

 

Jewish Day Camp in Mumbai

Posted: May 22, 2013

Jeremy Nagel is serving as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Mumbai, India

During the second week of May, JDC India ran a Summer Day Camp for children ages 4 to 12 at the EPJCC in Mumbai.

Thirty Jewish Indian children attended our week-long program, the theme of which was “Jerusalem and The Temple,” in honor of Yom Yerushalayim (May 8). The kids learned about the Holy City of Jerusalem, learning about Jewish life from Temple time until today and studying the history of the two Temples and their ultimate destruction.

Campers watched a video of a virtual model of the second Temple and then had fun building their own physical model of the Temple. The kids also created a miniature Kotel (Western Wall) and wrote notes and prayers to place in the cracks between the Kotel stones.

We taught the children songs about Jerusalem as well as how to write Yerushalayim in Hebrew, a skill they showed off by spelling and decorating “Yerushalayim” in huge letters and then hanging the beautiful results on the wall.

On Yom Yerushalayim, as a special field trip, the children visited the first and oldest synagogue in Mumbai, named Sha’ar HaRachamim (Gate of Mercy), which was built over 200 years ago by two Bene Israel Jewish brothers in 1796. Bene Israel is the largest community of Jews in India today, who trace their ancestry to arriving in India over 2,000 years ago, before the destruction of the second Temple. At the synagogue, we held Tefilah (prayer services), sang Jewish songs, and learned about the important structures and components of a synagogue.

We discussed how the synagogue has become the center of Jewish community life now that we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem. It was quite moving, witnessing Jewish Indian children singing at the top of their lungs, in such an ancient synagogue and taking part in the traditions of our shared Jewish heritage. Afterwards, we returned to the JCC, all decked out in blue and white, for a festive Yom Yerushalayim celebration including music and ice cream.

In addition to the Jewish educational components, the kids had a blast competing in relay races, playing soccer, working on arts and crafts projects, and of course lots and lots of Israeli dancing. On the last day of camp, we conducted a grand trivia tournament based on their new knowledge. We concluded camp with more songs (which they couldn't get enough of), eating marshmallows around a mock-bonfire, and each camper was proud to take home a souvenir picture of themselves in front of the Kotel and Temple.

A good time was definitely had by all! That goes for double for the staff!

Check out this video I created about the day.

 

 

Day 2 in Haiti

Posted: May 21, 2013

Greetings from The Plaza Hotel in Port au Prince.

Today was our first full day in this beautiful country. It started with a lovely breakfast at the hotel, followed by a 40 minute drive to Zoranje, the town a little bit outside of Port au Prince. On the way we passed the largest produce market in Haiti, which was really more like the largest market of anything you could possibly need. Looking out the window, it was hard to see anything except people and breadfruit.

At first it didn't seem like a market, because there were just piles and piles of trash. This was a stark example of poor and ineffective publicly planned waste system. It was also difficult to resist taking pictures of this massive market, but it also felt wrong to be sitting on an air conditioned bus taking pictures of the chaos of poverty that we saw.

Zoranje is a town that was originally part of government planned housing. It's a bit of an impractical location because it is removed from the city, which limits the number of accessible jobs for its residents. Since it is removed, though, we got to see some of the rural lives of Haitians. ProDev, the organization we have been working with, built a school and a community center in the town, and now has 570 students and provides jobs for the community members. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the world's most adorable kindergarten gym class and a short tour of some of the houses. There were four different "neighborhoods", each named after either a Haitian president or the president of the county that "built" the houses (Venezuela and Cuba). The most interesting part of the houses is that there were several "expo homes", which were built as part of a competition to see who could design the most efficient home. But nothing really came from them, and now squatters live in them. But there is nobody to tell them not to live there, so if there is an empty house, why not?

After the tour we got to work cleaning the amphitheater that was built in 2003 by Jean Aristide (the president at the time). Like many things in Haiti, this was plopped down and never taken care of, so the community decided that it would be an important task for our group to work on. But it turned out to not be just our group.

It started off with five other Haitians, but throughout the course of the day, more and more joined us until there were at least three times as many residents as Americans. We were inspired by their willingness (and curiosity) to help, which made us wonder why it took people from a foreign country to initiate a change. This is a theme, we learned, because a lot of Haitians have big ideas for ways to change the country, but assume that nobody wants to do it with them. 



We were joined by some of the most adorable children once they got out of school. We played soccer, they braided some of our hair (which was a large task considering that there are 13 girls and 2 boys), and chit chatted about our favorite rap artists. (Rap battle on the way)



After cleaning up at the hotel, we had a reflection session where we discussed how our Jewish identity plays a role in our moral responsibilities. 

 

 

Day 1 in Haiti

Posted: May 21, 2013

We walk off the cool plane into the blistering Haiti heat. Just a second later, however, we were saved by the lovely music of an all male Haitian band in the cool airport. As we arrived at baggage claim, men in red shirts surrounded us offering their assistance in exchange for a bit of money. It is difficult to arrive in a new country—unaware of the culture and mannerisms. We make our way to the bus with our local JDC associate, Jerry, our guide, Cyril, and our driver and security guard. Safety and sense of security overwhelm us all.

We are off to lunch at first at a beautiful restaurant with a sky blue pool. Buffet style (as it seems most of our meals are). Fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado make the perfect start to our Haitian cuisine. And of course, there is rice and beans, and some fish, and meat. After filling ourselves, we scurry back to the bus toward a small building (similar to a wooden or clay shack) just outside of Port-au-Prince. I think we were all a bit confused about what this building could be until a man in a bright orange shirt that read “Afya” appeared.

Afya means “good health” in Swahili. They are an organization that collects, sorts and effectively ships medical, recreational, office, and other needed supplies to developing nations. Our personal Afya guide explains the purpose of Afya and its work in Haiti. They have created physical rehabilitation centers in a few locations throughout Haiti. Afya supplies the resources and trains technicians to treat the disabled; they also encourage them to create their own inventions to help patients to provide sustainability to the facilities.

We saw a homemade hand splint, a wheel attached to a wall to help with elbow and shoulder exercises, and a contraption meant to stretch one’s fingers. The tech showed us how the hand splint was used; he handled his patient with such care it was heart-warming. We then got a chance to ask the patients some questions and all we received was praise toward the wonderful changes Afya had supported in their lives. People with disabilities may be ignored, or even shunned from their families and communities here, so Afya allows them to rebuild their lives, and continue on in a meaningful way. Each of us left the clinic in such amazement by the wonders that occurred among such distress.

We then went on a tour of Port-au-Prince.  Behind a fence stood the Parliament before the earthquake.  But now, nothing remained but an empty piece of land.  It is amazing what a natural disaster can do.  But it was cleaned up well enough that having not been informed, one wouldn’t have guessed anything was missing.

Across from this was the most famous statue in Haiti: a man with his lips on a conch shell.  And next to this statue was the “eternal light;” it is always burning.  It reminded me of the eternal light that is ever-burning above the ark in a synagogue.  Through the van windows we saw many school children, all in uniforms, a private Catholic school, and many street-vendor-like stands.  Also, we saw peoples’ homes.  They are so different relative to those we are accustomed to, and beautiful in their own way, despite the lack of adornments and paint.  We passed what looked like a village community filled with many small homes boarded with metal and sheets for ceilings and walls.  This is completely different to the majority of homes we see on a daily basis in the United States but it is important for people to see how people exist and are so self-sufficient and make the best of life with what they have and are given.

Next, we went to the hotel and some people went swimming.  Then we showered (which felt so nice because it is so hot here!) and went to dinner with Maryse, the president of PRODEV.  The food has been very good!  A lot of rice and beans, though they are not a traditional Hatian staple, according to Cyril.  Also for dinner, we had fish, chicken, cooked vegetables, salad, and orange potato-tasting vegetables.  It was a great first day and looking forward to the rest of our time here!

 

 

A Helping Hand at the Afya Foundation Clinic

Posted: May 21, 2013

Yesterday we visited a rehab clinic run by the Afya Foundation-- a JDC partner NGO in Haiti providing much-needed care to the physically-disabled.  

We learned from Afya professionals about the lack of resources and education concerning people with disabilities in Haiti as well as the social stigma they face.

We met with Haitian physical therapists who showed us some of the self-made equipment that they use to administer physical therapy (pictured below), as well as with patients who explained how this free clinic was significantly improving the quality of their lives.

We start our big service project today - stay tuned.

 

 

We made it!

Posted: May 20, 2013

We're on the ground in Port-au-Prince. More to come!

 

 

Before I leave for Haiti...

Posted: May 19, 2013

My house is a mess. My stuff from college is strewn about downstairs, a bittersweet reminder of my illuminating sophomore year and of the hard work (finding myself in my last two years at Tufts, plus five loads of laundry) still to come.

And yet, not even unpacked from school, I am already embarking upon my next adventure--this Monday, I, along with 14 other students from Tufts, will be traveling to Haiti with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Tufts Hillel.

As I begin to organize myself and pack my suitcase for this next part of my life, I start to realize how much of what I need to and choose to bring along equates with my ultimate goals and values in life. While seemingly mundane, these objects in a suitcase are really so much more.

First, my welcome packet from the JDC. Full of facts about the JDC and its work, figures about Haiti and the devastation left behind by the 2010 earthquake, and itineraries for Tufts' upcoming trip, it represents the importance of education and the necessity of overcoming the ignorance that plagues much of the modern world.

Sunscreen and bug spray--I am sure my mother ran for industrial-strength formulas the second I expressed interest in applying for this trip. These items are my protection, the tether I will always have to home that I used to resist but now embrace.

Hand in hand with protection and a connection to home comes adventure, represented by my waterproof shoes. Not something I would normally need on the Tufts campus or in suburban New York, these shoes and the challenged they foretell also speak l the adventures--exciting, scary, unknown--in my future.

I also see the journal, which seemed silly when I bought it, but I now realize that my adventures' meaning would get lost without a place to record and look back on them. My journal reminds me not to forget my past, and also to learn from all those I encounter and to let people I meet have an impact on my, just as I hope to have on them.

Beneath the journal, the reminder to allow others to touch my life, is an assortment of beach balls and thin paperbacks--donation to the school in Zoranje, Haiti with which we will participate in a service project next week. These donations evoke a commitment to social justice, to do what I can for those who can't, that I will carry with me forever and that I will bring to all that I do.

Finally, I need to pack my passport. I have made copies, thought long and hard about a safe place to store it, and been on the receiving end of many reminders not to lose it. Of course, even without all of these precautions, I know it could never be misplaced. My passport is a ticket to all that I want to see in the future, a representation of all that I want to achieve, and a reminder of who I want to become.

- Rachel Wiskind '15

 

 

Seeking Asylum in Israel

Posted: May 12, 2013

Shannon Broverman participated in JDC Entwine's Inside Israel 2012 Insider Trip.

As a kid, remember playing outside and trying to climb trees. It was fun right?

Well, imagine staying in the tree all day with your family with little food or water and only climbing down at night.  

This was the journey of many asylum seekers who were trying to leave their land.  

During our visit to Israel in December met with several groups of people who made this long, treacherous journey so they could raise their families in a more peaceful state. Among the group we visited were the children at the Bialik-Rogozin School school in south Tel Aviv whom we visited on a Shabbat morning.

Looking around, we saw kids of many nationalities who were in trees every day and on their parents back in tow for several days at a time until they arrived in Israel.

Once they arrived and found out about Bialik-Rogozin School, their needs were literally taken care of as the staff found provided them with all different provisions (clothing, hygiene, food) and also provided support to the children.

In the self-portrait art project that hung on the school walls you will see many bright vibrant colors which as well as many smiling faces as thechildren are happy to be at school.

We also experienced that the children have al lot of vibrant energy as we visited their music class and listened to their routine, made from homemade, drum like instruments.  

Next time you see kids playing outside and climbing trees think what it would be like to be up there all day, close your eyes and image the route these asylum seekers had to take.

Join us in Boston on May 20, 2013 for LOOKING DEEPER: SEEKING ASYLUM IN ISRAEL for an in-depth look at the issues these children and their families are facing, and how JDC is supporting this community.

 

 

 

Lag B'Omer in Kharkov, Ukraine (with horses!)

Posted: May 7, 2013

The local youth director and I were shocked when we got to the horse stable. There, in the back, we saw an Israeli flag.

The director of the stable is an Israeli that moved back to Kharkov.

In all, my participants had a great time relaxing, playing games, sports and, of course, horseback riding.

(I actually did not get onto a horse, I opted for a beer instead and there's no drinking and riding).

We were there the entire day. It was incredibly beautiful outside. Great way to spend Lag B'Omer.

 

 

Orientation!

Posted: May 7, 2013


This summer 15 participants from Brown/RISD Hillel will be traveling to Argentina with JDC Entwine.  The group will be performing service work connected to JDC's ongoing efforts assisting the Jewish community of Argentina.  

In order to prepare for our experience, we attended a series of orientation sessions designed to introduce us to Argentina and JDC, and to help all the participants get to know one another better.  This past weekend we were joined by Evan Rosenstock, our group leader from JDC Entwine, who presented on JDC and the Jewish community of Argentina, and gave us a sense of what we will be doing on our trip to Argentina.  

We can't wait to get there!

 

 

 

Supporting Jewish Communities in Argentina and Cuba

Posted: May 3, 2013

Aron Wander is a sophomore at Princeton University 

I recently returned from a week long JDC trip to the Jewish communities in Rosario and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

While there, I was able to experience the amazing vitality and unity of Jewish life in Argentina. I was particularly struck by the JCC in Rosario; for all of the Jewish kids we met, it functioned as a center of their social lives. They would come there after school to play sports, learn Hebrew, and hangout with their friends.

While the Jewish communities I am a part of in America are certainly vibrant, I have never seen such a tightly-knit Jewish community of multiple denominations in the middle of a major city. On the other hand, I was also struck by how isolated the communities were. In front of each Jewish building in Rosario and Buenos Aires, there were concrete barricades to prevent terrorist attacks like those of the Israeli Embassy bombing (1992) and the AMIA bombing (1994).

Many of the kids I spoke to mentioned feeling isolated because of subtle anti-Semitism. I came to appreciate how privileged I am, as an American Jew, to be free from anti-Semitism and to have access to and support from the international Jewish community.

My trip to Argentina encouraged me to look for ways to help integrate other isolated Jewish communities into the international Jewish community. This summer, for the first time, the Cuban government is allowing a team of Jewish athletes to participate in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Having a chance to meet with other Jewish athletes and to participate in a global Jewish event will be, I hope, a great opportunity for Cuban Jews to move closer to Jews around the world.

In order to get to the games, the athletes need uniforms as well as money to pay for travel to Israel. I am working with members of B’nai B’rith who recently visited Cuba to try to raise money for the team. Hopefully, we will be able to provide the team with what they need to compete to the best of their ability.

If you have any questions, please contact me at awander@princeton.edu, or visit our funding website for more information: http://gogetfunding.com/project/maccabiah-2013-1.

Thank you very much,

Aron Wander

 

 

 

Orientation at NYU for India

Posted: April 30, 2013

This past Sunday, a group of 16 NYU students (and one from London via skype) met for an orientation session to prepare for their Entwine Insider Service Trip to India, May 26-June 4.

In addition to learning more about JDC and what they'll be doing in India, the group bonded through a "Cross Cultural Communication" activity in which they were asked to talk to each other while maintaining rigid (and sometimes hilarious) communication styles.

Even with the close-talking, mumbling, hand-holding, and excessively polite greetings, the group managed to learn a bit about each other as well as to start to think about the cultural differences they may face in India.

Namaste!

 

 

Lag B'Omer in Berlin

Posted: April 30, 2013

Yahel is in her second year of working with JDC's Bambinim program in Berlin.

Bambinim's Lag Ba'Omer event this year took place in East Berlin, where we hold monthly Jewish family events for those who live too far from Bambinim but want to experience holidays as a family and to socialize with other Jewish families.  

About 15 or 20 families came together to celebrate Lag Ba'Omer around a traditional bonfire, where they roasted campfire bread and marshmallows, and with a bows and arrows activity for the kids.  At the end of the event, the families enjoyed a dinner comprised of food contributed by various parents who attended.  

This event was an excellent opportunity for families from all over Berlin to enjoy some outdoor time together in a Jewish context and is an important building block in our effort to start a Shabbat Playgroup in East Berlin with this group of families, which is scheduled to happen in the next couple of months.

 

 

Clean Water in Ethiopia

Posted: April 29, 2013

Brina Furman, left, is raising money for JDC's Clean Water Initiative in Ethiopia.

Take a minute and think about your day to day. You probably woke up and used the bathroom, sitting on a flushing toilet and washing your hands with running water. Then you probably brushed your teeth with water straight out of the faucet. Maybe you took a 15-minute shower, using approximately 24 gallons of clean, filtered water. You drank a glass of water out of the kitchen sink while you made breakfast with dishes washed in your dishwasher.

Now rewind and consider what your morning would have looked like if I told you that you no longer have any running or potable water.

That’s what life is like for thousands of Ethiopians. In the country, 60% of all citizens do not have access to clean water – we aren’t talking about running water, but just potable water, with dirt and fecal matter filtered out. That number increases to 70% when you move the conversation to the people living in rural areas.

In January of 2013, I traveled with 19 other University of Maryland students to visit the country of Ethiopia and JDC's projects there. In a twelve-day trip, we explored the capital of Addis Ababa, the third-largest city of Gondar, and rural areas a few hours by car from these major cities. We saw clinics that the JDC is working with Rick Hodes on and met many of his patients. We saw the office of JDC’s micro-finance projects and met many of the women whose lives were changed by the loans. All of this work was incredible and continued to open my eyes to global issues. But nothing struck me like visiting the water wells outside Gondar.

The first well we came to was literally in the middle of nowhere. We had been driving on dirt roads for miles. There was no grocery store, no hotel and no gas station like we’re used to in rural America. There was nothing but huts and farmland, with children running by the car asking for money. Nothing.

Clean water wells drastically lower the rates of illnesses by filtering many bacteria out of the water. But we aren’t just talking about making people feel better: we’re talking about saving lives. Out of 1,000 babies born in Ethiopia, 77 will die before they reach age 5. Many of these deaths can be easily prevented: unclean water causes diarrhea, leading to far too many death by dehydration. Furthermore, many young women have to walk miles a day to reach clean water, preventing them from getting an education. This spirals: education often is the key to raising social economic status.  Without a stable economic income, many women are forced to marry early in order to be financially supported.

Today, I’ve vowed to raise money to build a well in the country with JDC. Please visit my fundraising website here.  and read about one child’s life that inspired the entire project. Any donation is beyond appreciated! Even if you cannot financially support my goal, please take a moment and share what you've learned with someone else. I am a strong believer that the key to change is awareness. Thank you for your time. 

 

 

Spinal Surgery in Addis Ababa

Posted: April 26, 2013

While serving as Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Addis Ababa, I've been working with Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC's Medical Director for Ethiopia. Dr. Hodes's work provides life-altering treatment to young people, particularly patients suffering from spinal deformities and those who need heart surgery or treatment for Hodgkin’s disease.

In terms of work with patients with spinal issues, two American brothers, one radiologist and one surgeon, have been coming to Ethiopia to perform spine surgeries with JDC.

In this photo: the radiologist is on the left. On the right is Makbel, who had spine surgery by this american team almost one year ago. Makbel joined us in the OR to watch the spine surgery that is taking place in the distance.

We took a break at the table to look at pictures on the computer of Makbel's surgery in the same hospital (and maybe same operating room) one year back. Holding the spine model, to Makbel's right, is Kaleab who had spine surgery in Ghana and now volunteers with us several days every week. 

Makbel is a freshman at Addis Ababa University studying engineering. Kaleab is a senior in high school. These surgeries changed their lives dramatically, and they take any opportunity they can to learn more about our medical work.

 

 

 

Jewish Movie Night in Duisburg

Posted: April 24, 2013

Amira is a JSC Fellow serving in Duisburg, Germany.

Last night I organized our first ever Jewish movie night in Duisburg.

This program is geared towards students and young professionals in the Dusiburg area and 17 people came from 5 different cities to attend the film screening at a local bar in Duisburg.

I showed the award winning Israeli film, "The Band's Visit," which is about an Egyptian military band who gets lost in Israel and ends up in a small town in the middle of the desert.

Afterwards I facilitated a conversation and discussion about the film - this won't be the last Jewish film night!

 

 

 

Orientation at Tufts

Posted: April 22, 2013

Hello! This is our trip blog. Check back here for more updates before, during and after our trip.

This weekend we met Evan Rosenstock from JDC at our orientation. Evan is planning and staffing our trip and has traveled a lot with JDC Entwine. We discussed our service program, learned all about the JDC and what the situation is like in Haiti, and began working on our pre-trip project of collecting items to donate to the community in Haiti. We can't wait!

 

 

JDC-U at the University of Maryland!

Posted: April 18, 2013

This month, JDC-U at the University of Maryland held a "Shabbat Around the World" Friday night dinner on campus.

Each table represented a different region of the world where the JDC serves and had corresponding JDC facts and figures.

Additionally, the JDC-U board passed around photos from our recent trip to Ethiopia. The event was full of insightful questions and conversation. Attendees were very interested in learning more about all of the wonderful projects that the JDC does and how to get involved with our new student group!

The above photo is the JDC-U board. From the left: Shana Frankel, Jessica Loesberg, Danielle Horn, Zoe Klein, and Brina Furman. We are accompanied by Rabbi Jessica Shimberg (center), and beautiful Calla Lilies (the official flower of Ethiopia) sent from JDC Entwine Steering Committee member (and our amazing group leader!!) Ellie Bressman.

We post updates on our social media accounts all the time! Check us out at on our Facebook page and Twitter account.

More from us to come.

