A cover story in the Oct. 14, 1987, JWB announced that Ida Nudel would be granted her long-sought-after exit visa from the USSR.
In the Jewish Independent’s special 90+1 issue this past May, reader Ronnie Tessler recalled one of the regular features of the JI’s predecessor, the Jewish Western Bulletin – the Gulag Record. Starting in 1978, the paper regularly reminded readers of how many days certain refuseniks were being held in the Gulag in the former USSR. One of the refuseniks featured, Ida Nudel, died this month, on Sept. 14, at the age of 90.
“The subject of a worldwide campaign to free her, Nudel has been variously regarded as the ‘soul of the Jewish immigration movement’ in the USSR and the ‘mother of Soviet refuseniks,’” reads the Oct. 14, 1987, JWB cover story announcing that Nudel would be granted an exit visa from the USSR.
“During her unflinching efforts to leave the Soviet Union, she has suffered innumerable hardships and indignities: almost four years imprisonment in abuse by the ever-present KGB, combined with travel restrictions amounting to incarceration,” the article continues.
“Occasionally, it was feared that, owing to diminished health, the 56-year-old Nudel would not live to see the Jewish state or be reunited with her sister Ilena Fridman, now residing in Israel.”
Fridman, the article notes, “visited Vancouver in October 1986 to lobby for Nudel’s release at a NETWORK-sponsored Soviet Jewry rally here….”
In addition to a concerted, long-term effort by Jewish groups worldwide, “urging Soviet officials to grant her an exit visa,” Nudel was visited over the years “by numerous delegations and dignitaries, including actress Jane Fonda, to bolster her spirits and encourage her efforts to leave the USSR.
“Under glasnost (openness), Nudel was allowed greater freedom to move and meet with Western journalists and fellow dissidents. Last month [September 1987], she was permitted to travel from her home in Moldavia to Moscow to meet with a group of women refuseniks to discuss their plight.”
Nudel was born in 1931, near Crimea, and “was raised by her maternal grandparents on a collective farm until she was 3,” writes Sam Roberts in the New York Times article about her death. “Her father was killed in World War II fighting German troops near Stalingrad when she was 10.
“After graduating in 1954 from the Moscow Institute of Engineering and Economics, Ms. Nudel worked for a construction company and later as an accountant for the Moscow Microbiological Institution,” notes Roberts.
As a result of her protests in the 1970s, Nudel lost her job and was exiled. When her exile ended, she settled in Moldova. After she was allowed to make aliyah, Nudel “originally lived in a rural settlement,” writes Roberts, “then moved to the city of Rehovot, about 18 miles south of Tel Aviv, to be closer to her sister [who had been allowed to emigrate in 1972].”
Nudel wrote an autobiography, A Hand in the Darkness, which was translated into English, and there was a movie made about her experience.
Students in Uganda at work in a BrightBox, a solar-powered classroom. (photo from Simbi Foundation)
This year’s graduating class at Vancouver Talmud Torah made a significant impact to the lives of thousands of refugees in the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. Their connection to the refugees on the African continent is a story that goes back to two young Jewish men who grew up in Vancouver and are determined to enhance education and create lifelong change in the lives of displaced people.
As co-founders of the Simbi Foundation, Ran Sommer and Aaron Friedland have established a template for BrightBoxes, which are sustainable solar-powered classrooms that are shipped to refugee settlements in Uganda and other countries. Each box costs $55,000 Cdn and includes a shipping container with solar panels, laptops, projectors and digital aids, as well as all the installation costs at its destination.
The foundation has installed five BrightBoxes in the Bidibidi settlement, where 240,000 refugees reside, and one in the Palorinya settlement, where there are 170,000 refugees. Each week, a BrightBox serves 6,000 learners.
“We’re able to reach that many learners because we connect the solar energy from the BrightBox to other classrooms in the area. They all become connected by the electricity and wi-fi generated by the BrightBox, which means the entire school population is connected simultaneously. The power of this 40-foot shipping container is its ability to connect the surrounding school blocks,” Sommer explained.
Back at VTT, the school established the Grade 7 Mitzvah of Valuing Philanthropy program in 2008. Each year, the graduating class chooses charities or causes that are meaningful to the group and fundraises to support those causes. This year, the school decided to fundraise exclusively for the Simbi Foundation.
“After learning about the power of a BrightBox to dramatically transform lives in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, we decided to go bold and big by dedicating all money raised to this one cause only,” said Jennifer Shecter, director of communications and admissions at VTT. “We wanted to make a giant impact this one time.”
The Grade 7 class dedicates several months of study and exploration to the MVP program and Shecter said the students become emotionally invested and feel genuine pride in their fundraising efforts. “In years past, students ran bake sales, garage sales, babysitting services, movie screenings at VTT and other initiatives to boost their MVP contributions,” she said. “This year, all those options were not available due to COVID so several of our students passionately worked the phones (or texted) family members and friends to donate.”
Several students contributed in excess of $1,000 each to the program, with the average donation ranging between $180 and $250 per student. A total of $38,000 was raised.
Shecter said the students’ connection to Friedland and Sommer, and their understanding of the scope of this project, enabled them to convince others to jump on board and donate to the cause.
The two co-founders spent time in the classroom with the Grade 7 students, explaining the purpose of the BrightBoxes and the extent of the research that motivates the Simbi Foundation’s decisions. The students were assigned to groups to study solar energy, the BrightBox curriculum and other topics relevant to education in the refugee settlements.
