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Around the Jewish World from Poland to Serbia, Young Jews Help Rebuild Shattered Communities

January 3, 2006
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An oft-told story in Central and Eastern Europe: An elderly Israeli steps off the plane and heads into downtown Warsaw. He plans to visit the two Jewish cemeteries, the Jewish Historical Institute, the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and then Auschwitz. Along the way, he somehow meets a young woman who is about to be called to the Torah for the first time at Bejt Warszawa, the Polish capital’s liberal Jewish community.

She explains how she has attended Jewish summer camps, learned Hebrew, studied the Torah, participated in Jewish leadership seminars in Israel and even started a Jewish youth group. She speaks Yiddish, lights the Sabbath candles every Friday night and prays. She only found out she was Jewish 10 years ago, not unlike many of Warsaw’s approximately 5,000 Jews.

The Israeli gapes at her in disbelief.

"But Poland is a Jewish graveyard," he says. "There are no Jews here."

Many young Jews across the former Eastern Bloc have experienced similar encounters, in one way or another.

"Being a Jew in this region is a decision, not a passive fact. You have to struggle to revive something and you have to be actively Jewish, you cannot take it for granted like in America," said Karina Sokolowska, vice director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s office in Warsaw.

Sixteen years after the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, Jewish communities nearly destroyed by Nazism, communism and emigration are still tiny.

But those who were kids when the Iron Curtain fell had the great benefit of a Jewish Marshall Plan: Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the JDC, the Lauder Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, these teens were able to discover their Jewish identity in ways that would have been unthinkable before 1989.

"For the first time, we have young adults in this country who are normal about being Jewish," Sokolowska said.

Unlike some of their counterparts in the West, many young Jewish adults in the former Eastern Bloc realize that without the commitment of every member, their communities — at least half of whose members are Holocaust survivors — might disappear forever.

The dynamic young Jews who are emerging as leaders in these communities are not about to let that happen.

All have found creative ways to engage their peers in the rebirth of Jewish life, and their work is mostly voluntary.

This new generation of Jewish leaders wants the world to know that Judaism in Warsaw and Prague, Bratislava and Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia and Belgrade, is a living, breathing organism that thrives on the oxygen of enthusiasm — their enthusiasm.

As Sokolowska puts it, "We have Americans coming to teach us about being Jewish, but someday we will send our volunteers to America."

Dorota Zielinska, 27, is like most other Jews in Warsaw: She grew up not knowing she was Jewish. She spent her childhood in Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland where the late Pope John Paul II was born.

"It’s a conservative place where being different is not easy. People would say to my mom, ‘We haven’t seen you in church lately, what’s wrong?’ " she said.

Zielinska remembers that when she was very small, her mother got permission from the Communist authorities to visit the United States.

"My grandmother said to my mom, ‘Isn’t my heritage a problem for you getting the visa?’ "

It was many years before Zielinska understood what her grandmother meant. When she was a teenager, she found out that her grandmother had survived Auschwitz, and worked for the Jewish community of Warsaw after World War II.

Zielinska felt close to her grandmother and wanted to know more about her heritage. After the fall of Communism, Zielinska made what her family considered a rather radical choice to attend a summer camp run by the JDC and the Polish Union of Jewish Religious Communities.

"I finally found out who I was there," she said.

She later attended leadership seminars sponsored by JDC in Poland and Israel.

Being in Israel is not always easy for Polish Jews, Zielinska observed.

"The Israelis would say, ‘You should all move here,’ and I would say, ‘I am a Jew, but I am also a Polish citizen,’ " she recalled.

When Zielinska decided to commit to having a Jewish life, her parents were worried.

"’We’re glad you’re happy,’ they said, ‘but don’t go telling your friends,’ " Zielinska said. "In villages like ours, the worst thing you could say is that you are Jewish: You’ll lose your business."

Then there was her non-Jewish grandfather, her father’s father, whom Zielinska describes as the poster child for provincial anti-Semitism.

"Even last year he said that disliking Jews is nothing strange because ‘Jews want to be everywhere,’ " she said.

None of this deterred Zielinska. After finishing college in Warsaw, she became director of youth development for the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and launched a Sunday school and the community’s first Jewish youth club. She also administered the community’s summer camp.

The community had to eliminate her post for financial reasons, but again Zielinska persevered: She moved over to Bejt Warszawa, a congregation of about 200, where she is youth project manager.

"Considering all of the obstacles one faces here to leading a Jewish life, it’s remarkable that Dorota made the choices, she did," said Sokolowska, who has known Zielinska since they attended camp together. "What she does at Bejt Warszawa is really great because it does not exist elsewhere. It’s for children ages two to four, and it includes the participation of the parents."