Zoe Klein | JDC-U at UMD Board Member

JDC-U at the University of Maryland is part of the JDC Entwine Campus Initiative. Learn more: http://jdcentwine.org/campus-initiative

 

 

Israel's Independence Through The Eyes of My Students

Posted: April 16, 2013

Rebecca Blady (second from left) is a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow serving in Israel.

I work two days a week in the city of Ramla, which is located about 25 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv with a diverse population of Israelis, immigrants and Arabs.

In Ramla, I teach English to small groups and tutor students in a Mechina Kodem Akademit, or a college preparatory program.

Here, I help young IDF or National Service veterans, generally 20-30 years old, study for the English language matriculation exam. My students need not only pass but excel in this national exam in order to be accepted into any reputable college or university. The students I am working with still do not have sufficiently high matriculation scores for university, and some have no high school education whatsoever.

My work at the Mechina has been the most rewarding part of my experience here, largely because I work with people my own age.

Their level of motivation at this point in their lives has helped me understand the importance of this time in the lives of Israeli citizens. In many ways, army service defines identity.

Young people spend their formative years, the first years living away from home, in uniform, totally devoted to the State of Israel and its security. The experience is incomparable to what I experienced as an 18-year-old on Long Island, trying to decide what college to go to and how my decision would affect my future.

Here, the State of Israel comes first, and higher education and career follow.

When my students and I chat in English, they offer insight into a unique foundational identity rooted in commitment to Israel. This commitment stays strong in these young adults and defines their present and past.  It highlights the challenges they feel in making an independent life in Israel, along with the pride they feel in doing so.

These students remain committed to their future despite frustrations they may have experienced in the army or the difficulty of their matriculation exams.

They believe Israel needs to make some changes to make its citizens happier, but they typically concur that this is their home and that there is no better place to be Jewish.

As members of my peer group, my students have taught me a thing or two with their passionate and persistent motivation to succeed for the sake of the future. These young people stand at the entrance to their independent lives in a state whose independence they devoted years to help protect. On Yom HaAtzmaut, I acknowledge that the celebration of independence transcends borders, battles and politics. Israel factors into my students’ past, present and future, their successes and failures, and their friends and families. 

My students are extraordinary citizens.

As their teacher, I must thank them for teaching me.

 

 

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.

 

 

Checking in from China

Posted: April 3, 2013

Three weeks ago I hit the halfway point through the Ralph I. Goldman fellowship -- it's frightening how quickly this year is flying by! Throughout the fellowship, I have lived in New York City, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Shanghai, China. I’ll be finishing my placement in Shanghai at the end of April and subsequently plan on heading to the Baltics and then Hungary until September.

When I was first awarded the RIG Fellowship, I knew I wanted to spend some of my time in China.

Why China?

Although I wasn’t cognizant of the JDC's involvement in the region, I became aware of a previous RIG Fellow’s survey throughout East Asia mapping out Jewish China, which sounded both fascinating and captivating.

After becoming inspired, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to be placed in Shanghai, China for three months to assist the JDC, along with the local Jewish community of Shanghai, in putting on its largest event to date in East Asia – Destination Shanghai and Limmud China. During my first ten weeks in China, I’ve been fortunate enough to assist with the planning, programming, registration, and logistics of the event.

It’s been an absolute honor being a part of the team and helping assist in developing such a fulfilling event. Additionally, I have been privileged to travel to Hong Kong and Beijing in order to expand my knowledge about the Jewish communities of East Asia. The people I have encountered during my journey so far have shed an incredible light on life as a Jewish expat in China.

Destination Shanghai will kick off with two days of Limmud, which is a conference on the theme of Jewish learning. Limmud is not affiliated to any strand of Judaism and markets itself as open to "anyone interested in Jewish learning". The conference will be held at a hotel on the outskirts of Shanghai in a town called Qibao. One of the unique aspects of this event is that all 60+ presenters are volunteering their time to share their knowledge on a wide array of topics, ranging from the bilateral relations between Israel and modern China, the Jews of Cuba, to kick boxing lessons and Pickle making workshops. No matter who you are or where you come from, this conference definitely has something for you.

On the Friday evening following Limmud, roughly 200+ participants will be experiencing a local Shanghai Shabbat at one of the four established communities. Three of which are Chabad who were the first to come to Shanghai and set up a community center for Jewish life. On Saturday, in addition to Shabbat services, there will be a text study session that will highlight contemporary issues through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. This will be followed by a guided walking tour of downtown modern Shanghai where participants will be exposed to some of the highlights of Shanghai including People’s Square and Shanghai’s Jing’an Temple.

Sunday, April 7th marks the 70th Anniversary of the Hongkou Ghetto which saved approximately 20,000 Jews who fled Eastern Europe in the 1930’s.

This day focuses on Shanghai’s Jewish past to its future through a day-long conference in the former Ohel Moshe synagogue, now a part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. We will encounter the present realities, challenges, and promising prospects for Jewish life in China and East Asia. As this day coincides with the Holocaust Memorial Day, the Israeli Consulate is organizing a ceremony to commemorate the day that will take place at the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which was built in 1921.

I’m very excited that my girlfriend and I will be joining the Inside Jewish Shanghai Entwine trip which entails visiting Shanghai and Beijing. We couldn’t be more excited to meet the young professionals who will be arriving and we’ll all be experiencing Shanghai and Beijing through JDC’s amazing lens!

In the next few weeks I'll be writing up a post about my experiences in East Asia in more depth and detail what I've been so fortunate to be a part of!

As I've been posting photos to my instagram, feel free to follow me @ShaunGoldstone.

 

 

An Enriching Trip

Posted: March 28, 2013

Shalom,

In close to 168 hours, 25 students from Texas were part of one of the great, life-changing alternative spring breaks. From listening to the horrors of the holocaust from sweet elderly woman, or witnessing the revival of Judaism from the eyes of Jewish teenage leaders in Budapest, or becoming integrated in the small but cohesive Jewish community in Timisoara, Romania, this trip never had a dull moment. The work the JDC is doing in Eastern Europe is really remarkable, and I am so fortunate that I was part of such a wonderful experience.   

Best,

Michael

 

 

The Second Chance of a Lifetime

Posted: March 28, 2013

Four summers ago I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to the Czech Republic and Poland on an organized trip for Jewish teens. One of the things about my trip that stands out to me was our visit to two of the concentration camps in Poland. While it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, I was very young and did not understand the importance of the places I was in and the stories I learned.

Therefore, I was so thankful to be given the chance by Texas Hillel and the JDC to go to Hungary and Romania, now being four years older and wiser.  A big part of our journey throughout Hungary involved learning about Jewish life in the country pre- and post-Holocaust. I have not explored much about the Holocaust since returning from my trip four years ago, and to again be in a country where so many lives were affected by the events of the Holocaust, my thoughts and feelings were overwhelming. Walking through the Holocaust museum in Budapest, I looked at pictures and stories and could only think to myself that I had been to these camps and at the time I visited, I was the same age as many kids were when they were sent to live there. As powerful of an experience as that was, having time to talk with several Holocaust survivors is one memory I will never forget. It was so touching and fulfilling to see the joy and happiness in their eyes when we walked through the doors of the café where we met them. They were so taken aback by the fact that we, American teenagers, had interest in coming to visit their country and wanted to learn and hear their stories. It pleasantly surprised me to see how content they were to still be living in Hungary and to have children and grandchildren who love and care for them.

Visiting the concentration camps is an experience I will forever hold with me, and now I have these stories from survivors, which have taught me a great deal. This experience has taught me to be thankful for my family and for the freedom and opportunities we have here in the States. While people always say, “don’t take things for granted” I now truly understand what that means, and that means to me that one should learn from their hardships and be grateful for all that they have. Thank you JDC for giving me the opportunity to be immersed in such a rich and meaningful learning experience. 

Marissa Shiller

University of Texas, Sophomore

 

 

The Worthy Jews of Timisoara

Posted: March 28, 2013

Friday night in Timisoara, Romania, the group went to a Shabbat service in the Jewish Community Center. The shul was in a tiny, cramped, musty room that looked like it had not changed since 1914. Men and women sat separately and there was an organ in the corner. It was this odd collision of worlds and traditions that my North American, Conservodox upbringing simply did not understand. 

Kabalat Shabbat is a very spiritual service for me that I look forward to all week, yet in that synagogue, in the middle of Romania, I simply wasn't feeling it. We were skipping prayers, the melodies were foreign to me, and let's just say, the organ player was no great talent.  In the middle of the service, everyone stood up and together we recited the shema, the prayer which declares that G-d is one. It was an incredibly powerful moment. For the rest of the service, all I could think of was  the universality and strength of the Jewish people. In a foreign place that knew the greatest tragedy to the Jewish people, the Holocaust, and with its own distinct traditions and customs, a community survived and preserved its voice, reciting the ancient Jewish prayer together at a Friday night service in 2013.  In Timisoara, Romania, I was able to pray with just as much access to G-d as in Jerusalem or Austin, TX.  

I later found out that the service was conducted in the Neolog tradition, a movement mixing Conservative and Reformed traditions that is popular in European communities. My conception of world Jewry has been almost exclusively defined by my experience being a part of North American Jewish communities and Israel, yet in so many other places around the world, there are communities just as Jewish, saying the shema together on Friday night. This realization was very powerful for me. Moving forward, I want to invest my efforts in educating myself and my own community on Jewish communities around the world that are just as worthy of our attention as Israel or our own. 
My trip to Hungary and Romania proved the depth and great reach of the Jewish people.  2014 Texas Hillel Alternative Spring Break to Turkey, anyone?
-Tracy Frydberg

 

 

 

Two Weeks From Timisoara

Posted: March 28, 2013

Hey everyone! I’m writing this post two weeks from the drive from Hungary to Romania, smack dab in the middle of our trip. As I write this blog post, so many different things come to mind. From the games of Catchphrase on the bus ride to the smiles of Kim and Raul (the children who lived in the home that we helped renovate and transform), there was not a moment that wasn’t memorable. My favorite memory of the trip was at the Ujpest Home for the Aged in Budapest, where one very sweet woman with a smile on her face told us that because she was sterilized during the Holocaust, that all of us were her grandchildren. As our translator and guide told us these words, I could see tears start to form in everyone’s eyes. That moment and so many others along the trip made me feel thankful for how privileged I have been to grow up in a time where I could feel safe, when so many people during the Holocaust did not, and it also made me feel proud to be Jewish. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to go on this trip, where I was exposed to so many different people, places, and feelings that I had never expected to encounter.   

Carly Miller

 

 

The value and essence of life

Posted: March 28, 2013

Traveling has been a passion of mine. Exploring. Discovering. Learning. To taste new foods, to walk on unfamiliar land, to hearing the exquisite language that seem like harmonic melodies that I can’t understand. Yet, one thing is what truly makes a travel worth while, and unforgettable, and that is the people. From meeting the affluent to the less fortunate, people are what truly can make a trip. You hear about all different walks of life, and you are able to strive forward in a pair of new shoes that give you a completely different out look on life, and I believe that this is what life is about. Life is about experiencing, and reaching the world’s wonders in their entirety, and the people... The people are what make this world into a living and breathing organic Earth. 

I will discuss one aspect that truly touched my life, and one that I may hope to never forget, and that is the community of Timisoara, Romania. I met a boy named Raul, a 3 year old who lived in a saddening apartment, an apartment that had one bed room, a sink and a toilet. No shower. No Kitchen. Yet, this boy had the grandest smile across his face, a smile that could bring any sad person to life, to full,vibrant, joyful life. I was astonished by the aura that this boy emanated despite his condition. He had it figured out, much more than most Americans in the world... He knew key to happiness, one that I envied. I know that ignorance is bliss but, this... this what something that superseded all ignorance, something that pierced through any sorrow or envy that have engulfed Americans because of things that are taken for granted. His life was simple, but he enjoyed it. He loved every second of his existence, and that is living life to its fullest.

What I learned that day from this boy, was something I hope to hold onto for the rest of my life. To live life to the fullest despite whatever conditions you are in, and to enjoy every moment of happiness because with each glimmer of hope, with each glimmer of light and happiness wherein lies the infinite value of life. Each moment of life has meaning, and each moment of life is meant to be lived. 

 

 

My time at the Holocaust nursing home

Posted: March 28, 2013

At the Holocaust nursing home, we spoke to a woman that has been through so much tragedy. I had never had spoken with a Holocaust victim before, and it was extremely emotional. I appreciated the opportunity so much but was overblown with the woman’s incredible story. She told us the dramatic story when her and mother ran away when they had a split second to make a decision. Although it took a while for her to warm up over time, she was able to talk to us. She wanted to educate us because we are the younger generation and should make sure the Holocaust is not forgotten. I learned so much from this trip and am excited to keep our experiences alive. The strong Jewish community can be found all over the world. I know no matter where I am; I can count on finding a Jewish community to welcome me whenever I need help.

  • Hillary Schweitzer 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Experience

Posted: March 28, 2013

Hi there! My name is Randall Olmsted, and I recently returned from a trip abroad to Hungary and Romania through the JDC and Texas Hillel. After telling friends and family about my travels, I am often asked what the most meaningful part of my trip was. I find this question incredibly difficult to answer, as so many aspects of my journey stick out – seeing the renewal efforts of the Hungarian Jewish community, dancing with special needs young adults, and helping a family move into a new apartment, to just name a few. However, what unequivocally left the greatest impact was the opportunity to speak with Holocaust survivors. Though the language barrier initially presented a few minor obstacles, with the help of translators we were able to listen to their amazing stories. As sad as it may be, the few remaining members of the Holocaust generation are reaching their 80’s, and young people my age are the last to have the opportunity to hear their accounts. Their narratives put a real-life account to the horrors I had learned about throughout my education. My beliefs in the utmost importance of the continuance of the Jewish religion were reinforced after speaking with survivors at a Jewish elderly home.  I will be sure my children too hear these stories and understand the importance of the Holocaust. I am forever grateful and indebted for the opportunity to have embarked on such an amazing journey. 

 

 

 

A Different Perspective

Posted: March 28, 2013

I am a Religious and Jewish Studies major at the University of Texas. I have always had a strong interest in religion and Jewish communities at home and abroad, which encouraged me to go on the trip to Hungary and Romania. After the trip I can say that some of even my most concrete opinions on Judaism and its communities have changed. I used to think of Judaism in the world as just being in the US and Israel, fully understanding that there were other communities across the world but never actively thinking about them. Additionally when I thought of a big community versus a small Jewish community I thought of communities like New York versus Waco, never abroad.

After visiting two European countries and just a small portion of the communities within them I can now see that my outlook has been flawed. The majority of Jewish communities and the people that comprise them do not live in such tolerant and ideal communities as those in the US and in Israel. While in the States and in Israel people are often convinced on why they should continue to be Jewish, this is a stark contrast to those in Europe who are often fighting just to practice their Judaism. If we want to ensure the continuation of Judaism we must also ensure that Jews abroad can have the same safety practicing Judaism as we do. This is a perspective that needs to be pushed and taught more often, and one that I am grateful for obtaining.                 

- Will Hall, Junior, University of Texas at Austin

 

 

Day 3: Service Work in Rosario

Posted: March 20, 2013

We woke up very early and had a quick breakfast at the hotel. Then we went to the USAR and immediately began painting, resuming work on the upstairs gym, the downstairs gym, and the kindergarten room, as well as beginning the repainting of the wall on the outside soccer/basketball court. It was a long, exhausting task, but we did manage to get it all done by the end of the day. The group working in the kindergarten room was also able to finish a mural on their wall.  Half of us also went and visited with beneficiaries of JDC's charitable work in the area, a man and a woman from the community. They lived in tiny, one room apartments in a relatively poor neighborhood in Southeastern Rosario.  They both lived in obviously impoverished homes, yet both seemed to be fairly optimistic and very thankful for the help that they have received from the JDC. It was a very eye opening experience for many of us and we left with a feeling of gratitude and connectedness.

By Eli, Ellie and Michelle

 

 

Day 2: Welcome to Rosario

Posted: March 19, 2013

Written by Danny and Cal:

We woke up early on day 2 to take the four hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Rosario, the third biggest city in Argentina.  After arriving in the city we took a quick walk by the water and had lunch at a riverside restaurant called “Deck”.  We made our way to the USAR Jewish community center, which provides the Jewish population with athletic facilities and a Kosher restaurant.  We were briefed by two guys named Alejandro on the history of the organization and its role in the community. 

            After beginning work painting some of the more run-down rooms in the facility, half of the group left to meet local benefactors of JDC support to discuss the effects of the economic downturn on Argentinean Jews.  Some of us met a half-blind 72 year old man who told us about his son and wife in Israel, and how JDC support as helped him get by alone in Argentina.  Others met with a pair of brothers who lost their house in a lawsuit and who rely on the JDC to help pay rent on their apartment.   

            After washing up in the hotel, we met for a group to discuss the day’s work and experiences.  We shared impressions, and discussed Jewish perspectives on community derived from a Biblical and a Talmudic source.  Later at night, we had dinner with a group of young locals, who, in a combination of English, Hebrew, and Spanish, described their lifestyles. 

            Today was a day of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.  We met the young and the old of the community and learned how different their lives are from ours.  It was valuable perspective on the work that we will be doing over the week.

 

 

 

 

Day 1: Argentina here we come!

Posted: March 18, 2013

Our grand adventure started at 1AM on Sunday morning, the air still crisp and the night still young. The Princeton contingency arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport a little less than two hours later, finding the Hopkins group already waiting by the American Airlines counter. As the two groups coalesced, an aura of restlessness and excitement surrounded us, a feeling that we were about to embark on the Spring Break of a lifetime. We still had another half an hour until we could check in, and simply didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Despite our growing fatigue, we made it through security forty-five minutes before boarding, and fifteen minutes before the breakfast kiosks opened. For the most part, the day was marked by anxious impatience and uncomfortable sleep. The second leg of the connecting trip, from Miami to Buenos Aires, was rather uneventful, with the baffling exception of the premature serving of kosher-for-Passover kosher meals. Arriving in Buenos Aires, we made our way through customs and through the city, getting a light meal on the bus before trudging into our hostel a short twenty-ish hours after our day of travel had began. Some of us had trouble sleeping, in part due to building excitement but mostly because of the number the day of travel exacted on our sleeping patterns. We now are en route to Rosario, mostly well-rested and all well-fed, excited to officially begin our trip.

 

 

Adio, Kerida

Posted: March 17, 2013

* written by Sarah Goldenstein 

looking out from the JCC, you see the synagogue on your left and snowcapped mountains in the distance.

 

This morning our spring break trip came to an end. The evening before had pushed many of us to our emotional limits as we were forced to say goodbye to each other, to the community, and to the experience that we had grown so close to over the past week. Although the students were all returning to campus and will be able to see each other again, the energy, the feelings and the experience would never be the same. As a group we had molded together and in a few hours we would soon say goodbye.

Around ten to seven we were on the bus headed to the airport. Little did we know that we would arrive early and need to wait an hour for our check-in desk to open! Unlike the US, international flights do not require you to arrive hours in advance...  

As the JDC group leader, I spent this past week with the students helping them to learn about JDC’s work in Bulgaria, through service based learning initiatives on a variety of JDC projects. A little background on me, I am a part of the JDC Jewish Service Corps fellowship and previously spent 2 years volunteering in Germany and currently serve in Serbia.  

Much of the work that I have done during me time as a JSC fellow is difficult to explain, as I am often unable to find the words to accurately articulate the affects it has on individuals and communities. This past week all 18 students understood the impact of JDC’s programs in Bulgaria, through our service work, learning reflection sessions, and myriad interactions with members from the Bulgarian Jewish community. As they saw and experienced firsthand the community’s needs the group understood that community and Jewish identity means something different in Bulgaria than in the United States.  In Bulgaria, to be Jewish, is a daily choice. There are no options to define or redefine your Jewish identity since there is only one community. During communism in Bulgaria, religion was prohibited and as a result all religious life ceased during this time. Since the end of communism in Bulgaria in 1990, the community has struggled to create an active spiritual and religious life. On the other hand, the community has grown in many ways and is model of great success.  Through our service work and site visits, we learned about the Jewish Kindergarten (Gan Balagan), the Jewish school in Sofia (grades 1 to 12), weekly Friday Shabbat programs for children (Yom Sababa), the Ariel Job Center in Sofia (a JDC initiative that addresses poverty and unemployment), and JDC programs for the elderly during home visits, eating at the community Canteen, volunteering at the Parents’ home (the community retirement home), and while singing Ladino songs with the community choir.  

The students who participated were far from typical.  Instead of going to Cancun, as many people in the community had inquired, they spent their spring break doing Tikkun Olam in Bulgaria, a country not easily found on the map. Tikkun Olam (to repair the world) is something that each student identified as being a crucial part of their Jewish identity. I feel honored that I was able to help create this experience for the group. For many students this trip was life changing, as they were confronted with harsh realities and bitter sweet uncertainties.  I believe that this trip marks the beginning for each student’s lifelong commitment to service, no matter where in the world they may find themselves.  

 

 

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom from Sofia!

Posted: March 15, 2013

Today we toured downtown Sofia and then volunteered at Yom Sababa (Cool Day), a special program that one of the JCCs offers for children in 1st through 4th grades on Friday afternoons.  Our students led the children in Passover-themed arts and crafts.  We're now preparing for Shabbat, which promises to be extremeley memorable.  We'll attend services tonight at Sofia's one synagogue, after which we'll have dinner with the community.  Tomorrow we will attend  "mini-Limmud", a Jewish learning conference modeled after larger such gatherings around the world.  Our AU students will actually present as part of the conference; they'll discuss Jewish life on campus in the United States.

Shabbat Shalom from Sofia!

 

 

Continuing our adventures in Sofia...

Posted: March 14, 2013

Student Rebecca Winchell writes:

We started our day at the Jewish school in Sofia.  It’s a state school, but it’s supported by ORT and the Lauder Foundation, which allows it to provide its students with top notch resources, including a television and radio studio and a robotics program.  Not all of the students are Jewish, but the school still teaches Hebrew and celebrates Jewish holidays.  Many of the non-Jewish students choose to attend this school because of its strong programs in technology and media.  It’s certainly far from the average Bulgarian school, mostly due to the extra funding it gets from ORT and Lauder.