“We had two elements happening in parallel: the students were learning about our program and fundraising for it,” said Sommer. “So, they knew exactly what their fundraising efforts were contributing to. Because of that, they were able to surpass their fundraising goal. We were extremely impressed and honoured with VTT and the students’ efforts.”
Shecter added that VTT has had a relationship with Friedland for the past five years.
“VTT students meet with Aaron every year to learn about new initiatives and participate in his programs, like the Simbi reading and literacy program, and they find Aaron and Ran to be enthusiastic, approachable and relatable,” she said. “Our students thoroughly enjoyed each interaction with them and felt a sense of pride knowing members of their community are creating avenues for real change for individuals with many barriers to education and prosperity.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Juneteenth webinar panelists (clockwise from top left) Heather Miller, Dr. Tameika Minor, Rafi Forbush and Kendell Pinkney. (photos from internet)
The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) held a webinar entitled Juneteenth Through the Eyes of Jews of Colour: Sharing Stories and Perspectives on June 17, the same day the United States declared Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday. Slaves were freed from Texas, the last Confederate state with institutionalized slavery, on June 19, 1865.
The objectives of the evening were to establish better dialogue, to create a space to honour the Jewish and Black communities, to learn about the challenges people of colour have in the Jewish community, and to find the means by which people of colour can feel welcome in the Jewish community. Marques Hollie, a theatre artist, storyteller and musician, led the evening with a rendition of the post-Civil War song “Oh Freedom.”
“Our people crossed the Red Sea. People of colour are still in Egypt. For Black people, freedom has not come fast enough and not in a straight line,” said Ruth Messinger, a former politician and head of the American Jewish World Service, in opening remarks that preceded the introduction of the panel discussion.
The four panelists were Heather Miller, Dr. Tameika Minor, Kendell Pinkney and Rafi Forbush. Rabbi Ari Lucas of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., moderated the event. Lucas encouraged the audience to listen before asking questions.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I came out as a Black person last year,” said Miller, president of the Jewish Centre in Brooklyn and a future rabbi. “In the Jewish spaces I have been in, people have tried not to see my colour. The stakes are different for us than the majority of people in this Zoom room. I was afraid this would just be a moment for everyone else and that the world would go back to not seeing this stuff again after the pandemic. I was afraid of being left exposed without a community.”
Minor, a professor in clinical mental health counseling and rehabilitation counseling at Rutgers University, said she would like to see Juneteenth become a day of reflection and not just celebration. “Reflection of where we have come from and how far we have to go,” she said. “It’s not a day we should sit back and not look at the wealth gap, mass incarceration and police brutality. Now it is a federal holiday, and yet so many states are banning critical race theory in schools.”
“For me, the question isn’t what does Juneteenth mean to me now but what might it mean to us moving forward,” said Pinkney, a Brooklyn-based theatre writer, Jewish-life consultant and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The Jewish people are so, so good at crafting stories, creating rituals. What rituals might be created 20 years from now around Juneteenth? Which stories and voices will we finally open our ears to?”
He added, “I like to think of it more as a promise of what might be and what we might become as a Jewish community.”
Rounding out the panel was Forbush, youth director at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights (St. Paul) and founder of the Multiracial Jewish Association of Minnesota, which focuses on creating space for Jews of colour to connect to one another, through the community, education and advocacy.
“If you had told me that our community would be having this conversation at the beginning of the pandemic, I would have laughed at you,” said Forbush. “There is a bright light in our community starting to see outside of ourselves. If we are a people and not a race, then we owe it to each other to get to know who we are. The idea here is, extend the tent and not move it to exclude somebody else.”
Like Pinkney, Forbush spoke of the potential the holiday holds for the future and the sense of inclusion it can bring to the entire community. He pointed out that young Jews of colour often feel excluded.
Throughout the webinar, the panelists touched on various points of exclusion they feel as part of a community – of not believing they are entirely heard and of the microaggressions that occur in Jewish spaces, such as being quizzed on aspects of Jewish life or being viewed as staff and not a member of the community. Understandably, these are the sorts of issues that drive Jews of colour away from synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
The hope was expressed that Jews of colour could achieve more positions of leadership within Jewish organizations. There was also a sense that the community as a whole is not achieving its full potential without engaging more actively and openly with Jews of colour.
“This year, as we expand upon the understandings of diversity and inclusion, we have, despite COVID, actively widened the doors to our tent so to speak,” said Rabbi Susan Tendler of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Tikvah, which has been promoting the recent USCJ webinars on reaching out to interracial families and building a larger sense of inclusion for all Jews.
“We have actively listened and considered with compassion the feelings of people who may want to enter and yet find barriers to feeling authentically accepted within the larger Jewish community,” she told theIndependent. “United Synagogue’s program on Juneteenth is one example of many in which we have taken the opportunity to listen and learn.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Israeli actor Shira Haas was the featured guest at the Canadian Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s virtual gala July 7. (photo byShula Klinger)
On July 7, the Canadian Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev held their second virtual fundraising gala. More than 1,200 participants logged on to the An “Unorthodox” National Virtual Gala event, which raised $850,000 for brain research at BGU’s Zlotowski Centre for Neuroscience.