Zielinska marks Shabbat each week, especially because she wants to share it with her 4-year-old daughter.

"After the confusion I went through, I wasn’t sure how to tell her that she was Jewish, but because there are programs now, it’s easy," she said. "I took her to a Shabbat celebration at Bejt Warszawa and she loved it. Shabbat Shalom is now her favorite song, much to the surprise of her grandparents."

Adam Schoenberger is lucky: As a rabbi’s son, he has always known what it meant to be Jewish.

Growing up among some 80,000-100,000 Jews in Budapest, being Jewish was not an oddity for Schoenberger. Nonetheless, he was aware that young Jews in Hungary aren’t very active in Jewish communal life.

Schoenberger, 25, sought to change that. Two years ago he became leader of Marom, the Conservative youth movement and the newest organization for young Jewish adults in the Hungarian capital.

"What I saw was that there were no options for young Jewish people to have Jewish-themed cultural experiences, so we at Marom started to do big events, like klezmer concerts and a Chanukah festival where 800 people turned up," he said.

He partly credits the event’s popularity to the fact that attendees were not asked if they were Jewish and didn’t have to be a member of any Jewish organization.

"After communism we are really individualistic; people don’t want to join organizations," he noted. "I wanted to think of other ways to connect people to Judaism."

Schoenberger helped start a Jewish theater and founded a hip-hop band that sings about Jewish life in Hebrew. He writes the lyrics. The band is called Hagesher, which means "the bridge" in Hebrew.

"We sing about the energy that you need to give to the community because it can still be a bit depressing after communism," he said. "The most important contribution I can make to Jewish life is to show everyone how colorful and culturally rich the Jewish tradition is."

Marom sponsors lectures about Jewish history, Talmud, psychology and anthropology, and offers a Friday-night Kiddush.

"The main thing is that we are tolerant and pluralistic," Schoenberger said. "If someone on Sabbath wants to smoke a cigarette, then that’s his prerogative. And we have gender equality," a concept that is still novel in the former Eastern Bloc.

Schoenberger’s emphasis on inclusiveness caught the attention of Mircea Chernov, one of the JDC’s deputy directors in Hungary.

"He does not create borders, but breaks them down. In a country like Hungary, where young people like to talk about change but act just like the older generation, Adam is a role model," Chernov said. "I think he’s the example that our Jewish community leaders in Hungary would do well to follow."

When he’s not rapping or writing a libretto for alternative theater, Schoenberger studies comparative literature and linguistics at Hungary’s University of Pec.

Perhaps it’s his breadth of interests that led to his latest accomplishment: Two months ago Marom launched the country’s first Jewish Web magazine, Pilpul, which in Hebrew denotes a fiery means of Talmudic debate.

The magazine is devoted to culture and politics. The latest issue tackles feminism, reggae and the sociological aspects of soccer.

Tomas Faerber scoffs when he hears that Slovak Jews have a reputation for being indifferent to their faith.

"My generation is not apathetic; we had to do so much to recover from communism. We have a lot of energy," he said. He was in essence describing himself.

When Faerber, 26, was a teen in the mid-1990s, he went to Israel thanks to a grant from the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Bratislava Jewish community.

"I was only there for three weeks, but it was the first time I met so many people with my background and I made friends who are still my friends now," he said.

The experience made him feel a closer connection to Jews everywhere.

"It gave me so much that I wanted to give something back to the community," he said.

He participated in the annual Lauder/JDC 12-day-long summer camp in Szarvas, Hungary, where over 2,000 students from more than 20 countries learn about Jewish identity. Faerber liked it so much that he became a Szarvas counselor. Together with a fellow counselor — who now is secretary of the Bratislava Jewish community — he organized Jewish "seminars" for Bratislava teens.

"Today the seminars, now a youth club, attract about 40 youngsters to educational programs about the holidays, Shabbat dinners, synagogue visits throughout the country and even ski trips," he said.

Faerber became president of the Slovak Union of Jewish Students and works part time as the JDC’s only representative in Slovakia. He also is general council for a Slovak investment-insurance firm.

He laughingly describes how his boss at the JDC is responsible for Morocco and Slovakia.

"In Morocco they’re very religious. In Slovakia we’re secular, some might say atheistic," he noted. "That doesn’t mean we’re not Jewish."

He says that since Slovaks suffered through concentration camps and then communism — which was anti-religious and particularly anti-Jewish — it should come as no surprise that most Slovaks are secular.