After a brief tour of the school, we led discussions and games in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade English classes.  The students were hesitant at first, but before long, they were really getting into what we were doing, and they were excited to talk about hobbies, pets, pop culture, and travel.  They were very curious about us, too, and what our lives are like in America.  We were surprised at some of the similarities and differences between us and them, and by what they thought of Americans.

We then switched gears and went to visit the younger kids in a third-grade Hebrew class.  As we watched the kids read, make sentences, and sing songs in Hebrew, we were all quite impressed with what they knew.  For many of us, this was a really touching experience, because these kids in Bulgaria were using the same books and songs and learning the same things we learned in school.

After we finished at the school, we had lunch at the JCC, and then went to volunteer at a Jewish retirement home.  The Bulgarian word for retirement home literally means “parents’ home.”  The residents aren’t just old people; they’re grandparents.  We met a few of the residents, who were very grateful that we’d come to volunteer.  Both of the women we met spoke Ladino, so those of us who speak Spanish were able to talk to them.  One of the women was a writer, and she’s writing an article about us for the newspaper.  Talking to the women really hit home for us, because it allowed us to see that all the painting and yard work we did was really going to make their lives more pleasant.

Our spring break trip to Bulgaria is helping us live out our Jewish values and become closer to Judaism.  When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, he said, “It felt like my feet were praying.”  Here in Bulgaria, we feel like our hands are praying.

 

 

Ukraine-Day 3: Warm Homes & Farewell Donetsk

Posted: March 14, 2013

We went back to Hesed today to finish up our service projects. We finished painting and renovating the youth room, gazebo, and multipurpose room, and they looked great! It was a lot of hard work and our arms will be tired tomorrow, but leaving our mark in Donestk was very rewarding. After finishing the projects, we had a coffee break with our Ukrainian peers and shared stories about our Jewish upbringings.  It was amazing to hear what they had to say.  Some stories were heartwarming, hearing how they learn Jewish traditions at school and share their new knowledge with their parents.  Others were more painful, as we learned about the Antisemitism that still plagues Ukraine.  For example, just a few days before we arrived, someone drew a Swastika on the Hesed building and broke a window. Hearing these stories, I realized that I take my Judaism and America's true freedom of religion for granted.  Despite their hardships, though, our peers showed remarkable positive energy and pride of their Judaism, and I admire their strength.

Afterwards, we split into 5 groups and went to JDC sponsored Warm Homes to lead a mock Seder and meet with the elders who benefit from Hesed and JDC's programs. The Warm Home project was developed to aid and help alleviate the loneliness plaguing so many Jewish elderly in Ukraine. Small groups of elderly Hesed clients are hosted by those who have volunteered thei homes, so that they can come together every week to chat, have much needed social contact, and feel like they're part of a supportive, Jewish community.  This was one of my favorite activities thus far; meeting with the "Bubbies" was incredible. Some of our Ukrainian peers who participated in the activity had never been to a Seder before or hadn't been to one since they were young.  This was unbelievable to me, since I have Seder memories that go back a lifetime.  Although the Seder was missing some parts and they used potatoes instead of parsley, it was one of the best Seders that I've ever participated in.  The Bubbies were so excited to welcome us into their homes and were eager to speak with us (with help of a translator).  We asked them to tell us about the first Seder they ever went to, and they all had very vivid memories.  One woman had her first Seder in 1948 when her neighbor invited her over for Pesach.  Another didn't have a Seder until the late 1990s, but it was very important for her in her new Jewish life.  They playfully argued about what dishes were necessary at a Pesach meal, and I could feel the love in the room.  The Bubbies told us that they've been meeting for almost 15 years and have been there for each other through thick and thin.  They wanted to know all about our lives, our families, and why we decided to come to Ukraine for this trip.  I was proud to share my story and couldn't have been happier to hear theirs.  When we caught up with the other 4 groups afterwards, we learned that everyone had a very impactful experience and learned a lot.

For dinner, we had our goodbye party at an "American" restaurant, filled with cowboy hats and french fries.  We played games, danced, watched performances, ate, and said our heartfelt goodbyes.  Our Ukrainian peers expressed that they had a very meaningful experience with us over the past few days, and we could not have put into words just how thankful we were for their hospitality, kindness, and for opening up to our group.  When we boarded the bus, we expected to quickly say goodbyes back at Hesed before departing for Dnepro, but they surprised us again with fireworks and a beautiful cake in one of our newly renovated rooms.  We were so sad to leave this wonderful group, but we know that the rest of the week will still be packed with rewarding times.  Our peers and our experiences in Donetsk will always be in our hearts.

--Jessica Stamelman, 2nd year

 

 

 

Photos from Hungary!

Posted: March 13, 2013

It's been a great trip so far. Here are some photos.

The group at the Dohany synagogue in Budapest.




At the Benjamin kindergarten in Budapest.




"Speed dating" with Szarvas Madrichim in Szeged Hungary.

 

 

Day 2: Off to Plovdiv!

Posted: March 13, 2013

Student Aaron Stein writes:

The day started bright and early, with a morning bus ride to Plovdiv. Plovdiv, known as the “city of seven hills,” is the second largest city in Bulgaria, and one of the oldest in Europe. Its Jewish community of about 100 families is also the second largest in Bulgaria. 

After arriving, we got right to work. The synagogue courtyard needed gardening work, the community rooms needed mopping, and the sanctuary benches could use cleaning.

The Synagogue of Plovdiv was absolutely beautiful. Its architecture was Moorish, a style originating with Muslims in Spain.  It was distinctly Sephardic, with the bimah being an elevated rectangle, and elaborately painted walls of greens and blues.

Sadly, the building does not get much use. With the community being so small, they struggle to make a minyan on Friday nights, and only fill the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah.  As in Sofia, they do not have a Rabbi. Instead, they have a 92 year-old man that serves as the shaliach tzibor, or service leader. The elderly man is a source of controversy, considering that he is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

Synagogues are not meant to be empty. They are meant to function as a place for praying, and celebrating simchas and holidays. Seeing this, we saw it fit to pray mincha, the daily afternoon service, in the sanctuary. It not only meant a lot to us to pray in the Synagogue, but it was also special for the members of the community to see young people using the synagogue for its intended purpose.

We then moved on to the History Museum of Plovdiv to tour an exhibit about the Jewish community. There we had what can only be described as a very unique experience, seeing that the docent spoke to us as if we knew nothing about Judaism.

After lunch at the JCC of Plovdiv, we went up to one of the seven hills to see a complete view of the city.  The red roofed houses, snowcapped mountains, and many steeples of Plovdiv provided the group some wonderful scenic portraits.

After a short discussion at the JCC, we went to the concert hall to hear the Tel Aviv Symphony Youth Orchestra perform. They were in Bulgaria for the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the saving of the Jewish community, and they sounded excellent. The group enjoyed their renditions of “Elie, Elie,” “Sisu Et Yerushalayim,” “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” and a Swing Medley the conductor dedicated to us. The rest of the audience enjoyed traditional Bulgarian folk songs, and a presentation of thanks by the Vice-Mayor of Plovdiv.

We ended our evening at a Mall in Sofia for dinner, which had many American stores that were familiar to us.  We are looking forward to tomorrow, as we will be working with students in the Jewish school. Leka nosht! (Good night!)

 

 

 

Ukraine: Day 2

Posted: March 13, 2013

After our super early breakfast in our hotel (called "Liverpool," dedicated to The Beatles) this morning, we were off to the Hesed Center for some service work. We broke up into our four groups: one group to repair the gazebo outside, one group to revamp the walls and ceiling tiles in a room inside, and then two groups to spackle, sand, and paint the walls as well as paint pictures on tiles to be put in the ceiling of rooms in Hesed's youth center. After a few hours of work, we stopped to take a coffee break with some Ukrainian mothers who are clients of Hesed. Hesed offers services for families that face difficult circumstances such as the loss of a spouse, unemployment or very low income, or a child's disability. We heard the stories of six different mothers. Two of the moms had made aliyah to Israel in the 90s, but had eventually returned to Ukraine. One of these mothers had lost her husband, and having no family in Israel, she came back to Ukraine for the emotional support and help with her children that only her parents could provide. The other mother had four children, and she returned to Ukraine because her parents needed her support. Being a single mom with four children and two elderly parents was a great challenge, and she turned to Hesed for support. Hessed also helps to support a family who has a child with cerebal palsy and another family with four children, one who has severe asthma and another who is an extremely talented athlete whose skills the family wants to support. A commonality between all these mothers is that they desperately needed outside help and support to continue raising their families. Hesed can provide a variety of material needs for these mothers from children's vitamins, to bedsheets, to schooling programs. Hesed also provides services for the mothers themselves, such as vocational training, resume writing workshops and psychological services. Hearing these mothers' stories and learning about Hesed's expansive network  of clients and the variety of services that they offer to that network opened our eyes to the strength of the Jewish community in Donetsk and showed us how important Jewish life is to these families.

After we worked for another hour, we returned to the hotel for a quick lunch, and finished our service project for the day, our group of Wahoos had a formal conversation about what it means to be a community. We discussed what we think a community is, the communities each of us belongs to, and our ideas about the "Jewish peoplehood" in America and around the world. We also each spoke about why we, personally, chose to come on this trip, and found that most of our reasons overlapped. Next, we got on the bus to go to a boarding school. This boarding school is not like American boarding schools; these children do not have special aptitudes and are not from wealthy families. In fact, they are just the opposite. The children in this school are from families that are at-risk, and whom the government has chosen to remove from their homes. The Ukrainians even refer to this school as an "orphanage," even though the children do in fact have families and can return home if their family's situation improves. This is not a Jewish boarding school, but we chose to spend our time with these children to help them practice using their fine motor and creative skills that they would not otherwise receive, because the school receives such minimal funding. Our visit also provided them with a special, positive experience, to lift their spirits and remind them that there are good people out there that care about them.

At the boarding school, we divided into seven groups, so that the children could participate in six different crafts or a dance lesson. The youngest children got to use construction paper and glue to make silly bookmarks that looked like animals. The moment their American volunteers walked into the room, these children ran to them with hugs and greetings and questions. Many of these young children had never encountered people who didn't understand their language, so they were confused about why we weren't answering their questions, and there were only a couple people who were able to translate. Nonetheless, these children continued to cheerfully talk to us, hug us, take pictures with us, and even tickle us. The older children were somewhat more apprehensive than the younger children after realizing that we didnt speak Russian. However, after a few minutes we learned how to communicate through gestures and body language and the children began to ask us for help with their crafts. Towards the end of our time there it was clear how much the kids truly appreciated us being there, showering us with hugs and kisses and even sending us home with their crafts. Despite the language barrier, it was such a rewarding experience to work with these children and to be able to give them some fun and joy to break their daily school routine.

We then departed the boarding school to have a group cooking lesson in traditional Yiddish food. We made matzah brei, a dish with herring, latkes filled with mushrooms and onions, and strudel. We shared this meal, which also included many other Ukrainian dishes, with our Ukrainian peers at the Jewish Community Center. We played some games and watched a musical performance, and as we were finishing our meals, we all gathered in the center of the dining room and learned some more Ukrainian dances, just like last night. After dancing and talking about our last day in Donetsk tomorrow, we parted ways and returned to our hotel to rest up for another busy day.

Louisa Gilson- 3rd year
Ana Wasserman- 2nd year

 

 

 

Greetings From Ukraine

Posted: March 13, 2013

From the moment we realized our driver was clearly unaware of Daylight Savings Time and was going to be picking us up a bit later than our agreed-upon start time, we knew this trip would be full of excitement- and it as going to be one for the books. As we reconvened at JFK as a full group, 14 strong, plus our mysterious trip leaders, we entered the madness that is airport security, where we butted heads with swift-minded passengers such as ourselves, all destined to be the first ones to go through the metal detectors.  Then we were off! We touched down in Moscow with only an hour or so to spare, and spent a good portion of that time trying to hustle through airport security, which was a breeze after the full-body scans and shoe removal procedures of JFK.  Only after we landed in Donetsk, Ukraine, however, did the trip really begin. 

We were greeted in the airport by a group of our peers, some wearing traditional Ukrainian garb and offering us delicious bread, in case we hadn't eaten enough carbs on the pair of flights we took over.  Although there was a bit of a language barrier, we settled right in with them, enjoying a nice bus ride through the beautiful, albeit foggy, city on the way to our hotel.  What a surprise to discover that many of them spoke good English, and those that didn't speak fluently knew enough to joke around and make casual conversations.  When we arrived at the hotel, it was like an episode of  "Walking Dead" as the whole crew passed out for a solid two hours, attempting to curb some of the inevitable jet lag we would be feeling later.  After a delicious lunch in the Beatles-themed Liverpool Hotel, we headed over to the Hesed Welfare Center, where our real learning began.  The Center is a place for both elderly and youth, providing transportation to and from the center for those who cannot get there on their own, as well as dozens of different activities, classes, and services for them to improve their lives, learn, and keep their minds stimulated, as many of them have lost spouses and are quite lonely.  Although many of our group members were fighting fatigue on the way over, seeing the smiling faces of dozens of elderly Ukrainians, as well as a preschool group of kids, brought everyone's latent energy to the forefront.  I had a great time singing, dancing, and conversing with the elderly, and really enjoyed learning about their culture and lives, as well as teaching them something about us in the process.  

At this point, we engaged in our first service work, where we helped transport a surprisingly large amount of matzah to a storeroom for the Hesed Center, and cleaned up a bunch of debris in preparation for tomorrow's work.  We then spent the rest of the day with our Ukrainian peers, discussing our afternoon service project and then eating in a traditional Ukrainian cafe. Tomorrow, in the morning, we are going to be doing some serious improvements on the Hesed Center, helping re-beautify both indoor and outdoor areas so that they will be functional and provide an aesthetic atmosphere for future participants.   In the afternoon, we will be traveling to a government-run orphanage to teach underprivileged kids arts and crafts, and engage them in fun activities that they would not get to experience during their normal class time.  During dinner tonight, we were not only given the full range of Ukrainian delicacies, but got to experience and participate first-hand in Ukrainian dance, led by half a dozen Ukrainian dancers clad in traditional garb.  The night continued for hours with singing, dancing, and socializing as we continued to get to know them better. 

Well, it is off to bed for me to try to beat some of this jet lag.  Looking forward to a great, productive day tomorrow!

Saul Brodsky
3rd year

 

 

 

Day 1!

Posted: March 11, 2013

The trip is off to a great start!  Our first full day in Bulgaria began with a welcome from Julia Dandalova, Director of JDC Programs in Bulgaria.  Julia then led us on a walking tour through central Sofia focused on the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II.  We visited key locations related to the story of the rescue and concluded the tour at the brand new monument commemorating it, unveiled just yesterday. 

We had lunch at one of Sofia's two Jewish Community Centers with several college-aged Bulgarian Jews, and then split up to visit the homes of several elderly members of the community.  The stories that these older people had to share were absolutely amazing!  They spoke of their experiences during World War II, during the Communist period, and in the years since the transition to democracy.  The students eagerly swapped stories when we all regrouped, and soon they were requesting additional home visits!

After reflecting on our day together, we shared a beautiful dinner with the Bulgarian peers and the staff of Sofia's second JCC.  The relationships that the AU students have already begun to develop with the Bulgarian students are really quite amazing.

More to come!

 

 

Bringing our experience in Morocco home

Posted: March 10, 2013

After returning from our trip to Morocco in 2012 with JDC Entwine and Tufts Hillel, the task of relaying the message of the Moroccan Jewish community was initially daunting. How could we possibly encapsulate the vibrancy, warmth and intimacy we had experienced into a singular take home message for our community at home?  

To tailor our approach, we resolved to design educational presentations tailored to three target audiences: elementary school children, middle and high school students, and peers and adults.  

As my friends and I planned out what to say to a group of 8th-12th grade Hebrew school students, we were initially skeptical about the impact we could have. We hoped that our enthusiasm would excite them, but expected that, after a long day, the students might be more indifferent than engaged.

Our powerpoint presentation would include the core aspects of our trip.  We began with a geographical and historical background to orient the students, then detailed specific experiences we had in order to personalize the Moroccan traditions we wanted to convey.  To highlight the close-knit community, we told about the support networks we experienced. To emphasize the hospitality they graciously offered, we detailed the delicious foods we tried.  We infused the presentation with personal stories from individuals we met, and shared histories of the sites we visited.

When we began our presentation by describing the Moroccan Jewish community we had visited, students paid attention! We were shocked; this was an audience that had no prior connection to the country, was unfamiliar with the characters we described, and lacked the luxury of having experienced the culture firsthand, and yet they were interested in each slide we presented, asking questions and listening intently.  

Their insightful questions and recollection of the details we shared was both surprising and inspiring. Their desire to learn more about the Moroccan Jewish community and about other Jews living abroad expanded our understanding of Jewish service work.

This presentation showed us that our trip to Morocco cannot simply live in our memories; while it’s important for the travelers to look back fondly, a failure to pay it forward ignores the core mission of these trips.  The act of sharing our experience was one of the most valuable takeaways of the entire process because it enabled us to establish new connections and connect global communities.

 

 

Off to Hungary & Romania!

Posted: March 9, 2013

Tomorrow we start the trip from Houston to Hungary then Romania and back again! Check back here for updates through the week!

Here's a pic from the group orientation in Austin:

 

 

 

 

Bulgaria Bound!

Posted: March 7, 2013

In just a little over 48 hours, we’ll be off to Bulgaria! We depart Saturday night, and will be arriving in Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) the following day, after a brief layover in Istanbul, Turkey. The majority of our time will be spent in Sofia, with the exception of a day trip to Plovdiv (the second largest city in Bulgaria). Although our trip is short, our itinerary is packed from sunrise to sunset. All 20 of us are thrilled to have the opportunity to visit Bulgaria and take part in giving back to the global Jewish community.

What we’ve been up to…

Back in February, we were provided with a rare invitation to the Embassy of Bulgaria. We met Elena Popordorva—the Ambassador of Bulgaria to the United States (Pictures below). Ambassador Popordorva spoke with us for about an hour, touching on the history and landmarks of the country as well as spoke about the economy, security, and terrorism issues. In addition, she informed us that the 70th anniversary of the rescuing of the Bulgarian Jews (approximately 50,000) from the Nazis would take place around the time we are in Bulgaria. On Monday, we will learn the story of the saving of the Bulgarian Jews during a walking tour of Sofia. We were all very impressed by the ambassador—a very intelligent and remarkable woman.

 

 

 

 

 

Two weeks ago, Evan Rosenstock from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) came up to DC to go over our final itinerary as well as provide us with more information about the JDC. We went over in great detail what it is that we will be doing in Bulgaria and divided into groups to plan specific activities. Some of us will be heading up arts-‘n-crafts with the young children, while others will be a part of the Limmud conference (more to come on this!) as well as several other things. 

We are all very excited to take part in this meaningful experience and look forward to sharing our journey with you throughout our trip, so check back here frequently.

Shabbat Shalom! 

 

 

Tales from Ethiopia & The Starfish Tale

Posted: February 25, 2013

“You are like Angelina Jolie!” a friend commented on a Facebook photo of my most recent overseas adventure, JDC Entwine: Inside Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that I felt nothing like the exotic and sophisticated Angelina Jolie. Quite the opposite in fact; to this day I am ashamed to admit that I had a really hard time on this trip. I was constantly worried about what I ate, what I drank and how determined I was to keep my hands clean. Even worse, I feel guilty for having sadness for the Ethiopian people, believing they could not possibly be happy with the life they lead with such harsh living conditions. I would certainly not be happy living without access to clean water, wearing torn clothing, walking barefoot, living in a shack, not knowing how to read or write, being exposed to many diseases including malnourishment and having to walk for miles to get anywhere. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not a hiker!

Thankfully, I do not have to face these challenges every day of my life. But I am  grateful that I had the opportunity to experience them for at least a few days, along with a group of smart, fun, socially and globally-aware Jewish young adults from the US, London, Canada and Australia. Here I’m sharing a few of my reflections in an effort to tell a story that not many people have the privilege of experiencing themselves.

My first few hours in Gondar, Ethiopia were epic. After spending a day in Addis Abba, a city that can be compared to Tijuana, Gondar felt like traveling back in time. Very few roads are paved and the views are breathtaking; gorgeous and plentiful green fields.

Our first stop was at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Health Clinic, which tends to the medical needs of those who are waiting to immigrate to Israel. We were welcomed by dozens of children running towards us yelling and screaming: shalom! I was surprised and overjoyed when listening in broken Hebrew.  That day was “Deworming Campaign Day”, and dozens of families were waiting for us to make that happen.   This was something like I never experienced before!

Traveling with us was the legendary Dr. Rick Hodes, head of the Health Clinic, who has been saving lives in Ethiopia for over 20 years. We were given very specific instructions on how to perform the deworming campaign successfully and the importance of tracking the clients and keeping records up to date.

It did not take long after we officially started that we were immediately surrounded by a lot of people who were impatiently demanding the pills. In no time we lost control and we were giving pills away with no tracking system whatsoever. I felt extremely overwhelmed at that point, although we were told that the pills were not toxic.  I stepped away from the table and asked someone else to cover for me as I took a deep breath.

In that moment a question entered my mind - an unanswered question that continues to follow me to this day. I wondered what it would take for these people, with such different culture and norms, to be integrated into a Jewish western culture, such as Israel. Furthermore, I wondered how Israel, with all its current internal and external challenges, could take this enormous and difficult task.  Before the trip, I would proudly and fiercely defend Israel’s role in rescuing and providing a better future for every Jew on earth. Quite honestly, after experiencing the magnitude of the gap between the cultures, I began questioning my own beliefs and assumptions on this matter.

