Rekindling Jewish Life in Eastern Europe

Rekindling Jewish Life in Eastern Europe

I’ve just returned from a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA, fka United Jewish Communities, UJC) mission to Hungary and Israel. This mission was for lay leaders and professional staff from Federations around the country as a kick-off for their 2011 community campaigns. I traveled with Karen Golan Simpson, our recently hired Boulder professional, Elaine Asarch, the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado (AJF) 2011 Campaign Chair, and Lisa Soicher, AJF’s Major Donor Relations Manager.

The Colorado Contingent
l-r: Andy Franklin, Lisa Soicher, Elaine Asarch, Karen Golan Simpson

AJF conducts an annual Community Campaign each year to raise money that is used to support Jewish non-profits locally and globally, in Israel and other countries where Jewish communities exist. Locally, allocations from AJF’s unrestricted core funds support the operating budgets of the Boulder JCC, Boulder Jewish Family Services, the Anti-Defamation League, the Boulder Jewish Day School, and other institutions that support and enrich Jewish life in Boulder County.  Internationally, allocations from these unrestricted core funds support social service agencies that enable Jews to participate more fully in their communities and in Jewish life in Israel and around the world.

The mission began in Budapest where we spent four days seeing how Jewish life is being rekindled in Hungary where it was all but completely wiped out right at the end of WWII and then by the communist regime that followed. The story of the elimination of Jews in Hungary is a particularly sad chapter of the Holocaust. In addition to seeing a beautiful and old Eastern European city restored to its former glory after sustaining major damage during the war, we were taken to see and hear the wonderful stories of an emerging young Jewish community. This phenomenon of revitalization of Jewish identity and community in Budapest is being spurred by the work of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or “the joint”) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), two long time partners of JFNA who are effectively carrying out the mission of building and strengthening Jewish communities outside of North America. And based upon my observations during this mission, they do this work incredibly well, with great, dedicated people who are passionate about their mission.

The Holocaust Shoe Memorial
The Holocaust Shoe Memorial along the Danube in Budapest

For example, we visited the new Jewish Community Center, Balint House, where I met young Jews in their early 20s, who only learned that they were Jewish in their teens. After the Holocaust, the few Jews that remained in Budapest abandoned any connection with Judaism out of fear and suppression of religion under the Communist regime. Their parents and grandparents didn’t admit to being Jewish and they didn’t want their children to know they were Jewish because of the horrors Jews had recently experienced. However, as this new generation began to come of age, some were told of their Jewish roots. Others found out they were Jewish when they attended a funeral of a family member and saw a Rabbi performing the service. As these young people learned of their Jewish roots, they became curious and began asking question about their heritage. There were few answers to be found at first, but slowly, they began to connect with each other and so began the process of reestablishing Jewish life in Budapest. In one program, an exciting new birthright program, 20-something young adults are paired with holocaust survivors who have never been to Israel. The program begins with the pair engaged in a period of intensive Jewish studies and ends with them traveling to Israel together to witness and experience together the continuation of Jewish life that thrives there.

We also visited Camp Szarvas, a summer camp for teens that is creating incredible Jewish experiences for the campers who come from all over Eastern Europe. Campers come for 12-day sessions during which they have fun and are immersed in Jewish culture, many having their first Jewish experiences. During the time of our visit, the camp was conducting a family camp session where parents and children attended together for a week. These summer camp experiences are another element of the work being done in Hungary to rebuild Jewish life. But, I learned that the camp had to cut from the usual 2,000 campers accommodated each summer to only being able to host 1,000 campers this summer due to budget constraints.

It’s like the bonfire of Jewish life in Budapest that was intentionally extinguished during the holocaust and the 20 years of Communism that followed, remarkably had a few warm embers left. Through the work of the JDC and JAFI, some kindling is being put on these embers and small flames can now be seen again. I am told this rekindling of Jewish life is happening in other countries of Eastern Europe like Poland, the Ukraine, and other countries of the Former Soviet Union.

Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest
The beautifully restored Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest

If you donate to AJF’s unrestricted core funds, (such as the Flagship Fund or the Israel/Global Fund), you are helping fund this amazing work. It would be difficult for you to know all the institutions and people in faraway places that benefit from your gift. What I learned on this mission is that you can trust that your Federation gift is being used wisely, carefully, and effectively on your behalf and on behalf of our Jewish community. If you were to go on a mission to any of the places where JDC and JAFI are catalyzing Jewish life, you would feel the huge sense of pride I felt when I met the people carrying out this work and heard the stories of their successes. Our Federation deserves our trust and our gifts that enable this work to continue into the future so that our children will live in a world where the bonfire of Jewish life is burning again in Eastern Europe.

About Andy Franklin

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