Sunday, November 17, 2013

Personal Reflections at the GA

During the three days of the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America 2013 in Jerusalem last week, I was privileged to dialogue and debate alongside the veteran and up-and-coming leaders of the Jewish world. Jews from North America and Israel, from all backgrounds, came together to consider the issues facing the global Jewish community today and tomorrow. Many were concerned by the recent Pew Report, which indicated that while 94% of USA Jews are proud to be Jewish, strikingly large numbers are drifting away from the Jewish people.

The issue of Jews being a “people” is something very dear to my heart. A Jew has many identities. I myself am a young woman that grew up in a Conservative American Ashkenazi Jewish home, reconnected to my Jewish roots on Birthright, eventually made aliyah, married a mesorati Sephardi Israeli and am now a living milieu of Jewish identities. I have been disengaged and reengaged with the Jewish world time and again as I grappled with my Jewish identity and my belonging to the Jewish people, which is today at the foundation of my sense of self and my passions.
My hero, Israel's President Shimon Peres, spoke at the GA and emphasized that the future of the Jewish people cannot just be about having pride in being Jewish – but finding purpose in being Jewish. I could not agree more. He excitedly exclaimed that “Judaism is a moral vision!” That in many ways Moses expressed the first declarations of democracy (“Every person was created in the image of G-d.” “Love your fellow man as yourself.”), the legacy and heritage for which the Jewish people is responsible.
Many people cannot fathom that after all the tragedies of the Jewish people, we are still here. What keeps us coming back to our Jewish roots? Time and again destruction came our way, and we had the courage to survive. The courage to fight for our purpose. A purpose driven by what was once seen by the world as a radical vision of ethics and morality.
I came back from Birthright years ago with a spark from the Jewish people’s homeland. My aliyah succeeded after standing on the balcony at the exit to Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust History Museum with a view of Jewish homes lining the Jerusalem Hills knowing that if Holocaust survivors could come to this land and still find the courage to keep our purpose thriving, so could I. Today I try my utmost to contribute to my people’s purpose not only by building a Jewish home based on the ethics, morals and traditions of our founding visionaries but also by being a young Jewish professional working at Yad Vashem. By supporting Yad Vashem’s goals as an educational catalyst promoting humanitarian values and tolerance, and inspiring further study, understanding and teaching of the Holocaust – an important part of our people’s past that has and continues to help inform many aspects of our very bright today and tomorrow. Without knowing where we come from, we cannot know where we are going.
Yad Vashem remains an impactful aspect of not only Birthright trips, but trips for Jews of all ages visiting Israel. It is relevant and engaging. It flames the spark. It is a vital place of intergenerational and international encounter devoted to preserving the memory of the past and imparting its meaning to future generations. Yad Vashem has the shared goal with the Federations of Jewish continuity, which was one of the major focuses of the GA 2013 here in Jerusalem. As President Shimon Peres declared at the GA, “The future belongs to us, don’t give up, never.” And for my part, I know I never will.
--Jackie Frankel, International Relations Division, Yad Vashem

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Moments of Bonding & Remembering

(L-R) Leonard Wilf, Michael Bloomberg,  Avner Shalev
Michael Bloomberg Honored by the America Society for Yad  Vashem 
This week the Annual Tribute Dinner of the American Society for Yad Vashem, was held on Sunday, November 10th. With inspiring addresses from honoree Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev, and Mauthausen survivor Ed Mosberg – the dinner marked thirty-two years since the Society was established by the Founding Chairman Eli Zborowski z”l, along with other Holocaust survivors.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was honored with the Yad Vashem Remembrance Award, given for his visionary leadership and for his support of Yad Vashem’s efforts to strengthen the cause of Holocaust remembrance and education. Most recently the recipient of the prestigious Genesis Prize, Mayor Bloomberg has been a central figure in empowering New York City as the capital of tolerance, innovation and growth.
The program, entitled ‘Legacy and Gratitude,’ was presided over by Dinner co-Chairpersons Marilyn and Barry Rubenstein, with the Chairman of the Board Leonard Wilf giving opening remarks. The evening program featured a special memorial tribute to the life and contributions of Eli Zborowski z”l.
At the event, held on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, speakers reflected on the Shoah and emphasized the importance of education and legacy, ensuring that the torch of remembrance is assumed by the second and third generations.
This year’s dinner also recognized the tenth anniversary of the Columbia Shuttle disaster. Tributes to Petr Ginz and Col. Ilan Ramon were especially powerful, thanks to the presence of Ginz’s nephew Yoram Pressburger and Ramon’s son Tal Ramon, who performed a song he composed in memory of his father. In addition to Tal Ramon’s appearance, the program included performances by Hazamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, with moving renditions of "Walk to Caesarea," written by the young paratrooper Hannah Szenes and the "Yugnt Hymn," dedicated to the youth club in the Vilna Ghetto and written by partisan Shmerke Kaczerginski.

