August 10, 2011

The Latest from JDC CEO, Steve Schwager

As most of you already know, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship in International Jewish Service is JDC’s premier opportunity to engage young Jewish leaders. It is an unparalleled experience, providing an inside look at JDC’s global operations while enabling Fellows to craft individualized field assignments in multiple locations around the world.

This year we are fortunate to have two stand-outs as Ralph I. Goldman Fellows, Alejandro Okret and Zev Nagel. Back in April, I shared with you some reflections from Zev, who at the time was based in Budapest, Hungary. He has since been in various parts of East Asia, mapping ex-pat Jewish communities in the region, and he participated in Limmud Oz in Australia. He is currently finishing up his fellowship in Israel, working with our Africa/Asia team.

In this column, I would like to continue to update you on the very meaningful and enriching experiences that the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship brings to the Fellows and to Jewish communities overseas by sharing some words from Alejandro.

Alejandro was first based in Jerusalem, working with TEVET employment initiatives and JDC’s Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI). He then spent a few months working with the Jewish community in Minsk, Belarus, and recently began his final post in Budapest, Hungary.

Looking back at my experience as a JDC Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service, I can say that the Alejandro I was before setting foot in JDC-HQ in New York is not the Alejandro writing these words today. And how much more meaningful it is to write these words while working at Camp Szarvas in Hungary with young Jewish campers from all around the world.

The Fellowship has allowed me to live—and to feel. In Israel, I worked with the Ministry of Economy on food security and developed financial literacy programs for foreign workers. In Europe and the former Soviet Union (FSU), I was involved with community development, which included visits to the Gesher international gathering in Bulgaria for over 300 young European Jews and JDC’s incredible Metsuda young leadership program in Ukraine. These placements truly allowed me to gain a level of understanding and admiration for the global future of Jewish life.

Belarus was home to one of my most personal and meaningful projects. In Minsk, I had the privilege of spending time with those individuals who have been designated the “Righteous Among the Nations” (also translated as Righteous Gentiles), as well as ghetto survivors. As you know, the Righteous Among the Nations is a term of honor used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their own lives during the Holocaust and gave shelter and protection to Jews.

The Righteous Among the Nations are supported by JDC. They are considered non-Nazi victims and receive assistance according to established criteria. Hesed prepares "warm homes" for them; they are always invited to community celebrations and are honored guests of the JCC at every event. Hesed also celebrates their birthdays. Yad Vashem lists 555 Righteous Among the Nations from Belarus; today only 23 of these distinguished individuals are still alive.

I wanted to learn from these Righteous Gentiles and from the Holocaust survivors, but I also wanted other people, especially the younger members of the Minsk community, to be moved by their courage and commitment. I spent time with them and listened to their stories. I was truly inspired by our interaction, and so I photographed a number of these individuals and developed poster-size prints that were displayed at Minsk’s JCC.

The goal of my project was to connect different generations to these incredible people and the remarkable bravery reflected in their stories. They enthusiastically participated in this endeavor and chose to pose for their photographs with a funny face. A blurb with their personal story is attached to each poster. I encourage you to view the unique online gallery of my project and get to know these incredible people by going to JDC’s website and clicking on JDC Next Gen’s blog.

I admit to you that I was profoundly affected by my time in Belarus. The dignity and the respect JDC pays to a community that survived oppression and has now blossomed is remarkable; and that reality has changed me forever.

In closing, I could not write something about the Fellowship without mentioning Ralph Goldman. I was privileged to sit in an office next to Ralph’s in Jerusalem, often sharing lunch with him, constantly learning from him. When it was time to leave Israel and travel to the FSU, I felt the power and energy of a teenager; I was ready for my adventure and thankful for the experience of a lifetime.

Writing from Szarvas, Hungary
July, 2011

Year-after-year, Ralph and I grow increasingly more inspired by our RIG Fellows. Alejandro and Zev have been no exception. As they wrap up their year of service, Irv and I thank them for their dedication and commitment to JDC’s mission; we know they will stay connected to JDC for years to come.

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