Tag Archives: Jewish

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Trying To Revive

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, instantly murdering about 20,000 Jews and bombing approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned factories, workshops and stores in more than 120 local communities. Several hundred synagogues were also destroyed.

Within a month, all Polish Jews were either confined to ghettos or in hiding.

Then the Nazis began liquidating the ghettos. Within 18 months, almost all of them had been emptied. Following a period of calculated mass murder, Poland’s once-thriving Jewish population of 3.3 million was diminished to 100,000.

Poland, under Soviet rule and a curtain of communism, forced what remained of its Jewish population to emigrate or to go into hiding. Many converted or denied their faith. In 2013, only approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Jews register themselves as Jewish. But it is believed that in Poland there are an estimated 25,000 Jews among a population of 38.5 million people.

And slowly, more and more Jewish faces are starting to appear. Some call it a renaissance. Others call it a resurgence. But a once dark and diminished community, it seems, is slowly — and maybe not as slowly as one would think — starting to emerge.

The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in the Polish Republic coordinates the activities of the different Jewish organizations in Poland. The Lauder Foundation has established a number of clubs and events for the Jewish youth, as well as a primary school in Warsaw. And through the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, not only are the survivors and other elderly being cared for, but young Jews also are reconnecting to Judaism and working to secure a new and vibrant future for what was once Europe’s largest Jewish community.

It is inspiring.

“It’s changing,” said Polish-Jewish fashion designer Antonina Samecka in an article published by JDC. “It’s not like you think in Poland anymore.”

It Takes Time
Seven mainstream Orthodox rabbis. Three Chabad rabbis. Three Reform/ progressive rabbis. That is how many clergy are actively working in Poland each day.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich serves as the chief rabbi of Poland. He visited Poland for the first time in the 1970s but moved there beginning in 1990. He was appointed to his post in 2004.

Rabbi Schudrich said the Polish-Jewish resurgence has progressed in three or four stages. In the early 1990s, the question was, “Are there still Jews in Poland?” Then, as they were slowly found, the question became, “Do they want to be Jewish?” Finally, “How can we remake this Jewish community? How can we help Polish Jews?”

“I am not here to tell people what they must do,” said Rabbi Schudrich of when someone comes to him and says he or she might be Jewish. “I am here to teach them what Jewish tradition says, and they have to decide what they want to do with that.”

Many learn Hebrew and attend a synagogue or a lecture. Some have documentation that they are Jewish and others undergo a conversion process. It is all very personal, and it all takes time.

Rabbi Schudrich talks about one woman who 18 years ago approached him and told her that her mother’s grandmother died of typhus in 1842; Jews were more likely to die of the disease back then. She said her mother cooked Jewish foods, such as tzimmes and kept a special pot in which to cook milk (as opposed to meat).

“Am I Jewish?” she asked me, recalled the rabbi. “That is a very hard question. We talked about it. … We talked, and then she left. That same woman came back three months ago and said, ‘Now I am ready to be Jewish.’”

He continued, “It is a progress and a process. We are in the middle of a process. … The key is openness, accepting people where they are and as who they are and letting them make their journey to their Jewish identity in a way that makes sense for them.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis expressed similar sentiments. The rabbi of a small town called Katowice, he said only about 200 Jews live in a population of three million people there. He said his job is about “achdut” [Jewish unity], and he looks at what he does as “an opportunity to galvanize the people, to keep them moving forward.”

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak oversees the Jewish Renewal or progressive Judaism movement in Poland. He said that as many as 30 people convert to Judaism through his movement per year. The group just completed its first progressive prayer book, which is Hebrew translated and transliterated into Polish.

There was a massively successful Limmud program this past year as well.

“A lot of people are coming forward now,” said Rabbi Beliak. “No one has papers. No one can prove their Jewish identity. They might have a siddur they found in the attic. … We are not in control of everything the way we would like to think we are. There is a migration of Jewish souls back [to Judaism], and I cannot explain why people are coming back in rational terms.”

