November 27, 2009

Opening One's Eyes

From Steve Schwager, CEO

Russell Wolkind, a Senior International Relations Associate in our JDC-Israel office, just returned from seeing our work in Lithuania and participating in Limmud Poland. He shared the following reflections:

I opened my eyes and looked around. Then I opened them wider and looked again.

Last week I stood with hundreds of Jewish brothers and sisters—in Warsaw—singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” This was not a group of Israelis or Diaspora Jews who had come to Poland to learn about and witness the unimaginable atrocities our people faced in this country. I was standing with approximately 500 Polish Jews with whom I had shared an entire Shabbat of learning at a Limmud Conference. We had just recited the Havdalah prayer and were about to break into Jewish and Israeli dancing. The words Am Yisrael Chai are as relevant—and even more poignant—when sung by Polish Jewry itself.

Limmud was filled with a diversity of age, Jewish expression, and interest. With the extensive choice of sessions, you could see people struggling to decide where they wanted to go (it was easier for me since there was only one session in English each time!) The hallways and the rooms were filled with men and women learning how to express their Judaism and taking time to explore what being a Jew means to them. After the Shoah and decades of Communist rule, there now exists an atmosphere of freedom, enjoyment of religion, and a community beginning to form, breaking through the cracks of its past. This was a miracle happening right before my eyes.

Remembering the past is important—a responsibility—but not more so than supporting the future. And without a doubt there is a future. I saw so many young people: babies, children, and youth. They will not grow up in the shadow of the past where “Jewishness” was to be hidden. Rather they will be raised as proud members of their Jewish community who never knew how to be anything but proud, and who thrive in this new dynamic.

In Vilnius, Lithuania I was also inspired, but in a very different way. I was deeply touched by a community which has successfully organized itself to be the central agent of change in determining their own future.

I was amazed at the level of commitment and activism shown by so many of the community’s older citizens—“young at heart” men and women committed to renewal and the rebuilding of a community. They were proud of their role as volunteers and gave of themselves willingly and eagerly.

Even more amazing was the professional head of the community—a young man less than 30 years old. He, along with so many other young professionals I met, embodies the future we are all working toward. And I saw their future—in the school, the kindergarten, the counselors, and the JCC.

And yet, despite all the impressive work I saw in our renewal programming, I left Lithuania with a feeling of concern about the future. That concern must be a motivation for us to work even harder to support this community. Because I also met elderly JDC welfare clients and others in need—the families and the children who rely on us for their most basic needs: food, warmth, medicine, and someone to care. I understood that there were so many others we have yet to reach and so many needs yet to be fulfilled.

I heard firsthand about the rising levels of a State-supported “dilution” of the Shoah and its relevance in their country. I met the heroic Partisan from the Vilna Ghetto who was almost tried as a war criminal. I saw the economic collapse all around me in the streets and the shops.

The challenges are enormous and we must help the community care for those in need and preserve, even advance, the major strides we have supported in building their future. JDC’s longstanding role as the community’s partner, guide, consultant, and friend is now more critical than ever.

I share one final thought that occurred to me at the beginning of the Poland trip and seemed as relevant when I left Lithuania. Across the Jewish world there must be hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Jewish programming to keep our next generation within the community. These are important programs which play a critical role in building Jewish identity and preventing assimilation. Many represent a last effort to keep people connected and it is their success which prevents so many more walking out the exit door from our People.

In Poland and Lithuania, there was something excitingly fresh about JDC’s programs with the community. The lens of my perception was turned 180 degrees in my understanding the programs’ rationale and agenda. These programs are not part of an exit; they are positioned at the front door as a welcome into the community. They are about creating the first strands of a connection and an active participation in the story of our People. And these strands are today being woven together before our eyes. It is an honor and privilege to work in this way.

Before I arrived in Poland and Lithuania I knew I would be impressed by what I saw; I always am when I visit JDC in action in the field. But I had ignorantly presumed I would see small, “grey,” and struggling communities. When I arrived I opened my eyes and looked around. Then I opened them wider and looked again. I saw color, I saw numbers, and I saw hope. I leave believing in the future and with deeper pride that JDC has helped create that dream and is central to its fulfillment.

The rebirth of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe is nothing short of miraculous. Irv and I always talk about how important it is for Board members, donors, and friends to visit our programs first-hand; but as you see from this report, JDC’s professionals are equally touched and invigorated by the revival of Jewish communities and the possibilities the future holds for the Jewish People.

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