Faerber’s conviction that being Jewish is not the "exclusive terrain of the Orthodox" has paid off, according to Maros Borsky, a board member of the Bratislava Jewish community and a historian at the Slovak Museum of Jewish Culture.

"By showing that being Jewish is fun, and can be integrated with modern life, he has attracted more young people to be active in the community," Borsky said.

Faerber dismisses bleak predictions that in 10 years Slovakia’s Jewish communities will disappear. The community today numbers only about 700 people.

"Having a small community can be an advantage," he said. "If you have 800 people, you really know them and can personally encourage them."

But how will young Jews find Jewish partners?

"We take part in JDC’s get-togethers of young adults from the Danube region," he said. "For instance, there’s a Chanukah celebration in Vienna. This is a great way to meet someone, and believe it or not, most of the young Jews in Bratislava want a Jewish spouse."

Most of us learn from our mothers that sometimes something good can come from something bad.

Take, for instance, the infighting over the Prague Jewish community’s political leadership, which over the past two years has transformed many Czech Jews into community activists.

One of those transformed was Barbora Rappaport.

The 26-year-old Slovak has her hands full as a student earning a master’s degree in business administration and working as an event planner for one of the Czech Republic’s largest banks. On a recent November evening, she ate pizza while answering urgent calls on her cell phone concerning chauffeurs for bank VIPs at a 200th anniversary re-enactment of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

Rappaport’s organizational skills came in handy last year after Karol Sidon, the rabbi who had helped inspire her to lead a Jewish life, was fired suddenly by the chairman of the Prague Jewish community.

"I felt the way he was dismissed, without the consultation of the community, showed that something needed to be changed," Rappaport said.

Previously uninvolved in community politics, she helped organize the opposition group that eventually ousted the chairman. Following elections in November, Rappaport became the youngest member of the community board.

"I think I can help improve communication in the community, between members but especially between the leadership and the greater community," she said.

Today, Rappaport’s desire is to have a transparent, effective community that is "run like a company." Until age 14, however, she didn’t even know she was Jewish.

In Martin, the Slovak town where grew up, everyone was Catholic.

"I thought I was nothing. Then my aunt told me I was Jewish, and I had no idea what that meant," she said.

In 1992 she joined the Czechoslovak Union of Jewish Youth and attended a Jewish summer camp for two weeks. It was there that she first experienced Jewish philanthropy, as the campers helped clean up a Jewish cemetery in the village of Ryec.

"For the first time I met so many people just like me. They were so friendly," she said. "I found myself there, and found people who shared what I learned were Jewish values, the emphasis on warmth, education, tolerance."

Five years ago, Rappaport took two weeks off from work and organized a two-week camp for Jewish children. It was there that she got to know Sidon, who helped her with her work.

"Because of her special personality, her openness and her communication abilities, she is able to explain life in the Jewish community to those who might not know so much about it," he said.

Rappaport’s generosity is evident as she discusses the plight of a man whose parents died in the Shoah.

"He’s in an assisted-living facility because of mental difficulties, and the nurse told us that the thing that makes him most happy is fishing," she said — but with his refrigerator broken, the man had no place to keep his fish. So Rappaport and her husband bought him a new refrigerator.

"It’s the least we could do," she said.

"At the beginning I was only a chanich, a little camper," recalls Alexander Oscar, 27, vice president of Shalom, the main umbrella organization for Jewish communities in Bulgaria.

"The year the community opened up, when communism ended, I was 11 and I went through every level of Jewish activity I could. I was a madrich," or counselor, "and then I became a teacher for the madrichim," he said.

The importance of madrichim in Bulgaria cannot be overstated, he said: "In a community where 55,000 of the 60,000 Jews emigrated to Israel after World War II, each one of us now can really make a difference to the community’s survival."

Oscar has a single message for Bulgarian Jews.

"Young Jews want to be full participants in the greater non-Jewish world and they feel that if they spend time on Jewish matters, they will be shut out from other opportunities," he said. "I’m here to show them that you can do it all."

Oscar spends much of his free time at community headquarters in Sofia, but he also is a doctor, a urology resident at a local hospital.

"For the past year I have managed to approach a lot of young people in the community — businessmen, architects, lawyers — and now they are also volunteering their time for the community," he said. "We need to put as much time into Jewish education in Bulgaria as we do in supporting Israel."

Shalom’s president, Emil Kalo, is impressed by Oscar’s efforts.

"He is so energetic, active and creative. It’s not easy to be a vice president of a Jewish community at such a young age," he said.

