By Carol Simon
The Women’s Philanthropy Mission to Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest afforded 32 passionate and dedicated women a unique opportunity to learn about and experience Jewish life in Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. It was an intense, action-packed, and eye-opening eight-day trip that was emotional and provocative.
We learned about the history of Jews in these three countries, including the virulence of anti-Semitism that peaked (but, unfortunately, did not end) with the Holocaust. We saw many memorials to these once-thriving communities; we bore witness to the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp, north of Vienna; and we heard the testimony of nonagenarian Kurt Rosenkranz, who told us how his neighbors enthusiastically supported the Nazis and rushed to ransack Jewish houses, and that restitution never occurred. We saw relatively new monuments that minimized the specificity of the Holocaust by referring to generalized victims of Germany, glossing over the Jewish particularity of the genocide as well as the complicity of perpetrators and collaborators. On our way to the airport in Budapest we passed scores of anti-Semitic billboards that we were told are displayed throughout the country.
And yet there is more than just anti-Semitism to be seen. I’ve been to Poland with its faux Jewish revival – where only the elderly affirm their Jewish identities, and the young claim only “Jewish roots,” a tenuous and nebulous connection at best. In Vienna, however, we found a small, static community predominantly over the age of 70, but nonetheless, still there. Bratislava is more a Jewish outpost than a community, where Judaism revolves around Chabad, with a small weekly attendance and a larger visitor population centered on the tomb of the Chatan Sofer. We, in fact, had the privilege of bringing 70 new prayer books to the small Jewish community in Bratislava, replacing their 100-year-old siddurim.
But Budapest was invigorating and energizing. We met ardent, dynamic Jewish young adults embracing and enjoying their Jewish identity, culture, and life. These young people, in a new twist to l’dor va dor, are bringing Judaism back to Budapest and back to parents and grandparents who were “lost” under the oppression of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. These passionate young adults are discovering and exploring their Judaism through Birthright and Szarvas, the summer camp in Hungary run by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). They are returning from these experiences imbued with fervor for creating new modes of community cohesion. They spoke to us of some of their innovative projects and activities, geared at inspiring and educating others. They are rekindling the flame of Judaism and are re-creating a vibrant, new Jewish community.
We saw some of the amazing work that our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, through its partnership with JDC, is accomplishing – facilitating a true rebirth of Jewish life and culture where it was almost fatally extinguished. We felt immense pride in this partnership and were inspired by the effect our support has for these communities that are struggling to re-establish themselves from ravages in the past and fighting against the present-day resurgence of anti-Semitism. Through this effective and powerful partnership, our dollars have maximum impact in fulfilling our sacred obligation to help and support our global Jewish family.
Of course, since this was a Women’s Philanthropy mission, we squeezed in a bit more – guided tours through some of Vienna’s many art museums, a tour of the Budapest Opera House, a meeting with the United States charge d’affaires (the acting Ambassador) in Budapest, and a marvelous dinner cruise down the Danube. What a wonderful way to deepen existing friendships and make new ones!
Women’s Philanthropy missions offer amazing ways to share in and experience the incredible work that we are doing with our partner agencies. They provide wonderful opportunities to be with committed and caring women with a diverse range of interests, to experience new places, meet Jewish communities around the world, and learn new things, all while having a terrific time.