Local Leaders Take Part in JFNA Mission to Berlin and Budapest
L to R: Rabbi Daniel Septimus, Heilla Lain, Dan Kraus, Jill May
By Heilla Lain
In an article in The Atlantic in April 2015, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” We have all read articles and heard news reports about rising anti-Semitism and acts of violence against Jews around the globe. Some experts say that the rising numbers of immigrants from mostly Muslim countries into Europe is a part of the problem. Other experts simply see a rise in the “alt-right” (a euphemism for right-wing fascists) across Europe as the issue. In fact, just this past week, a draft decree initiated in the state of Lower Austria would require Jews to register to purchase kosher meat. The cabinet minister defending the decree argued that the plan is based on animal welfare concerns. The Austrian ambassador to Israel has assured us that the decree will not pass, but we can palpably feel the thinly veiled anti-Semitism behind such government proposals.
It is in this climate that I recently attended the Jewish Federation of North America’s FRD Leadership Mission in Berlin and Budapest the week of July 13. I am a voracious reader who devours the pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other major news sources for any news about Israel and world Jewry. Based on my reading, I had assumed that Jewish life in Europe was on the decline. When our family traveled to Israel in December 2015 for our daughter’s bat mitzvah, I noted hearing more French in the streets than ever before and assumed that French Jews were coming in droves to Israel due to rising French anti-Semitism. After a week split between Berlin and Budapest, I now know that the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe are not only still there, but are thriving thanks to money raised right here in Austin through the Shalom Austin Annual Campaign.
In Berlin we attended Shabbat services at the historic Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue. The synagogue is simply gorgeous and was filled with Germans, immigrants from other European countries and Israelis living in Berlin. It felt incredible to welcome Shabbat according to the old Lewansowski service. I was moved to tears imagining how shocked my “Babi” (Babushka, my mother’s mother, a Holocaust survivor) would be learning that her granddaughter was in a German synagogue in 2018.
At the Offices of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation later in the week we met with an incredible panel of young Jewish professionals from across Germany, Central Europe and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) to learn about how the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) contribute to Jewish community building throughout those regions. There we met Betty, an Ethiopian Jew born and raised in Ukraine who participated in multiple Jewish Agency programs and is now an active member of her Ukrainian Jewish community. We also heard from Agata who had little to no Jewish upbringing. Through her involvement with JDC, Agata began an educational journey which transformed her from a teen who happened to be Jewish, to a full embrace of her Jewish roots—she is now director of the JCC of Warsaw where she focuses on attracting unaffiliated families to the JCC’s doors.
As our group of 130 professionals and lay leaders moved to Budapest, we experienced first-hand the vibrant Jewish community there. At the Israeli Cultural Institute, we heard about their Intergenerational Program (a partnership between JAFI and JDC) which brings together three generations of Hungarian Jews: young adult alumni of Taglit (Birthright), elderly Holocaust survivors and the survivors’ children who were born during the communist era and grew up largely unaware of their Jewish heritage. The members of this special group meet monthly for a year and engage together in programming designed to help the youth understand the events before, during and after the Holocaust. The program culminates in a shared trip to Israel, which for the Holocaust survivors is often their first time to Israel. As noted by Tomi Buchler, an ICI Professional born and raised in Budapest, “Israel is the key to building proud Jews in Europe. Our people’s history is very important, but our recent history in this region is tragic – and today we still fight anti-Semitism. Our past tragedies are not the basis to grow a strong Jewish future in the region. Israel gives us a language, a land and a people. Connection to Israel is critical here because it gives us the strength and confidence to be proud Jews—to build a Jewish future.”
Our time in Budapest closed on an immensely high note with our day spent at Szarvas International Jewish Summer Camp. Located about two hours from Budapest, Camp Szarvas has introduced over 25,000 young Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU to Jewish culture and tradition over the last 28 years. There I sat with a group of 17-year-olds from Madrid, Belgrade and Tel Aviv who travel there for 12 days every summer to have the Jewish sleep-away camp experience that many of our own children look forward to every summer. Szarvas is funded by the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and has transformed thousands of young Jews around the globe into leaders in their local Jewish communities. Almost all of the professionals we met in Berlin and Budapest attended Szarvas as children. We can clearly see that participation in Jewish activities like Camp Szarvas drives these kids to be adults who take on leadership roles back home that help strengthen the Jewish future in Europe and beyond.
None of these programs can help continue to build a strong Jewish future in Europe and the FSU without our Austin Jewish Federation dollars. As part of the Annual Campaign, a portion of every donation is sent to our overseas program partners (JAFI and JDC) that directly funds these important programs. It was an honor and privilege to experience first-hand how our local dollars are helping the Jews of Europe and the FSU lead a more vibrant Jewish life filled with a sense of community, love of Israel and education which produces an embracing of culture and tradition. ■