No one can deny the magnitude of recent terror incidents in Paris and the threats they pose to the delicate fabric of French society and to the security of Jews and Jewish institutions. Jews in France clearly feel that last weeks’ events were a turning point in their lives. Yet, the calls for French Jews to pack their bags and make Aliya are disturbing and self-defeating.
“All rights to Jews as citizens, no rights to Judaism as a nation” was the basic modus vivendi of French Jewry from the time of the French revolution. “Laicite” was the main principal and it meant a secular society, a total separation of Church and State. “Communtarism,” belonging to a community, was considered a dirty word. For a Jewish community, dating back to Roman times that was able to grow and prosper, adhering to the notion of full integration into French society was crucial. World War II shattered that ideal and shook the Jewish community. Following the war, the Jewish Federation of France (FSJU) was established – the first institution to include the word “Jewish” in its title. Then came large waves of immigration from North Africa, absorbing Jews who used to live in cohesive communities and were more traditional and observant. They had to adapt to the general model and therefore developed their own interpretations. For example, they included (Orthodox) synagogues in state sponsored Jewish Cultural/Community Centers. A phenomenon that is quite unique in the world. At the same time, their Cultural/Community Centers are open to the general public and attract the non-Jewish population as well.
France has always welcomed foreigners into its midst – except for the four years of the Vichy regime – but probably did not expect an approximate 6 million Muslim minority that hasn’t integrated fully into French society. That “time bomb” is now showing signs of explosion and it is clear that major efforts by the government and the society need to take place in order to confront the threats it poses.
For several years now, incidents of anti-Semitism and terror have challenged the old models of the Jewish community and have forced the community – numbering approximately 500,000 Jews – to turn inwards. The network of Jewish schools has expanded to absorb a growing number of students while synagogues and community centers are offering a wider array of programs. The close relationship with Israel and the “love without conditions” approach is still very prominent. Several thousands of people opted to make Aliya or leave to other countries, but clearly, the majority of Jews in France are there to stay.
Therefore, it might be more constructive to listen to Jews in France and their leadership in order to find out how they see the situation and what they think should be done.
Jo Amar, the Director of Culture, Community Centers and International Relations for FSJU, France says that the Jewish community is still in a state of shock and that last week’s incidents have been a watershed. A point in time that from now on the problems of anti-Semitism and terror incidents that the Jewish community experienced for the past several years, can no longer be ignored by the government, the army and the police. First and foremost, they are now attending to the families of the victims, the wounded and the ones who were under hostage. Then they need to deal with the issue of personal security. The leadership of the Jewish community and FSJU are already in intensive discussions with officials on all levels to provide a tighter security and to include security to all Jewish institutions. They also need to address the fears and anxieties of the Jews who are enrolled in Jewish schools, attend synagogues and JCCs and participate actively in the community. For that matter the community is now looking to develop programs and services with psychologists and other specialists to address these needs and strengthen the resilience of the community. For those who want to make Aliya or leave the country, the community is ready to provide support as well.
But after the first few weeks and months of addressing the crisis situation, the main challenge will need to be confronted: How to better educate the general society and combat anti-Semitism and racism. A goal which is important for all French not just the Jews. For that matter, the Jewish Community Centers play a major role as they are a link between the Jewish community and the general community. This process of education, as we all know, is a long term journey. It often takes place far away from the lime light and has fewer photo opportunities for dignitaries but this is where change can happen. Lise Benkemoun, the Executive Director of Neuilly sur Seine JCC in Paris, describes some of these programs such as the Discovery Week of Judaism and the Week of Jewish Culture where Jewish culture goes out to the streets, theaters and restaurants. She then continues to describe her point of view:
“On Wednesday, we were all Charlie, shocked and sad, stunned by the horror. On Thursday, we were all Charlie and Cops, in memory of the courageous young policewoman killed by the terrorist. On Friday, we were Jews more than ever, mourning the horrible death of our four brothers. On Sunday, we marched, proudly with more than 3.5 million French to show with force our rejection of terror and mark our attachment to our country, its values and motto: Liberté Egalité Fraternité which mean Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. On Monday, we organized with the police and the army, the board and the lay leaders the protection of our JCC, our community and our children. But from today we go back to our educational programs so that our neighbors will know us better. We will also continue all the projects we do with other religions, because we have a strong connection with them and we have faith of a better future if we all work towards it. We will also continue to work with children and youth because we strongly feel that now, more than ever, Education is the strongest army we have against terrorism.”