Oscar’s latest project is coordinating Jewish educational programs with other Balkan countries. But he admits that he has a hidden agenda.

"We need to create Jewish families," he said. "In the next 10 or 15 years, we need to create ways for Jews across Europe to meet and marry. My generation, we all speak English now, so the language barrier is gone."

Erwin Simensohn was in a Jewish choir from the age of 4 and spent vacations with his observant grandparents. But growing up in Piatra Neamt, a city of 100,000 in northeastern Romania with a Jewish community of just 100 people, Simensohn didn’t know many other kids like him.

Then he attended the Lauder/JDC summer camp in Szarvas, Hungary.

"The experience is a life changer, it gave you a sense of Jewish identity, a sense of belonging," he said.

The camp inspired Simsensohn to create similar identity-building programs in Piatra Neamt. Continuing his pursuit of Jewish knowledge, for two years running he won the country’s JDC-sponsored Torah competition, and represented Romania at a competition in Israel.

Simensohn, 26, kept up his voluntary activities for the Jewish community throughout his college days in Bucharest. He was on the board of the European Union of Jewish Students and helped organize a Hillel summer educational program for 400 students.

After getting a degree in theater directing and international business, Simsensohn landed a lucrative post in advertising.

"About two years ago the JDC offered me a job that gave me a chance to help the community," he said. "The salary was half the one I was making, but the spiritual income was so much higher."

So for two years Simensohn has been working on plans for a JCC in Bucharest, due to begin activities next month.

"We need a place that would appeal to the 5,000 Jews of Bucharest, plus the large Israeli community," he said. "It’s going to be a place where Jews who might not want to go to synagogue can still take part in Jewish life."

Svi Feine, who heads up Romania’s JDC programs, explains why he thought Simensohn was the man for the job.

"I first met Erwin as a young boy acting in a Chanukah play. He impressed everyone with his talent," Feine remembers.

"As he grew older, he gained considerable knowledge of Jewish traditions and began playing a very positive role in youth activities initiated by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania and the Joint throughout the country. He showed great capacity for organizing Jewish activities."

Drawing from his experience in advertising to target markets, Simensohn consulted all the Jewish organizations in Bucharest, as well as the Israeli Embassy, and conducted focus groups to find out what sort of programs they would attend.

"We will start with a Chanukah event in January and a Jewish-identity course for families with young children that will be fun and interactive," he explained. There also will be a sports club and dance classes.

"We will teach the tango, the waltz and the cha cha cha with Jewish music," he said.

Simensohn intends to put his theater connections to good use.

"Those who come to a JCC theater night can count on a private lecture with the director or an actor after the show," he said.

Like many other young Serbian Jews, Sandra Levi fled her country in 1999 to escape from military conflict, the rule of a despot and a decrepit economy. She landed in Israel, where she learned Hebrew and the finer points of religious observance.

Last year, at the age of 25 and armed with a Latin American studies degree from Hebrew University, she returned to live in Belgrade.

"Belgrade is changing and becoming more European, whereas Israel was becoming more like the Middle East," she said.

"Aliyah is a touchy issue," she continues. "The truth is that I feel more Jewish in Belgrade. I go to temple every Friday even though I didn’t go to synagogue so often in Israel."

With only 2,000 Jews in the Serbian capital, Levy feels that her presence in temple matters.

"In Israel everyone is Jewish," she said, "but here I feel really needed."

Levi believes she can make a difference to the Serb Jewish community by working with young people.

"I have volunteered in the community since I was 15, and thanks to my experience in Israel I can teach others Hebrew," she said.

She has worked as a counselor at the Szarvas camp and recently ran workshops on Jewish traditions for Jewish teens and university students.

"The latest lesson I gave was on the meaning of ‘evil tongues,’ which is mentioned in the bible. I talked about the Jewish view of gossip and how words can be very harmful even if you don’t mean them to be," she said.

This topic evokes great curiosity among young adults, Levi noted.

"Even religious Jews have trouble following the Jewish rule, which is that you should not say something about someone who is not present," she said.

Mina Pasajlic, another young community member, says Levi has quite a following among teenagers.

"She was my first teacher of Jewish topics and one of the reasons I started working with children. She makes Jewish law relevant to everyday life," Pasajlic said. "I think she has helped young people want to be more part of the community."

Levi says her dream is to start a Jewish elementary school, but would be happy with a kindergarten.

"The community is looking a place for it, and the Belgrade city authorities want to help," she said. "I know it will happen, because now more than ever there is the good will to make it so."

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