The faces of our grandparents are with me in early July as I leave for the Jewish Federations of North America Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission to Odessa and Israel with my sister, Donna Moser. Grandpa Nathan and Grandma Sadie came to the United States in 1899 from Odessa; now, we are making the return trip.
Along with Marlyne Freedman, senior vice president, and Deanna Evenchik, campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, we join 100 others from 34 communities. From Odessa to Tel Aviv, from Haifa to Jerusalem, we make an extraordinarily emotional journey filled with unforgettable faces and stories.
Odessa, on the Black Sea, is the city of the famed Potemkin Steps, of huge trees shading the streets from summer heat, of magnificent architecture, of writers Isaac Babel and Chaim Bialik and Vladimir Jabotinsky, and of a growing Jewish community of 30,000 once more becoming strong with the help of our Federation overseas partners: the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT.
We visit programs supported by our Federation dollars and witness the people who desperately need the lifelines we provide. There is Lidia, a retired engineer at 67, who lives in a fifth-floor one-room walk-up apartment badly in need of repairs — to the walls, the ceiling, the kitchen. Her eyes are bright behind huge glasses and her smile is warm as she welcomes us. Her monthly income is a pension of $123, supplemented by a Hesed Shaarey Zion program food card and winter relief items. Before arriving at her apartment, our small group shops from her requested grocery list: oil, rice, hard cheese, juice, canned sardines, mackerel, herring and strawberry jam. Given her medical issues, we are concerned with her diet; each of us adds healthy items so that she can have a Shabbat dinner.
At the prestigious Stolyarsky Music School, we meet Anastasia, a graduate visiting from her new home in Israel. She plays several pieces of classical piano music for us as the sun streams in from huge windows in the concert hall. At a Jewish Agency summer camp, Anastasia learned about her Judaism and, as a result, took her father to a synagogue for the first time in his life. After visiting Israel — “the best week of my life” — she made aliyah and now teaches, plays and composes music. “Thank you very much to the Jewish Agency — my life was changed!”
We participate in a Yizkor service at Odessa’s Holocaust Memorial; Deanna lights one of the candles as the rest of us place stones around the perimeter of the statue. Each stone is painted with the word Zachor — remember. As if on cue, it begins to rain softly at first and then violently as the music of “Schindler’s List” plays in the background. Somehow it seems appropriate. We do remember. Our faces stream with tears and raindrops.
At Beit Grand, a magnificent Jewish center housing programs for many facets of the community, we meet with a Holocaust survivor and a righteous Gentile, work on a craft project, sing and dance with older adults and watch children perform in a show that could easily be produced on Broadway!
Many of us have lunch with families at risk at a cafe similar to Chuck-E-Cheese. For these families, an outing once a year is a welcome treat and one that would be impossible without agency help. Imagine the faces of children who received art supplies and other personal items brought to Odessa for distribution by mission participants; imagine the faces of those who received the vast quantity of toothbrushes donated by Tucson dentists Joel Steinfeld, Michael Wexler and Ilona Wolfman, carefully packed into Marlyne’s luggage.
Looking back at our landing in Israel, the sentiment expressed by Gregory, a Masa intern who came to Israel from Ukraine and will be a dentist in the army, reflects our group sentiment: “When you land at the Ben Gurion Airport, you know you’re home.”
The faces of 3,000 young Taglit-Birthright Israel participants at a Mega Event at the Haifa Naval Base were lit up with excitement. The same excitement was evident in the faces of children at an Ethiopian absorption center where they showed us their coloring book skills, made ice cream and invited us to help them make music with sticks as their team leader played a game with them on his didgeridoo, an ancient Australian wind instrument.
On our last day in Israel, we met at IDF Central Command Base in Tel Aviv with Brig. General Doron Gavish who briefed us on the Iron Dome security installation.
Finally, in an almost surreal experience, we met with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, in a high-ceilinged elegant room with mirrored doors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He spoke of three common assumptions for the future of Israel: Israel is based on morals, on the Ten Commandments; we must appreciate reading, intelligence, science and literature and never be satisfied with the status quo; and we must be soldiers for peace. His parting thought? “A Jew tries to do whatever he can to make sure his children remain Jewish.” Indeed.
The faces we’ve seen represent the past, the present and the future of our Jewish worldwide community. The funds that we raise are critical to maintaining a Jewish presence at home and abroad. The faces of Lidia, Anastasia, Gregory and all the rest linger in my mind, as do those of Nathan and Sadie. Had they not left Odessa and escaped the last serious pogrom, my life and the lives of my family might have been totally different. Zachor. I will remember them all.
Audrey Brooks is the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Women’s Philanthropy Campaign co-chair with Donna Moser.