It’s Yom Kippur, and I’m sitting in a tiny Sephardic synagogue in Berlin. The service is conducted in German and Russian, so I have no idea what’s going on. The little old lady sitting next to me keeps poking me and saying things in Russian, and when I look confused, she laughs. It seems like some sort of auction is going on, and a man keeps standing up and shouting in German, which to me is slightly alarming, but everybody else looks amused. I feel a little out of place, and I can’t help but think about how I ended up here.
Three months ago, I had no idea that I was about to embark on being the Federation’s first Fishel Fellow, a two-year journey that would take me around the world to contribute something meaningful to Jewish and non-Jewish societies.
As the first phase of the Fellowship, I spent two months this summer working with the Federation’s partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC or the Joint) as part of JDC’s Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps with the Gabriel Project Mumbai. The Gabriel Project teaches language and life skills to slum children while providing food for some of the world’s most impoverished people. The experience was transformative and altered my perception of the world, of other people, and of myself. I was constantly inspired and the children I worked with in the slums showed me kindness and generosity that I have never experienced before. I’ll never forget the first time we passed out food in one of the classes. We gave each child a small portion, and without thinking twice, children as young as five years old handed their portion to a younger sibling. Others put their food away to share with their families later. One child even offered me his food. Even though these children have nothing, and many are malnourished, they share everything. We can all learn something from them.
As part of the project, we took the children on several educational field trips, and for most of them, these trips were their first time out of the slums. It was incredible to see their reactions to simple things like being on a bus, walking up stairs, and being in air conditioning for the first time in their lives. For one of our field trips, our students were joined by Jewish children who are part of the JDC’s Gan Katan program. It was very powerful to see these middle to upper class Jewish kids playing with the Hindu and Muslim children from the slums. It was so obvious that these groups of children come from two completely different worlds, but they were able to play games and sing songs together, completely oblivious of their differences. While it was devastating leaving my students behind, I am continuing to fundraise for them (we’ve raised $400 so far!), and I hope to incorporate these efforts into a program in Berlin this year.
The second leg of the Fellowship brought me to Berlin, where I will work for a year with Jewish revival efforts among children and young adults as a Jewish Service Corps fellow. This type of service is obviously much different from the non-sectarian relief work I did in India. However, the placement is especially meaningful to me because I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who were greatly helped by the JDC, the same organization I’m working with here. Not only am I working for the organization responsible for aiding my grandparents after the Holocaust, but I am contributing to Jewish revival efforts in the city that my grandmother was born in. Even though she left Berlin after the Holocaust, I carry her memory with me as I begin this experience in the community that her family was once part of.
For my placement in Berlin, my primary role is working with Bambinim, a project that creates Jewish programming for families with young children. In the short time I’ve been here, it’s been pretty amazing seeing children get excited to bake challah and sing Shabbat songs in a city that was formerly the Nazi headquarters. These kids are living proof that Judaism lives on here, and it’s only growing.
What I have found interesting so far is the demographic of the Jewish families that participate in Bambinim. Most of the parents are immigrants, with a large percentage coming from either the Former Soviet Union or Israel. The goal of Bambinim is to create a foundation for Jewish identities in these children. I am hoping to use my experience to support existing programs and possibly start my own course for the children.
When people back home found out I was going to be living in Germany, I was met with mixed reactions because of negative perceptions of Germans due to their involvement in World War II. I also was expecting to witness a lot of anti-Semitic sentiment in Berlin, but what I have experienced here is completely different. While neo-Nazis still exist in Berlin, there is a strong fascination and appreciation of Judaism among many non-Jews. At any big Jewish event or festival, most of the participants are not Jewish. The majority of students in Jewish and Yiddish classes at the universities here are not Jewish. When I tell Germans about the work I’m doing here, they are genuinely interested and enthusiastic.
After Berlin, I will spend several months in Israel working on a Federation community service project before returning to Los Angeles for a position at The Jewish Federation. The Fishel Fellowship offers me the chance to not only make a difference in communities abroad, but to already have this built-in opportunity when I get back to Los Angeles to use what I have learned to educate and partner with people there. I feel so fortunate to have this experience which is providing me with an outlet for my passions and interests while helping me develop goals, skills and aspirations for the future.
Even though I have a year in Berlin and several months in Israel ahead of me before I return to LA, I have already grown a lot in these past few months as a Fishel Fellow. I’m meeting so many people and having experiences that I will take back to Los Angeles and apply to my work with The Jewish Federation. I am thankful to participate in such diverse service projects that allow me to do something good for other people. I think it’s very fitting that I am starting my placement in Berlin just as the Jewish New Year is beginning, and I am looking forward to everything to come in this next year!