The Zlotowski Centre is a group of researchers dedicated to finding cures and management tools for neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and epilepsy.
Months in the making, the virtual gala was the work of a countrywide team of BGU staffers and numerous volunteers. Every participating household in Metro Vancouver received sweet and savoury kosher treats from Café 41. The accompanying gift box also brought olive oil from the Negev, a copy of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Simon & Schuster, 2012), appetizer dishes and a commemorative cutting board.
Danny Chamovitz, BGU’s president, spoke about the work of BGU’s academics in general, in disciplines ranging from public health to brain research. Canadian Senator Linda Frum conducted the feature interview – with multiple-award-winning actor Shira Haas.
Describing herself as “very, very shy” as a young person, Haas said she had considered psychology or graphic design as professions, until a casting director approached her on Facebook. Sixteen years old at the time, she said, with respect to that first project, “I understood that this is what I want to do, it was like the door to Narnia.”
Haas does not take her success or popularity for granted. “It was always a dream to work internationally, in different languages, for different audiences, but I never imagined it,” she said. “It was always about the work. I am very, very lucky to be in this position.” She added, “My parents deserve to be talked about! They are the most supportive and amazing parents.”
Known for taking on demanding roles, Haas approaches acting in a scholarly fashion. She studied musculoskeletal diseases to play a terminally ill woman in the film Asia, and researched Russian, Yiddish and Charedi culture for the series Shtisel and Unorthodox. She said she finds beauty in hard work, explaining that Asia was “challenging in the most beautiful way. It was a lot of physical and emotional work, and very personal for me.”
When playing a part, Haas said she is motivated by two things. First, she must be passionate about the role because “that’s what brings everything alive.” About Shtisel, she said, “I fell in love with it immediately.”
Her second principle is to portray “subjects that matter to me.”
Haas’s idealism was evident in the way she spoke about Asia. “It’s not really about death,” she said. “It’s about relationships, about appreciating the time we have and what we do with it. The highest form of art is to bring light to the darkness.”
About Unorthodox, she said, “It didn’t occur to me that it is about the Orthodox world. It was just a story about people who want to be loved, their doubts, desires and failures.”
And Shtisel, she noted, had a huge impact on people all over the world. The show helped change people’s view of Orthodox communities, she said: “It’s universal.”
Of her forthcoming portrayal of Golda Meir in her early years, Haas described a woman with “a very interesting life. She was very passionate, with many dreams and desires.”
Since David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were friends, she laughed, “this event was meant to be!”
Haas spoke of her personal connection to BGU. Her sister studied at the university and a close friend is there now. Haas wanted to participate in the gala for several reasons, including, she said, “I am Jewish, I am an Israeli. I want to keep on doing events like this! I am even more proud to do it for Ben-Gurion.”
As for the brain research being conducted at BGU, which the gala funds will support, there has already been groundbreaking progress. Claude Broski’s group has identified a protein that can slow down the degeneration brought on by Parkinson’s. The social robots developed by Shelley Levy-Tzedek and her team will have an impact on stroke patient recovery – the robots offer motivation, feedback and performance-tracking during the rehabilitation phase. Epilepsy researchers are developing wearable hardware and software that could alert patients to an oncoming seizure, an hour before it happens. And Deborah Toiber’s Alzheimer’s team is exploring questions about brain aging, such as, Why does the disease affect so many of us, when only 5% of cases are genetic?
David Berson, executive director of CABGU, British Columbia and Alberta, said, “It has been very gratifying to see how the Metro Vancouver community has embraced BGU students and faculty in recent years. Many new supporters have stepped forward during the last year to engage with us. We are especially grateful to our community partners, who helped us promote this Unorthodox event.”
Among the many contributors to the gala were board members Jay Eidelman and Si Brown. Rachelle Delaney helped Berson with the goodie boxes at the crack of dawn on July 7, while volunteer drivers delivered the boxes. Adrian Cantwell and I were co-chairs for the Metro Vancouver team.
Shula Klingeris an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. She was Metro Vancouver co-chair of the CABGU gala with Adrian Cantwell.
Paralympic world champion rower Moran Samuel (photo by Detlev Seyb)
Israel is sending its largest-ever Olympic delegation – 89 athletes – to the Tokyo Olympics, set for July 23 to Aug. 8. And it’s sending 32 athletes to Tokyo for the Paralympics, which run Aug. 24 to Sept. 5. Do any of these competitors have a good chance of bringing home a medal?
Israel has won nine medals in 16 Summer Olympic Games: five bronze and one silver in judo, a bronze in canoeing, and a bronze and a gold in sailing.
In contrast, its Paralympic athletes have earned 123 gold, 123 silver and 129 bronze medals since 1964. However, the competition has gotten stiffer in recent years. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Israel won eight medals, including its first gold in wheelchair tennis. In 2016, the Paralympic team came home with just three bronze medals, won by Moran Samuel in rowing, Doron Shaziri in shooting and Inbal Pezaro in swimming.
Israel21c asked Jerusalem-based sports journalist Joshua “the Sports Rabbi” Halickman for his insights.
Like everyone else, Halickman has his eye on Linoy Ashram, 22. She won gold and bronze medals in the 2021 Rhythmic Gymnastics World Cup, among her many other medals. Last weekend, she won a further five gold medals at the Rhythmic Gymnastics Grand Prix in Tel Aviv – for ball, hoop, clubs, ribbon and all-around contests.
