First Person

In Moscow and Jerusalem, young and old tell stories of courage, inspiration

Audrey Brooks with a child at the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center near Jerusalem. (Courtesy JFSA)

The story is in the stories. That’s what I learned with 100 others from 37 other communities on the Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission to Moscow and Israel this summer. I heard stories of inspiration, intrigue, courage and hope. I learned that just as local Federation programs improve and save lives, the same is true overseas with the help of our partners: The Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT.

Yes, we saw the Kremlin, Red Square and Old Arbat Street in Moscow; yes, we danced and studied Torah at a Russian summer camp and shared Shabbat at Hebrew Union College and watched a rock concert at Bar Ilan University with 3,000 Birthright Israel students. But the heart and soul of the trip was in the individual connections we made — with children, the elderly, newly aware Jews.

There was Lidia, age 17, whose grandparents in Moldova never wanted to draw attention to their Judaism. Lidia opted to go to a Jewish school when given the opportunity and convinced her family to have their first Seder in 100 years.

Vanya, who at age 19 is finishing her university studies in costume design, says finding her Jewish connection at a summer camp changed her life. Being at camp was “like a weeklong seminar centering around Israel.”

Now a Jewish professional, Misha was expelled from school in 1967 for writing a poem that included “I am Hebrew.” Eventually getting a scholarship to attend Yeshiva University in New York, he is personally aware of how Jewish life in Russia was extinguished and has now been revived. “Being Jewish is being part of a family with a being and a purpose — to care for one another.”

At a senior day care center in Moscow, I sat and sang with the choir while many danced in the dining hall; “Yerushalaim Shel Zahav,” “Tumbalalaika” and “Shalom Aleichem” are the same the world over. At the same center, I met Irina, an 83-year-old retired oncologist who taught at a medical school and now spends time making jewelry and talking with friends.

Some of us visited with Raisa, 93 and frail, unable to see well, dependent on her caregiver, her social worker, her walker and her radio. “I love the U.S.” was her motto. She survived on tins of meat sent from the United States after World War II and has never forgotten.

Currently a member of Israel’s Knesset, Shlomo Moula spoke to us at an Ethiopian absorption center in Israel about his harrowing escape from Ethiopia through Egypt at age 16, walking barefoot, with friends. They were shot at, jailed, and tortured in Sudan. There are still more to be rescued.

Remember the petitions in the 1980s to free Nelson Mandela? I signed one in London when I was there for a legal education seminar. They helped; Mandela is free. Remember the tens of thousands of post cards sent to free Natan Sharansky? They also helped; Sharansky is free. In fact, on a picture-perfect evening at a hotel terrace high in the hills outside Jerusalem at our farewell dinner, 33 years after he was sentenced to prison for “treason and espionage,” Sharansky ate with us and spoke to us. He thanked us, many times. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh: all Jews are responsible one for another. We all need to help.

Audrey Brooks is co-chair of the 2012 Women’s Philanthropy campaign with her sister, Donna Moser. A retired judge from Milkwaukee, Wisc., she has been a Tucson resident for almost six years.