First Person | Local

Greece, Israel mission sparks visions of future

Holocaust memorial stars on the railroad tracks at Salonika, Greece
Holocaust memorial stars on the railroad tracks at Salonika, Greece

We sang “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew to 9-year-old Miriam in the Athens Jewish Community School;  we talked with teenagers Gala and Tal at a summer camp near Salonika;  we listened in Tel Aviv as Yuval who lost both arms and Tzipi who was paralyzed told us how they used their abilities to make their own decisions;  and we danced in Israel with  87-year-old Tova who survived the Holocaust and tells her story 50 times a year. 

With more than 120 colleagues from 35 cities in America, Bryan Pisetsky of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and I traveled to Greece and Israel in early July on the 2014 Jewish Federations of North America Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. We went not as tourists, but as witnesses to history and dreamers for our Jewish future.

In each city and at each event, we were welcomed and thanked for being there; in Israel, we also received instructions on what to do when the sirens went off … and they did go off. Over four days, we spent several 10-minute intervals in well-protected stairwells or in larger bomb shelters, a jarring and for some, frightening, experience. Thinking about Israeli families for whom this has become a way of life was dispiriting.

Starting our journey in Athens, we learned about a once-thriving Jewish community of 90,000 in Greece decimated by the Holocaust and reduced to approximately 3,000. Minos Moissis, president of the Jewish community of Athens, told us, “We want to be a community, not just a group of disconnected Jews.” The heart and hope for the future is the Jewish Community School, founded in 1960 and attended by 75 percent of the Jewish children of Athens. We toured classrooms, music and art rooms, the IT tech room and library, while some of our group played ball on the playground with the children. When the recent financial crisis hit Greece, former proud donors to the school found themselves needing financial and spiritual support. The Jewish Agency for Israel provided that support.

In Salonika (or Thessaloniki), we held a memorial service for the 50,000 Jews who were transported in railroad cars to Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1943. Each of us took a yellow star attached to a long metal pole with the name, dates of birth and death, and camp; silently, we placed these stars into the ground near the tracks. I will remember Isaak Segura, who lived from 1903 to 1943 … others will remember children who were one or two years old.

At a beautiful summer camp near Salonika, we sat in a large circle and discussed contemporary Jewish issues with Miriam, Gala, Tal and other campers: the pros and cons of inter-dating, intermarriage, tattoos. For some campers, this was their first and only contact with Judaism.

On our arrival in Tel Aviv, because of the situation in Israel, rather than visiting a Joint Distribution Committee center for independent living, staff and clients came to our hotel. Yuval, who lost both arms during military service training, has been fitted with prosthetic arms and has learned to use his abilities to make decisions and manage his life. Tzipi, who made aliyah at 15, has been in Israel for 10 years. After becoming a combat soldier in the engineer corps, working at checkpoints, she was hit by a car one night and developed a rare debilitating condition requiring her to be in a wheelchair. Undaunted, she told us, “In order to live a life, I had to make a life.”

Tiny little Tova, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, lives in a Jerusalem subsidized housing facility, one of many founded by the Jewish Agency for Holocaust survivors and new immigrants to Israel. She pays $60 a month in rent. Having survived Auschwitz, a work camp near Dachau and a German death march, she was liberated by American troops only to be detained by the British after being on a boat from Belgium. Eventually, she was reunited with a sister and other siblings.

Before I left Israel, I made my increased pledge to the 2015 Federation Annual Campaign to honor our overseas and local programs. When you consider your gift, remember Miriam, Gala and Tal; Yuval and Tzipi; and Tova. Your gift will make a difference in the lives of many.

Audrey Brooks and her sister, Donna Moser, are co-chairs of the 2015 JFSA Community Campaign. Bryan Pisetsky is the campaign director.