By Nancy K. Kaufman, Executive Director
I recently returned from a journey that was bookended by our work in Israel and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, but allowed me to take vacation time in Israel and Eastern Europe. I did not realize at the outset what a profound experience it would be to start my journey in Israel, which exemplifies the strength of the Jewish people now and in the future; travel to Eastern Europe, scene of the physical and spiritual destruction of a thriving Jewish community; and end in Dnep ropetrovsk, where Jewish life has been rebuilt for the first time in a generation.
I’ve been to Israel more than 30 times. This particular trip was different because besides working on our social justice projects – integrating Ethiopians into Israeli society and strengthening civil society with Haifa as a model – I got to stay and “play” with friends and family for more than a week.
Haifa brims with passionate discussion of politics and life. Arabs and Jews live side by side, and hundreds of Ethiopian families are trying to take part fully in civic life. Here Mulu Bahran, director of the Shiluvim Project for the municipality, told me about how when she was 7 her family walked for weeks through Sudan to “come to the promised land” and pray in Jerusalem.
What struck me most in Haifa was the depth of the relationships forged through the Haifa-Boston Connection, a Combined Jewish Philanthropies initiative begun 18 years ago. Singing karaoke in Binyamina, planting trees at a community center in West Haifa, delivering books to the Gavrielli School and eating falafel on the beach, the Boston and Haifa partners combined work and fun.
Leaving the “work” behind in Haifa, I spent “quality” time with friends and family in Ranana. How wonderful it was to have a week where the biggest decision was selecting a café for meeting friends and catching up on the local talk about the latest political tiff – which happened to be Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated visit. While the diplomatic drama played out in the American and Israeli media, most Israelis I encountered were more concerned about preparing for Pesach, and the words I heard most were: “Chag Sameach!”
Experiencing the everyday rhythm of Israeli life made me appreciate all the more the modern-day miracle the nation really is. Despite the political ups and downs, this is an amazing country with so much history and so much innovation, culture and love of life. It is a country I love and feel very much at home in, and I continue to ponder why so many American Jews have never been there.
I kept thinking about the vibrancy of Israel as I traveled next to Eastern Europe, where a centuries-old Jewish community was systematically destroyed in just a few years. The churches and castles are spectacular, as are the food and the music – but the Jewish people are all but gone. A trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest is an important part of our Jewish past, but it does not say much about our Jewish future.
In the Jewish Quarter in Prague, centered around the Old Jewish Town Hall, we participated in two seders. Synagogues remain, but are sparsely attended, even on holidays. An hour’s drive away is Terezin, the concentration camp the Nazis displayed to the Red Cross as a showcase of how well the Jews were being treated and how “work would make them free” (Arbeit Macht Frei). It is a chilling experience to walk the path of those who were sent there as the last stop before extermination at Auschwitz.
I said Yizkor for my parents at the synagogue in Vienna (built in 1824 and almost completely destroyed during World War II) and felt a chill as the cantor chanted El Maley Rachamin. I realized I was there to remember not only my own loved ones, but also the millions who once lived and thrived in Europe and have no one to say kaddish for them. As I left the synagogue and walked through the former Jewish Quarter, I thought of all the books that might have been written, the music that might have been composed, the cures for diseases that might have been discovered, and the children that might have been born.
And then I left Vienna and arrived in Dnepropetrovsk, where the Jewish community of Boston has been an integral part of rebuilding Jewish life in partnership with Rabbi Kaminezki and the Jewish Community of Dnepropetrovsk. After all the pogroms, the Nazi occ upation, Stalin and commu- nism, it is hard to conceive that this has become a thriving Jewish community. The day school is the largest in Eastern Europe, and the synagogue is too cramped even for Shabbat attendance, let alone the Pesach community seder that drew more than 500 people.
My trip ended as it began, with important work with wonderful partners who are building a future for generations to come. I felt I had come full circle: From the thriving modern state of Israel, through what once was a glorious culture in Eastern Europe and forward to a Diaspora community in Ukraine that had been renewed and revitalized. The journey reaffirmed my belief in our ability to survive and thrive despite the many obstacles that have been placed in our paths throughout our long Jewish history.