Later that day, I experienced something beautiful that soften my view on this questioning. After a couple of hours traveling on rural roads, witnessing magnificent views, sporadically passing villages and barefoot young children herding cattle, feeling car sick and all that goes along with this kind of travel, we arrived at our destination, Teda Village.

This is a small village that was home to the Beta Yisrael Ethiopian Jews prior to their emigration to Israel. We entered the village and walked up the hill. At the top of the hill, I saw something that was completely unexpected and that made the uncomfortable two hour trip, completely worthwhile: an unpretentious cement structure with a Star of David on the top. I was mesmerized as I stared at the Amboder Synagogue. Suddenly, I felt a strong connection with the people that lived here, even though they looked completely different than me and are living such a different life from me.

The following day we visited a school. When we arrived the students were in their classrooms, but nothing like I had ever seen before. The classrooms were shacks made from sticks and mud. Some students were sitting on rocks, others sitting on broken chairs. At the far end of the school yard, there was a cement building with three classrooms. That’s when we learned that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been building dozens of these buildings in Gondar.

Our assignment was to decorate the school building facade. We were given brushes and few buckets of paint. We decided on an educational design: numbers, the English alphabet, animals and the world. We divided into small groups and started to paint. In the meantime, the kids were in their classrooms learning and repeating out loud the “ABC’s”. After an hour or so, the kids came out to see what we were doing and were happily surprised.   They ran right up to us, and one boy in particular was getting really close to me, curious as to what I was doing. I extended my brush and pointed to the yellow tulip I was painting. He looked me in the eye with a big smile and started to paint. After every brush, he would turn to me and look for my approval. I kept nodding with a big smile on my face. We were communicating even though we did not have a common language; art connected us. He was so happy painting that flower. I was no longer overwhelmed at that moment by the crowds, the aromas or my own assumptions of what happy looks and feels like. It was a brief but beautiful moment.

Ethiopia faces tremendous challenges and even though the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is doing a magnificent job providing access to water, granting university scholarships, building schools and offering lifesaving healthcare services; the task seems to be never-ending.  When I expressed this overwhelming feeling to Rob, a member of our group from London, he shared with me a tale. It was about a boy who was at the beach and discovered hundreds of starfishes on the sand. The boy knew that if starfish did not return to the ocean, they would die. He desperately ran and threw as many as he could back into the ocean. When his father saw him so overwhelmed, he stopped him and said: “I’m sorry son but there are too many starfishes and there is no way you can save them all”. The boy wisely responded: “I might not be able to save them all, but to this particular starfish my help means a world of difference”.

I left Ethiopia with more and different questions than I had upon my arrival. I feel connected to Ethiopian Jews in ways I never expected. I have a new, different perspective of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s role as the largest Jewish international humanitarian aid organization. I have a new appreciation for Israel’s efforts integrating Ethiopian immigrants into their society. I’m comforted to know that there are many Jewish young adults around the world that care about our global Jewish community just like I do. And most importantly, I left Ethiopia knowing that we might not be able to care for them all, but that for each and every person that we touch, it means a world of difference.

Are you a young adult who is interested in being part of JDC Entwine overseas experience and explore Jewish communities around the world? Contact Jonathan Goldstone, JDC Entwine West Coast Program Specialist at jonathan.goldstone@jdcny.org or visit http://jdcentwine.org/trips.

 

 

Meet the UVA Participants!

Posted: February 14, 2013

Read all about the 17 participants going to the Ukraine from the University of Virginia.  We can't wait to meet the participants from the Ukraine!

 

Sara Belza

Hey everyone! My name is Sara Belza and I am from Richmond, VA. I am currently a freshman at the University of Georgia. I love to to travel, spend time with my family and my friends, learn new things, and meet new people! I can't wait to be in Ukraine this Spring Break and enjoy all new experiences!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul Brodsky

 

Hello, my name is Saul Brodsky and I am a 3rd year computer science major at UVA. I really enjoy reading up on history, playing with my feline friend Nala, and most importantly enjoying thriving Jewish life on grounds here at UVA. When I am not busy writing code or working on group projects, you can find me at my fraternity house speaking Hebrew with my AEPi brothers. I had a great opportunity over winter break to visit Israel, and I am very excited to do more world traveling and expand my horizons over spring break in Ukraine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zach Canter

Hello everyone! My name is Zach Canter and I am from Rockville, Maryland. I am a third year Chemical Engineering major at the University of Virginia and can't wait for my first experience in the Ukraine. In my free time, I like to hang out with friends, play piano and drums, and watch baseball.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicole Fratkin

Hey Everyone! My name is Nicole Fratkin and I am from Richmond, VA. I am currently in my first year at UVA and want to study public policy. I have only been to Eastern Europe once, so I can't wait to get to Ukraine and especially to meet all of you. See y'all soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louisa Gilson

Hi everyone! My name is Louisa Gilson and I am from Arlington, VA- right next to Washington, DC! I am a third year at the University of Virginia. My favorite activities are playing violin, skiing, and spending time with my family. I am so excited to come to Ukraine and get to know my Ukrainian peers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Kocen

Hey y'all! My name is Jessica Kocen and I am from Richmond, Virginia.  I am a first year at the University of Virginia and beyond excited to become closer with the 16 other UVA participants headed to Ukraine along with the Ukrainian teen participants.  I love to travel, spend time with my friends & family, and take on new adventures day by day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marnie Kremer

Hey guys! My name is Marnie Kremer, I am a first year from Oakton, Virginia. During my first year of college, I have tried to become as involved as possible, doing ballet here, joining first year council, and much more. I love meeting new people and cannot wait to meet the peers in Ukraine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elan Leftin

How’s it goinn!? My name is Elan Leftin and I’m from Denver, Colorado. I’m a first-year here at the University of Virginia, and it’s pretty awesome. I love to travel, play sports, and hang out with friends. I’ve been to many interesting places, but nothing like Ukraine, so I can’t wait to meet new people and experience new things!

 

 

 

 

 

Whitney Perlen

Hi everyone! My name is Whitney Perlen and I am from Nashville, TN. I am a first year the University of Virginia and am hoping to be a Doctor at some point in the future. I have loved the welcoming community of the Brody Jewish Center over the past year, and I can’t wait to get to know my other community in Ukraine. I am so excited to learn more about the Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk, and share amazing experiences with everyone in just a few weeks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Persily

Hello! My name is Sara Persily and I am finishing up my fourth and last year at the University of Virginia.  I'm majoring in Chemical Engineering, but hope to spend next year doing something totally different!  After graduating, I'd love to pursue some of my other interests, such as traveling, learning languages, and community service.  I can't wait to get a taste of that in Ukraine over spring break and to do it with an amazing group of UVa and Ukrainian students! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Stamelman

 Hey guys! My name is Jessica Stamelman, and I'm from Randolph, New Jersey. I'm a second year at the University of Virginia, and I couldn't be more excited for our trip to the Ukraine this March! I'm in an a cappella group on grounds so I love to sing, and I love getting to know new people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maddy Stanke

Hello Everybody! My name is Maddy Stanke and I hail from the Washington DC area. As a first year at the University of Virginia, I have enjoyed meeting many new people from all over the USA and absolutely can’t wait to meet our Ukrainian peers! I love to play rugby, travel, and explore new ethnic foods. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha Ward

Hi y'all! My name is Sasha Ward and I'm a second year at the University from San Francisco, California. When I'm not studying or doing activities around grounds, I love to hike, do yoga, paint, and hang out with my friends. I also love to travel and learn new languages. I'm really looking forward to meeting all of you in just a few short weeks!

 

 

 

 

Ana Wasserman

Hey everyone! My name is Ana Wasserman and I'm from Northern Virginia. I'm a second year at the University of Virginia and I'm involved in multiple groups through Hillel, as well as my sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. The only time I've been out of the country was when I went to Israel 3 years ago, so I'm excited to travel to Ukraine and meet our Ukrainian peers!

 

 

Lech L'chah:

Posted: February 1, 2013

As I gathered around the table at 3:00 this afternoon, knoshing on the remnants of the Hillel Tu B’Shevat seder and filling in my friends on my weekend debauchery- I mean, activities, it began to sink in.  Yes, being surrounded by a group of my peers all destined for the same place, with high and lofty goals, the reality of our situation hit and I became giddy with excitement.  No longer will Ukraine be just a spot on the map, or a two-syllable country name in textbook chapters on the history of the Soviet Union.  Bound together by not much more than our university affiliation, an inability to pronounce the cities we are traveling to, and our desire to bring a slice of happiness to some less fortunate members of the Ukraine Jewish community, we are clearly destined to do great things in the Ukraine, and to represent both the University and JDC Entwine in the finest way across the world. 

We began our session on Sunday with some short icebreakers, as breaking boundaries is immensely important to creating a group dynamic. We focused on seeing beyond differences in communication style, language barriers, and other obstacles that we inevitably face when meeting new people.  We took on different roles; some played the part of the overly emphatic, yet easily offended traveler, expounding upon her life story to everyone she meets, but unwilling to engage in a true discussion without bringing the conversation back to herself.  Others were shy, finding it difficult to open up, and interpreting the slightest physical contact as an alarmingly rude gesture, and a sign of disrespect.  Through exchanging words, glances, handshakes, hugs, and, above all, paper clips, we approached some of the underlying issues of communication, and discussed ways to open ourselves up to new people, unique situations, and different communication styles. 

Then we moved onto the history of the JDC, and its role in helping others.  While we did discuss their fine work bringing health and happiness to the misfortunate, over decades of strife and political turmoil, we focused on exploring our own personal connections to the JDC and the type of work they do.  As we viewed pictures of smiling children, volunteers passing out food, and the elderly struggling through everyday life, some taken with the newest lenses and others in simply black and white, the group’s commitment to service and bringing peace to others began to shine through.  Some felt a connection to the children because of their work mentoring and tutoring kids in the local community, while still others felt like they belonged behind the soup kitchen counter, cooking up and doling out nourishment to people literally dying in the streets. 

Gathering up the pictures, we turned to the matter on the front of everyone’s mind- the trip itinerary.  What cities are we going to visit? Where will we spend Shabbat?  Is there a McDonalds there?  Although we didn’t have time to get to every question, we went through the basic outline of the trip, starting with a bus ride up to JFK airport, and going nonstop from the moment we land in Ukraine to the moment our plane takes off for the US.  Whether we are busy wallpapering houses, making friends with local children, keeping the elderly company, or a host of other AWESOME activities that are planned for us, there’s no doubt that we will return to America not exhausted (okay, maybe slightly exhausted) but with the passion of t’kun olam burning in our hearts and minds. 

Finally, we turned to some textual study, in order to make the spiritual connection between our responsibility as citizens, and the responsibility of the Jews.  Instead of reading some verses on t’kun olam, or the importance of giving tithings to the needy, we turned to a famous verse (famous not only because of Debbie Friedman, but because of the spirit of Judaism that it embodies).  As Abraham takes on the blessed struggle of being the first Jew, the Lord tells him: Lech l’chah, or “go forth.”  He ensures him that he will stand by his side at all times, blessing those who walk with him, and maintaining that commitment for all generations to come.  We ended with a discussion on the finer points of this verse- how can we believe the Lord’s promise when so many suffer daily?  What does it mean to “go forth,” especially in our world of limitless possibilities?  While some found reassurance in these verses, others felt challenged by the finality of the Lord’s promise.  Although everyone got something different from the meeting, we all left with a feeling of excitement, counting the days until we set foot on Ukrainian soil. 

Saul Brodsky, Class of 2014

 

 

You're Going WHERE for Spring Break?!?

Posted: February 1, 2013

When people envision a college spring break, going to the Ukraine is most definitely not the first place that comes to mind. Well, for 16 participants, including myself, our spring break will be unforgettable as we travel to Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk, Ukraine. On December 9, 2012, all 16 participants of this Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip met together at the Brody Jewish Center to prepare for the trip and become intrigued, inspired, and educated about what we have been anticipating since the day we all signed up.  The first of three orientations consisted of a quick meet and greet icebreaker to become more acquainted with our peers, a heart felt article about Hanukkah across the globe, interesting information about Ukraine and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and forming committee groups that will work together in the future.

After learning about the history of JDC and how committed they are when working with hundreds of Jewish communities across the world, I was truly convinced that our trip to Ukraine would be both memorable and life changing.  Helping to rebuild the Jewish communities of Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk include aiding children and families, refurbishing a welfare center, and forming companionships with homebound welfare clients.  Before our ASB trip, it is our duty to fundraise a large amount of money, collect in-kind goods to donate, and plan how to raise awareness for struggling Jewish communities across the world.

Jewish life in Ukraine has tremendously evolved over the years and the JDC along with participants like us from UVA are continuously striving to create a safe environment while promising a better life for Jews who live there.  After this first orientation session, I gained a better understanding of the specific communities we will be working with and how our role as Jewish college students make a difference in the many lives we will encounter both before and after this unbelievable trip.

Jessica Kocen, Class of 2016

 

 

Last Post from Ethiopia

Posted: January 17, 2013

Today I celebrated my 22nd birthday in the beautiful city of Gondar. One year ago today, I never would have thought I would have the opportunity to have an experience like this. It was definitely my most unique birthday thus far and I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend it with this amazing group and on this unbelievable trip.

Once again, we split into two groups today. Half of us went to volunteer at a school while the other half went to continue building the library we have been working on for a few days. My group was working on construction. It was amazing to see the progress we were making on the library walls. By the end of the day, two of the walls were basically completed and the two other ones were halfway up. Someone came up with the idea to make an assembly line to transport the bricks across the construction site and this significantly increased our efficiency and productivity. The village children all gathered and were eager to help us in our assembly line. After a couple of hours of building, we went to the local primary school to meet the principal and donate the school supplies that we all brought from the States. It felt good to be able to provide some of the most vulnerable students with essential school supplies to further their education.

Later in the day, we met for a discussion with a representative from JAFI- the Jewish Agency For Israel. He spoke to us about the history and connection between the people of Ethiopia and the Jewish people. We learned about Operation Moses and Operation Solomon as well as the issues surrounding the Falash Mura Ethiopians that are waiting to make aliyah to Israel.

After that we had our third group reflection. As a group, we spoke about the importance of providing all people with their basic needs such as clean water and adequate sanitation. We struggled to figure out the complex debate about who we are responsible for and what our responsibilities are in our lifetime.

For dinner, we went to a local beer garden. We had a good time spending one last night in Gondar together. When we got back to the Goha hotel, we went outside and spent some time looking up at the beautiful, clear night sky. It was a perfect way to end our last night in the gorgeous city of Gondar. 

- Tara Feld

 

 

 

Day 6

Posted: January 15, 2013

Today we went to work. We split up into two groups: one group went to a small village on the outskirts of Gonder to build a school library with the local people and the other group drove far out to a rural school to teach English through interactive games.

Many of the village children came to work, play, and just watch us as we worked. Just carrying bricks from the top of the hill to the construction site produced an entourage. We helped carry cinderblocks to the site of the library while stopping occasionally to observe and play games. Manual labor in the strong sun was something new to a lot of us, yet the camaraderie and progress effected a feeling of great satisfaction. After lunch, our group had the opportunity to play in a volleyball game against a team comprised of Ethiopians. It seemed as if the entire village came out to watch us play! There were lots of cheering and jeering and our group really connected with them.

After returning to the hotel and showering, we – and our new sunburns – went to visit the recipients of a JDC scholarship for nursing school at Gonder University. Each year the JDC awards this scholarship to a number of women in the area. It was nice to learn about this program and the women who would probably not attend university if not for this opportunity. We then returned to the hotel to watch the African sunset and eat dinner together. 

 

 

Day 5

Posted: January 15, 2013

The whole day I continually had to remind myself that it is only Monday. Only five days have passed, and still I feel that I have been exposed to more than I have been for the four other weeks of my break combined. 

Yesterday, as you read, we arrived in Gondar which was a very different experience than was Addis Ababa. Here many of the students in our group feel that they are encountering the “Africa experience” they were expecting based on the media observed in America. We found ourselves struggling with internal conflict when small, underfed children reached their hands out and all we give them is a smile. 

Today, however, was more encouraging. We began our day at the JDC health clinic in Gondar, distributing medication to children aged 6-16 to rid them of “worms,” and “Plumpy Nut” bars (nutritional supplements) to pregnant women.  The children here were not begging, and many of them were part of the Falish Mora, awaiting their emigration to Israel.  Many of them spoke Hebrew and it felt great to finally be able to communicate and relate to the children and teens and not merely feel sympathy for them. 

Our day continued as we drove to the center of the city to the historical castles built by past Emperors. The castles were huge and beautiful, built from stone, displaying huge rooms with high ceilings and gorgeous grounds. 

We were then privileged to accompany Elizabeth and Max (JDC fellows) to the school in which they teach English. The school is ninth and tenth grade, with about 60 students per classroom. We were introduced to one of the classes and then told to disperse amongst them and speak with them in English. The students varied in their levels, but they also varied in age---the three girls with whom I spoke were 14, 15 and 16---all in the ninth grade.

It was inspiring to speak with them and here about their aspirations for the future. The 14-year old girl spoke great English and she told me she wants to go to Oxford University for college and become a doctor. I can only imagine what these students could accomplish if provided the same educational and financial opportunity as myself. 

Our night ended with dinner at a local hotel with doctors from Baylor College who are working in Gondar short-term with a partnership with JDC. Students enjoyed hearing about their travels all over the world, interested in the opportunities available to them in the future with regard to medicine, travelling, and planning their futures in general. 

Good night from Gondar!

 

 

Day 6

Posted: January 13, 2013
We started out the day at a botanical garden near our hotel called the Jardin Majorelle. The beautiful garden featured a variety of trees and other greenery as well as a beautiful gazebo in the Moroccan style. We then left the beautiful city of Marrakech and ventured into the Atlas Mountains to meet the Berber people. We toured a traditional Berber home and learned how to make proper Moroccan tea. We drove further into the mountains and met the last Jewish Berber in that village, an elderly man who refuses to leave the mountains until a mystic rabbi returns to his dreams to tell him he may leave. The 85 year old man is no longer in good health, but firmly insists on staying in his remote mountain villa until receiving instruction to leave. After saying goodbye to the man, we spent the rest of the day traveling back to Casablanca and preparing ourselves for the long flight home. It has been an incredible journey and without a doubt all of us are sad to say goodbye to this beautiful land of friendly people and delicious food.

 

 

Days 5 and 6

Posted: January 12, 2013
These past few days we spent in Marrakech. We explored the medina - the city's central marketplace - and learned the art of haggling with vendors from our guide Rafi, who seems to be friends with everyone in Morocco!. After that, we experienced a traditional Moroccan Shabbat, and were treated to a homemade feast by a family in the local Jewish community. Over 60 people attended the dinner, including a group of Israelis who were also traveling around the country. The next day we returned to the medina where all of us went on a crazy spending spree, buying everything from leather purses and jewelry to cooking oils and traditional Moroccan spices. After a long day at the medina, we were whisked off to a cooking demonstration in the home of one of Rafi's many friends. We learned how to make vegetable pastilla and traditional Moroccan couscous. Some of the group also paid a henna artist to paint their hands with beautiful henna designs. We ended our day with a fantastic local show featuring the different musical styles of Berber tribes. Of course, a multi-course feast was provided.

 

 

Days 3 & 4

Posted: January 13, 2013

On Saturday morning, some of us went on a hike on the outskirts of the city. The rest of us, including myself, went on a walk around the neighborhood near the hotel. For me, one of the most striking parts of the walk was going through the upscale part of the neighborhood. We were able to glimpse at the massive houses behind the high security walls. However, it was not too far from the beggars and shanties that populate most of the rest of the city.

We had lunch with students from Unity University, a private university in Addis Ababa. The women we ate with had all received scholarships from the JDC to attend Unity as part of its initiative to empower females. This was especially significant for those who were not from Addis and for those who were the first in their families to attend university. Most of the women were first-year accounting students. We also had the chance to hear from one of the administrators of the university (a former journalist) and some graduates who were gainfully employed at different companies in Addis. Afterwards we played an icebreaker game with the students by finding students from the opposite university who could do something or knew something about their own culture. For example, Unity students were told to look for someone from Maryland who knew the name of the current prime minister of Ethiopia or who knew the words to the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” (none of us knew the former). Conversely, we were told to find a Unity student who knew who the first president of the United States was or who knew the lyrics to a song by a famous Ethiopian artist. (None of them identified George Washington as the first president, though I met one student who guessed Lincoln.)

We then had a reflection session among ourselves where we discussed our reactions to the myriad of experiences we had had over the past couple of days. We also had our first (of five) text-based discussion on the issue of, as Jews, the degree of our responsibility to help others. This is especially relevant to our trip since we are Jews who are helping non-Jews. Moreover, we all feel overwhelmed by the amount of problems in Ethiopia, let alone the rest of the world. How can we possibly make a dent with any of the myriad of issues that plague the country? What can be expected of us? What is realistic? Some biblical, Talmudic, and contemporary texts helped us grapple with these challenges.

Next, we had a discussion with Manlio Dell’Ariccia and Will Recant about some of the history of the JDC. Will had actually just flown in from Rwanda where he was visiting the JDC fellows stationed there. We then had a discussion with Sam, Menachem, and Rebecca who are currently JDC Jewish Service Corps fellows in Addis. Sam and Menachem are year-long fellows, while Rebecca is a short-term fellows (she has also completed other short-term JDC fellowships in other locations around the world). We asked them everything about working for the JDC in Addis, like the nature of their work, why they signed choose to do a JDC fellowship, and what is was like to be a Westerner in Addis for an extended period.

We concluded Shabbat with a nice havdalah. Later, we went out for dinner at a crowded restaurant. It was filled with wealthy Ethiopians, Westerners, Asians, and a group from the United Arab Emirates. Throughout the meal, a group of musicians and dancers entertained everyone on stage. There was also a wedding at the restaurant. Later, many of us went up on stage and danced with the dancers! It was quite a sight, and it seemed like many of the patrons found our dancing the most entertaining part of the evening.