Rabbi Schudrich equated the resurgence of Judaism to the Marranos or “Secret Jews” of the Iberian Peninsula, who maintained a private religious identity behind a façade of Catholicism. However, said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, “We are not waiting 500 years to see who has Jewish roots.”

To be fair, anti-Semitism does still exist in Poland, though according to those on the ground it is not on the upswing as we are seeing in many European and Eastern European countries. Joanna Auron-Górska, who works with the progressive Beit Polska, said the younger generation harbors less prejudice and less fear than their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She countered that while many surveys paint young Poles as racist and anti-Semitics, her personal experience is different.

“People in their 20s and 30s are the most tolerant people. … They are curious, but they are willing to help,” she said.

On the day that she spoke with the JT, she had come from the police department. There she had been reporting a website that listed Jewish people participating in her programs as targets for anti-Semitic attacks. There has been nothing physical directly pointed at Jews, she said, but in the smaller towns — outside of Krakow and Warsaw — she said there is more curiosity.

Rabbi Ellis said similarly that there are certain routes he thinks twice before taking and that whereas African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, in Poland he has seen very few. And Jews are almost as scarce — so people notice.

The call to action, said Lucia Goodhart, one Polish activist in an interview provided to the JT by Auron-Górska, is for the Diaspora Jewish community to be supportive.

She said, “If we have Jewish people who are making a life now in Poland, it behooves us, as our brothers’ keepers, to be involved positively.

Ornstein said this involvement is important for Diaspora Jews, too. He told the JT that the story of Polish Jewry is an important story of revival.

“It is not just for the Polish community, but for all of us, as a people. We are able to thrive despite the Holocaust,” he said. “We can connect to the loss, but also must connect to the growing and the thriving of Jewish community. We need to know about this as North American Jews.”

WJRO Renews Call For Private Property Restitution In Poland >>

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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Magic in Morocco

Shared values. Mutual trust. Common interests. Strong friendship.

These were some of the phrases President Barack Obama used late last month following a meeting with King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

The two countries share a historic relationship; one that began in the 18th century and continues to thrive.

Moroccan Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo says the Jews of Morocco are small in number, but strong.

Moroccan Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo says the Jews of Morocco are small in number, but strong.

What is more fascinating than the strong relations between this predominantly Muslim country and the U.S. is the peaceful relations Morocco enjoys with the State of Israel. And, while the Jewish population in Morocco is small (only about 4,000 people), it is strong and thriving, at least according to Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish Community of Morocco and former Minister of Tourism, who accompanied the king on his visit to the States.

In a meeting with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Berdugo reaffirmed the country’s strong ties with the United States — “we cooperate, politically, against terrorists, we collaborate in all areas where peace is in danger” — but also waxed optimistic and confident about the state of the Jewish people in Morocco. He said the Jews of Morocco have been living there for more than 2,000 years. At one time, the population was much larger, but a series of incidents and emigration reduced that number by thousands.

What didn’t happen, however, was that Morocco (like many other Muslim states) kicked out its Jews with the founding of the State of Israel.

“The Muslims here let the Jews live their way,” said Berdugo.

However, many Jews did leave in 1948. This, said Berdugo, was because they wanted to fulfil the Zionist dream.

“That is the phase we can call Messianic,” he said.

Moroccan Secretary General  Dr. Ahmed Abbadi notes that  Morocco was never enraptured  by the dogmatism of Damascus.

Moroccan Secretary General
Dr. Ahmed Abbadi notes that
Morocco was never enraptured
by the dogmatism of Damascus.

Another wave left Morocco in 1953 when King Mohammed V was exiled; the Jews feared there would be persecution. In 1956, when Muslim rule returned and the remaining Jews were used to French culture, a number again left. But the greatest number fled the country in 1961, after the first conference of the Arab League in Casablanca. At that meeting, explained Berdugo, Morocco opted to adopt the resolutions of the league and this meant (at the time) no communication with the State of Israel.

“It meant Jews in Morocco could not talk to their family in Israel,” he explained.

Half of the Jews went to Israel then. The other half to Canada. He said Montreal got thousands of Moroccan Jews.

