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Around the Jewish World As War-ravaged Kosovo Rebuilds, JDC Finds Itself Playing a Major Role

April 23, 2003
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The topic of today’s lesson in "Literature and Psychology" is Nikolai Gogol’s "Diary of a Madman."

"How can the madman in the story actually think he is reading letters written by dogs?" a student asks.

In a New York-inflected rasp, Professor Les Rabkin explains that it’s part of the character’s psychosis.

It’s only as the chill air sneaks into class and the generators rumble to life, signaling another power cut, that the fantasy of being in an American college class dissipates.

We are at the University of Prishtina in Kosovo, and the professor is here as part of a project sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The school is among many projects that the JDC has undertaken to restore the physical and human resources of Kosovo’s educational system.

The JDC, an international Jewish relief organization, began work in Kosovo in June 1999, shortly after NATO bombs had cowed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into ending his "ethnic cleansing" campaign against the majority population of Albanians and withdrawing his army from Kosovo.

The JDC’s first mission in Kosovo was to rescue the handful of Jews in Prishtina, but of course a colossal humanitarian imperative presented itself as well.

News of Milosevic’s misdeeds in Kosovo — as many as 18,000 people were killed and 750,000 displaced, according to estimates — touched a raw nerve across the American Jewish community. "Never again" seemed to be the collective response as the JDC collected some $5 million in a special mailbox campaign to aid the region.

Those specially earmarked funds allowed the group to undertake an array of humanitarian projects.

But now, with those funds running out and life in Kosovo steadily normalizing, JDC is scaling back its activities.

In the four years JDC has been here, the small staff — two sabras and a British-born Israeli — has played a critical role in reconstructing and equipping the territory’s schools, providing computer and vocational education and supporting projects aimed at fostering coexistence among Kosovo’s religious and ethnic communities.

Eli Eliezri, the JDC’s main representative in Kosovo, came here by way of Bosnia, where, as the JDC’s representative during the earlier Yugoslav war, he helped negotiate the evacuation of Jews from Sarajevo.

He first arrived in Kosovo in June 1999.

"We did an assessment and decided that the greatest priority for that time was getting the children back to school," Eliezri says.

Working directly with local builders, Eliezri rebuilt walls, repaired broken windows and replaced doors.

In a postwar environment rife with nongovernmental organizations flush with noble intentions but short on practical achievements, the JDC’s efforts were so successful that UNICEF asked the group to take on the reconstruction of all of Prishtina’s schools.

Eventually the JDC would repair and renovate 40 public schools across Kosovo.

The organization’s symbol, a menorah, is a familiar image on dedication plaques in front of schools, as well as on the backpacks — donated along with other school supplies — toted by children in Kosovo’s towns and cities.

To close the educational gaps between Kosovo and the developed world, the JDC has supplied computer labs and set up free English and computer classes taught by local teachers.

The classes were organized in cooperation with ORT, the global vocational training program that shares an office with the JDC here.

These days, ORT is really just one man — Aryeh Kurakin, a large, affable fellow with silvery white hair and mustache. He worked as an engineer for the Israeli shipping firm Zim, and taught welding and related skills for more than 30 years at a nautical school.

In addition to computer and English classes, Kurakin established and taught welding classes eight hours a day.

With some of the territory’s most desperate needs tended to, the JDC turned its efforts toward bridging some of Kosovo’s ethnic and religious rifts.

The group lent its support, along with the Catholic Church and Kosovo’s Islamic community, to the restoration of a mosque that had been bombed during the war.

The Shiponje mosque was one of more than 200 deliberately targeted by Serb forces, a testament to the scale of Milosevic’s ambitions in changing the cultural identity of Kosovo.

Religious figures from the three communities stood on the podium together with hands joined at the mosque dedication, an event attended by many luminaries, including Ambassador John Menzies, the former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Kosovo.

The ceremony took place on Sept. 7, 2001. Before news had reached the outside world of this novel effort to heal sectarian wounds, it was overshadowed by another event a few days later aimed at blowing them wide open.

For what will probably be the JDC’s final large effort in Kosovo, the group has directed its attention to the country’s most severe ethnic-religious divide, the one between the Serbs who have remained or returned to Kosovo — some 200,000 became refugees after the NATO campaign — and Albanians.

The JDC is supporting the Multiethnic Children and Youth Peace Center in Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo, divided by a river into Serbian and Albanian sections.

Operating under the philosophy that coexistence must be fostered while people are young, the center runs a day-care center for children off all ethnicities, including other Kosovar minorities such as Bosnians and Roma, or Gypsies.

The center publishes a youth magazine and produces a radio program, written by Serbians and Albanians under the tutelage of trained journalists.

Its operations will expand dramatically when it moves into a massive community center close to one of the main bridges dividing the town. It is in facilitating this move that the JDC has played its most vital role, say observers.

Once the peace center’s director, Miranda Buchman, enlisted Eliezri’s support, the JDC representative rolled up his sleeves and managed to get a deal signed with municipal authorities for use of the space. His group also is funding the renovation and equipping the center with computers.

One JDC project, the psychology department project at the University of Prishtina where Rabkin teaches, was the brainchild of American-born Israeli Moshe Lantsman, a psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University.

Lantsman had been volunteering in Kosovo after the war and came to the realization that there was an acute lack of trained counselors and psychologists, since the University of Prishtina, Kosovo’s only university, had no psychology department.

After negotiating the funding and navigating the university’s ossified bureaucracy, Lantsman launched the psychology program in the fall of 2001, with major assistance from the JDC.

Lantsman makes frequent trips to Kosovo from Israel to oversee the program and also to teach courses. He is a recognizable person about town, being the only man in Prishtina wearing a yarmulke — and a rainbow one, at that.

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