So instead of calling Jews to leave France, it will be more constructive to help French Jewry continue the educational and social work that they are already doing. The daily work of providing services to the community, educating the young generation, continuing the strong ties with Israel may not show immediate results, but can ensure the future life of the community. I believe that encouraging the Jewish community of France to achieve the goals they have set up for themselves will make Israel and the Jewish people much stronger.
To date, Khmelnitsky’s Jewish community is one of the most promising and developing Jewish communities in Ukraine, headed by Chairman Igor Ratushny. The community is faced with internal, financial and political challenges. Here is a personal account of their story:
In today’s troubling times, what challenges is your community facing?
Geographical dispersion of the Jewish population in our community is a great communicational challenge, as people usually live in different parts of the region and at great distance from one another. In recent years, the situation has slightly improved, as more and more people can communicate via the Internet by means of “Skype” and other platforms, though actual travel and face-to-face encounters became less frequent due to the rise in fuel prices. Some of our projects make an effort to bring community members together.
In light of recent events in Ukraine, do you feel there has been a change in the spirit and state of mind of the people in your community?
The political situation in the country has had a negative impact on the morale of our people, who are constantly living in fear of alien aggression, with no confidence in their future. In addition, the economic situation in Ukraine over the last year has deteriorated so that many of the tasks we carry out to support members of our community cease to exist. Rising inflation has had an acute effect on the Ukrainian people and the Jewish community.
The war in East Ukraine has led to the forced recruitment of some community members into the army. They are in danger every single day. They are forced to buy their own equipment, body armor and take care of communication. In addition, families who are fleeting their homes in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, are heading toward our region and city in the hope of finding shelter. These migrants are in great need of comprehensive care. Our community tries to help them us much as possible and fill in where the state doesn’t.
What social services do you provide in your community?
We confront social problems on many fronts – providing food, health care and the rise in the cost of medicine. Though the accident in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant happened in 1986, we now see the consequences and effects of this man-made disaster, as cancer rates in our region are much higher. We provide support and help for people who are left alone and have no family in the region, though we lack the enough means and volunteers to address all the needs.
The community is actively looking for ways to survive while being involved in the defense of the state. We live in extremely hard conditions, not even knowing when we will have electricity. Many members are in great danger, yet we don’t give up, because the Jewish people never give up.
What is your light? What keeps you moving forward?
We rely on the younger generation of our community as they are the future and hope. They are involved in many aspects of community life and on many levels. It starts with children who attend communal events with their parents and continues when they go to Sunday school. We have youth clubs in different community centers in our regions which the youth, growing up, actively attend. These clubs expand the horizons of our young generation and connects them to one another. Assuming active community positions is also an advantage these clubs offer.
You are part of the JCC Global Amitim-Fellows program and building a joint project with 3 other Jewish Community Centers around the world. How do you foresee the effect of this cooperation on your community?
One of our long-term goals is to reach out to sister-communities outside of Ukraine, to develop cooperation and communication between youth and fellow Jews, to expand their horizons and to make them aware of the Global Jewish World and the Jewish People. We believe that cultural exchange among community members, and communication, primarily between young people, will contribute to our community’s prosperity.