“Linoy is currently the world’s No. 1 rhythmic gymnast, based on competitions that took place in the past few months,” Halickman said. “She is one of the big hopefuls for the Israel Olympic committee. She was really gearing for summer 2020 and there was a concern that she would lose that level of achievement, but, a year later, she’s only gotten better.”
However, he noted, Ashram will be up against the Russian twins Arina and Dina Averina, who are widely expected to medal. “So it won’t be easy,” he said. “You’ve got to have a perfect performance; one mistake and you’re finished.”
Ashram will do one of her routines to a version of “Big in Japan,” a song by Alphaville. Indeed, Halickman said, “I feel she is going to be big in Japan.”
In judo, Sagi Muki, 29, is the reigning world champ in his under-81-kilogram weight category and is coming into the Tokyo Games as a realistic medal contender. “But he has not performed as well as he would have liked to in the past half year,” said Halickman. “He’s taken medals at minor competitions but not up to par compared to before the pandemic.”
Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik, 27, “has been at the top of his game over the past half year and has maybe a better chance than Sagi,” said Halickman.
Aside from those three, Halickman mentioned a couple of athletes who could surprise everyone and win a medal. One is female judoka Timna Nelson–Levy, 27, who won the 2021 Tel Aviv Grand Slam in the under-57-kilogram category. Another is swimmer Anastasia Gorbenko, only 17, who won a gold medal at the 2021 European Championships.
“Anastasia will compete in a slew of different swimming events. It’s the first time in ages Israel has a swimmer taking part in so many different categories,” said Halickman.
Perhaps the most anticipated Israeli Olympic event, however, will be baseball. With only six teams in the competition, Team Israel has a 50-50 chance of winning a medal, Halickman pointed out.
“It will be a top-level competition because they’ll be playing against world heavyweights like the United States, Japan and Mexico,” he said.
“Whenever Israel goes to the Olympics, Jews around the world want Israel to succeed,” he added. “But baseball is unique because it’s so American and this team is primarily American immigrants. They understand it’s a huge responsibility to represent the Jews in the Diaspora.”
Bottom line? “Israel could walk away from the Olympics with a half dozen medals or none. Nothing is guaranteed in sports,” said Halickman.
Just as in the 2016 Rio Games, Israel’s Paralympic team is anticipated to do well in shooting, rowing and swimming in Tokyo. In particular, said Halickman, shooter Doron Shaziri and rower Moran Samuel are expected to reach the winner’s podium.
Shaziri, 54, has won five Paralympic silver medals and three bronze medals over seven Paralympic Games. His teammate Yulia Tzarnoy, who won a bronze medal at the last World Championships, also has a reasonable shot (pun intended) at medaling in Tokyo.
Samuel, 39, who competes in singles rowing, won a bronze medal in Rio. She’s also a national wheelchair basketball champion.
In swimming, the ones to watch are world champions Mark Malyar, 21, and Ami Dadaon, 20.
In May, Dadaon set two world records in his disability class at the European Para Swimming Championships: the 100-metre freestyle and 200-metre freestyle. The following month, at the World Para Swimming World Series, he improved his time in the 200-metre freestyle by less than a second, setting another world record.
Malyar set a world record at the 2021 World Para Swimming World Series Finale in the men’s 800-metre freestyle in his disability class, breaking his own record, set in 2019, by more than 13 seconds.
To help Israelis get pumped for the Paralympics, the Telma cereal company is featuring the photos and stories of three Paralympic athletes on a special edition “Cornflakes of Champions” package. They include swimmer Veronika Girenko, rower Achiya Klein and goalball player Roni Ohayon.
Israel21c is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
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Tel Aviv-born fencer Shaul Gordon, a former Richmond resident who now lives in Montreal, is part of Canada’s Olympic team. According to his bio on olympic.ca/team-canada, “Gordon made his senior fencing debut for Canada in 2013. He has since represented Canada at two Pan American Games and six FIE World Championships.
“Gordon earned his first career senior individual medal at the Pan American Championships in 2018, when he captured silver. Later that year, he won gold at an FIE Satellite event in Belgium.
“Gordon followed up his terrific 2018 with an even more successful 2019, starting with helping Canada bring home a third straight silver in team sabre from the Pan Am Championships. At the FIE World Championships, he advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time ever. At the Lima 2019 Pan Am Games, he also helped Canada to a team sabre silver, while winning a bronze in the individual sabre.
“Gordon fenced collegiately at Penn State for his freshman year before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania. He finished second at the NCAA Championships in 2013, tied for third in 2014, was a three-time All-American and finished his college career with an overall record of 143-30.”
On June 9, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) hosted the webinar Embracing Diversity: Wisdom from an Interfaith, Interracial Jewish Family. The event addressed the issues involved in creating an inclusive setting within a congregation and keeping an open mind about Jewish intermarriage.
Keren McGinity, the USCJ’s interfaith specialist, led the inaugural event, which took place on Zoom. Interfaith is one of four areas of diversity synagogues should hope to include, she said; the others being LBGTQ+, people of colour, and people of all neurological and physical abilities; occasionally, there is overlap.
It was mentioned that the webinar took place close to Loving Day (June 12), which marks the anniversary of the 1958 marriage – and subsequent arrest – of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in its Loving v. Virginia decision.