The next day, we gathered in the lobby at 5:30am to catch an early flight to Gondar. We flew a propeller jet to what was the smallest airport I have ever been to. Upon landing, we met with Liz and Max who are JDC  Jewish Service Corp fellows stationed in Gondar. They spend their time teaching ninth-grade English at a large public school and monitoring water wells installed by the JDC in some of the nearby villages.

Though Gondar is Ethiopia’s third-largest city, it has the feel of a small town. Unlike Addis, it feels like a larger rural village than a bustling city. Gondar has special significance for the JDC, since it used to be home to most of Ethiopia’s Jews. Early on, JDC focused its work in this city to help the Jews there move to Israel. Many Jews traveled from villages, near and far, to fulfill their dream of seeing Zion. To facilitate the move, the JDC built a medical clinic to screen everybody and to provide them with assistance in making the transition  from rural Ethiopia to urban Israel.

Upon arrival, we went straight to an elementary school in a local village. The JDC was funding the building of the school and we helped construct the lavatories (not all schools in rural areas have one). This included hauling cinderblocks from one area to the site of the future lavatories, making cement, and using those materials to build the wall for the building. Local workers who were already working at this site guided us. We also spent time playing with the kids who had gathered to watch us work.

After lunch at the hotel, we visited the Teda Medical Clinic that the JDC established in 1986, during the first wave of Ethiopian migration to Israel. Interestingly, a plaque notes the clinic’s founding by the Ministry of Health and the “American Joint Distribution Committee”—not the “American Jewish JDC.” This is because in 1986, Ethiopia was run by a communist regime that was anti-Zionist and did not approve of touting the clinic’s Jewish origin. Indeed, JDC was only allowed to work in Ethiopia on the condition that they served both Jews and non-Jews. Today, the clinic is still running even though almost all of the local Jews have left.

We then drove to a nearby village to visit a water well that was paid for by the JDC. The JDC works closely with the local water authority to determine where to build clean water wells. The well that we visited is situated next to a stream. Before the well was built, villagers would get their water from that stream where their animals also drank. This caused many health issues for the villagers. After the well was built, the villagers reported a drastic decrease in water-borne infections. Still, there are problems related to water for the villagers. Chief among them is that the job of transporting the water from the well to people’s homes usually falls on girls and young women. They must carry twenty-five liter jugs to their homes, which sometimes takes up to two hours. Thus, these women spend most of their day and energy just transporting water.

Next, we drove to a village outside of Gondar, Ambober, that used to be home to many Jews, including the current Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia. We went inside the village’s synagogue, which is mostly empty, except for some benches, a modest library of Jewish texts, and a couple of plaques commemorating the community that used to reside there. Adjacent to the synagogue is a building for harvesting bees that the JDC built to help some of the Jews there make some money. Afterwards, we toured an elementary school that is right next to the synagogue. We concluded our busy day with dinner at a local restaurant.

 

 

 

Day 2

Posted: January 13, 2013

After 48 hours awake, we all slept like logs last night and woke up feeling much refreshed. After enjoying breakfast with traditional Ethiopian coffee, we split into two groups to go see successful businesses that were formed from micro-loans granted to local Ethiopians by the JDC. One of these enterprises was a small restaurant formed by 11 mothers. For only 1100 Birr for each mother ($222) they were able to create a prosperous restaurant. It took the mothers over 3 years, but they finally finished paying off the total loan. It was amazing to see how much this small loan motivated them to work and better their own families. After seeing these micro-finance projects, we went to the WISE building. JDC partners with WISE to grant these loans.

WISE empowers local women to create enterprise and to live independently. It was incredible to see how much of a difference this project made for the well-being of the community.

We ate with the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia for lunch. This was cool because she was an Ethiopian born Israeli and had returned to Ethiopia to represent Israel. We could tell she took a lot of pride in this. After lunch, we went to the clinic that Dr. Hodes worked. This was an amazing experience and we truly understood why his work was so important. We went to dinner at his house and had a unique Shabbat with his entire family composed of his adopted children. It truly was an amazing experience. We are looking forward to tomorrow. Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

Day 1

Posted: January 13, 2013

We have had a busy two days in Ethiopia. We arrived at approximately 7:00 A.M. and waited in a long line to go through customs, and then waited some more to get our luggage. After we all had our stuff, we left the airport and were greeted by our bus driver who held up a sign that read “American Gewish.” He was very friendly and shook all of our hands individually to introduce himself, just like all of the other Ethiopian people we have met. We then boarded two buses and headed towards the Desalegn Hotel and got our first taste of driving in Addis Ababa. The roads are packed and there are no traffic rules; it’s crazy!

After some time to shower and relax, we then met up with the JDC’s Country Director of Ethiopia, Manlio Dell’Arcia, who debriefed us on the history of JDC’s work in Ethiopia. After getting some background, we finally had our first Ethiopian meal! Ethiopian food consists of injera, which is a sour, spongy bread used to eat everything here, along with various different stews. After a delicious lunch, we finally met the famous Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s medical director for Ethiopia. He is a true inspiration - dedicating his life to providing medical care to Ethiopians in his clinic in Addis Ababa. There is a very clear disparity of wealth in this country, and there is only one doctor for every 40,000 Ethiopians. Due to a lack of education, access to preventative healthcare and reliance on traditional healers, many patients come to Dr. Hodes with unfortunate effects from diseases that have been long-eradicated in the developed world.

Following our initial meeting, we all headed as a group to the “Mercato,” the largest open-air market in Africa. It was a loud, crowded and bustling market with various alleys and streets to turn. We all stayed as a group and followed each other through various paths and saw how people in Addis Ababa do their shopping. There were vendors for all sorts of items; anything from spices to trinkets to chickens. The narrow alleys were for two-way traffic and carrying large items, most often carried on vendors’ heads. We often had to dodge various items and make sure not to get hit. Everyone was very friendly and surprised to see so many Westerners at once. People often reached out their hands to greet us and were very warm and friendly. The market was truly a unique experience, so many sights, sounds and smells all at once!

After our time at the Mercato, we drove in traffic to a restaurant for dinner, where we had a traditional Ethiopian meal and entertainment. The restaurant was tucked onto the side of a busy Addis road, and the 20 of us emerged lethargically from our vans after a packed first day, unaware of the incredible evening awaiting us. A traditional Ethiopian restaurant, we sat around round tables just big enough to fit a tray of injira topped with vegetables and different classic Ethiopian dishes. We ripped off pieces of the bread and mixed it with the vegetables for an incredible meal. Soon after we began eating, three men in traditional dress began to play different songs for us and two male and two female dancers came on stage and began to perform. Over the next two hours the musicians and dancers performed different songs and dances from each region of the country. They also began pulling up members from our tables onto the stage to dance with them. What had begun as a weary group of travelers, we found ourselves dancing to the music, enjoying the beauty of traditional Ethiopian culture. 

 

 

 

Day 4

Posted: January 10, 2013

We spent most of today getting to know more of the Moroccan Jewish community. We started out at Aliance High School, which is a Jewish school but has a mix of both Jewish and Muslim students. The principal talked  about the school and its philosophy, and one of our Moroccan guides shared her experience as a student at Aliance, then we got to talk to members of their senior class. After lunch at one of the local Jewish clubs, we visited Maimonedes Medical Clinic, which provides free health care for needy Moroccan Jews, and later the Jewish Home for the Aged, where we toured their facility and had a dance party with the residents. We wrapped up our day with a discussion of how funding decisions are made within the Jewish community and Joint Distribution Committee.

In our wrap-up discussion, we each wrote a 6-word description of the day. Here's what we came up with:

Welcoming, strong identity, open personality, caring

Tea, music, family, food, pride, hospitality
Connecting and reaching out to people
 proud Judaism is alive and kicking
future, more than past, binds us
Hospitable eye-opening clubbing proud cultural
Tanya, rafi, rafi friend, dorit, Simone
Strength. Welcoming. Vibrant. Pride. Exemplary. 
Merci, shokran, todah rabah, thank you
Jewish pride
Supportive welcoming loving kind proud vibrant
Feeling welcomed by the moroccan Jews 
This place is an unexpected home
Warming heavy joyful educational motivating vibrant supportive 
Crossing Jewish bridges built for us

 

 

 

Here we are with some local high school students

 

 

DAY 3

Posted: January 9, 2013

Day two in Morocco brought numerous adventures, not only in Casablanca but also in Rabat, the nation’s capital. We visited the world’s third largest mosque, Hassan II, which is located near the beautiful Moroccan shore in Casablanca and can hold over 25 thousand worshippers. We were then treated to a tour of the boulevards and beaches along the coast and witnessed both the country’s impoverished shanty towns and multi-million dollar homes, including those of various Saudi Arabian princes.

Following this tour, we had the opportunity to talk with members of Morocco’s elderly Jewry, who live rent-free in apartments supported by the larger Jewish community and Joint Distribution Committee. Although we could not speak their language, we found ourselves moved by their humor and kindness and especially by their stories of Jewish life in Morocco.  

 We were then escorted to the only Jewish museum in the Middle East, founded by our very own tour guide, Rafi. Rafi who has dedicated his life to documenting and preserving the history of the Jewish people in Morocco.

 Our bus then made the hour-long journey to Rabat, which was filled with historical monuments. We visited the tomb of King Muhammad V, who protected the Moroccan Jews in during the Holocaust. We continued to the old Jewish quarter of the city. Only three Jews live there now, but you can still see the area’s Jewish history in the architecture, street names, and a recently restored synagogue. Our final stop in Rabat was at old fortress, which is now home to a beautiful garden and a café. On our way back to Casablanca, we stopped for a quick visit to the beach, just in time for sunset.

 
Back in Casablanca, we had a delicious Italian dinner and returned to the hotel for the night, exhausted but excited to continue our adventures tomorrow.


Here is a picture of the interior of the mosque. 

 

 

Our Second Day

Posted: January 8, 2013

It's the end of our first full day in Morocco, and though we're all a little tired, it was an amazing day. We spent most of the day at Neve Shalom School, a Jewish day school for ages 3 through 10 supported by the JDC. We learned a little bit about the school, but most of our time was spent in classrooms with the students.

Here's a video of us playing basketball with the kids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egSviypsPUE&feature=youtu.be

Language was a challenge, but we found ways to bond anyway and had a great time doing art, music, and sports with the kids. After Neve Shalom, we had some time to relax, and many of us explored the city.  We then went to dinner, where we were joined by the JDC country director for Morocco and the US Consul General. It was really interesting hearing them speak about the work they do, and they were both incredibly nice and easy to talk to. This was definitely a ghreat start to our trip!

 

 

On Helping Humans

Posted: January 8, 2013

My grandparents (below) met and were married in the Warsaw Ghetto.

My great grandfather was once a wealthy pharmacy owner, but was forced to give up everything and move into the Ghetto. Even in the Ghetto, people found ways to be resourceful, to do work, to keep life going and so, to provide for his family my great grandfather decided to take on a new business - the selling of "shmatas" or old rags.  He had heard of some teenage genius - a boy who knew all about selling rags - more than anyone else. So he found him and begged him to teach him the trade. The teenage boy agreed, so long as he introduce him to my grandmother, a blond bombshell with bright blue eyes.

And that's their story. The genius teenager was my grandfather who fell inlove with my grandmother and they married in the Ghetto as their final act of love so that everyone could witness their marriage before they all died. 

When the Ghetto fell, my grandmother snuck through the sewers and ran away. Even though she was Jewish she grew up going to Catholic school, because her father believed in the best education, and found a job teaching Catechisms at a Christian school in a small village in Poland. She was eventually sent to a labor camp as a Catholic teacher. My grandfather was sent to Majdanek death camp. He suffered through the most disgusting acts of inhumanity. They thought they would never see each other again. They thought they'd lost each other forever.

When the war was over, my grandmother was hired by The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the largest Jewish humanitarian aid organization, to interview Jewish refugees of the Holocaust to try to assist them in finding their lost family members or at least in finding out what had happened to them. She spoke seven languages and that was important working out of Poland where refugees from across Europe had been misplaced. It was in this role that she was able to re-find my grandfather. I exist because this organization cared enough to reunite families and to bring people who loved each other back together.

JDC still provides for the world's most disadvantaged Jewish people across the world working in 80 countries. For over three years, I've had the privilege of giving back to the organization (though I somehow feel that no time or no amount of work will ever be enough). 

I served as a Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Turkey and then became a full-time JDC employee as a part of the JDC Entwine team helping to support young professional volunteer networks across the US educate peers about global Jewish needs and issues and guiding trips through our work around the world. Each day I learn more about the work we do I'm more motivated.

I am more inspired by the lives we touch and by the personal care we take to ensure that every human being we interact with feels valued and special -  because we all are, every human is so uniquely special. 

Right now, we're accepting applications for two INCREDIBLE fellowship opportunities around the world. The first, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship, a unique opportunity, for a single individual to shape the Jewish world today in different placements across the globe. The second, the Global Jewish Service Corps, a year-long service opportunity (short term provided as well) to serve a specific community based on the unique talents that individual applicants have to offer and give. 

I think about the people who hired my grandmother, about the people who set up the refugee camps after the war, about the people who sat for hours every day helping lost souls sort out their lives. Those people shaped history. They restored goodness in the world, when it seemed so lost. They were us. They were young people trying to make a difference. Now it's our turn and I hope that any young, Jewish, leader, advocate, change maker, dreamer out there will apply to a JDC program. It's our time to give to the world...

Shauna Ruda currently lives in Tel Aviv and is a student in Tel Aviv University's International MA Program in Migration Studies.

 

 

First night in Morocco

Posted: January 7, 2013
Bonjour from Morocco! Our group has arrived after two long but surprisingly not horrible international flights. We arrived in Casablanca bleary-eyed but eager to learn about the city and meet our Moroccan guides. We were treated to a lavish Moroccan feast at a local community Jewish center and finally reached our hotel around 9 pm. Although we're exhausted, we all agree that today was a fantastic start to our Moroccan adventure!

 

 

Ethiopia AB: Meet our group!

Posted: January 5, 2013

In the fall of 2012, 20 students made a decision to go on a trip that would change their lives and outlook on the world forever. Under the leadership of Maryland Hillel staff Rabbi Jessica Shimberg, two student fellows, Samanatha Gottlieb and Rebekah Barber, and the Joint Distribution Committee, these students would travel to Ethiopia and experience a new part of the world and themselves. This is the story of that group:

In 4 short days, 19 fellow University of Maryland students and myself, Diana Peisach, will travel to Ethiopia with the help and guidance of Maryland Hillel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for a new type of winter break, an “Alternative Break”. Through this incredible program they have created, we will spend 8 days split between the cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar participating in social justice and interacting with the local community. Through volunteering in schools, visiting new clean water well sites, meeting Dr. Rick Hodes and many other activities, we will learn more about the community and efforts of the JDC in Ethiopia, while hopefully making an impact ourselves. As our departure date nears, feelings of both excitement and nervousness are most definitely surging through each member of our group. With a collection of students as outstanding and devoted as the 20 selected for this trip, I know we will all do great. So before I go on any further, I would like to introduce our Winter 2013 Ethiopia Alternative Break group!

Samantha Gottlieb: Hey my name is Sami Gottlieb and I am from Syosset, NY. I am currently a junior Biology major with a minor in Sustainability Studies at the University of Maryland. Although I have plans to one day attend medical school, I would love to do some sort of non-profit work either before or after. I went with the JDC last year to Ukraine and had the most amazing time so I cannot wait to work with them again! I love seeing the world and learning about all the ways that I can make a difference.

Rebekah Barber: Hi!  My name is Rebekah Barber and I’m from Seattle, Washington!  I’m a candidate for a double-degree in Economics and Government & Politics.  I’m currently part of the UMD Mock Trial team and I’m a member of the greatest sorority on campus, Sigma Delta Tau!   I play intramural sports, and my coed volleyball team, Safe Sets, just won the championship this past spring!  Last spring break I traveled to Ukraine with 20 other incredible students and had the most inspiring and eye opening experience, as we repaired the JDC’s Chesed center and connected with the greater Ukrainian community!  I’m psyched for another Alternative Break and even more stoked to be leading a service trip with an amazing team!

Jamie Austin: Hi! My name is Jaime Austin and I am from Marietta, Georgia. I am a sophomore American Studies major and hope to double major in history and eventually become a history teacher. At the University of Maryland I am involved with College Park Scholars and Lakeland STARS, as well as, Sigma Delta Tau. This is my first time going on an alternative break and I'm so excited to have the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia with you all!

Shoshana Beacken: Hi, I am Shoshana Beacken and I'm from Randolph, New Jersey where I attended the Hebrew Academy of Morris County and graduated from Randolph High School. Currently, I am a Sophomore majoring in Biology at the University of Maryland. In the future, I hope to pursue a career in either dentistry or medicine. This will be my first time traveling to Ethiopia, and I could not be more excited to go on this amazing trip!!

Tara Feld: Hi! My name is Tara Feld and I am from Los Angeles, California. I am currently a junior Psychology major and I hope to go to school to become a Physician's Assistant after I graduate. On campus, I am involved with a number of student organizations such as TerPAC, Challah for Hunger and Better Together. I have always had a passion for volunteering and I cannot wait for this opportunity to go to Ethiopia!

Brina Furman: My name is Brina Furman and I was born and raised in the lovely city of Baltimore, Maryland. I am a senior Sociology major with a minor in Special Education at UMD, with the hopes of attending graduate school for Social Work. I have a horrible shopping addiction, true passion for mac n cheese, and would do anything to get paid to travel the world. This is my first time to Africa and I am absolutely beyond excited for the opportunity.

Dillon Hagius: Hi. My name is Dillon Hagius and I am senior international business major in the process of applying to law schools. I went on JDC-UMD's Ukraine trip last spring break, so I am looking forward to learning about the JDC's work in Ethiopia. This year, I am leading a Hillel fellowship in conjunction with the National Collation for the Homeless, so I am particularly interested in learning about the legwork that goes in to running a successful NGO/NPO.

Tatiana Hasson: I am Tatiana Hasson and I was born and raised in Boston, MA. I am a sophomore Community health major but I took a gap year in Israel after high school, where I spent my time learning, traveling and volunteering. I am very involved in extra-curriculars on campus, particularly among the Jewish community. I am part of the Jewish Student Union, Shalom Zionists at Maryland, and I am an engagement intern for HIllel. I love meeting new people, experiencing new things, and giving to those who are less privelaged than I am. I am really looking forward to an awesome, meaningful trip in Ethiopia!

Danielle Horn: Hi! My name is Danielle Horn and I am from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. I am a sophomore double majoring in Middle School Education and Family Science. During my time at the University of Maryland I have been very involved in Hillel and the Alternative Break program is an amazing opportunity that is offered. I enjoy traveling and my curiosity for Ethiopia peeked when I was a counselor for Ethiopian girls this summer. I can’t wait to learn about the community there and share wonderful experiences with my group members!

Elizabeth Horwitz: Hi. My name is Elizabeth Horwitz and I was born and raised in Manhattan, New York. I am a senior studying History at the University of Maryland. I am extremely passionate about traveling and love to learn about new cultures and connect with people from all over the world. I am really excited for this opportunity to go to Ethiopia and experience apart of the world that I haven't been to.

Lexie Kahn: Hi! My name is Lexie Kahn and I am originally from New York City. I am currently a junior Supply Chain Management and Communications double major at the University of Maryland. I am extremely passionate about my Judaism and social justice and cannot wait to bring the two together in Ethiopia! Though I have participated in other alternative breaks before, I am very excited for the new challenges and experiences that this one will bring!

Zoe Klein: My name is Zoe Klein and I am from Dallas, Texas. I am currently a junior Psychology major, as well as pre-med. During my gap year in Israel I had the opportunity to work with young Ethiopian girls twice a week and I am counting down the days until I can learn more about their country's culture and people firsthand! I am greatly looking forward to getting to know everyone and seeing a whole new part of the world!

Rebecca Kraut: Hi, my name is Becca Kraut and I am a freshman at UMD.  I am from Baltimore, MD and have two older sisters.  I am still undecided as for my major, but I love it here!  Hillel is one of my favorite spots on campus, I think the Jewish community it builds is a huge asset to Jewish life at Maryland.  I volunteered last year at an Ethiopian absorption center in Israel and so I cannot wait to learn more about their culture and where they come from.  I am excited for this trip and ready to be challenged and inspired! 

 Akiva Lichtenberg: I am from Teaneck, NJ and am now a sophomore majoring in psychology and taking premed courses. I am also in the Global Public Health Scholars program which sparked my interest in this trip and in health issues in underdeveloped countries. I have also heard of Dr. Hodes and have done JDC programming in the past and am excited to do more work with them in Ethiopia.

Jessica Loesberg: I am Jessica Loesberg and I'm from Lawrenceville, New Jersey and a double major in history and communication with a minor in Spanish. On campus, I am part of the Global Communities Living and Learning Program, a campus tour guide, a brother of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity, member of the History Undergraduate Association and various other activities. I love traveling and cannot wait to experience our trip to Ethiopia!

 Ilana Lupovitch: I am Ilana Lupovitch from Chicago, Illinois where I graduated from Ida Crown Jewish Academy. I am currently majoring in Public Health, but I will be applying to nursing school next fall. I am part of Global Communities, which is a living and learning program here at Maryland which has really sparked my interest for global studies. I one day hope to travel the world as a nurse to help other people. I am the oldest of four kids in my family. I seriously CANNOT WAIT to go to Ethiopia with everyone!

Diana Peisach: Hi! My name is Diana Peisach and I am from Baltimore Maryland. I am a senior Communications major and will be graduating this Spring. Throughout college I have been highly active in my sorority Sigma Delta Tau and the Jewish Student Union. Although I have always participated in community service work, this will be my first alternative break trip. I am so excited for everything we are about to experience in Ethiopia and the impact it will have on us all!

