My JCC (Jewish Community Center), where I serve as the COO, is asking our community why and how they connect with the JCC. This brilliant social media campaign, called #whyij, is inspiring people to think about all the ways in which the JCC enriches their lives – from school, to camp, to seniors, to building lifelong friendships, all of it creating community. I am proud to work for an organization whose members are so passionate and whose mission is basically to make the world a better place in which to live.
So on one level, that’s “whyij” – because I have chosen to work in the field of Jewish communal service, where the focus is building a “home away from home” for the Jewish community and community at large. The JCC is a force for goodness in a world which seems increasingly broken. Yet as I continued to ponder the #whyij question, it occurred to me that there is more – something relatable through an experience my brother, David, recently had.
David is technically my half-brother (though I don’t think of him as such), as we come from different mothers. His mother’s side of the family has roots in former-Soviet Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova). This past September, David traveled to Ukraine, visiting Kiev as well as the old villages (shtetls) noted in his great-uncle’s journals (his mother’s mother’s brother). From Ukraine, David traveled to Israel, mapping the sort of “darkness to light” trajectory that my own JCC’s communal trip recently followed.
One day, David Facebook messaged me that he was in Kiev, and there is apparently a JCC there, and did I know anything about it? Well, no, but I was aware of the newly-formed JCCs in Warsaw and Krakow mainly because of my JCC’s recent, aforementioned trip. These Polish JCCs are very much based on the American JCC model and are instrumental in the rebuilding of Jewish life in a place where it was nearly extinguished in the Holocaust, and then was brutally suppressed by decades of Soviet rule. Indeed, the JCC model has served an important purpose in post-Soviet society, “twinning an American Jewish community concept with the cherished and esteemed cultural and intellectual acumen of Jews in this region” (JewishMiami.org, Federation News). But no, I had not heard of the Kiev JCC!
What happened next truly illustrates the modern miracle of the Internet, and how it connects our world in unprecedented ways. I Googled “Kiev JCC” and found that the “Halom JCC” was established in November 2016 in Kiev and is led by a dynamic, young director named Anna Bondar. In locating Anna on Facebook, I found that we have 4 mutual friends (who knew?!). So I simply FB messaged her, explaining that I was reaching out on behalf of my brother who is in Kiev and would love to see the JCC there. Within 10 minutes, I had a response from Anna, who graciously hosted David at the Halom JCC the very next day (see photo below). Just amazing!
After Kiev, David went on to visit the shtetls noted by his great-uncle. David connected with the small handful of Jews (see photo below) still living in and around places like Zhmerynka and Mohyliv-Podolski. As part of his spiritual journey, David visited the old Jewish cemeteries where he tended to the headstones, and even brought the ancestors a bowl of borscht (see photo below)! For a thousand years before WWII, Jewish life in this region was abundant and vibrant. Today, not much of it remains, but it is definitely resurgent through agencies such as the Halom JCC, and others like it in St. Petersburg, Odessa and elsewhere. In fact, the Yesod JCC in St. Petersburg is the first Jewish building to be built in Russia in almost 100 years.
Gazing at David’s photos from the old Jewish cemeteries makes me think of the recently-observed Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. What made this year’s Yom HaShoah unsettlingly unique were the multiple reports concerning the lack of knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust among younger generations of Americans. This increasing ignorance and sense of apathy is alarming, to say the least. Not only that, but here in America we seem to be seeing the residual effects of this apathy in the recent rise of open anti-Semitism and white nationalist movements across the nation.
And so it is through my brother’s journey to Ukraine, where he connected to Jewish life past, present and future, I am inspired to consider further “whyij.” I “J” because I appreciate the history of the JCC movement, where beginning in the mid-19th century, Jews in America formed organized centers of community where Jewish life would thrive and grow. Many of these Jews had recently emigrated from places like Zhmerynka, where building Jewish community had become a dangerous pursuit, and in most cases, was openly persecuted by authorities and non-Jewish neighbors alike. In the New World, the social and political organization of the American Jewish community became a model for other ethnic immigrant groups. The burgeoning JCC movement became synonymous with the American Dream, in which a human being may enjoy life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, all with freedom of religion.
So I “J” because I appreciate that a JCC in 2018 is a place where a person can feel proud and safe to be Jewish, and regardless of their level of observance, in a multitude of ways, can take further steps in their Jewish journey. I “J” because a JCC in 2018 is a place which welcomes the entire community with open arms, regardless of religion, background, ability or financial means — in a word, a JCC embodies the value of inclusion more than any other organization I know. I “J” because I know the history of the JCC movement, and I appreciate the great efforts involved in building those first JCCs (then typically called YM-YWHAs) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — our forbearers were realizing the American Dream. Considering the Kiev JCC, it really resonates, then, that its name, Halom, means “dream” in Hebrew. The Jewish community of Kiev is now realizing their own dream, thanks to a newly-found liberty to do so, also with the support of the American Jewish community. Because of this dream, Jewish life in Eastern Europe is rising out of the ashes formed by hatred and prejudice. I “J” because a JCC is the embodiment of this hopeful, brave dream. May we here in America never forget this, and may we never take our freedoms for granted. May we go from strength to strength, stand tall and continue to dream.