Guest speakers for the afternoon were Shira and Derrick, an interfaith and interracial couple. Shira grew up in the northeast United States and was raised in the Conservative movement; Derrick was born to Ghanaian parents and raised in an evangelical Christian environment in the Midwest. The pair met at university and began dating in their senior year. Because of their different upbringings, neither believed at the outset that the relationship would last. To their surprise, however, it did. They fell in love, ultimately got married and are now raising a baby daughter.
“There was a lot of internal struggle for both of us,” Shira admitted, explaining that they both wondered whether they were going to go through with it. Also, from Shira’s friends and family, there was concern, not that Derrick is black but that he is Christian.
“When I came to the realization that I would be marrying the love of my life, and not a Christian, it led to a lot of changes in thinking about what relationships meant,” Derrick told the Zoom audience.
“Whenever two people come together, there are always gaps that need to be bridged. What really matters is what are the things that are important to you and what are you willing to talk about,” he said, when asked about the cultural, religious and geographic differences the couple had when entering the relationship.
Intellectually, Shira understood that getting a rabbi to officiate would be challenging, yet, emotionally and spiritually, she could not come to terms with that fact because she knew in her heart that her relationship with Derrick was “the right thing.”
After sharing aspects of their personal journey as a couple, Shira and Derrick were asked by McGinity what the Jewish community could do to be more inclusive. Derrick described the reactions he generally receives when entering a synagogue with Shira. First, people look shocked, then, when they realize they are not supposed to make that face, they come over and make some awkward small talk.
Though Derrick understands the need to maintain certain traditions to make a religious setting what it is, the problem for him “is constantly feeling like the other, despite having a desire to being a part of that space, and not being treated like others who are entering the space.”
For her part, Shira said she thinks people are overcompensating because they are uncomfortable. “We have an idea of what Jewish looks like and assume that Jews look a certain way, even though there are examples in front of us.” One of those examples is their daughter.
“I don’t expect everyone to be completely comfortable with me walking into a room, because I look a little bit different than the majority of those in the Conservative shuls I have attended. What I do recognize is that there is going to be progress,” Derrick said, referencing the Loving case. He pointed out that the Supreme Court verdict was only 54 years ago and that his own marriage would have been illegal in a different era.
“To expect that not everyone in a Conservative shul is going to be comfortable is reasonable,” he stressed. “What I do expect is an openness and recognition that change is coming, and the recognition that there are going to be some awkward conversations. I expect that. What I don’t want is to be the warrior to help explain that to everyone.”
“If someone is in a Jewish space, they’re there to do Jewish things,” Shira said. “And that’s what matters.”
Richmond’s Congregation Beth Tikvah is one of the participating synagogues in the USCJ’s Embracing Diversity program.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Dr. Judith Moskowitz (photo from Judith Moskowitz)
Anxiety and stress can be debilitating even in the most normal of times, but, with COVID-19 and all that it encompasses, we have all been presented with a whole other level of challenges.
In this context, the Jewish Independent connected with Dr. Judith Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. She is also the director of research for Northwestern’s Osher Centre for Integrative Medicine. Trained as a social psychologist, with expertise in stress and coping with emotions, Moskowitz started her career in the early 1990s, helping men caring for their partners suffering from AIDS.
“Before there were more effective treatments available, it was essentially a terminal illness,” she said. “Caring for a loved one with AIDS was really one of the most stressful events a human could experience.”
Initially, she said, “We’d ask them, ‘What is stressful about this?’ Then, we’d help them cope with it, really focusing in on the negative part the whole experience and, shortly after the start of the study, the participants started saying, ‘You’re not asking us about the good things in our lives’ … which surprised us, because we’re coming at it from a very much stress and coping way.
“So, we listened to them and started then asking, ‘OK, tell us something positive that happened in the last week.’ And, almost in every single interview, even if their partner had just died, they could talk about something positive … often something small … having to do with something else going on in their lives not necessarily directly related to their care-giving.”
This new perspective helped direct Moskowitz onto a path looking at the positive things within stressful life events, allowing positive emotions to be expressed along with the negative.
“This isn’t about pretending things aren’t happening,” she stressed. “Rather, it’s about knowing that, even when times are really dark and you may be experiencing a lot of negative emotions and a lot of stress – maybe even depression or anxiety – you also have the ability to experience positive emotions as well. So, if you can experience the positive alongside those negative emotions, you’ll be able to cope better.”
Moskowitz and her team put together a program that includes eight to 10 skills, depending on the target group, toward helping participants increase their daily experience of positive emotions – stopping to notice, savour and capitalize on those good aspects.
“When things are stressful, it can be hard to see the positive things going on,” said Moskowitz. “We help people realize there’s usually something positive happening … you just have to be able to notice it.
“Things might be really horrific, but your dog is sitting next to you, really loves you, and it’s very sweet. So, just taking a moment and petting your dog, and then maybe telling someone about it – that would be noticing something positive in your life and savouring or capitalizing on it,” she explained. “We’ve been able to show that people who learn these skills and then practise them have better emotional well-being. They’re less likely to be depressed. In some samples, we were seeing some physical health effects. So, through clinical trials, we showed that the program seems to be helpful.”
When COVID first hit, Moskowitz was inundated with questions about how to cope better with stresses associated with the pandemic. The bottom line is that these skills transcend any particular stressor and can help no matter what the situation.