Mira Chaya Rosen: Hey! My name is Mira Chaya Rosen (you guys can call me Mira if you want) and I'm from Los Alamitos, CA. I am currently a freshman architecture major but I'm not really sure what I want to do after college yet. I absolutely love to travel and experience new cultures so I can't wait to go on this trip with you guys!

Elissa Rosner: Hi! My name is Elissa Rosner and I am from Cleveland, Ohio. I am a sophomore majoring in Psychology and I am currently pre-dental. I am in the Global Public Health Scholars program and this is what sparked my interest in going to Ethiopia. I have never been on an alternative break trip before but I am so excited to go and experience another culture!

Jared Stein: Hi. My name is Jared and I am originally from Boston. I often find myself in new and intriguing situations and I love trying new things, even if they are outside of my comfort zone. I spent a year in Israel after high school volunteering, traveling, and studying, that shaped much of who I am today. At the University of Maryland I have stayed busy working with Hillel, Habitat for Humanity and many more organizations! I am excited for the incredible opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and for all of the experiences that await us there!

We are all so excited for this incredible trip and can't wait to share our experiences with you! Stay tuned for much more to come.

Sincerely,

Diana Peisach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Days!

Posted: January 4, 2013

Hi everyone,

I'm Carly, a first-year at Cal who will be one of the student bloggers on the Morocco trip. We're leaving in just 2 days, and I can't wait! I'm especially excited for volunteering at Neve Shalom Ozar HaTorah School, because I love working with kids. I'm also really looking forward to our visit to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca- it's one of the largest in the world, and it looks absolutely gorgeous.

Thanks for visiting our blog!

 

 

Me & Ralph!

Posted: January 4, 2013

Great spending time with Ralph I. Goldman himself in Israel.

 

 

Gaining the JDC Freshman 15 the Friendly Way

Posted: December 28, 2012

Today was another beautiful day in sunny Kibbutz Tuval, luckily we’ve had gorgeous weather all week.  This was our fourth day painting in Prachim, but unlike the other painting days, I noticed some significant changes today. For the first time, the residents of the neighborhood physically participated with us in the painting of the entranceways to their apartments, which prompted me to reflect on the first day when I contemplated the meaning of Mishol’s service project in Karmiel, and consequently, my own mission. When I first arrived, I naturally was skeptical about the difference I could actually make in Karmiel. I guess my biggest fear was that I would feel like an outsider from America- some spoiled Jewish American teenager- coming in to paint a random fence in some random neighborhood and then leave without any sense of satisfaction that I actually made a difference in the lives of the local Israelis. That fear was first assuaged when I learned about Mishol’s investment in the neighborhood of Megadim. The Mishol model was to not do the work for them, but instead to instill in Megadim a sense of community pride so they eventually learn to improve their lives and living space on their own. Mishol is simply the first stone in the avalanche of social change; and as everyone knows, the first step is always the most difficult.

Which brings me back to today’s experience. Upon arriving to our usual site in Prachim, I was assigned, as usual, an entranceway of which to paint. But this site was different for I soon learned from a resident that this particular area was not initially on Mishol’s list to paint, but upon seeing the Cornell JDC group paint other areas the past three days, they decided they wanted their area painted as well. But they did not want to sit back and let us do the work for them. They wanted to contribute themselves. Today was the first day I painted side by side with the neighbors who actually lived in the apartments I was painting. In addition one of the residents told me that they were not planning on paying for electricity, but after seeing us work interactively with the residents this past week, they collectively decided to take the initiative on their own to install lights and outlets for their homes. This observation is just the tip of the iceberg, for everyday the residents have gradually grown more comfortable around us, coming outside to talk to us, giving us more and more food, and ironically telling us to take more and more breaks, which lead to more conversations with them. And this has made me realize that my community service trip with JDC isn’t simply about the end goal of competing the painting of a wall, or even to get the neighbors to take initiative. It’s about the journey there, the interactions with the residents that I remember, and hopefully, they will remember after I’m gone, which might prompt them to make their own community a better place.

Finally, I’ve noticed that more and more of the Prachimites offer me snacks and that everyday I gradually consume more and more tea, coffee, Shoko (extremely rich Israeli chocolate milk), and biscuits. I’m eating more not because I’m working harder physically, or because it’s Israel and eating in large quantities is just what you do, but because I’ve learned that I can’t refuse a snack from an Israeli. No matter how much I insist I’m not hungry (I eat very large Shoko-fill breakfasts in Israel), they push and cajole me until I eat. It was then I realized that their offering of food and drink is their way of giving back to me. Community service is not one-way, it’s a mutual exchange. By refusing their snacks I am essentially saying I’m too good for their food, even if I’m refusing because I am extremely full (which I always am in Israel it seems). Now I stuff my face at every opportunity I get (much to my stomach’s chagrin), and their faces just light up. By stuffing my face, not only have I discovered my stomach’s full capacity but I no longer feel like an outsider, but instead feel like a partner working side-by-side with Israelis who want to welcome me into their homes.

 

 

 

Christmas in Carmiel

Posted: December 27, 2012

Today we got an early start. The kibbutz offered us a bountiful breakfast of cereals (including the ever-popular Kariot [a better version of the American Kellogg's Krave]), yogurt, pudding, vegetables, boiled eggs, and toast.

This morning's work involved a second day of paint walls in the entrances of the apartment buildings in the Prachim (lit. "flowers") neighborhood of Carmiel. We have the goal of painting 14 buildings' entrances, and we are making good headway. Everyone is working hard and being good team players, and we try to have fun by singing songs while we paint. The overalls that Mishol (the JDC program with which we are working) has provided for us have been very handy: everyone's overalls are becoming increasingly covered in white paint as we work quickly to paint the walls (today we were encouraged to hurry up with calls of "maher! maher!" and "chik-chok!" from the residents). The residents are grateful for our help in rejuvenating their homes, and they brought out snacks of Coca-Cola, tea, coffee, and wafer cookies. We were grateful for the signs of hospitality from the residents.

We broke for lunch and drove to the community center in the Megadim neighborhood to eat. We had chicken shish kebab with saffron potatoes, pepper-eggplant salad, matbuchah (a spiced tomato puree), and a baked vegetable dish. We also got to try Krembo (similar to American Malomars), which are a Israeli treats available only in the winter. They are composed of a cookie with marshmallow-like fluff on top, all dipped in chocolate.

During lunch, we heard from three Israeli young adults (ages 24-27) who have chosen to work as teachers in alternative high schools. These people were very interesting to meet because, as they informed us, the efficacy of Israel's education system is declining, and they explained how they were doing their part to improve the system. What these young teachers described was that that there is a growing disparity in educational success in public schools between wealthier and more established Israeli children and those who come from poorer or recent-immigrant families. A school's success is based primarily on students' Bagruyot scores (equivalent standardized test to American SAT/ACT). Classes are generally large, students can be unruly, so while the more fortunate students may get private tutoring to help them prepare for the state tests, other students may go without, and in general, there may not be an emphasis on education coming from the parents.

The young teachers have chosen not to take higher paying or generally more desirable jobs in order to help students who are falling through the cracks in the public education system. Part of their work is at an alternative high school where students - who would likely drop out of a main-stream public high school - learn trade skills (like electrician's skills, for example) or ride and learn to care for horses and other livestock. With smaller classes and a more palatable learning environment, the generally underprivileged students have a better chance of scoring higher on the Bagruyot tests, which will consequently lead them to have a better chance for successful adult lives. The teachers are working to create models for the rest of the country to follow by which the educational gap can be closed, and a more equitable society can be fostered.

After lunch, we went on a tour of a part of Carmiel that we had not seen yet - the Rabin neighborhood. This area consisted of newer apartments build around what was once a quarry. We were treated to a great view of most of the city, which sits on top of the ridgeline of a couple of hills, and the tour guide explained that there have been human settlements, Jewish and otherwise, in the area for over 12,000 years. We could see smaller Arab towns surrounding Carmiel on neighboring hillsides, and we were shown how the southern tip of the Galil mountain range begins just north of Carmiel. We were bussed around this newer neighborhood, and at one stop, we looked at a memorial for an IDF soldier from Carmiel who was killed in the Lebanon conflict in summer 2006. Friends of the fallen soldier decided that rather than a traditional memorial, this soldier would be better remembered by a bicycle path, which now snakes down the southern face of the hill Carmiel sits on. In the area that was previously a quarry, there is now a public park, with many sculptures, a playground, carob trees (from which we sampled fruit), and more nice views of the surrounding hills. We also learned that, despite Carmiel's proximity to the Kinneret (the large lake next to Tiberias, about half an hour's drive east of Carmiel), the city gets its water from four local wells, rather than from the national water distribution system sourced from the Kinneret.

After the tour, we played soccer with some local students in middle and high school. We were spectacularly underprepared to play against them, but we played hard and did our best not to let them score on us too many times. While we lost, everyone had fun, and the students thanked us for playing with them.

We then went to dinner in a restaurant in Carmiel's mall, where we were treated to hamburgers, chicken and veggie wraps, French fries and salad. After the good food, we had a few minutes to explore the small shops in the mall, which was similar to an American strip mall.

Next, we went the Carmel's Ethiopian Community Center, where we met with leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community, most of whom were immigrants from Ethiopia. They had prepared a slideshow presentation to help explain the history of Ethiopian Jewry and their traditional culture in Ethiopia. They showed pictures of what a traditional Jewish Ethiopian wedding looked like, in which there are special garments worn by the bride and groom, as well as what the traditional roles of men and women in the family and community were in Ethiopia. Now, all of the Jews once in Ethiopia are reported to have moved to Israel, most of whom came in Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). The community members showed us traditional Ethiopian cookware and storage vessels, as well as a weaving loom and some items used in weddings. The Kess, the spiritual leader of the Ethiopian Jews in the community, explained to us the spiritual practices now in place in Ethiopian Jewish communities in Israel. He showed us how the religious language Ethiopian Jews use is Ge'ez, which is an old language similar to old Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. The Ethiopian Jews claim that they are decedents from the tribe of Judah, and they passed their tradition of what is known as the Torah orally from generation to generation. The Kess showed us the synagogue that is part of the Ethiopian community center, and while there were some differences in the texts used, the room and adornments strongly resembled those of most other Jewish synagogues in Israel today - there was a mehitzah, an aron kodesh, and a podium from which the Kess led services.

While many people around the world today are celebrating Christmas, there was no sign of the holiday in Carmiel today, except for the few moments when the participants on our trip remembered to wish well to others in our group, as a result of American culture. There is not a religious Christian presence in Carmiel, so the city seemed to let the holiday go unnoticed. In other parts of Israel, like Tiberias, Bethlehem, and in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old CIty, Christmas is celebrated.

After a long day, we returned to Kibbutz Tuval, and most of us went straight to the rooms to relax and go to sleep before another early day tomorrow.

 Lehitra'ot for now now!

 -Jacob Raskin

Dec. 25, 2012

 

 

Calling All New Yorkers! Serve with Entwine in Haiti

Posted: December 26, 2012

Live in New York? Looking for an opportunity to make a difference around the world?

JDC is excited to announce a special opportunity for people from New York or currently living in New York interested in serving overseas with the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC). 

A select number of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are available for New Yorkers, starting right now, in Haiti.

To apply or receive more information, email globalservice@jdcny.org.

The Jewish Service Corps is a year-long, paid opportunity to live and work within a community served by JDC. JSC fellows are post-college young adults who create innovative programs that respond to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, and leave an impact on the global Jewish world. More on JSC here: http://jdcentwine.org/jsc

 

 

Cornell Hillel's work in Karmiel

Posted: December 26, 2012

Shalom from Israel!  We arrived in Tel Aviv a few days ago and made the two-hour journey north to Kibbutz Tuval, our home base for 10 days. 

The day after we arrived we visited Karmiel City Hall and the Mayor’s Office (unfortunately the mayor was called away to Jerusalem, but we will meet him later this week). The municipal director of social services introduced our group to the population demographic and development statistics of the city. The municipal staff members are extremely proud of the city’s ability to welcome immigrants and its self-sustaining social improvement programs.

From City Hall, we visited our first worksite – a neighborhood new to the JDC Mishol Initiative. Mishol, which means “path”, is a community organizing initiative intended to help immigrant populations take action to meet their needs. In underserved, primarily immigrant neighborhoods, Mishol organizes tenant and neighborhood associations, through which residents work together to address the physical and social needs of their buildings and neighborhoods. Today, we painted entrances to the apartment buildings as the start to a neighborhood beautification project.

While whitewashing the walls is just a start to improving the neighborhood, we all feel satisfied to have already made a visible difference, yet we know we have much more work to do before we can call our work complete. 

We have more excitement ahead of us today as we will meet residents of another Mishol community in Karmiel. 

 

 

Hello from Karmiel, Israel

Posted: December 25, 2012

We've been busy! For the past few days, we've been performing service work alongside JDC's Mishol (“Path”) program, a community organizing initiative intended to help immigrant populations take action to meet their needs. Check out some of our photos below.

Meeting at the Mayor's office when we first arrived!

Getting to work in the local community.

Cooking at local residents' homes for multicultural dinner.

 

 

Reflections from Syktyvkar, Russia

Posted: December 20, 2012

As I'm in the midst of traveling to Moscow for my next adventure, I'm leaving the coldest city I will ever visit (or so I hope)! With that said, I'd like to reflect upon my most recent visit to Syktyvkar, a city two hours northeast of St. Petersburg by plane, where the temperature dropped to a staggering low of -33.5°C!

My heart started racing as I was about to disembark the plane in Syktyvkar. I had no idea what to expect since -12°C in St. Petersburg is cold enough! My first and every breath once I left the plane felt like I was inhaling micro icicles - its difficult to describe but hopefully you get the picture -- it was FREEZING. Literally.

Upon my arrival with Lisa Dorfman, a JDC employee (and my Russian savior/translator), we drove to a wonderful lady's home two hours away by car. Raisa, an 87 year old Nazi victim who receives welfare from JDC, cooked a feast for us! Lamb stew, mushroom salad, hand picked berries from her garden, and a bunch of Russian style breads! It was by far my best meal in Russia to date.

Raisa receives JDC's welfare assistance by means of food packages and visits from a social worker who provide her support every week for about 10 hours. This is a picture of the food package which contains coffee, oil, sugar, flour, honey, Jewish magazines, and a few more items.

On the ride back to town, I fell asleep in the car and thought I'd wake up at the hotel. Little did I know I was supposed to give a presentation to the medical community and Jewish leaders of Syktyvkar!

I ended up spending two hours with this group, discussing all sorts of topics such as the medical condition in Syktyvkar, my experiences in Ethiopia, and the needs of the local community at large. This lead to a discussion with an oncologist who expressed his interest in building a hospice in the city due to the high prevalence of cancer amongst the residents.

Additionally, since 30% of the Hesed welfare clients have cancer it would be a huge benefit to the Jewish population. After hearing about my dream of building a hospital in Ethiopia, he stressed the importance of us maintaining a professional relationship in order to reach both of our goals.

Today we made two home visits, one to an Abram, who is originally from the Ukraine and is also a Nazi victim. A miner his entire life, he proudly showed off the multitude of medals he’d earned throughout his career. Our second visit was to a bed-ridden 78 year old man named Israel who goes by Anatoli. He was one of the founders in the regions’ television channel and was a prominent journalist. After spending some time with these welfare recipients my realization of why I chose to visit Russia became clear to me.

So far this journey has certainly carried me to the far corners of the earth. To places I may never have visited or even thought to visit! It is such a privilege to be involved at a time when very few holocaust survivors still live to tell their tales. To meet them not only in Israel (the land they dreamed of), but alive and being cared for by our Jewish communities worldwide.

It's absolutely incredible how wherever there is a Jew in need, the JDC is truly there. I've been hearing that for the past two years but during these past 24 hours I've witnessed it with my own two eyes.

 

 

Anna's Story

Posted: November 27, 2012

Walking into a room, at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), you would never know that Anna has changed so much in just four years. Right now, she is a leader in the Jewish community. Not only that, she is also a lay leader, something that is not the norm in the current structure of the city’s community. In the coming weeks she will be organizing different groups and being a hostess at an upcoming Shabbat dinner at the JCC. But it was not always like this for Anna.

Anna was a dancer growing up. She worked at night clubs and spent a few months in Turkey living what was a luxurious lifestyle. Every day, along with her colleagues and friends, she was served fancy foods, picked up by personal drivers, protected by bodyguards, and relaxed by the beach. She loved her life, and looks back on it fondly. She was beautiful and she lived from one moment to the next without much concerns.

One evening, at a night club in Kharkov, she caught the eye of Jenya. Jenya, whose grandfather was a rabbi with many cousins having made aliyah in the 1990s, fell in love with Anna. He began taking Anna to the JCC for Shabbat and different events. Anna was scared off in this new setting. “How come everyone is so nice? Why do they all hug and kiss me? I just met them.” It was an uncomfortable experience for her to say the least. One day, Jenya told her about Metsuda, a Jewish leadership program in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union (FSU) for young adults. The participants of the program have to create their own projects and try to attract Jews to different facets of the community. Jenya had already completed the program and was at the time a madrich – group leader.

Anna was jealous. She went home and told her mom about Metsuda. She finally asked her mom “Why can’t I be Jewish?”

Her mom’s response was “but you are.”

Anna was twenty-two years old when she found out her dad was Jewish. This is a common theme in the FSU. She called her grandmother to confirm this news. Her grandmother denied it. Another common theme in the FSU as people tried to hide this part of their identity for so long which leaves many finally admitting it on their death beds. Anna then called her great-aunt who said “of course we are.”

Anna graduated Metsuda two years ago. Last year, she was a madricha and has now helped form the board for post-Metsuda which is creating the framework for what Jewish life will be like for those that have completed the program. This is a volunteer position that Anna has fully embraced, as have others in Kiev, Odessa, Lviv and other cities throughout Ukraine. Where this program goes will influence the future of Jewish communities throughout the FSU.

Two years ago, Anna married Jenya and one day they will start a beautiful Jewish family. Jenya and Anna returned to the Metsuda seminar this week to watch two graduating participants enter the chuppah to start their own Jewish lives together too.

Anna is just one example of why the Joint Distribution Committee is here. The wedding at the Metsuda seminar is just a second. There are thousands of more examples of people rediscovering their Jewish identity. It is a wonderful time to be in Ukraine.

 

 

 

My First Week in St. Petersburg!

Posted: November 26, 2012

Touchdown St. Petersburg -- my new home for the next six weeks!

It’s hard to believe that I’m finally in the field but I couldn’t be more excited to begin my journey in Russia!

I find it amazing coming from sunny southern California, the fact that St. Petersburg at this time of the year gets on average 7 hours of sunlight a day! The sun rises at 10:00am and sets at 5:00pm.

Monastery near my hotel

World Famous Mariinsky Theatre [opened in 1860]

On my first day, I was joined by Lisa Dorfman, JDC-St. Petersburg missions coordinator (and my wonderful gatekeeper to this beautiful city) who met me at my hotel to teach me how to get to the nearest subway stop.

Our first stop was the local JCC called YESOD. They had an entire day devoted to volunteerism and I was asked to speak.

I was assigned an hour-long session and was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of attendees.

I presented on JDC-Ethiopia and my personal experience working in East Africa for thirteen months. At the end of my talk there were many thought provoking questions: What has this experience done to me and for me? How has my experience affected my outlook on life? How has it affected me? What will I be doing in the future? How can they get involved?

Volunteer Fair at YESOD in St. Petersburg (42 organizations showed up, only 1 Jewish)


Entrance to YESOD

I shared my dream of building a hospital for $10 million and a woman came up at the end asking for a bank account to transfer some money to the fund. I was taken aback that my story could have such an impact.

Numerous people waited to speak with me after my session to ask if they can volunteer and how they can get involved. The crowd's reaction was very motivating; I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with more people around the world as this year progresses.

The following is a link to an article one of the participants wrote about the fair and if you scroll down there is a short piece on my talk. http://volternews.ru/2012/11/vremya- naydetsya-vsegda/

Here’s the translation thanks to another incredible JDC staffer here, Dasha!

 “'At the volunteer fair there were a lot lectures and one of them was from Shaun Goldstone, from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - the largest international Jewish humanitarian organization. He was a young man, spoke about volunteering in extreme locations such as Haiti after the earthquake and Ethiopia after suffering from famine and dealing with such poverty. Shaun graduated from university with a degree in molecular biology and helped [a doctor] treat Ethiopian children suffering from tuberculosis and other spine diseases, build water wells and schools [in the countryside] and to make life in the country better in general. These volunteer experiences changed his life extremely. Shaun says with a smile: "I have a dream to raise $10 million and build a hospital and treat children locally, at this point I'm at $10,000 but I will not give up."'

After YESOD, Lisa and I had the pleasure of visiting Tatiana Shirbakova. She’s 80 years old and lived through the holocaust. She has no living family and is all alone in a small apartment that once belonged to her grandparents but is now shared with other local Russians. Tatiana worked for the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences for 30 years in the department of rare books and manuscripts. Twice a month she gets picked up to attend a JDC sponsored welfare program -- she said it’s one of her favorite things she does. I plan on attending one of the sessions with her before I leave.

Tatiana Shirbakova

Our next stop was the Grand Choral Synagogue (the second largest synagogue in Europe) where we listened to Klezmer music. It was majestic!

Grand Choral Synagogue (consecrated in 1893)

Monday started out with me giving a talk to ten regional Hesed directors about my experience in Ethiopia and on the importance of volunteering. Heseds are JDC's local support centers for elderly and at-risk individuals throughout the former Soviet Union.

Lisa posed the following question to me: "In America, volunteering is as natural as breathing. How do we ‘plant’ volunteering in the places where this idea has been unknown so far or somehow marred over the course of time."