--Avital Chizhik
Tal Ramon performing a song in his father's memory
As an experienced Jewish communal professional, I have participated in my share of fundraising dinners. However, last night’s Annual Tribute Gala sponsored by the American Society for Yad Vashem was my first as the new Executive Director/CEO.  I was struck by what made this evening so unique – unique, because of our mission and our guests. How fortunate that we were able to hear from Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and Ed Mosberg, Holocaust survivors themselves. Their stories deeply touched us. Permit me to share some additional thoughts why this dinner was so different from others:
Most of the 600 guests shared a deep connection to one another, often across generations. To the survivors among us, their shared story of living under the Nazi horrors links them together, and for many, the American Society for Yad Vashem dinner allows for important moments of bonding and remembering. Together, survivors remember loved ones murdered, communities destroyed, and the trust that they once had about the goodness of life brutally taken from them. Sadly, today the number of survivors amongst us is dwindling, and the absence of many significant leaders and activists among the survivors was profoundly felt last evening.
To the second generation of survivors, the event reminded many that the responsibility of Holocaust remembrance rests on their shoulders, and that the institutions that the survivors created, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the American Society, will not be able to fulfill their individual missions without them. For second generation survivors, being together reminds them that their personal stories may vary greatly but also are very similar emotionally.
Last night, there was also a large contingent of the “Third Generation” , members of our Young Leadership Associates. Like all young people, they are concerned about their professions, growing families and also growing financial obligations. For many Third Generation participants last night, the Third Generation recognizes that long after the survivors are gone, they are obligated to tell their stories, some of which they heard first hand from their grandparents.
What linked all of our guests was the importance of celebrating. It may be surprising to hear, but this group feels a special responsibility to celebrate. Hitler did not win: "we are here, and we have rebuilt Jewish life after the Holocaust despite all that we have suffered." Living as Jews is the ultimate victory against the Nazis, because celebrating life is a Jewish response to suffering.
Yes, this week's Tribute Dinner was a great success. We raised critical funds to extend our efforts for Holocaust remembrance, commemoration and education. We honored Mayor Bloomberg for his commitment to Holocaust remembrance; paid tribute to Eli Zborowski, may his memory be a blessing, for founding ASYV with other survivors 32 years ago and for chairing ASYV as a volunteer for all of those years; and we remembered the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the Columbia shuttle tragedy ten years ago while carrying 16-year-old Petr Ginz’s drawing “Moon Landscape,” painted by Ginz in Theresienstadt before he was murdered in Auschwitz.
But perhaps the most significant success of the evening was that we were celebrating together. Rabbi Lau succinctly made that point when he ended his remarks, “Am Yisrael Chai - the nation of Israel lives!” We are alive – and that alone is cause for celebration.
--- Rabbi Dr. Eric Lankin,  Executive Director/CEO of the American Society for Yad Vashem

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Rescuer and Survivors’ Families Unite at Yad Vashem: Donate Artifacts to Archives

One of the artifacts donated to Yad Vashem in
2008 - letters, poems and a journal written by 
Holocaust survivor Elisabeth Liesje (Elisheva) 
De Vries 
During the German occupation of Holland, Jan Giliam, a police detective from Haarlem, who frequented the Jewish-owned store of Jacques De Vries, urged Jacques and his family to go into hiding, offering his own home as a temporary way station. Within a few days, Jan managed to arrange permanent hideouts for the fugitive family. Several months later, the fiancé of one of the De Vries’ daughters, Simcha van Frank, came to Jan, also seeking a place to hide. He stayed with Jan for two nights before relocating to a permanent shelter where he remained until the end of the war. In February 1943, Jan was betrayed; he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Euterpestraat, the SS-headquarters in Amsterdam and then to the Amersfoort internment camp. While in the camp, he succeeded in sending out a warning his protégés. Only after he heard that they had received his warning and moved to safety did Jan succumb to torture and admit to having helped Jews. For unknown reasons, he was released. Upon his discharge, he immediately contacted those in hiding to check if they were still safe. He remained in contact with them until the end of the war.
Holocaust survivor Lenie De Vries  who was
rescued by Jan Giliam, a Dutch Righteous
Among the Nations 

For close to 70 years, the De Vries and van Frank families and their descendants cared for and cherished their personal artifacts and documentation from the war years.  In 2008, they decided to donate these items – including a carefully preserved journal, an underground newspaper, forged identification documents, letters and poems – to the Yad Vashem Archives for permanent safekeeping. Last October, some 50 members of the extended family gathered at Yad Vashem for a special event as part of the “Gathering the Fragments” campaign to rescue personal items from the Holocaust period.
Members of the De Vries, Van Frank and Giliam families at the International
School of Holocaust Studies - Yad Vashem

Attending the event was Lenie De Vries, the last living survivor of the family, as well as Klaas Giliam, the son Jan Giliam, who was honored as Righteous Among the Nations in 1977. Klaas delivered a heartfelt speech about how his father had courageously come to the aid of the Jewish family in their time of need and did not betray them, even under the most terrible suffering. He then presented Yad Vashem with a memento of his own: a letter written on a piece of cloth that his father had secreted to his mother in a laundry bag while he was incarcerated in the Nazi headquarters.
Irena Steinfeldt, Director of the
Righteous Among the Nations 
Department at Yad Vashem shows 
some of the artifacts as the eldest De 
Vries granddaughter looks on
"Together with the artifacts donated by the survivor families, this fragile memento serves as testimony to this incredible rescue story," said Archives Division Director Dr. Haim Gertner. "The events and their fortunate outcome are a paradigm of how one courageous human being has the potential to save so many innocent lives."
Klaas Giliam, the son of Righteous Among the Nations Jan Giliam, shows
his father's letter written to his mother on a piece of cloth which he
donated to the Yad Vashem Archives

Members of the De Vries, Van Frank and Giliam families pose for a picture at Yad Vashem