“For COVID, my advice is the same as it is for coping with breast cancer, diabetes, depression, or being a high school student,” said Moskowitz. “Learn these skills, try them out, see which work for you and, then, keep doing them. It’s like a physical activity, something you need to keep on doing. You can’t just do it once … similar to gratitude, noticing the good things, being thankful … it doesn’t work for you to just be grateful once and then be done with it. You need to take it up as a habit, and that can help you cope with COVID-19 or adapt with whatever kind of life stress you’re facing.”
Moskowitz also teaches the importance of doing acts of kindness. The idea is that, when you do something nice for someone else, it helps you feel better, too. Such an act can be as simple as paying for the coffee of the person in line behind you. Or looking someone in the eye and thanking them, making them feel appreciated and seen. And there are many types of acts that can be done without the receiver knowing the kindness came from you, if you’d rather remain anonymous.
“Doing these acts helps you feel better in a situation where you might think, I’m suffering here, I’m having a really hard time … but, knowing you can do something to help someone else can help your own well-being,” said Moskowitz.
Another skill she pointed to is “positive reappraisal.” When something stressful happens, take a moment to reframe it or think about it in a way that makes it seem not so bad or even like it’s positive thing – find the good in it.
“Sometimes, it takes the form of actually learning something about yourself – like you find that you are stronger than you’d thought you were,” said Moskowitz. “My favourite positive reappraisal is, ‘Well, that could have been worse! It’s bad, but it could have been worse.’
“An extreme example of this happened when we were doing some work with a gun-violence prevention group here in Chicago, teaching them these skills. They work with young men who are at high risk of either being victims or perpetrators of gun violence. The people they work with often are involved in a shooting. [The group members] will talk about it and will say, ‘One of our clients was shot and is in the hospital, but he’s alive.’ Having one of your clients shot is pretty bad and very stressful, but they’re able to say, ‘You know what? It could have been worse. He could have died, but he’s still alive.’ So, that’s a very vivid example of positive reappraisal.”
Moskowitz stressed that there is no one technique that works better than all others. She said, with regard to various anxiety- and stress-reducing methods, it is very much a matter of what fits best for each individual in a particular circumstance.
Algazi Synagogue was built in 1724 and has been renovated several times. (photo from Izmir Jewish Community Foundation)
The Izmir Jewish Community Foundation’s Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, for the preservation of Jewish heritage within the Turkish city, has started its activities. The project, financed by the European Commission, also has Our City Izmir Association as a partner.
Home to various cultures and religions, Izmir is one of the cities that has attracted Jewish immigration since ancient times. In the light of current data, the first concrete evidence of the Jewish community’s existence in the city dates to the fifth or sixth century CE. Sephardi Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1497 came to the Ottoman lands and settled in Izmir and its surroundings.
Since the middle of the 16th century, synagogues, hospitals, cemeteries and other institutions were established within the social, economic, cultural and administrative structure that started to form the present Izmir Jewish community. Most of the historical buildings that have survived to today are located in the Old Jewish Quarter, known as the historical centre and downtown of Izmir.
The Jewish population fluctuated after the 16th century due to earthquakes, epidemics, fires and global political, economic and sociological migrations. In the 1800s, Izmir was home to approximately 50,000 Jews, mostly Sephardi. A significant decrease in the population began in the early 1900s, when many people migrated to Europe and the Americas. Another massive outward move took place to Israel, after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Today, the Jewish population of Izmir is about 1,100 people.
In parallel with the decrease in population, out of the city’s 34 synagogues, only 13 remained. With shrinking congregations, some of the synagogues were neglected and even disappeared over the years. In addition, seismic activity and environmental threats have put these structures in peril. As a result, all of the synagogues that have survived to the present day have to be preserved and restored.
Six of the nine synagogues in Kemeralti, the bazaar area at the heart of the city, tell the stories of centuries. Adjacent to one another and with their special architecture, they have unique value in the world. Currently, the area, consisting of the nine synagogues, one chief rabbinate building, five kortejos (courtyards) and the Juderia (Jewish district) creates a density of structures that is also of unique cultural and touristic value.
The 36-month heritage project includes:
A masterplan for the region of the Old Jewish Quarter, located in the historical centre of Izmir, including conservation and restoration plans for the Hevra and Foresteros synagogues, which date to the 17th century. These synagogues, witnessing much of the Izmir Jewish community history, are unique, as they form a compound of four synagogues facing the same courtyard.
This compound of synagogues will be promoted in Turkey and worldwide, to be recognized as a cultural heritage site, a tourist destination and an intercultural dialogue centre.
A platform strengthening communication with local, national and international networks will be established. A physical location where the platform will carry out its work is also planned.
Four books will be written and published on subjects such as Izmir Sephardi stories, Izmir Sephardi women, Jewish press in Izmir, and traditional synagogue textiles.
Conferences, workshops, training and study visits will be organized.
Works on corporate identity, website, brochures, short films, etc., will be brought to life in order to increase institutional capacity and promote this heritage.
While the project is funded by the EU, the content is entirely under the responsibility of the Izmir Jewish Community Foundation.
Afghanistan is seeking to repatriate a 1,200-year-old siddur, which is currently housed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. (photo from Museum of the Bible)
The National Museum of Afghanistan, established in 1919 at the former Bagh-i-Bala royal palace overlooking Kabul, reflects both the multifaith heritage and tortured history of the Central Asian country that once dominated the Silk Road linking Europe and East Asia.