What role do the Arts have in Jewish culture? What relevance do Jewish texts have in our lives, in our artistic expression and in our sense of community? How do they inspire us and how can Jewish learning and song-writing intersect? These questions and more are at the root of Mekorock, an exciting, innovative program that uses Jewish sources (“mekorot”) as the inspiration for youth and adults to write and perform original songs. Launched 5 years ago in Emek Hefer, Mekorock has expanded to 8 communities in Israel, reaching thousands of students and audience members. This past November, colleagues from Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in Venezuela, Romania, Moldova, Emek Hefer in Israel and Tenafly, New Jersey, USA, were brought together through JCC Global’s Amitim-Fellows program, which connects JCCs through joint projects, to bring this program beyond Israel in order to create the “Global Mekorock”.
We were graciously and generously hosted by the community of Emek Hefer Regional Council, a beautiful, primarily secular (non-religious) collection of 41 villages and kibbutzim located between Netanya and Hadera. We were treated to a week-long in-depth exploration of the program, hearing performances by students, meeting the founder of the program, David Aviv, talking with organizers, educators and teaching/performing artists, and learning from the staff of the Shalom Hartmann Institute.
What we saw, heard (ate!) and experienced was very impressive. Mekorock has magically brought together many members of the community, re-engaged children and adults with their Jewish backgrounds, and provided youth with the exciting opportunity to interact with well-known Israeli singer-songwriters such as Dana Berger and Ariel Horowitz. Youth and adults are expressing themselves through song-writing and performing – while discovering the richness of our heritage.
It was a rich experience for us delegates, as well. While I had been to Israel several times and have worked in the Jewish community for over 20 years, I have almost never had the chance to work with colleagues from JCCs from other countries. I learned a great deal about their communities – of which I had either known very little or had misconceptions – and learned how much we share, even with obvious differences. One of the highlights for me was when, during a break in a discussion at a kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, the delegates from Moldova sang and played a beautiful and fun Yiddish songs.
My travels and those of some of the others were generously underwritten by Bernie Weinflash, z’l. Bernie loved Jewish Arts and believed passionately that the future of Judaism lies in our ability to perpetuate and enrich Jewish culture, particularly through music, stating that “A culture without music will not last. Jewish song means Jewish survival.” Sadly, Bernie died in New Jersey during our trip. After learning of his passing, I shared a moving video of Bernie with my colleagues, adding another layer of meaning to our experience. Bernie would have loved Mekorock!
Our goal now is to adapt Mekorock to our communities and to connect our populations through this project. How can a student in Caracas bond with a student in Bucharest? What technology would work best? How can we best deal with language issues and multiple time-zones? What Jewish texts would resonate in all our communities? While these are challenging logistical issues, we are energized by our own experience of international cultural exchange and know that members of our communities will also be inspired, by Jewish texts, their own musical creativity, and the excitement of learning from and with peers from other countries.
Michael C. Reingold is the Associate Director at the Thurnauer School of Music, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Tenafly, New Jersey, USA
Representatives from the JCC of Greater Washington, the JCC of Manhattan, JCH of Bensonhurst, Balint JCC and the JCC Kivunim in Be’er Sheva came together December 14- 17, 2014 in Rockville, Maryland to create Hamsa: the JCC Global Madrichim Fellowship Mission. Focused on community building, Jewish peoplehood and future leaders, the program is designed to be an immersive experience for teens with travel to Budapest, Israel and the United States.
The first night of the planning seminar was spent touring DC with a Jewish lens and getting to know one another. Over the next few days we outlined what we wanted the program to look like, including the trips to Budapest and Israel. We spoke about wanting to focus the program on how teens can form their Jewish identities and discover who they are as individuals, then find a way to connect their identities to each other and to the worldwide Jewish community. We also generated a continued learning outline to be implemented between the trips.
During the seminar, we had the opportunity to hear from some amazing speakers. Dr. Erica Brown, an award-winning author and Jewish educator, spoke about Jewish Peoplehood and our identities. She discussed thick vs. thin identities, challenging us to think about what parts of our own identity we put out for the world to see versus the parts we keep hidden. Joey Eisman, BBYO Program Associate for Israel and Global Jewish Peoplehood, addressed how we can connect with teens to create meaningful discussions. He gave us great insight about ways to engage teens in conversation and introduced us to the concept of “Ask Big Questions.”
