Emotional journey for Tucsonans on mission to Hungary, Israel

(L-R) Brenda Landau of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, Vern Kozlen of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area, former Canadian Olympic swimmer Karen James and Israeli President Shimon Peres recite the Shehecheyanu blessing at Peres’ residence in Jerusalem on July 13.

In Hungary, as in other eastern European countries, many young adults are now discovering their Jewish histories and identities. Recently, four Jewish women from Tucson experienced their own journeys of Jewish discovery as participants in a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel, joining 120 U.S. and Canadian federation campaign chairs and directors.

Trip participant and Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Vice President Marlyne Freedman told the AJP, “For campaign leadership, the mission is really focused on understanding where our money goes” via the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, or JDC.

The first part of the mission took place in Hungary from July 8 to 11. “One program that made me almost gasp” was an inter-generational pairing of Birthright Israel teens with Holocaust survivors, says JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Chair Joyce Stuehringer. After studying together for a year, the young adults — some just a few years after finding out they’re Jewish — and the survivors travel to Israel together. The trip, says Stuehringer, “is most likely the first and last time the survivors go to Israel.”

“Hungary was about the next generation claiming its Jewish heritage,” says JFSA Campaign Chair Kathryn Unger. “I will always remember Zsuzsa Fritz, director of Balint House, the Jewish community center of Budapest and a social service agency much like our Jewish Family & Children’s Services,” says Unger. “This dark-haired, beautiful, articulate 44-year-old woman, whose Jewish family was respected before World War II, converted to Catholicism during the war. When the war ended, Zsuzsa was told by her mother to keep quiet about her Judaism,” but she refused.

“‘Many who know they are somehow Jewish would deny it at any cost because of the history here. But suddenly, you could be a Jew and learn what it means. It is a gift to unwrap day by day,’” says Unger, quoting Fritz.

“European Jewry, we were told, is like a big oak tree — sliced off in the middle, but growing back,” adds Unger.

Holding close their time in Hungary, where they were reminded that 725,000 Jews lived there pre-World War II compared to around 160,000 today, Freedman, Stuehringer, Unger and Brenda Landau, JFSA director of Women’s Philanthropy and the Jewish Community Relations Council, flew from Budapest to Tel Aviv on July 11.

Their first evening in Israel, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, the federations’ $1 billion campaign to rescue and resettle Soviet Jews, included an honor for the JFSA delegation. Along with five other communities that made significant efforts to raise awareness about the plight of Soviet Jewish refuseniks in the 1970s and ’80s, the Tucson delegation was chosen to introduce one of the olim, or Russian immigrants, who has made an outstanding contribution to Israeli society.

“I had the honor of introducing the only woman in the select group, Sylva Zalmanson,” says Stueh­ringer. In 1970, at age 26, Zalmanson hatched a plan with her husband, two brothers and several friends to hijack a small, empty airliner, fly to Sweden and eventually emigrate to Israel, but the KGB arrested them on the tarmac. Zalmanson and the others said they “would rather die than remain in the Soviet Union where it was a crime to practice their Judaism,” says Stuehringer.

Zalmanson was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp; two of the men were sentenced to death by firing squad. After four years in the camp, Zalmanson was released in a spy swap with Israel, and flew to New York where she staged a 16-day hunger strike to get the men released, says Stuehringer. The publicity focused attention on the former Soviet Union, causing international outrage.

“While I don’t think I could ever be as courageous as Sylva,” says Stuehringer, “and certainly hope not to ever be as desperate, I will always keep Sylva’s story with me as a reminder of how our actions do and will have far-reaching effects.”

Unger says she “will always remember 23-year-old Artem from the FSU,” who discovered his Judaism through the Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp in Hungary when he was a youngster and couldn’t imagine life with anything Jewish in it. “Now,” he he told the group, “I can’t imagine life without Judaism.”

Artem made aliyah from Russia without his parents, and he returns to the Szarvas camp every summer “to help other kids who are struggling with Jewish identity issues,” says Unger.

It was Landau’s first trip to Israel and she fell in love with “the idea of Israel and its people,” she says. Her mission highlight came during a visit to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ private residence in Jerusalem on July 13. The former Canadian Jewish Olympic swimmer Karen James had just related her experience of climbing a fence at the 1972 Munich Olympic Village after returning with other athletes from a night out.

Three men dressed in black carrying duffle bags were also climbing the fence. The athletes thought nothing of it until the next day, when Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village were massacred by terrorists. “We were all crying,” says Landau. “It was a hair-raising story.”

Then Landau heard her name called. “I said to myself, ‘wow,’ thinking that woman has a name like mine.” Along with another mission participant on his first trip to Israel, Landau was called up to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for a moment of joy, with James and Peres.

Along with the honor of being chosen to pray with Peres, meeting a 19-year-old Canadian named Josh on an Israeli Defense Force base solidified Landau’s bonding with the State of Israel. As her mission bus pulled away from the IDF base, she says, “I realized it was his responsibility to be there for all Jews. I was sobbing like he was my own 18-year-old son Josh.”