Following the outbreak of Afghanistan’s civil war in 1992, the museum was repeatedly shelled. It suffered heavy damage in a May 12, 1993, rocket strike. The combination of Taliban mortars and looters resulted in the loss of 70% of the 100,000 prehistoric, Hellenistic, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Islamic and Jewish objects once in its collection. Those pilfered artifacts flooded antiquities markets in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Now, the pro-Western regime of President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – formerly an anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. – wants its cultural legacy returned. Among the treasures it is seeking to repatriate is a 1,200-year-old siddur (prayer book) – the world’s oldest Hebrew manuscript after the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“It is our responsibility to get back our ancient treasures,” said Abdul Manan Shiway e-Sharq – the country’s deputy minister for information and publications in the Ministry of Information and Culture – in the first-ever on-the-record interview between an Afghani official and an Israeli journalist.
Shiway e-Sharq said photos of the ancient siddur in Kabul’s National Museum, dating from 1998, contradict the ownership documents provided by the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The MotB says it bought the siddur in 2013 from antiquities dealers in the United Kingdom who provided provenance documents showing the manuscript had been in Britain since the 1950s. The MotB paid $2.5 million for the prayer book. Though Shiway e-Sharq appraised the unique volume at $30 million for insurance purposes, it truly is priceless.
The prayer book may have belonged to the Radhanites, a little-known group of medieval merchants, some Jewish, who traded along the Silk Road linking Christian Europe, the Islamic world, China and India during the early Middle Ages. The Radhanites’ entrepôts and Afghanistan’s early Jewish community were likely destroyed in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Mongol Empire grew from the steppes of Mongolia to extend from Europe to China.
Responding to a query, MotB’s chief curator Jeff Kloha said the museum will share results of an investigation when completed.
“As noted on the museum’s provenance research web page, museum staff continues to work with external scholars and experts to research this item’s historical and religious significance, as well the item’s history in (apparently) Afghanistan and later Israel and the United States,” Kloha said. “That research is progressing and nearing completion.”
The allegation that the MotB’s rare Afghan Hebrew prayer book is another ancient Near Eastern treasure that was smuggled out of its country of origin is the latest in a series of scandals about looted and forged antiquities that has rocked the Museum of the Bible since its 2017 opening.
The MotB recently shipped 8,000 clay tablets back to Baghdad that may have been taken from the Iraq Museum in 2003, when looters overran it during the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. At the end of January 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security returned 5,500 papyrus fragments from the MotB with “insufficient” provenance to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, concluding Cairo’s efforts since 2016 to regain its antiquities. And, the museum has acknowledged that all of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments it acquired are forgeries.
MotB founder Steve Green, an evangelical Christian whose family owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and chief curator Kloha have worked to tighten the museum’s acquisition policies after the U.S. government reached a settlement with Hobby Lobby in 2017 requiring the chain store to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing ancient artifacts.
Leon Hill, the in-house counsel for Transparent Business Solutions, a Dutch company that specializes in corporate integrity management, is keen to see a resolution to the dispute over the ancient siddur. He is dismissive of Green’s explanation that he and Kloha are novices in the museum business and the acquisition of artifacts. “They can’t continue to say that. They’re no longer new. They have a duty to know better. They have a duty to the history and heritage of the artifacts they purport to protect.”
He accused the MotB of “cultural imperialism.” He said, “We hope that we won’t need to be hired by the Afghan government, and that the Museum of the Bible will do the right thing in the right way quickly.”
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
Six-year-old Biniyam Tesfahun with his family shortly before being transported to Israel for heart surgery. (photo by Basleel Tadesse)
Last month, while Israel was still in lockdown, an urgent flight from Ethiopia arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport. The airport was closed and incoming commercial flights had been banned in an effort to contain coronavirus infection rates. The privately chartered plane, sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, taxied onto the tarmac in the early hours of Friday, Feb. 12, carrying some 296 Ethiopian Jewish olim and six children in need of heart surgery.
One of those children was Biniyam Tesfahun, a 6-year-old Ethiopian-Jewish descendant who had not been granted aliyah by Israel. Doctors had discovered a rare congenital defect a month earlier that had produced a hole in his heart. The Israeli nonprofit Save a Child’s Heart had secured seats on the plane for five Ethiopian children and there was room for one more. But about a week before the flight was to depart, the family received word that the Ministry of the Interior had denied a visa.
Word spread quickly within the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Israelis began posting the news on Facebook sites, anguished that the child could die without treatment. Readers in the United States, Britain and Ethiopia stepped in to write articles and post pictures calling for the government to grant aliyah for the little boy and his family.
In no time, the news reached the office of the minister of immigration and absorption, Pnina Tamano-Shata, who insisted the surgery was an emergency and urged the Ministry of Interior to reconsider its position. A day before the flight was to take off, Biniyam’s parents were told the request was approved. The boy and his family would be issued a 10-day permit for medical treatment in Israel.
“It was all very dramatic,” said Avi Bram, who works for the Gondar, Ethiopia-based aid organization Meketa and helped coordinate the family’s transport to the airport. “None of the family is on the aliyah list, and they have not been given any permission to stay,” but the airlift was finally allowed.