This mission will include three trips: one to Budapest and Szarvas (an international teen leadership program) in summer 2015, one to Israel in winter 2015 and one to the United States in summer 2016. Each trip will focus on a different part of leadership development by asking the “Big Questions.” When they go to Budapest, the big question is “Who am I?” We will search for the answer by experiencing the culture and history of the city and the Jewish renaissance that is happening, as Budapest has one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The trip to Szarvas will serve as an amazing immersive experience for the teens, as they will be involved with an international summer camp focused on leadership. When in Israel, we will answer “Who are we?” by experiencing the culture and history of the country through the lens of creating a Jewish state and homeland for all Jewish people. Finally, in the United States, we will work on answering “Who do we serve?” by creating programming for JCC day camps.
The Hamsa: JCC Global Madrichim Fellowship Mission planning seminar was very productive and we look forward to implementing the program we designed in the coming year.
Adam Adamah is an environmental project connecting the communities of Krakow, Milwaukee, and Ginot Ha’ir, Jerusalem that focuses on making the world a better place in the spirit of Tikkun Olam. As we celebrate Tu Bi’Shvat this week, the New Year of the Trees, we’re mindful of our place in the world, how we’re all connected, and how we must do our best to improve the environment.
Creating a joint learning experience based on Jewish thought as it relates to the environment for individuals from around the world, is a wonderful opportunity for peer learning and a chance to forge real connections amongst communities.
For Krakow, our plans for the project focus on the revitalization of green areas in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. These areas have been neglected for many years and it’s time for that to change! We will plant trees, bushes, and place benches around the neighborhood for people to admire their beautiful surroundings in one of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Our goal is to create an open and accessible place for all of the citizens and visitors to Krakow to enjoy the unique neighborhood of Kazimierz like they’ve done for centuries since its founding.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin has a vibrant and rich history of environmental activism and is seen as a world leader in the field of water quality and a national leader in urban gardening projects. Adam Adamah aims to engage a group of young adults through the exploration of the unique focus on repairing the world based on Jewish texts and cultural. These newly engaged “Adam Adamah-nicks” will be able to not only impact their immediate community, but also to help pass the baton of Milwaukee’s passion for making the world a better place, from their parents’ generation to theirs. While those engaged in the work in Milwaukee do not believe it is their duty to complete the work to repair the environment, they are not content to sit idly by and are assisting in the work, one person at a time.
In Ginot Ha’ir, Jerusalem the project includes 8 young adult participants (ages 25-40), all living in Jerusalem, who are active in their communities on ecological issue. They have academic education and are professionals in their field of work. These young men and women will be guided by City Council Member, Tamir Nir, an architect and Reform rabbi, who will take the group on a journey of joint learning and actions. The meetings will take place once a month at the Community Garden at the Nature Museum in Jerusalem. We believe that the program graduates will be the Israeli change agents who will spread the language of Jewish Peoplehood and sustainability – both within their communities and beyond.
The three communities are investing a lot of efforts and energy in the global process, as they that this tri partnership will enrich the global Jewish dialog and strengthen personal connections around the Jewish world.
Ever since the 1960’s, the government of Israel has been seeking ways to settle the Arava region, an area of about 550,000 acres. Today, there are about 3,500 residents living in 12 settlements and kibbutzim. Most of them are working in the fields of advanced and modern agriculture. Tourism is also a main source of income, with unique characteristics.
What makes these residents into a community(ies)?
The word community in Hebrew – Kehila – was first written in the bible (Deuteronomy 33, 4 and Nehemia 5, 7: “תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב” (דברים לג, ד), “וַיִּמָּלֵךְ לִבִּי עָלַי וָאָרִיבָה אֶת הַחֹרִים וְאֶת הַסְּגָנִים… וָאֶתֵּן עֲלֵיהֶם קְהִלָּה גְדוֹלָה” (נחמיה ה, ז).). The meaning of the word Kehila, Community, is a group or gathering of people. Our sages and the literature that followed define community as a group of people living in one place and exercising joint activities and institutions. So not only are we talking about people living in a unique area of the state of Israel, they are strongly connected by ecology and environment, which are the spirit and the essence of these communities.