But even as the population shrank, the people remained stable.

“In Morocco, the king sees it as an obligation to protect the Jews,” Berdugo said.

This obligation comes from the way the country interprets Islam. In that same meeting, Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, secretary general of a council of religious scholars established by the king, who works closely with Ambassador Berdugo on issues of religious tolerance, diversity and interfaith cooperation, explained that Morocco never adopted “the values of Damascus,” but rather maintained a belief in Sufi Islam, an Islamic philosophy that values peace, “rejoicing and happiness.”

Abbadi said he believes one of the reasons for this is because Morocco was separated from the rest of the world by “three great series of mountains and this protected us from interactions with other countries.” Because the values of self-rule, democracy and tolerance have, over the years, become so ingrained in Moroccan culture, he said, as extremists try to infiltrate — and they have — they receive little following.

Abbadi said Morocco is not prey to dogma, but common sense.

This is likely the reason Morocco is a trailblazer in Muslim-Israeli relations, one of the only connectors between Israel and the Arab world. The two countries cooperate in areas of mutual benefit, including technology and defense.

Also, Morocco serves as a voice of reason in regard to the peace process. Berdugo said Morocco (and Moroccan Jews) would like to see a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, but that the country will not assist at the table until it feels both parties are ready to move forward.

“We are not trying to waste our time in discussion,” he said. “If you want to talk together and do something, we are there. If you don’t want to, we are not there.”

Berdugo said Morocco has always been “a player of good will, trying to do our best to promote peace and two states with security and dignity — security for one, dignity for the other.”

In recent months, the King of Morocco has taken additional steps to safeguard the country’s Jewish history. For example, a cemetery restoration project has restored and beautified 167 cemeteries, 48 retaining walls, 200,000 square meters of pavement and some 12,000 tombs across the country.

Similarly, the King has been instrumental in preserving synagogues and schools. Berdugo noted that there are 15 synagogues in Morocco.

“If you go out at 7 a.m., you can see the Jews going to synagogue. No one takes a look at them; they are part of the context,” he said.

Additionally, there are five Jewish schools, some of which have as much as a 25 percent Muslim student population. There, the Jews learn Arabic and Hebrew, and the Muslim students do, too.

“It is not a matter of quantity, it is a matter of quality,” said Berdugo of the Jewish population.

The message both Berdugo and Abbadi said they wanted to make clear is that while in the States people tend to view Morocco as just a part of the Middle East, it does not view itself in the same light as nations like Syria, Lebanon, etc. Rather, said Abbadi, “We are more Occidental than Middle East … and we want to be recognized like that.”

What is Sufi Islam?
Sufism is Islamic mysticism. Non-Muslims often mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam. It is more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam. Sufi orders can be found in Sunni, Shia and other Islamic groups. Sufism is a series of concepts and practices that range from poverty, seclusion, deception, depriving the soul, singing and dancing.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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Repair The World

On a frigid November morning, six people work together to plant an apple tree, four of them carefully rolling it and two others working with shovels to break its fall into the ground so that the root ball stays intact.

A year ago, the triangular lot bound by Brentwood Avenue and Merryman Lane in the Waverly area of Baltimore was trash-strewn, with bottles more than 100 years old buried under the concrete remains of a school that closed in the 1950s. By the day’s end, three apple trees were planted, in addition to grass, flowers and bushes that had been planted the previous week.

“When everything starts to grow in the spring, it’s going to look amazing,” said Emily Benoit, wearing work boots, gloves, a hoodie pulled over her head and a scarf covering her mouth and neck.

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the  Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces. (David Stuck)

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces.
(David Stuck)

Although it was one of the coldest mornings of the year, the group of nine was all smiles. This lot, one of six current projects, was being beautified by Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works. While these projects are usually staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers, there were two new faces in the crowd, Benoit and Avi Sunshine, fellows from Repair the World.