Biniyam’s story, which has now traveled around the globe and been published in multiple languages, is a testament to the bond between the 150,000 members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, the Beta Israel, and the roughly 7,000 descendants still living in Ethiopia. It’s a connection, said Uri Perednik, that dominates the consciousness of many Ethiopian-Israelis on a daily basis and impacts their lives. Perednik serves as the chair for the Struggle for Aliyah for Ethiopian Jewry (SAEJ), a nonprofit organization based in Jerusalem that advocates for the repatriation of the Beta Israel to the Jewish homeland.
Perednik said what happens to the family members in Ethiopia economically and socially continues to have a direct impact on the community in Israel. He added that some of the Beta Israel have been waiting decades to be reunited with their family members. “They are torn between Ethiopia and Israel,” he said. “They send half of their salaries to Ethiopia for their families there.”
The coronavirus pandemic shutdown last year and the growing civil unrest in Ethiopia have only exacerbated concerns. “Now people also have smaller salaries or no salaries because of the COVID economic situation in Israel. So it is very tough on the families,” he added.
Ethiopian-Israelis continue to be among the lowest-paid workers in the country. A study by a media outlet (2018) found that almost 70% of Ethiopian-Israelis work junior positions to cover their household expenses, in a country that has the seventh-highest cost of living in the world (2019). For new arrivals from Ethiopia, that economic disparity can be a Catch-22, as they find they are now the major breadwinners for two entirely separate households.
Tamano-Shata, who was appointed in 2020 to direct the country’s immigration and absorption programs, says improving economic opportunities for immigrants starts with equipping them with better tools. Tamano-Shata, who arrived in Israel at the age of 3 during the 1980s Operation Solomon airlift, is the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold a Knesset seat. She understands well the challenges that Ethiopian Jews face as new citizens.
Over the past year, her ministry has restructured several core services of the country’s immigration program. She has expanded Hebrew language study for immigrants from one-and-a-half years to 10 years to help new citizens gain competency in Hebrew. Language barriers, said Tamano-Shata, are “shared [by] all olim from all over the world – those who speak English, Amharic, French, Russian, Portuguese and more.” Studies in Israel have shown that language fluency often affects employment opportunities.
Tamano-Shata has also drafted a five-year plan for “optimal integration” of new olim and targeted benefits, tax breaks and housing assistance that can help new immigrants get started when they begin looking for a new home.
Perednik said the government has been trying for years to address immigrant housing shortages, which are exacerbated by a national housing crisis. “There have been a few housing programs by the government that were supposed to help young Ethiopian families move to better houses,” Perednik said, but “nothing has really changed.” There is hope that Tamano-Shata’s efforts will finally help the situation.
In 2016, Tamano-Shata gained notoriety as a junior Knesset member for calling attention to discrimination against Ethiopian-Israelis. Her calls led to changes to the way racial discrimination is addressed within the halls of the Israeli government. They helped open a national dialogue about racial profiling and discrimination, problems that Perednik said still continue today.
Jewish identity in Israel
Israeli author Rabbi Menachem Waldman agrees that racism is a problem in Israel. In his opinion, the greatest obstacle that the Beta Israel face is how they are perceived by other Israelis. Waldman is the author of 10 books on Ethiopian Jewry. At present, he serves jointly as the manager of Israel’s absorption program and rabbi for the Jewish communities in Ethiopia.
Waldman said the main obstacle that Ethiopian-Israelis continue to face is “their Jewish identity and their colour.” He said, even though rabbis ruled decades ago that the Beta Israel were Jewish and should be allowed to immigrate as Jews, Ethiopian-Israeli citizens continue to face scrutiny and disbelief that they are “100% Jewish.”
The more recent immigrants were required to undergo conversion as a condition of aliyah and are frequently subjected to additional scrutiny when they apply for marriage. Waldman said he believes this type of stereotyping is harmful to new immigrants. “It [leads] to racism,” he said.
Ethiopian-Israelis face economic challenges, he added, but, still, in his view, it is the constant questions about the authenticity of their Jewish identity that pose the greatest risk. “If he is a strong Jew, like other Israelis, he can overcome the difficulties,” said Waldman. “But, if he [is led to believe] that because he is Black he isn’t like other [Israelis] … it [can sow doubt] in his life in Israel.”
Tamano-Shata’s proposed changes to the immigration and absorption programs take some of these concerns into consideration. She said the government continues to make amendments to the ulpan program, which aids in the successful integration of new immigrants. She also advocates that “education, [innovation] and role models are undoubtedly significant and important tools” when it comes to overcoming prejudice.
There have been recent advances when it comes to a broader acceptance of Beta Israel traditions and customs, which generally date back to pre-talmudic times and are not widely understood by many Israelis. In 2008, the Sigd festival was formally recognized as a national holiday. While the festival has changed dramatically since its early days in Ethiopia, there are signs of a growing appreciation of the holiday in Israel, which occurs 50 days after Yom Kippur. According to Beta Israel beliefs, it is the date when God was first revealed to Moses.
In 2020, then-deputy minister Gadi Yevarkan proposed that Sigd should become an integral part of Israeli Rosh Hashanah celebrations, and celebrated by all Jews. The yearly attendance of the festival by the prime minister and other dignitaries has helped publicize the significance of the holiday and, in turn, encourage better acceptance of the Beta Israel and their traditions in the Jewish homeland.
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.