At first I was surprised at the fact that in Russia, volunteering is not part of the culture and society -- it’s a relatively new concept. After discussing this with the regional directors, I was exposed to the broader mission of how they plan to incorporate future volunteers as they can become huge assets in the field.

Additionally, I met with numerous other organizations in order to understand  how the Jewish community looks in this part of the world. One organization is called Adain Lo, which was started locally. It runs a network of Jewish kindergartens, Sunday schools, summer camps and other educational, social and volunteer programs.

Last Friday, I was given the opportunity to speak at JDC’s local office about my experiences with the organization. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day exchanging personal stories with numerous staff about Ethiopia, Haiti, New York, and of course hearing about St. Petersburg and the FSU from their points of view. It is remarkable witnessing JDC’s work here up-close and meeting the incredible people responsible for carrying out its mission. As numerous people told me before I arrived - Duby, the local country director has already been both a wonderful mentor and valuable resource and has truly taken me under his wing.

From a cultural point of view, I've already seen the opera La Traviata, gone to an art exhibition of a local Jewish painter from the 19th century, been to the astonishing Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and last week I booked my ticket to see Tchaikovsky's ballet called The Sleeping Beauty.

It’s such a privilege and honor to be here.

This was only my first week...I’m so thrilled and excited for what lies ahead!

A few more photos below!

The Hermitage (established in 1764) - houses the largest collection of paintings in the world! 

Inside the Hermitage


The Church on Spilled Blood

 

 

My Experience with Jewish Shanghai

Posted: November 18, 2012

I had just finished my first year of college when I went on a trip to China. By the time I arrived in Shanghai, I had become accustomed to the unfamiliar as I had already been traveling for a month.

On my final Friday afternoon in China I was astonished to find a very familiar symbol engraved into the wall of a Shanghai street - the Star of David. 

My yearning to learn more about this surprising intersection of two distinct Chinese and Jewish worlds drew me to seek out a Shabbat gathering. That evening I spent Shabbat at a Chabad gathering with over 200 people gathered from nearly every continent.

During the meal I had the opportunity to learn both about the community of Jews living in Shanghai during WWII as well as about the community currently living in the city. With my stomach filled with delicious Mediterranean Asian fusion food, my mind filled with new stories about the Shanghai Jewish community and my soul warmed by the presence of new international friends, I truly felt at home.

Today, I remain inspired by this community. Join me on November 27 for Inside Jewish Shanghai: Then & Now for a look at this city's incredible Jewish past and strong Jewish future. RSVP here: jdcentwine.org/events/ShanghaiSF

 

 

Beginning My Year Abroad

Posted: November 14, 2012

As I’m about to embark on this journey as a Ralph I. Goldman fellow, I feel nervous yet overwhelmingly excited for the year of adventure and learning that lies ahead.

On Thursday, I depart New York City for St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m sure you’re probably thinking: “Why would anyone fly to Russia in November of all times?!” Although the temperature is almost freezing (literally), I’m looking forward to immersing myself in an authentic Russian experience!

Over the next six weeks I’ll be learning about JDC’s work in the Former Soviet Union, specifically being exposed to welfare, community development, and relief work.

At the end of December I will head to Israel for two weeks where I’ll be meeting with the legendary Ralph I. Goldman who just turned 98 years old. I look forward to gaining valuable insight into many issues facing the global Jewish world as he has been instrumental in writing our history.

In January, I’ll head to Shanghai for three months where I’ll be helping JDC organize the first Limmud conference in the city. Come May, I’ll be heading to Eastern Europe and in June will end my fellowship by conducting a study at Camp Szarvas in Hungary.

I will be seeing and learning a lot in the next nine months and throughout the entire time I look forward to sharing my experiences with you all.

Follow me here on this blog, and on Instagram: @shaungoldstone. Learn more about the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship at http://www.jdcentwine.org/ralph.

 

 

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.

 

 

12th Ecuentro of Jewish Organizations and Leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean

Posted: November 12, 2012

I have recently gotten back from Quito, Ecuador where I attended the 12th Encuentro of Jewish Organizations and Leaders in the region. 

I found this GA to be incredibly interesting and a very unique experience. I not only was able to sit in on many interesting political speaches, presentations on the importance of new IT innovations, as well as fundraising technologies, but I was also able to get a better idea of what it is like to be a Jew in the region.

Buenos Aires is lucky to have such a big Jewish populations.  Although they may not always agree they do not have to worry as much about other things that I saw presentations on, such as hate crimes and a quickly diminishing population.  Columbia and Venezuela both have issues with the former, and counties such as Bolivia and Ecuador have problems particularly with the later. The hot issue on peoples minds were however a diminishing populations, mostly from immigration and intermarraige.  Stemming from this was questions on how to better accommodate different types of Jews into the community as a whole.  This is something that I can relate to.  I am not observant, and although I do celebrate the high holy days with my family and culturally view myself as Jewish, I have had some issue finding my place around those more obvservant than I.

Particularly intersting was hearing from JDC employees working in Cuba.  I had never really heard about life there first hand, and it was both unreal and amazing to hear about their experiences.  It is important and very smart that the team working there allows the Jewish community to develop in its own way, as it has done in other countries. It is a funny thing to have overlooked but I found it so odd but again made sense, that everyone gets paid $25 be their profession a doctor or taxi driver.  

The evironment as 500 Jews in the area was not as tense as I imagine it would be in other countries. Again something that I really admire about Latin America. There is anti-semitism of course but it seems to be a lot less than in other parts of the world.  There was minimal security for us, but of course it is unfortunate that there had to be any at all.

Towards the end of the conference I have to say my head was swimming, but the last night was one of the most memorable of my life.  We were invited to the JCC in Quito for dinner, and the experience was incredible!  The JCC is magnificent, and the decor and food were really fantastic as well.  Througout the conference I had sort of felt as though we were one community, but it wasn't until everyone, young and old started dancing together, that a wave of happiness and oneness came over me.  Dancing everything from Gangnam Style to the Hora and Salsa, I once again had the feeling of how special it was to be Jewish, and how wonderful it really was that no matter if I am in NYC or in Quito, I am really still part of a global Jewish community, who will always have a beautiful strong bond with each other, and care deeply for each others well being. 

 

 

Special Moments in Kharkov

Posted: November 3, 2012

October 31, 2012

The little things matter. The big things can wait.

That is the sentiment I felt just the other day when asked by a student at the local Jewish day school, Sha’alavim, if I could teach him how to put on tefillin – the leather straps used during morning prayer services. Since my first visit to the school, I have joined the students for tfillot – prayers – every morning I have been there. On my first day, I put on my tefillin and quickly realized that I was the only person performing the ritual. But I felt that it was not the time for me to teach or to instruct students to abide by this commandment. Yet, within two weeks of becoming active within the school’s daily services a small action unintentionally influenced another person.

I will soon write about the larger programs and activities that I am involved in the Kharkov community, but right now it is moments like these where my role in enriching the lives of others inspires me.

Working at Sha’alavim I have the opportunity to teach both Hebrew and a class on traditions. Respect for teachers here is much more pronounced than any school I ever attended. When I, or any other teacher, walk into the class all the students rise as if I am the president of the United States. I find it exciting to teach these subjects which were neither taught nor studied in this country for so many years. This generation of students will be the first generation to have an opportunity to study the teachings of our great books and history, and it excites me to be part of this process.

Three days a week I volunteer in the Hesed program through the Jewish Community Center. Hesed is a program that ensures relief for all Jews that need assistance that the government may not be able to support. The Jewish community makes an effort to reach every household that is vulnerable. The task is large. It deals with the elderly that do not have the pensions that they were assured through the Soviet Union, families in abject poverty, and people with disabilities. I’ve gone on missions to households to see the work that is done and have seen the incredible graciousness and joie-de-vivre these people have even when affected by the harshest circumstances. Among them are incredibly impressive people like a young wheelchair-bound man who has learned English by himself through books. He speaks it flawlessly and is so excited just to share his newly-acquired skill. Another elderly woman, a child survivor of the Shoah, is still friends with her childhood teacher who hid her for the duration of the war.

This is all wonderful work, but my main task is working with three other groups. There are two groups with mental disabilities – one for young adults and another for children. The third group is with people with physical disabilities. With this group I’ve gone on an excursion that included horseback riding and a green house. My job is somewhat limited in these groups because of the language barrier but by no means is it stunted. I have made good relations with everyone that I’ve worked with. One girl in the children’s group and I played soccer together. I taught her how to kick the ball with the side of her foot and not the front. The whole time, she was smiling and laughing. As I said, the small things are what count.

I also spend a good portion of my time working with the youth and teen clubs at the JCC. The youth club has a longer institutional history and a great staff, and therefore it runs smoothly and has a large following. My role with the group is to be an informal Jewish educator. I give divrei torah – speeches on the weekly section of the torah – and talk more broadly with many of the participants about Jewish rituals and teachings. The teen club that was initiated last year with the previous fellow is about to have its first program. We’re attempting to have it for teenagers with programs made by teenagers. Our opening program is going to be a Beit Kafe – Coffee House – with creative writing and poetry readings. We are very excited to start these programs and add to the creative spirit of such an integral part of the community. As with everything else I do there is obviously a language barrier that can make my job as a community builder tougher, but I have been welcomed with such open hands and smiling faces by all members of the community even those that speak just as much English as I do Russian. We find activities, like a salsa class that I have joined, that are not talking intensive but nonetheless force us out of our comfort zones to try to communicate. I am entirely gracious for these acts of friendliness and openness.

As I said, it is the small things. I have been here for such a short time that it is only the small things that I have to count, but if it was only influencing people on that personal level then I think my year would be a success nonetheless.

 

 

 

A Special Day at Baby Help

Posted: November 2, 2012

Today was a really great and special day at Baby Help.  Two grades of kids from a local Jewish school stopped by to say hi and to play with the babies and toddlers that I work with.  Granted it was a little overwhelming at first to have a huge influx of "big kids," but I was really fantastic to see them hang out together.

The older kids, about middle school age I'd say, were super well behaved, but more importantly they were super excited to help out with the kids at Baby Help.  I'm not so sure if I've seen kids their age in the US that excited to see little babies, or even act so mature around them.  There was one girl who was upset she didn't have a little toddler to partner up with.  I feel like a lot of kids I've met in the states would kind of take the excursion as an excuse to be out of school and goof off but not these ones. They were really keen to learn about the babies.

We spent about an hour hanging out together, and basically let the kids do most of the work besides general supervision etc. At the end the kids said goodbye and gave each age group a gift that they had made.  They ranged from blankets, to rattles, and kaleidoscopes.  

I think having done this was a really great idea, although it was a little stressful organization-wise at times.  Everyone for the most part seemed to be really excited and into the activities of the day.  I don't know if many of the older kids were at Baby Help themselves, but they knew all of the same songs, and I'm glad that the bonding between the jewish community here spans multiple age groups and organizations.

Coming off of this idea, the upcoming 12th Summit for Jewish Leaders and Organizations of Latin America and the Carribean is happening this comming week in Quito, Ecuador.  I will be attending, and I'm excited to see how this intermingling and information sharing conference will pan out.  I shall certainly update once again about my thoughts of this meeting, and I am very much looking forward to it!

 

 

URGENT | 35 Volunteers Needed: Help NYC Holocaust Survivors with JDC Entwine.

Posted: November 2, 2012
Dear New York Metropolitan Area Friends,

As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy continues to unfold, we’ve received updates from our partners at the Marks Jewish Community House (JCH) of Bensonhurst. Marks JCH serves 20,000 people in South Brooklyn, primarily Russian-speaking Jews from the Former Soviet Union.  

The Marks JCH has briefed us on Holocaust survivors stuck in the dark in top level apartments – without power, food, homecare, and unable to come out of their homes. 

Some of the 200 survivors they help they can’t be reached as phone lines are down. 

The Marks JCH staff has been working very hard and could use some extra help.

We need 35 volunteers for Sunday...

By 5pm Friday (11/2.)

What: 20 volunteers will bring much needed food, water, candles and company to the elderly; 15 will lead activities with youth at a nearby shelter.
When: 
Sunday, November 4 

Above of all, we’ll be bringing our love and support to a local community in need.

Sign up now.

We’re looking for volunteers to join us in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and visit elderly in need of assistance.

Please email Gila gilaw@jdcny.org to officially sign-up.

  • Sign up is required.
  • Spots are limited. Volunteers will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Please include your cell phone number and any languages you speak, particularly Russian.
  • Volunteers who live in Brooklyn or have a car may meet us there but must register with Gila.
  • Serious inquiries only – if you register with us, we expect you to show up. 

Vital information:

  • JDC is providing a bus for the group. This bus will also be used to transport Marks JCH staff and volunteers who are running short on gas.
  • Meet in Manhattan on E. 44th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues by 9:45am SHARP.
  • Volunteers should be 21 years of age or older, able bodied, prepared to climb stairs if necessary, and MUST bring one bag of non-perishable, ready to eat food (such as crackers, nuts, dried fruit, nothing that needs heating) candles (or flashlight w/batteries) and a large bottle of water.
  • We will depart Brooklyn at 5pm, returning to 44th and 3rd Avenue by 7pm (weather and traffic permitting.)

Can’t join us?

Give supplies: Email gilaw@jdcny.org for information on donating food, bottled water, or candles (crackers, nuts, dried fruit, nothing that needs heating) to our group.

Other opportunities: A number of incredible local organizations are rallying support for local communities.

  • Our invaluable partners at UJA-Federation of New York have opened the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Funds raised will be used to provide support to agencies and communities that have been impacted by the devastation.
  • There are many shelters in the area that are in need of donations of food, clothes etc. If you can volunteer at an evacuation shelter or know anyone who can, please contact Shelly Fine at sfine50@aol.com or 917.453.3911.
  • Uri LTzedek, a Jewish Social Services organization, is organizing volunteers delivering water, batteries, etc. on the Lower East Side. Please contact them at info@utzedek.orgIf you are interested in donating, the Masbia Soup Kitchen has been providing meals at shelters in the New York Metro area.

 

 

Mojitos, Mezuzahs… and Ration Cards? Oh my

Posted: October 26, 2012

I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba.  Partly because of the forbidden fruit element, partly because it is a time capsule from the 50’s, but mostly it is because people just like me could lead such different lives and only live 90 mi­les from America. When I saw that the JDC was offering a trip to Cuba, focused on engaging the country’s Jewish community, I jumped at the chance.

Let’s start with a little bit of background.  Cuba has been under Fidel Castro’s reign since 1959, which means that at this point the majority of the Cuban population has never known any other government.  Picture a city with palm trees, European influences, and 1950’s Fords everywhere - that’s Havana. While I knew getting to Cuba meant mojitos, cigars, street art and seeing a Communist society in action, I had not fully processed what that meant for daily life. 

People live on ration cards; that means that the government determines what food the people are allotted each month.  Each person gets one pound of chicken per month. I can go through one pound of chicken in two days. Or when you go to the store to pick up toothpaste, it doesn’t take them 10 minutes of debating whitening vs. tartar control  - they buy the only brand of toothpaste that is carried, there’s only one. It sounds small, but having the people we spoke to complain that the soap itches their skin and they had no other options, was really eye opening. It made me wonder what would happen if we brought the average Cuban to Target?  

Even with the restrictions on everything from food to medication to basic toiletries, the Cuban people are happy, content, warm and giving. Our group had the pleasure of interacting closely with a group of young people in the Jewish community and in many ways they are just like us.  They are in college and are young professionals.  They are getting married and determining how they want to incorporate Judaism into their adult lives. 

But unlike a typical American Jewish Community, they are the leaders of the community. These young people led Shabbat services.  They went door to door to invite people to rejoin the Jewish community. (Cubans were not granted freedom of religion by the government until 1992 and even then, most did not embrace the change for many years.)  These young people are the ones keeping the Jewish community alive and thriving. In America, it is so often our parents’ generation who are the driving force behind keeping Judaism alive; in Cuba, it’s the exact opposite. These young people are bringing their parents to the synagogue!

I was endlessly impressed by these young people. Their passion and drive is incredible.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in everyday American life, and was such a privilege to be able to see this parallel society first hand.  This post in no way does this community and the general Cuban society justice.  Go see it yourself.   JDC Entwine’s trip provides such intimate experiences that traveling as a tourist would never cover. As an avid traveler who has spent the last few years seeing as much of this world as possible, I could not recommend this trip more whole heartedly.

 

 

Delving Deeper

Posted: October 23, 2012

After about a month working with the same amazing women at Baby Help, I have found a little bit more out about the Jewish community that I would like to share.

The community itself, reminds me a lot more of the US Jewish community than I expected, and of course more than any other I've encountered in the world.  I volunteered with the JDC on a short-term service trip to Ukraine my sophomore year of college and found the Jewish population to be what I expected. Slightly hidden, tryig to stay unified, and also trying to figure out it's role in the post -Soviet era.  All of these sentiments are understandable, and oddly go hand in hand with the sense I get from other Jews/Jewish communities throughout Europe that I have been in contact with.  There are reasons for this of course. The proximity in time and geography to WWII Germany no doubt still harps on the minds of European Jews.  They seem to have as yet not become as comfortable with their religious identity as US Jews, or as I recently discovered, as Argentine Jews have.

Maybe it is the distance, maybe it is the laid back culture, but the openness and informality of Judaisim in Argentina does certainly remind me of the US, or at least NYC where I grew up.  And, I might add, it is quite refreshing to finally see another country with this attitude.  

I spoke with some of my colleagues and they too had grandparents and greatgrandparents who fled from Poland and Russia towards the beginging to the 20th century, as I and many of my friends in the US have.  As it was when I was growing up, there are various degrees of observance, with the trend, as is my experience in the US, towards reform.  (Here I feel it is even more so because they are a minority, in a more Christian/Catholic country I guess).  Yet as it is near Brighton Beach and other parts of Brooklyn, in the Once barrio of Buenos Aires, you can find multitudes of Orthodox Jews, living, it seems, peacefully in their city.  Even on my plane ride down there were a few orthodox families.  

While it is refreshing to see this, and very interesting to see that despite the distance, NYC and BA Jewish communities have followed on a similar trajectory, there still is that question about the future many Jewish communities around the world ask themselves.  What role will religion play for these communities in the future? Why is reform Judaism and lack of observance on the rise? and is it a bad thing as long as the culture and memory is preserved? These are questions I often ask myself, but they are also questions that will be asked at the 12th summit for Jewish Organizations and Leaders held in 2 weeks in Quito, Ecuador.  I will be attending, and I hope to shed some light on these questions afterwards.  But before then, I will attempt to delve deaper to share what Judaism seems to mean for my colleagues and other Argentine Jews I have met thus far.

 

 

What I've Learned About Eastern European Jewry After Two Weeks

Posted: October 16, 2012

October 11, 2012

Today, I went to the Holocaust museum in Kharkov, Ukraine. The Jewish population here, before the war, was about 150,000. Now, the highest estimate of people with a Jewish grandparent is 50,000. Jews were moved to a ghetto in 1941 but believed they were going to live. They brought with them everyday materials; cutlery, plates, prayer shawls but were eventually slaughtered at a ravine called Drobitsky Yar just within the city limits.

But this is not a story of the Shoah that I want to share. No, this is not even a story of death and dying or of a community that is no longer with us. This is a story about perseverance, life and living.

I’ve heard so often throughout my life about how after being at the brink of annihilation Jews have rebuilt themselves to become a new nation. We’ve created new institutions throughout the world, moved old ones, and re-found our essence in the establishment of the State of Israel. But many of us have forgotten about Jews who remain in Eastern Europe. More and more Jews every year go through the concentration camps, and visit the horrors of the Shoah. There are more trips to Eastern Europe through Jewish organizations then one could have fathomed just a short fifteen to twenty years ago. We take pictures of monuments that memorialize those Jews that perished. We enter synagogues that have not felt the presence of Jews since the Aktzia that gathered them together before they were burned, shot or sent to an extermination camp. Rarely do we ponder, are there Jews left in these places? What do they do? Do they live actively Jewish lives? Are they proud of their heritage?

I’ve only been here for two weeks but this is not the Ukraine or the Eastern Europe your bubbe and zaide remember. Jewish life exists here. In Kharkov, there are two Jewish Community Centers, an active synagogue, two Jewish day schools, a vibrant Hillel, Jewish youth clubs, an Israeli cultural center and much more. They are centered at reviving Jewish life, giving options for how to live Jewishly, offering assistance to the needy, and programming of all varieties to Jews of all ages. Jews are in business running some of the most successful restaurants and stores, in education working hard to ensure continued Jewish pride, and in politics like the mayor of Kharkov.

When studying Eastern European Jewry it is impossible to ignore the six brutally painful years of the Shoah, but we so often forget about how Jews lived in this region for hundreds of years, had good times, and had some not so good times. They celebrated the beginning of life, and each milestone they reached, and sadly mourned the deaths of loves ones too. Just like Jews lived here then, they are living here now. Next time you think about or travel to Eastern Europe do not only think of the Shoah, but think about and say hi to your cousins that are here and are actively proud Jews. 

 

 

First Impressions of Judaism in Argentina

Posted: October 10, 2012

I've been here for almost 3 weeks now, and for a little over half that time, I have been in various Jewish centered places. Where I work for starters, caters to the needs of children, families and elderly Jews alike.  There is an Israeli hostel, created by a wealthy man who wanted to make sure Jews and Israeli's visiting Buenos Aires would have a place to go during the holidays. And finally, I went to see Hebraica, a Jewish community center, that at times resembles a typical Argentine fútbol club as it has many sports teams and other competitive options for the adolescents involved there.

What struck me most initially was just how many Jews there seem to be in BA.  The place I work at and Hebraica are huge buildings, employing a good number of people.  The individuals I met at the Israeli hostel came from all over the country and world.  Even walking down the street I sometimes see stores with names such as Lajaim (pronounced L'chaim). The community here strikes me as vast, and maybe due to their numbers or the laid back culture here, it seems to be a relatively casual thing to be a Jew in Argentina.  

