The JDC’s Zoya Shvartzman is part of the FEDtalks lineup Sept. 16. (photo from JFGV)
In returning to Vancouver, Zoya Shvartzman is retracing the route that has seen the Moldova-born woman help “write the next chapter of the history of European Jewry.”
Those words, while spoken by Shvartzman, are not about herself – she was crediting North Americans and others who support the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with helping revivify communities that were almost annihilated under Nazism and then suppressed by communism. But the work Shvartzman does in her role at the JDC means she could rightly claim to be among a number of authors altering the future for Jews in Europe.
Shvartzman and her parents made aliyah from the East European nation when she was 8 years old. At 15, she and her mother migrated to Vancouver. Here, the family had some hard times and they turned to the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community welcomed us with open arms and gave us almost a second home,” she recalled recently in a phone interview with the Independent. “It was a very, very fond memory of my time there and it has a lot to do with the Jewish community that became our family.” She will speak about this time when she presents as one of four speakers at FEDtalks, the opening event of the 2018 Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, Sept. 16.
Shvartzman chose to pursue a degree in international development studies and political science at McGill University and so, after four years on the West Coast, she and her mother decamped for Montreal.
“After that, I decided to move to Budapest to pursue my master’s in political science because I was focusing on Eastern European politics and transitions from communism to democracy,” she said. “Because I’m from that part of the world, it made sense to go back and be there, be where it’s taking place.”
She completed her studies at Central European University, which was founded and funded by the democracy philanthropist George Soros, and, after graduation, worked for the Canadian embassy in Budapest. In 2007, she was offered a position at the JDC, where she is now director of strategic partnerships.
Shvartzman’s role is to identify on-the-ground needs of Jewish communities in Europe and convey those needs to potential funders, primarily in North America. Federations, foundations and philanthropists then contribute to help the JDC complete its projects.
“In Europe, basically, our main mission is that we build resilient communities,” she said. “We help build communities where they were shattered after the Holocaust and after communist regimes.
“In Eastern and Central Europe, we help poor Jews with basic services like food and medicine and winter relief, help to pay their utilities,” she explained. “Most of the elderly are Holocaust survivors. We work extensively with Holocaust survivors together with the Claims Conference funding. In the last 10 years or so, we developed services for children and families, modeled on the JFS [Jewish Family Services] model that you’re familiar with in Canada and the U.S., addressing the needs of poor children and families.”
Examples of projects that the JDC has spearheaded or supported include a Jewish community centre in Warsaw and a summer camp in Hungary, where children from 25 countries come to strengthen – or, in some cases, learn about for the first time – their Jewish identity. But the work is not limited to Eastern and Central Europe.
In France, the JDC has opened a “resilience centre,” to help Jewish schools, social workers, teachers, children and families respond to threats experienced by Jews in the country. Several acts of anti-Jewish terror in recent years in France have compounded existing anxieties about the security of its Jewish population and institutions.
The decade-plus that Shvartzman has been with the JDC has been a time of challenge for Jews and others across the continent.
“Especially the last four or five years have been particularly tumultuous for Jews in Europe,” she said. “There are different threats – external, internal threats. We see communities that have nearly collapsed, like the community in Greece, in terms of the economic crisis that really, really shattered it.”
In addition to the generalized economic challenges experienced by people in many countries, Jews have faced particular difficulties. Rising antisemitism and political extremism in places like Hungary and Poland have stoked once-dormant apprehensions.
Even so, Shvartzman is bullish about Jewish life in Europe and plans to share her enthusiasm with Vancouverites.
“There are many causes for optimism,” she said. “When you look at the revival of Jewish life in Europe and how these communities have gone from survival to really thriving Jewish communities, I think that’s a big cause of optimism.
“This is quite remarkable when you consider the history and some of the deep, deep traumas that this community has suffered and, today, Jews are reclaiming their heritage and are proud to be Jewish,” she continued. “All of this gives us great causes of optimism that Jewish life in Europe is thriving.”
Shvartzman’s Moldovan childhood and her current work both reflect and embody the JDC’s mission to save and build Jewish lives, said Michael Geller, the JDC’s North American director of communications.
“In her professional life and her personal life and in her life’s journey, she understands quite deeply the importance, the critical importance, of the work we do every day to ensure that needy Jews have the basic needs to continue to live their lives and, in addition, to have a strong Jewish identity, one that is their own, that they make themselves, and one that we help strengthen and empower through the kind of work that we do,” he said.
Returning to the theme of writing the next chapter of European Jewish history, Shvartzman credits overseas allies with making possible all of the achievements she and the JDC have realized.
“It’s only possible because of the support of the North American communities, North American Jewry, that chose to invest in that part of the world over the past 20, 25 years,” she said. “If I had to underline one message, it would be that: North American Jewry helping to write the next chapter of the history of European Jewry.”
FEDtalks features keynote speakers Rabbi Irwin Kula, Pamela Schuller, Arik Zeevi and Zoya Shvartzman. The event takes place at the Vancouver Playhouse on Sept. 16, 7 p.m. Tickets ($36) are available from jewishvancouver.com.