The new organization, which aims to do exactly what its name implies, has nine young men and women, most of whom are recent college graduates, living in Baltimore working on various volunteer and service learning projects. The mission of the organization, in addition to providing “super volunteers” for various projects in the city, is to engage Jewish young adults in volunteerism through deep and meaningful experiences, and to make volunteering an indispensable part of their lives.

“The mission is to make service a defining element of Jewish life,” said David Eisner, president and CEO of Repair the World.

The organization spent close to five years researching best practices and immersive service learning, developing resources and partnering with other groups. This year, its inaugural year, Repair the World launched in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

“They’re all eastern because we didn’t want geography to be part of our challenge in this first generation [of fellows], they’re all post-industrial, they all have histories of Jews living in the urban centers,” Eisner said.

While the fellows will be working on various Baltimore projects and recruiting other millenials to volunteer, Repair the World also aims to look at bigger picture issues, including how the city’s history shaped economic and educational inequality, the disconnect between city neighborhoods and how institutional and structural racism has played out.

“If we can spark people to think about some of the underlying reasons [behind various issues], maybe it gets them passionate about thinking about how development is happening in Baltimore City,” said Jodie Zisow, director of Baltimore’s Repair the World group.

Zisow, who grew up in Pikesville and went to Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, has always been involved in social justice work. She’s worked on AIDS advocacy, taught Spanish to Baltimore City students and recently worked for Planned Parenthood. She felt Repair the World was a perfect fit for her and that she has as much to learn as the fellows do.

“I hold onto some of the idealism that age [early 20s] is known for,” she said. “I think that is something our world needs more of.”

The fellowships are 10 months long and have participants logging at least 50 hours per week on various service projects, 20 hours of which is spent on a main project and 10 at another project. Some fellows have taken on side projects, working with other nonprofits that cater to their interests.

Repair the World takes care of the fellows’ housing and gives them $600 each month in stipends. Currently, the fellows share three apartments at The Atrium near Lexington Market as a community house in Highlandtown is renovated. They hope to move into the community house, which is two row homes with a wall in between them cut out, in the spring.

Community Partners
Repair the World has partnered with five local organizations. Fellows are working with Civic Works on its vacant lots program, which takes vacant urban lots and transforms them into green spaces, and later, on its Baltimore Energy Challenge, which helps Baltimore residents save money on their energy bill through energy saving tips and environmentally friendly appliances such as energy-efficient light bulbs and faucets and low-flow toilets.

Ed Miller, supervisor of the Civic Works’ community lot team, said having the fellows adds another layer to the group, which includes two young men who he said have “significant prison records.”

“My intent is for those [different] people to work together in a team,” he said. “It will probably have a lifelong impact on them.”

Two fellows will be working with CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) on community organizing and projects to help seniors, the specifics of which are still being refined.

Two fellows are assigned to the Incentive Mentoring Project, which builds “families” of volunteers for struggling students at the Academy for College and Career Exploration and Dunbar High School. These families are assigned to students during their freshman year and stay with them for 10 years.

“They don’t just stay with them through high school, they stay with them through college, they help them find summer employment, so they really do so much to help these students succeed,” said fellow Amalia Mark.

Mark and fellow Jared Gorin are working with struggling families and working with the all-volunteer executive board on development, volunteer recruitment and other back-end needs.

Five fellows are working with the chief service officer in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office on the success mentoring program, which provides mentors for students at risk of being chronically absent from school. They greet the students in the morning, check in with them during the day and spend time one-one-one with the students. The fellows will also be working to recruit other success mentors.

The specialized attention seems to be working.

“Already, one of the students is like ‘When is the next time I’ll see you?’ just from sitting in classes with her,” said fellow Talia Shifron. “It seems like it’s getting them really excited to go to school.”

Two fellows will also be working with Banner Neighborhoods to add extra capacity to afterschool programs that range from arts programming to tutoring.

“What we’re really focusing on is excellent nonprofit organizations that have already figured out how to deliver excellent programs with deep impact,” Eisner said. “Now, we’re helping them build their capacity through the work of the fellows.”

And rather than coming to these nonprofits with their own ideas, the fellows are adding extra manpower to needs already identified by existing organizations.