What I mean to say is this. When I go to Europe or any another country or city really besides NYC, USA where I am from, I am quite obviously in the minority, and at times I don't really like to share that I am Jewish.  I don't think that in this day and age people tend to be anti-Semitic, but especially in some European countries, you never really know how people will react to your being Jewish.  Here, on the other hand, I'm not really worried about people’s reactions when finding out, and in fact I'm the one who seems surprised to meet another fellow Jew. 

A prime example of this is from work the other day, when I was chatting with a coworker as we were helping to set up a little event for the kids at Baby Help to teach them about Rosh Hashanah.  I assumed my coworker was Jewish, and wanted to find out more about her family history.  She soon told me she was not, but added that she kind of wished she were.  She thought that our culture and history was very interesting, and the stories told on our holidays very beautiful and moving.  I asked her if everyone else thought that way, after all there was a bombing here only a few years ago, which made it necessary to have barricades in front of all Jewish buildings.

She said that for her part, she really thought that people here respect each other's beliefs, religion included.  This made me very happy to say the least, and made me understand even further how the Jewish community was really able to grow and solidify itself here. 

 

 

A Sukkah Crawl in Shanghai

Posted: October 10, 2012

For the past 13 months, I've served as a JSC Fellow in Shanghai.

This year, Sukkot and the Chinese October holiday fell at the same time, giving us the opportunity to do something doubly meaningful. Succoth and the Mid-Autumn Festival have a few things in common, and it allowed us to organize content-filled and meaningful activities.

The first of these events was a Sukkah-Crawl, following the long and beautiful tradition of ushpizin during Succoth. In what turned out to be a revolutionary, first-ever occasion, I set up an afternoon of visiting five different succot across the city and across the wide spectrum of the community. We were a group of about ten Jews, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties (though a few young children joined for parts of the event). The first two of these were private succot, in the homes of liberal, mixed-marriage families in the French Concession. We spent about 45 minutes in each one, eating snacks (including halva cookies I made for the event) and chatting. We walked from one to the other, which gave a neighborhood feeling to the occasion, a rare experience in huge, bustling Shanghai. 

We then took taxis to the Hogqiao area, where we visited the Sepharadic Center and then went to their succah. Many members of the group had never been in to this center, and it was a pleasant experience. We sat with the rabbi and his wife and daughter, had home-made pastries and learned about the four species and the meaning of Sukkot. We then walked to the Shanghai Jewish Center  for the big finale: a sushi dinner. The rabbi and I had coordinated the event so that it would coincide with his sushi night. It was a nice ending, having sushi dinner all together in the big community succah.

The trip to the farm is something that came together thanks to Rebecca Kanthor. In the days leading up to it, it became extremely popular among families, and in the end we had 45 people, including 18 children (15 of whom were under the age of 6), and about 7 single young professionals. This organic farm was on Chongming Island, about an hour and a half from Shanghai, though with the holiday traffic that time was doubled. Their primary products are wheat and bean, and so they sell all kinds of flour, soy sauce, bean paste and black sesame, among other things.

Upon arrival, we made vegetarian dumplings and pita, and had a delicious organic and local vegetarian lunch, complemented by hummus and pesto. Then we took a walk of the farm and around the village, and picked some beans. The kids got to run around in nature and chalk the sidewalk with fat neon-colored chalk I had brought along. The adults got to chat and eat some healthy, delicious food. Then we walked around country roads rimmed with wild cotton plants, wearing big straw hats.

 

 

Sukkot in Tallinn

Posted: October 8, 2012

I sit here writing from a coffee shop, or “khovi pood” in the center of Tallinn, Estonia. Beyond the window are modern skyscrapers, colorful trams, and a skyline of medieval buildings from the Old Town. Oh, and Sting is playing in the background.

It’s Monday, October 8th, 2012, Sukkot’s just ended and Simchat Torah is quickly approaching. I’m entering my third week in the field, and I can tell you already that it’s really easy to feel welcome in both the Estonian Jewish Community and Tallinn in general.  

I spent the end of the week with Joey Eisman, the JSC Fellow based in Riga, Latvia. He came in town to join forces and plan a Sukkot program for the Estonian teens. Joey’s been in the field for a year now, so my primary goal was to take a step back and watch an experienced Fellow in action. His passion for Judaism is remarkable and contagious, and from what I observed, the teens are really receptive and are keen to learn as much as possible.

Before the teens arrived, we built a Tent-Sukkah in the youth room of the JCC; lime-green couch cushions on the floor, sheets draped from the ceiling, graffiti signs with Sukkot facts in Hebrew and Russian, and tri-colored spot lights to give a funky lighting effect. The idea was to make an inclusive, fun space in an area that is designated just for them. While there was a beautiful Sukkah outside next to the local Synagogue, the youth room is their space and we wanted to embrace it with them.

Ice-breakers were broken into; junk food Sukkah’s with nutella serving as the glue were made, judged and eaten; Sukkot songs were created and sung; an engaging conversation on the purpose of Sukkot was led by Joey; the Lulav and Etrog were shaken; and Shabbat was welcomed with Fanta as wine, candle lighting, and passing around challot.

My favorite part of the evening occurred post-program, when the teens stayed put and didn’t rush to the exit doors. Israeli music blared from the speakers, and about 15 kids grabbed each other’s hands to make a circle. I sat on the windowsill and watched them interact together; in no time they asked, “Jenya would you like to join us?” How could I resist.

I was holding the hands of Estonian youth, underneath a Sukkah with Israeli music playing in the background. I felt something deeper than what I was seeing and hearing; I felt home, community, and a sense of shared understanding. We may not speak the same language or be from the same country, but we can hold hands and dance to Israeli music, say the prayer over the Lulav, and smile at one another because our Judaism forever links us together.

I told myself that night to always remember that feeling, to hold it close and never allow myself to forget it.

 

 

A typical day as a JSC multi-week volunteer in Buenos Aires :)

Posted: October 6, 2012

Now that I've completed 4 full days of work, I can tell you a bit about what it's like.

I am set to work Tuesday to Friday, 10:30 ish until 4 ish at JDC's Baby Help center in the Chacaritas barrio of Buenos Aires.  Since a lot of holidays are coming up, it's easier for me to not work on Monday's since I'd probably have them off anyway.

Usually, I'll wake up at around 9, get ready, prepare myself some lunch to take with me, and walk about a block north to catch the 39 collectivo (bus) to take until the last last stop of its route... the bus depot actually. The center I work at is just across the street from there. 

Catching the bus can be a little tricky and sometimes really annoying actually. Unlike in NYC, you have to stick out your hand and hail a bus. This works well, and keeps congestion down a bit I think.. Unless the bus you want is in the outside lane and can't see you because a car is blocking it's view, or doesn't feel like maneuvering in in time, causing you to "miss your bus" and be a bit later than you wanted. Grr.... The "metrocard" they use here is called a Sube. Unlike other cities I've been to, it's personalized for everyone. I had to bring my actual passport, not just a photocopy, in order to get one. From there it's rechargeable.  When you get on the bus, you can either tell them where you're going and they tell you how much you're going to pay... or you can just tell them $1.10 or $1.25, the average amount for a ride without too much fussing. The metro is more straight forward.. no hailing trains down :) and it's $2.25 without having to check out with your Sube as you have to do in DC or Paris.

Once I get to work, I am almost always with the 6 mo. to 2yr. olds, and only a couple of times, when they needed more people, or if someone was really shy or misbehaving, did I watch some 2yr. and up year olds.  When I arrived with Katina on my first day, I didn't really have a preference about what I was going to do.  Since they have anywhere from two to four 6 mo. olds who need to be carried and feed them, and only have two adults who work there normally, my extra hands were definitely most useful there. Although I don't really get to practice my spanish with some little ones, who have a similar level of spanish to me (haha) I get to talk with my co workers a bit, who are really great and friendly.

Every day is something different with the kids, but usually is playing until lunch at 12, nap time right after at about 1, until about 2:30ish some more playing or some sort of activity, and then snack time, after which the parents start trickling in. During the nap time I'll eat and they help if they need things set up, or help with some really young babies- there are only one or two.

On Fridays, since it is a jewish center, the kids learn about different holidays and do a little Shabbat snack time.  This aspect is super cool for me to see. Although not everyone who works there is jewish, it's really awesome for me to see all these little kids who are jewish learning about the culture and religion.  In addition, the more I'm down here in BA, I'm really amazed at how the whole jewish community comes together, and is in fact really quite large.  It's always been interesting for me to see and meet jews from different countries, and it never stops surprising me how much of a global community there really is.  This doesn't mean that everyone is super religious or observant by any means, but we know that we have something in common, which is not always the case when traveling far and wide. I'm excited to get to know and share more about the community while I'm here, as well as more details about how Baby Help works, who's involved, and what that's like in the context of living in Argentina.

If you want to see more about my life in Buenos Aires apart from my work at the Baby Help center check out my blog at roamingreebs.blogspot.com 

 

 

¡Viva Los Jewbanos!

Posted: September 20, 2012

Viva la revolución,” “the motherland is humanity,” and “socialism or death” - these were some of the billboard slogans that welcomed our Jewish American humanitarian group to Havana in August 2012.

Our shorts and T-shirt-clad twenty and thirty something's managed to get through Cuban customs and were on our way to meet Havana’s Jewish community. As emissaries of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), we were a group of 27 Diaspora Jews fortunate to participate in JDC Entwine’s young professional trip to Havana.

About 1,500 Jews live in Cuba today compared to about 15,000 in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution.

In our five days in Havana, we traveled to each of the three Jewish religious establishments - the Orthodox shul called Adath Israel, the Sephardic center, and the Patronato or Beit Shalom, effectively the JCC of Havana - and the Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery, ironically called "Beit Ha-Chaim" or house of life.

As part of our trip to Cuba,  we brought toiletries and medicines for the JDC-supported pharmacy on the second floor of the Patronato, where Dr. Behar, one of three doctors who help keep the pharmacy up and running, explained that each month JDC employees, Argentinean-born Alejandra and Luciano, compile a list of the most-needed medical supplies which JDC’s New York City based professionals gather and bring on their bi-monthly trip to Havana.

At the pharmacy, we learned how the Cuban Jews transport the medicines to those who need them most if they are unable to pick them up at “El Patronato” due to debilitating medical conditions. Thanks to outside support from the JDC and other organizations, the Patronato has two vans that facilitate this much-needed community service.

As we learned more about this dynamic and salsa-savvy Jewish community, and got to know the Cuban Jews – endearingly called “Jewbans” in Miami – it became clear to me how central to their Cuban Jewish identity the ‘Cuban’ aspect was.

During our various meetings with members of Havana’s Jewish community, some on our trip asked about aliya: why don’t more Cubans emigrate to Israel or the US?  While about 80 individuals do make aliya from Cuba every year, we were told "am Yisrael chai b'cuba:" the nation of Israel lives in Cuba.

I imagine that, like every Jewish Diaspora community, there is a constant struggle between allegiances to your Jewish roots versus your identity as a member of your nation. The common question in the U.S. is whether one considers him or herself a Jewish American or an American Jew.

The JDC has been active in helping sustain Cuban Jewry since 1991, when Cuba changed its constitutional definition of an atheist country to a non-religious country, effectively sanctioning religious groups to travel to Cuba. The JDC seeks to facilitate Jewish life and sustain Jewish communities in more than 70 countries around the world - to enable Jews to live proudly and freely wherever they are.

In Cuba, this translates to a privileged community when one compares the Jewish population to the non-Jewish Cuban people. However, Jews still receive ration cards like everyone else, despite the perks of belonging to a synagogue and benefiting from JDC, Federations and other sources of donations. In other words, the Jewish Cubans are still limited by sparse access to the Internet, phone calls to outside Cuba, and general disconnectedness from the outside world, which is why JDC and other Jewish trips to Cuba are so important.

As Adela Dworkin, President of the Cuban Jewish community told us, "When you come here we feel that we are not isolated."

As Rosh Hashana welcomes us into the 5773rd Jewish year this week, I am reminded and thankful of the strength of Diaspora communities around the world and will always remember the trip I took with the JDC to meet the Jews of Havana. Even though they are living under a dictatorship, my Cuban hermanos (brothers and sisters) love their country just like I love mine. And though the numbers are dwindling, conversion to Judaism within Cuba remains constant because of intermarriage (which works the opposite way than in the U.S.).

With continued outside support and interest, I sincerely hope that Cuban Jewry is here to stay. As our visit with Mrs. Dworkin wrapped up, she reminded us that “this is a wonderful country and we deserve a better life.” Amen and shana tova to all of am Yisrael, from New York to Santiago and Petach Tikvah to Havana.

 

 

Rosh Hashanah in Mumbai, India

Posted: September 11, 2012

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I'm reminded of my experience ringing in 5772 in Mumbai last year.

Many of the community's 4,500 Jews attended Rosh Hashanah services at the various synagogues around the city. I chose to attend services at the Jewish Religious Union, which are held at the JDC-supported Evelyn Peters JCC in Mumbai. These services - as far as I know, the only formal services for Reform Jews in India - are led by rabbis brought in by JRU from abroad.

The community members were very warm and welcoming, a comfort at my first large-scale community event and during my first holiday spent away from home. I even ate Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at the JRU president's home with his entire family and the rabbis from abroad! 

On Rosh Hashanah evening, I participated in the widely popular Tashlich ceremony. Tashlich is a traditional ceremony in which the previous year’s sins are symbolically tossed away. After an entire year here, where I've seen some very well-attended programs, this remains the most highly attended event I have seen. 

What seemed like well over 1,000 community members convene at the Ferry Wharf in South Mumbai to cast away their sins. It's also a place where parents chat with one another about possible matches between their children. I've heard about quite a few couples who were set up at Tashlich!

Packed and ready to leave Mumbai, I’m especially thankful for these wonderful memories from Rosh Hashanah last year and a full year of celebrating, learning, meeting new people and traveling.

Here's to a happy, peaceful 5773! Shana Tova!

 

 

Calling All New Yorkers! Serve with Entwine in Haiti and Turkey

Posted: August 15, 2012

Live in New York? Looking for an opportunity to make a difference around the world?

JDC is excited to announce a special opportunity for New Yorkers interested in serving overseas with the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC).

A select number of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are available for New Yorkers, starting this fall, in locations including Turkey and Haiti.

To apply or receive more information, email globalservice@jdcny.org.

The Jewish Service Corps is a year-long, paid opportunity to live and work within a community served by JDC. JSC fellows are post-college young adults who create innovative programs that respond to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, and leave an impact on the global Jewish world. More on JSC here: http://jdcentwine.org/jsc

 

 

Turkey's Incredible Jewish Community

Posted: August 14, 2012

My first trip to Turkey was in 2009--alone, via an overnight train from Thessaloniki, Greece. When I stepped onto the streets of Istanbul, it was like entering a different world: bustling, crowded, dirty (in the way that's pleasant to foreigners), women wearing Muslim head coverings. 

My overwhelming feeling after that three-day jaunt was that I just had to come back. 

When I saw JDC, an organization a good friend of mine had been involved in, was offering a trip to Turkey to meet the country's Jewish community in March 2012, I jumped at the chance.

I felt that same excitement, that frenetic energy, when I arrived in Istanbul with JDC. The windy streets carve out impossible paths in the over-settled hills of the city, which has an official population of ten million, not to mention the masses of people that pour into the city from the surrounding areas every day for work. 

We started off at the Jewish school, supported by the community and the JDC, and met students who were as eager to talk to us as we were to talk to them. And throughout the days we spent in Istanbul, throughout the architectural grandeur and spice markets and seemingly bottomless historical legacy, I couldn't get enough of the people we met.

Our JDC group split up among several households for Shabbat dinner, and I went to the apartment of a couple about my parents' age. The woman heads some of the Jewish youth activity in Istanbul--and she also happens to be the best cook in Istanbul. She had invited some of the high school- and college-aged students we'd met earlier in the week. 

They spoke to us candidly about the issues that face Turkish Jewish youth, specifically the future of the community, and how they sometimes struggle being a minority of 25,000 people in a country of 70 million. These were sentiments we'd heard from adult leaders of the community as well. Even though the Shabbat dinner was punctuated by these pronouncements, we also were able to hear about the successes and dreams of Turkish Jews, and share our own experiences of Jewish life--and, well, just *life*--in the United States.

 

The trip reinforced the feeling of connectedness to the global Jewish community--the idea that we are responsible for one another, and everyone draws strength, love, and meaning from a supportive community or partnership. The Turkish Jewish community does not, on the whole, struggle financially. But they do struggle with how to maintain their identity, how to create a lasting community that will maintain their history and culture.

In many ways, it's not unlike the American Jewish community, but perhaps with more urgent circumstances.

If you're in Boston, I hope you'll come out to Inside Jewish Turkey for an at-home glimpse of what this community is really like: the people, the culture, the vibrancy, and the reality of their situation. 

Inside Jewish Turkey | Boston, MA | 7:00-9:30pm | The Brahmin, 33 Stanhope St.

 

 

 

Education in Haiti: Seeking New Models of Sustainability

Posted: August 10, 2012

PORT AU PRINCE | In November 2011 I joined a JDC Entwine young professionals group in their service trip to Ethiopia. There, I gained exposure to JDC’s non-sectarian programs, commonly referred to as JDC’s International Development Programs (IDP.)

We traveled to remote rural areas, met with locals who live in poor conditions, and witnessed – even participated in - the important work JDC is doing around the country.

This experience strengthened my appetite to continuing my exploration of the Jewish concept of 'Tikkun Olam' (repairing the world) and its application in JDC.

Following this experience, I spent extensive, meaningful time working with Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine, and worked a brief period in Israel. Working with these communities taught me a lot about the ‘true’ meaning of Jewish peoplehood: a feeling of mutual responsibility, with Jews helping each other and addressing the challenges of daily life.

In June, an opportunity arose for me to come to Haiti and be part of JDC’s efforts to address current humanitarian challenges in this country. JDC has been working in Haiti over the past two and a half years, having hit the ground running just a few days after the January 2010 earthquake, responding to emergency needs. JDC has implemented a number of projects all over Haiti, working with international and local organizations on issues related to health, clean water, education, economic development and more.

My main mission here has been working with ProDev – a local NGO specializing in education and capacity building – and one of JDC’s largest partners in Haiti. I have been trying to identify ways for ProDev to implement long-lasting sustainable strategies, as well as working with the community in the village of Renaissance, commonly referred to as Zoranje, where JDC and ProDev have partnered together to build a state of the art school complex. Zoranje is also my home while in Haiti. More on this school in a bit.

In a country where less than half of the school-aged children are enrolled in primary school, where seventy-five percent of teachers lack adequate training, and where the adult literacy rate is just over fifty percent, high quality education is the key for the advancement of Haiti in the fields of human, social and economic development.   

Upon his election to the presidency a year ago, President Michael Martelly came out with the announcement of a five-year strategic plan for the educational system in an attempt to address these challenges. His plan offers free education for primary school students (Grades 1-6), aiming to enroll 1.5 million students in school by the year 2016.

While trying to follow this vision, the Haitian government as a whole is attempting to rebuild its infrastructure. This earthquake caused damage or destruction to fifty percent of primary and secondary schools.  In the past two and a half years, considerable amounts of money have been pumped into Haiti by NGOs, international development organizations and agencies, and for-profit entities which have played a significant role in the reconstruction and building process.

Overall, ninety percent of Haitian schools are not public, but rather are run by churches, NGOs, and for-profit entities. This was the case even before the earthquake; the percentage has only grown.

Seeing an opportunity to improve education in Haiti, ProDev’s mission is to provide management, expertise, curriculum and vision necessary to create and sustain a network of high standard schools across the country. This is of great importance. ProDev’s strategy aims to create a number of hub schools that will serve as a model which the Haitian government could later adapt and implement on a national level. In an ideal world, this has the makings of a unified national education system.

One of ProDev’s most successful models is Ecole Nouvell Zoranje, situated in village Renascence at the Croix des Bouquet district, thirty minutes outside of Port au Prince. Launched in fall 2010 in partnership with JDC, this community-based school serves the village population estimated at five thousand people. It is now attended by over 500 kindergarten, primary, and middle school students – and employs 57 Zoranje residents. 

The community based school - or as I would say, “school based community” - serves as a great example of how the establishment of high quality educational infrastructure in a small undeveloped community creates social and economic impact.

Furthermore, the school is linked to a community center, providing an additional place for social and cultural activities and further learning for children, youth, and adults.

I have seen first-hand the impact of this facility on the residents of this community. It is the hope of ProDev and JDC that this model can be replicated throughout the country.

On a personal note, I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to Haiti. Life in Zoranje is quite different from what we are used to in the Western world. Living here in such basic conditions teaches a person lessons about life and encourages one to appreciate the simple things in life that are usually taken for granted, such as food, water, clothing and shelter. It also teaches you to put things in perspective, knowing that for you it is just a passing experience and for them it is an everyday struggle and their daily reality.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

As Haiti is my last stop in my yearlong fellowship, I would like to thank the JDC and the Entwine family for enabling me to be part of this amazing journey of the Jewish world.

I can't stress enough how rewarding this year has been, both professionally and personally. It's gratifying to know that I could contribute in some way to the amazing work JDC is doing but mostly I feel so lucky to have learned so much this year. I'll be taking many lessons, experiences, and new friends with me.

I would like also to express my special appreciation and thanks to Ralph I. Goldman, a person who has inspired me. You are every inch a symbol of the meaning of Jewish leadership and what JDC is all about. It was a privilege to spend time with you Ralph.

 

 

 

L'Dor VaDor and Painting at the Tel Aviv School

Posted: August 8, 2012

We're busy! Here are photos from the JDC-supported old-age home, L'Dor VaDor:

And here we are painting at the JDC-supported Tel Aviv school:

More pictures to come!

 

 

¡Hola from Argentina!