I was privileged to speak yesterday at the annual meeting of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ, formerly the National Coalition for Soviet Jewry, or NCSJ). It’s an organization with a long history of advocating, engaging, and informing our federations and the North American Jewish community on Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Their work is sometimes quiet and below the radar, but always incredibly useful and important. I’m grateful that our federation supports and funds their efforts as a partner agency. And I was particularly proud and honored to deliver a message of support from our community to our own Steve Greenberg, who stepped down today as their Chairman. Mazal tov to Steve and NCSEJ, and may you all go from strength to strength.
Here’s what I said at their meeting ….
I’m here today for three reasons.
First, because Mark Levin [NCSEJ’s CEO] cornered me at our federations’ annual convention last month and asked me to come speak. And when Mark asks you to do something, it’s usually worth doing. Mark, like NCSEJ, has dedicated his life to the service of the Jewish people. His achievements are an inspiration to those of us who come after him. Plus, at 6 foot 2, it’s nice for me to look up to someone at Jewish communal gatherings.
Which leads me to the second reason why I’m here — the caliber, quality, and dedication of this organization and its leaders. The mission to inform and empower the American Jewish community on the events, people, and policies that affect East-European and Eurasian Jewish life is critical. I’m proud that our Jewish federation, like many others, is supporting your efforts. And I look forward to deepening that collaboration.
But there’s a third reason I’m here today. As you’ve no doubt noticed from my accent, I’m a Jersey Boy. Admittedly, not by birth. But I’m proud to represent the Greater MetroWest New Jersey Jewish community in celebrating the achievement, dedication, and leadership of our own Steve Greenberg, a man whom I admire and respect. We’re proud and glad that you’re paying tribute to Steve later in the program. He has led the path for many – in Hillel, in Beit Hatfutzot, in the Tel Aviv Foundation, and in my community.
We’re proud to count Steve as one of ours, from his first days as a young leader from then-Metrowest in National Young Leadership Cabinet, to his many leadership roles in the American and global Jewish community. But in truth, Steve and I don’t come from a single community. Greater MetroWest is unique. We are some 150,000 Jews living in dozens of small towns and counties in the northern and central New Jersey suburbs.
We are communities. Not community. And we are messy, diverse, pluralistic, engaging, noisy, vibrant, and difficult. Just like the Jewish People. We celebrate leadership, commitment, and community. Just like you.
These values are the heart of both NCSEJ and our Jewish federation system. And they are the heart of the relationships that federations like mine have built in far-flung places like Cherkassy in Ukraine, our partner community.
I’ve been privileged to have visited Cherkassy several times these past years. And what fascinates me about the city is how much suffering, how much history, how much meaning is layered into its walls and buildings. And how, like so many cities and towns of the Western reaches of the former Soviet Union, there is very little standing that is actually older than 150 years.
The history of Cherkassy is the history of Ukraine. And, in many ways, it’s the history of the Jewish people. Pride, deep connections, immense challenges.
From the October Revolution to the end of the civil war, Cherkassy changed rule at least 18 times, suffering from the man-made famine of the early 30s and Stalin’s Purges of the late 30s. Just three years later, on the day after Barbarossa, the Germans began bombing Cherkassy. It took more than two years to liberate the city from them. Through Soviet times, like in most other locations, being a Jew in Cherkassy was a tough choice to make. And there were scarce resources to teach you, and your kids or your grandchildren, what being a Jew actually meant. I talked with Hebrew school teachers who told me, in the exciting days of openness in the late 80s and early 90s, that they were usually only one lesson ahead of their students.
They would learn, and then immediately go teach.
During these past few years, Cherkassy has felt the effects of war and economic turmoil. But even though the economic indicators are down, what we keep hearing is a sense of optimism. I know, we all know, the story of Jewish demographics and population trends. They are not always what we want to hear. And yet there is something positive in the conversations. There is something about places like Cherkassy that are the heart of who we are as a global Jewish People.
You see it in missions from Greater MetroWest and Israel to Cherkassy, in joint projects, and in learning programs.
You see it in places like the Cherkassy Family Summer Camp, perhaps our federation’s flagship program in the former Soviet Union. It’s a ten-day multigenerational program that immerses Ukrainian Jews in their Jewish heritage. Many of them are exploring their Judaism for the first time. The summer of 2016 will be the 20th anniversary of the Family Camp, and many of us from New Jersey will be there to celebrate.
The camp is staffed by counselors from Greater MetroWest and from our partner communities in Israel. The relationships that grow from this ten-day experience often last a lifetime. As I stand here with you today, three Greater MetroWest counselors from Ofakim and Merchavim in Israel are in Cherkassy celebrating with them their Hanukah Shabbaton.
Down the road from where I live, in New Jersey, is a family deeply connected to Cherkassy. The daughter, Danielle, spent two summers with other Greater MetroWest and Israeli kids as a counselor in Cherkassy at the summer camp.
Her best friend is Sonya, who will finally become a bat mitzvah next year, and Danielle and her family are planning to go to Ukraine for Sonya’s ceremony. The connections these families and teens make are incredible.
I want to share with you something that Danielle wrote after her second summer at the Family Camp. She said:
I think it’s safe to say that the people at camp in Cherkassy have impacted my life just as greatly as I hope to have impacted theirs. Never in my life have I met people so appreciative, loving, giving, intelligent, curious, kind, and fun, despite whatever hardships they may be enduring...
When I went to Cherkassy for the first time two years ago, I wondered what Shabbat would be like because the majority of the people there do not know any Hebrew.
As soon as we began to sing Shalom Aleichem, however, I began to cry.
I began to cry because, in the very room I was standing, were people from three different countries who spoke three different languages yet we were all Jews singing the same songs and melodies of Shabbat, and that was really, really special.
At camp it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Israeli, or Ukrainian. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or if you’re old or young, or if you’re tall or short.
At camp we celebrate and we love Judaism and Israel, and most of all, we love each other.
I am deeply proud of Danielle and of what we have built in Cherkassy. Because as we gave, we received.
The Hebrew word for “give” is natan. It’s a palindrome. Nun Taf Nun.
Spelled forward or backward, the word is the same. Giving works both ways.
Giving is also receiving.
We see it in Danielle, in her friend Sonya.
We see it in all the young men and women who participate in the family camp.
And we see it in all those from Greater MetroWest and Israel who have gone on these missions.
It humbles us and fills us with awe to see the depth of commitment and pride that our friends and families in Cherkassy, in Ukraine, in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries have in their Jewish communities.
We have so much to learn from those who proudly maintain their Jewish traditions and convictions despite the hardships they have to endure to do so.
Our commitment is to take care of each other, to support each other.
We’re grateful to NCSEJ, our partners JDC and the Jewish Agency on the ground, and all those who work tirelessly for the Jewish People.
Thank you Mark, Alexander, the Board and the professionals for all that you have done and continue to do for our People. We’re deeply grateful for your efforts, your dedication, and your expertise.
Thank you Steve, for everything you do. NCSEJ’s loss is the Jewish People’s gain. We’re proud of you and grateful for your leadership.
And thank you to all of you. For reminding us continually of our obligations and commitments and values.
From left: Richard Stone, NCSEJ Past-Chair; Steve Greenberg, outgoing NCSEJ Chair; Mark Levin, NCSEJ CEO; Alexander Smukler, NCSEJ President; Dov Ben-Shimon, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ CEO
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