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From darkness to light: Berlin-Budapest trip reveals a new Jewish generation

(L-R) Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Board Chair Shelly Silverman, JFSA 2019 Campaign Chair Melissa Goldfinger, JFSA Senior Vice President Fran Katz, and JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Campaign Chair Leslie Glaze visit the Berlin Wall, July 15. (Melissa Goldfinger)

Each year, the Jewish Federations of North America invites professionals and lay leaders to participate in a mission that highlights the unique challenges, programs and impact of federations’ overseas funding. In mid-July, Melissa Goldfinger, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona 2019 Campaign chair; Leslie Glaze, JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Campaign chair; Fran Katz, JFSA senior vice president, and I, as JFSA board chair, joined 120 other volunteers and staff members connected to federations across America for a weeklong experience in Berlin and Budapest. Together, we heard from scholars-in-residence, local community leaders, and Jewish Agency for Israel staff to learn more about federations’ roles in supporting and promoting a rebirth of young Jewish engagement in both Germany and Hungary.

This mission brought us in contact with young Jewish leaders, student activists, and community organizers, who are at the helm of an astounding transformation – from the silent and mostly invisible Jews who hid their identities in the generations of postwar Germany or communist Hungary, to a growing and vibrant Jewish community rich in culture, education, leadership, and community connections. In story after story, we heard of younger people who have only recently discovered their Jewish heritage from aging parents, who are finally telling their children the truth. As these young Jews emerge from the shadows of their parents’ assimilation, they are embracing Judaism as teens, university students, or later.

Our mission’s activities in both cities were a study in contrasts, as we recalled both a horrific past and embraced the growing momentum for renewed Jewish engagement. We began our week by welcoming Shabbat at Berlin’s beautiful Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, followed by dinner with several active members of the Berlin Jewish community. On Sunday, we met local leaders of several programs funded by the Jewish Agency to serve students, young adults, families, and other community members.

We commemorated the tragedies of the Holocaust at Berlin’s heartbreaking Train Car Memorial, which shows the dates and numbers of people who were forced out of their homes and into cattle cars, with little chance of survival. Later, we heard from young Jewish community and university activists who are raising Jewish identity while combatting anti-Semitism at universities and together, we marched in solidarity with them in the second public “kippah walk” from the Berlin Wall Memorial to the Jewish quarter, an event that was covered in the national and international press. Rising from the dark history of Nazi Germany, the largest growing Jewish community in all of Central Europe is now thriving in Berlin.

Our second stop was gorgeous Budapest, where we took a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter that culminated in a reception at the Israeli Cultural Institute, Hungary’s gateway to Israel and Jewish identity, especially for young people who are reconnecting with their heritage for the first time. The next morning, we held a meaningful service at the Danube River Shoe Memorial on the banks where so many Jews were shot and thrown into the river. We also heard directly from Hungarian Holocaust survivors, with young Jewish leaders from the Jewish Agency’s InterGeneration program serving as translators and themselves hearing these stories for the first time.

In a community of 100,000 Jews, there are multiple programs designed to engage the newest generation of young Jews, including Taglit Birthright, Masa Israel Journey and the highly successful MinYanim leadership training program, which has trained nearly 6,000 young adults across Europe in principles of Jewish identity, social action, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and service leadership in their local communities. We also visited Balint House, Budapest’s Jewish Community Center, where a whole new generation of Jews are engaging in an array of amazing activities connecting them to Jewish life.

Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was on our final day, during a visit to the Szarvas International Jewish Summer Camp two hours north of Budapest. As we walked the beautiful grounds, we could have been at any Jewish camp in the United States. Kids playing, cabins with bunks, a great arts and crafts room, singing and sports. But this camp is different. Since 1990, Camp Szarvas has provided a safe 12-day immersive experience for Jewish youth who suffered under communism or who still may not have the opportunity to experience basic Jewish traditions, like Shabbat. Every summer, Szarvas welcomes 1,600 campers from ages 7 to 18, arriving from 25 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. Since 1990, Camp Szarvas has fostered Jewish pride, identity, friendship, leadership, and fun in thousands of young Jews around the globe, strengthening their Jewish future in Europe and beyond.

We were able to see over and over again the incredible difference our dollars make to so many. It was amazing to see the gratitude of people in these communities for our Federation support. These once decimated cities are now filled with energy and excitement for yet another generation of Jewish life.