“What we’re really trying to do is go into the community and say, ‘We’re here to help; what do you need?’” said fellow Alli Lesovoy. “‘What does Baltimore need and what can we do to be of service?’”

Herring Is Not Religion

The reputable car dealer’s advertisement in the local paper screams, “Brand New Mercedes — Only $500!”

You get excited but think it sounds too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, it is. The car dealer is offering only the hubcaps of the Mercedes for $500. If you want the whole car, it will cost the standard price. Suddenly, the car dealer doesn’t sound so reputable.

You would never find such an ad because no car dealer in his right mind would make such an offer. Yet hubcaps masquerading as the car is exactly what Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky offer in their recent JTA Op-Ed titled “Conversion shouldn’t be the only path to joining the Jewish people.”

Cohen and Olitzky bemoan that, as of now, there is only one way for a non-Jew to become Jewish — conversion — and offer an alternative they call “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” Under this scheme, those who are not interested in Judaism as a religion, and even those who follow a different religion, could choose the Jewish Cultural Affirmation path.

To achieve this lofty status, they suggest that the candidate undertake a web-based self-study course along with undefined “experiences of lived Jewishness.” Candidates could sample Jewish topics ranging from politics to comedy to social action and text study. They then would be eligible to receive a “certificate of membership in the Jewish people,” much like my certificate from the American Legion.

As someone who is married to a convert, who has spent the better part of his professional life as a Jewish communal leader and counseled a wide range of sincere people in intermarriages who seek entry into the Jewish people, I find such a proposal shallow, impractical and offensive.

To reduce membership in the Jewish people to a shallow cultural affirmation completely misses the point of being Jewish. To put it bluntly, herring is not a religion.

We are a people who, despite our small size, have for 3,500 years had a critical mission in the world. As Christian scholar Paul Johnson wrote in his seminal “History of the Jews,” “The Jews stand at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”

Judaism addresses the most pressing life-and-death issues, teaches us how to infuse the sacred into all of existence and presses us to strive to become a “light to the nations.” To reduce all of that to a mere cultural affirmation is to say that the most profound elements of Judaism are unimportant.

The proposal is impractical. People who wish to convert can and will do so. The myriad approaches to American Jewish life offer a range of conversion options, from traditional conversions that require years of preparation and a commitment to all of the mitzvahs, to conversions that can be completed in a matter of months with minimal lifestyle changes. If someone is uninterested in following even a minimal conversion route, why would they be interested in affirming a Jewish identity at all?

And just what would such an affirmation accomplish? There already are a number of non-Jews in intermarriages who are attempting to raise Jewish children, who serve on synagogue boards, and who observe some Jewish holidays with their Jewish spouses even as they celebrate Christmas and go to church. Jewish educational opportunities are readily available to them. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders often praise their efforts.

All this has happened without an affirmation process or completion certificate. Creating a new process is superfluous. It would do nothing to change the reality on the ground.

Finally, Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal is offensive. In my experience, Jewish leaders who propose novel conversion procedures almost never consult with the end users — converts themselves, who could tell them from deep personal experience what is and isn’t needed.

The responses of converts with whom I shared Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal ranged from befuddled to offended. Most of all, they just didn’t get why something like this is needed. Neither do I.

A Jewish Cultural Affirmation track would undermine the hard work of sincere converts who have chosen to transform their lives and souls in joining the Jewish people. To offer Jewish Cultural Affirmation as an equally viable alternative to traditional conversion is to cheapen the process of conversion itself. And if cultural affirmation is offered merely as a second-class track, then it will do nothing except sow confusion.

Given the current tenuous state of American Jewry, so-called Jewish leaders and funders no doubt will gravitate toward new schemes dressed up as “solutions” to the challenges of Jewish demography. But as the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews shows, the race to water down Jewish life has only weakened it. Rather than throwing more good money after bad, we should focus instead on what makes a Jewish life worth living.

Harold Berman, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” is the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of J-Journey.org, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews. This column was provided by JTA Wire Service.

See “Jewish Cultural Affirmation >>