Brianna Fischer is our Federation’s inaugural Fishel Fellow. Since graduating from UCLA in June 2013, she has been working in India, Germany and Israel on our behalf in conjunction with our partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). This fall, she will work for our Federation here in Los Angeles. Click here to check out Brianna’s blog which chronicles her Fellowship experiences.
I recently spent two weeks in Israel with two different L.A. Jewish Federation trips. On my last day in Israel, the group was standing on Rothschild Boulevard when our tour guide, Abraham, stopped us abruptly. He proceeded to read to us “In the City of Slaughter,” Chaim Bialik’s poem about the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903. Bialik’s poem expresses his disdain for passivity against growing anti-Semitic violence. We wondered what that had to do with Rothschild Boulevard in modern-day Tel Aviv. Abraham told us, “This poem echoed throughout the world and served as a warning for what was to come. It also inspired Jews to fight to rebuild a Jewish state to protect themselves against this violence.”
Six years later, 66 Jewish pioneers stood on top of a sand dune and decided to transform that sand dune into the Tel Aviv that we see today. Abraham told us, “And that’s what they did. They rolled up their sleeves and with their own hands, those 66 Jews built Tel Aviv, starting with the street we’re standing on now.”
The next day, I flew to Kishinev, Moldova, the same place where the pogrom took place over 100 years ago. It was like moving backwards from this triumphant present to our dark past.
I went to Moldova to accompany two women from the Claims Conference, an organization that helps Holocaust survivors receive reparations from the German government. We met with local JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and Jewish community staff, visited Jewish community centers, and spent time with elderly Holocaust survivors.
To give some perspective on the current state of Moldova’s economy, the poorest country in Europe, almost one-fifth of the population lives under the poverty line. I couldn’t get over how clear and fresh the air was in the city, which a local JDC staff member told me is due to the shutdown of all factories from a lack of funds. Because of the absence of employment opportunities in Moldova, 25% of the population works abroad.
Perhaps the most alarming thing I learned was that the average retiree only receives about $35/month in social security from the government. Heating alone in the winter costs $200/month. I couldn’t understand how people, who are too old and ill to work, are expected to survive off of $35/month. These people include Holocaust survivors who have already endured such hardship in their lives. This is why the work that JDC is doing in Moldova, including helping survivors receive reparations and providing food and medical assistance, is so necessary and urgent. So it should come as no surprise that people who receive assistance from JDC in Moldova live on average 15 years longer than people who don’t. JDC is literally saving these people’s lives.
Besides meeting with local Jews in Kishinev, the capital, we also had the chance to drive up to Beltsy, a former center of Jewish life. After a two-hour drive on one of the bumpiest roads I’ve ever been on, we were relieved to arrive in Beltsy. The town looked a lot like Piatra Neamt, the village where my grandfather grew up in neighboring Romania that I visited this year with my parents. But unlike Piatra Neamt where only a handful of Jews remain, I was pleasantly surprised at how active and lively the Jewish community in Beltsy is. Sitting in the Jewish community center and seeing pictures of people of all ages participating in Jewish events, I wondered why a place like Beltsy that is so similar to Piatra Neamt and other Eastern European towns was able to retain much of their Jewish life while others died out. It became clear after learning about all the programs offered for Jews and after touring the Jewish community center and learning about Hesed, JDC’s social welfare department that provides much needed assistance to Jews in the Former Soviet Union. In the short time we were there, we got a taste of the liveliness of the center and visited two classes for Jewish seniors.
We visited a group of elderly people who are too sick to leave their homes on their own, so Hesed picks them up and brings them to the community center where they take classes and interact with their peers. When we walked into their room, they were working on an art project. The old woman next to me grabbed my hand and presented her drawing of a river. She told me (via a translator), “My love used to live across the river. He would go fishing every day. Now he has been bedridden for eight years. He longs for that river. He dreams of fishing again.”
It was heartbreaking to hear their stories, but I felt a strong spirit in that group. Each of these people went through so much suffering for being Jewish, but here they were continuing to celebrate their Judaism. They even sang us a song in Yiddish, which you can see here:
I truly believe that this incredible community center in Beltsy is the reason that Jewish life remains there. Jews have opportunities to participate in events, receive assistance, and to be part of a strong community. Of course, Beltsy is nowhere near where it used to be in terms of Jewish life. Pre-Holocaust, Beltsy boasted a Jewish population of nearly 15,000, more than half of the city’s total population. Now, many young Jews move away in search of economic opportunities. But those looking for social Jewish opportunities need not look further than Beltsy’s Jewish community center.
In my eleven months in Europe, I have learned how significant social life is in retaining Jewish membership in communities in Europe. Perhaps the most prevalent motivation for young people to leave a Jewish community is the lack of social (including spousal) opportunities. I have met young Jews from all over the continent who have pointed to this factor as the leading cause of their cities’ shrinking Jewish populations. So while a Jewish community center like the one in Beltsy may not be able to address all economic problems for Jews in their area (although they do provide aid), they are a powerful social force giving these Jews a reason to stay.
The Fishel Fellowship of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was created specifically for young adults who have a passion for the Jewish community and global service, and was named in honor of former Federation President John Fishel, a leading advocate for global Jewish social entrepreneurship who helped develop the program. Read Brianna’s blog for more of her Fellowship experiences. For more information, contact FishelFellowship@JewishLA.org