December 29, 2009

Young and Old Celebrate Jewish Heritage in Bratislava

JDC’s Jewish Service Corps (JSC) offers young Jews a unique immersion experience into communities within the 70+ countries where JDC operates. This one-year program enables enthusiastic, knowledgeable individuals to actively engage with JDC’s global mission through service. JSC fellow Michelle Gorman has been working with the Jewish community in Bratislava, Slovakia, since October 2009. Here she talks about her experience.

It was my first official day as a volunteer in the community. I was sitting in the office and in walked a plump, elderly little man with two walking sticks and a very big smile and said, “So, you’re the American here!?”

“Guilty!” I answered, introducing myself. He then replied, “I’m Mr. Seidman. I speak very good English. I could teach you a thing or two about the English language…” And so right away I came to learn about Mr. Seidman’s outrageous personality, and the humor and enthusiasm that overflowed throughout the Jewish community here.

Yes, it is a community with a painful past. Under communism, Slovakia’s Jews lived in fear, and those days still influence the lives of these people. At the same time, this community is moving forward, driven by strong and determined personalities like Mr. Seidman’s, whom I have come to know extremely well. He not only enjoys his daily lunches in the kosher kitchen, established and supported in partnership with the Bratislava Jewish community, but he is an active participant in the Senior Coffee Club and the Jewish book club. Nearly 90, Mr. Seidman never fails to enliven things with his expert piano playing and refreshing conversation.

He’s hardly alone. I’ve come to know all the seniors in the community through weekly English classes, Israeli dancing, senior events, kosher lunches, and other community activities. In my short time here, I’ve already shared many 80- and 90-year birthdays with the group, who genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

In addition to assisting with senior-related activities, I also run Jewish weekend retreats and cultural classes for teenagers and younger children. The Jewish kindergarten classes may be the most inspiring. I work with five children, all about four years old. Maybe we don’t speak the same language, but we still speak the same culture. I sing songs with them, bake challah, teach them Hebrew words, and supervise Jewish art projects.

I was thrilled to discover that these four-year-olds participate in holiday celebrations with their families. Matthew, Ben, David, Bianca, and Theresa are the future of the community and we all benefit from the fact that they have the freedom and opportunity to nurture their Jewish involvement from a young age. I see the same enthusiasm and dedication to learning Jewish tradition from the 12-year-olds I teach in an after-school program here. Among the youth there is much hope for a future community that is strong in its connection to Jewish traditions.

I really felt this optimism during Chanukah. One arts and crafts activity brought together 12 families with young children—families who hadn’t usually participated in our weekly programs—who all left with a stronger cultural connection and pledging to return since their children had such a great time!

The second Chanukah event—a talent show and reception—was even more successful, with more than 100 people attending to watch the show. Naturally, Mr. Seidman played the piano while a 10-year-old girl played the flute. My kindergartners sang “sevivon, sov, sov sov” dressed as dreidels and spinning in circles. Everyone was “kvelling” over them the entire afternoon!

What a joyful thing to see so many community members of all ages gathered together to celebrate this holiday of hope, miracles, and the strength of the Jewish people. I truly believe that all of these events reflect the community’s determination to move forward in step with their Jewish heritage. For my part, I think I found my place in this special community in the hopes that live in the hearts of Bratislava’s Jewish community members, young and old.

I’m proud to have an ongoing role—however small—in helping them achieve their goals.

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