What are the future economic trends in the region?
A few years ago, the communities decided that the “next best thing” is going to come from the combination of environment and technology. It was decided to look into the field of renewed energies, and specifically solar energy fields. This is a field which encompasses social, environmental and economic growth potential. Developing this field will help build a harmonious life in a region with rich social life and wild nature that will contribute to the high standard of living in the region.
What can you tell us about the oil spill that occurred this past December in your region?
On December 3rd, 2014, happened what many may call one of the worst ecological disasters this country has ever seen. The Eilat Ashkelon oil pipeline fractured during some reconstruction of the pipe and huge amounts of crude oil spilled out. The estimation is that, 4 to 6 million liters of crude oil have been spilled into the Arava area. The spill occurred in the Evrona valley – a unique and beautiful nature reserve in which you can find rare wild life, gorgeous Acacia trees and peaceful desert. The reserve has been ruined completely and many experts estimate that reconstruction will take many years.
The damage is both to the people living in the region and the environment. There are health problems due to the air pollution caused by the oil. Medical and psychological assistance is needed. During the event and many days after, residents complained about dizziness, headaches and eyes inflammation. In addition, though we have a very strong reputation as a clean, pure, beautiful and special area in Israel, that reputation has been badly damaged.
How did the community handle the crisis?
During the actual abruption of the pipe line, our regional council provided Be’er Ora settlement, the one closest to the spill, the support of professional staff on both psychological and health issues. It accommodated those residents, who couldn’t get into their homes because of road blocks. The council provided supervisors to oversee and control the way the recovery projects are undertaken and to ensure that no additional damage is incurred in the clean-up process. It has hired a legal counsel to ensure that the EAPC Company, that own and operates the line, will take care of all the damage. It is important to note that an emergency committee has been established in Be’er Ora, and includes representatives from EAPC, the police, fire department, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Nature and Park Authority. This collaboration demonstrates who the community is working hand in hand with all partners involved to find the best solutions.
What does the future look like for the nature reserve?
We are still at the stage estimating the damage and in search for the best solutions for restoration. These efforts are in taking place in cooperation with the Israeli Nature and Park Authority and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. We are eager to restore the area and its image.
Many words will be said about this environmental and ecological disaster. It is our duty to implement innovative and creative ideas so that disasters of this scale will not reoccur. We should anticipate the next event and try to prevent it from happening again. The word miracle wasn’t invented in this year and so does the term ecological community – a community that knows we can’t and shouldn’t rely on miracles.
Udi Gat, Chairman of the Hevel Eilot regional council and a Fellow in JCC Global Amitim- Fellows- Leadership Network program
Sahoshi Oron, Director, Department for Education and Community Center Authority, Hevel Eilot
The upcoming holiday of Tu-Bi’Shvat, celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is a great example of a holiday that has been infused with different meanings throughout the generations. Its origins are found in the Mishna, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, as one of the four New Years of the Jewish calendar; related to requirements regarding the growing of fruit trees and plants. During the years of exile, the holiday exemplified the longing for the land. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists in Safed, instituted the Tu-Bi’Shvat Seder in which the fruits and trees were given symbolic meaning. The holiday took another turn when the early Zionists revived the holiday as a symbol of the return to the land and incorporated it into the Zionist ethos. In recent years the holiday focuses on the broader values of sustainability, ecology and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world.) Interestingly, this recent phase is developing a fruitful dialogue between grass root organizations in Israel and overseas that find common ground in working together towards a mutual goal.
And perhaps more than anything, Tu-Bi’Shvat enables us to marvel at nature as articulated in the beautiful words of the poet Leah Goldberg in her poem: Prayer