A Site for Sore Souls
Yad Vashem’s online Pages of Testimony is more than a database of records on the six million who died in the Holocaust. It has also become a memorial to each victim and a way of bringing together those who survived.
Sick and emaciated, 17-year-old Hannah Weiss listened as the translator told her and the other survivors they were free to leave the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The date was May 5, 1945, and the 11th Armored Division of the United States Third Army, the three-corps, seven-division field army sometimes called Patton’s Own, had penetrated the camp’s electrified barbed wire and high stone walls. She could hardly believe she was alive after surviving four years of hiding, imprisonment and a death march. All she could think of was going home. She succeeded in making her way back to the wooden house in the mountain town of Munckacs in Czechoslovakia, where she waited for her parents and four siblings. No one ever came.
Weiss contacted the Red Cross, plus registries in Europe and in Israel. She learned that her mother, Sheindl, had died in Auschwitz. But there was no master list to help her locate other survivors and find out the fate of her relatives. Nor was there a comprehensive list of the six million. For more than half a century, Weiss assumed she was the sole survivor of her family.
After the war, Weiss moved to Israel, married and became Hannah Katz; she had children and grandchildren. Merav Zamir, one of her grown granddaughters, read an article in a Hebrew daily newspaper about the digitalization and online accessibility of the vast records of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
Zamir logged onto the Yad Vashem site and typed in her great-grandmother’s name in Hebrew. Sure enough, a file of information and biographical details, called a Page of Testimony, popped onto her screen. But then Zamir noticed something that made her heart race.
“At first I thought I was seeing things,” said Zamir, 35. “Someone named Klara Bleier had submitted testimony about Sheindl Weiss. I knew that my grandmother’s beloved sister, with whom she had first gone into hiding, was named Klara.”
The information had been recorded 12 years earlier. Klara Bleier lived in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. She would be 81. Zamir found the phone number and dialed. An elderly woman with an East European accent answered the phone. Not wanting to startle her, Zamir pretended to be a researcher who needed information about the Holocaust. “I asked if I could ask her a few questions,” Zamir recalled. “In a few minutes, I knew that this was my own great-aunt, Grandma Hannah’s long-lost sister, Klara. I had to hold back from identifying myself.”
Katz and Bleier had last seen each other 61 years earlier.
Every known victim of the Holocaust is memorialized through a Page of Testimony in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The pages include the details of his or her life supplied in statements by family, friends or acquaintances or gleaned from deportation, camp and ghetto records. For most victims, they serve as a symbolic tombstone.
“Our work goes far beyond historical interest,” said Cynthia Glazer Wroclawski, Yad Vashem’s International Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project outreach manager. “Many Holocaust victims have no grave. [They] had one overriding wish: Remember us. The least we can do is to record their names so there will be a permanent record of their existence in this world…. This isn’t only a project for family members, but an urgent goal of the Jewish people.”
The Hall of Names where the pages physically exist has become a place of pilgrimage. And since 2005, these pages plus Yad Vashem’s enormous archives have begun to be streamlined and translated into Hebrew, English and Russian. With a click, a user anywhere in the world can now access the Pages of Testimony.
The challenge of creating Yad Vashem’s database was enormous: There are 125 million pages of documentation in 20 languages. A customized software program had to be developed to deal with daunting discrepancies in spelling. Israeli software company IDEA Information Systems, based in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in the Jezreel Valley, rose to the task, compiling the 70 million items of information and 500 terabytes of data of testimonies, historical documents, reports, reviews, books, articles, pictures, scanned documents, museum items and videos that needed to be entered and organized.
That astonishing technology relies on software innovation, but also on the human genius of historians and researchers. Particularly of note is the unique contribution of Alexander Avraham, a Yad Vashem researcher born in Lvov who has spent over 20 years deciphering the diverse spellings in those 20 languages. “Take, for example, the name Yitzhak, the Hebrew for Isaac,” he said. “There are at least 1,000 ways to spell it, including variant spellings in Latin, Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets. We needed a computer program to correct for them all…. We’re talking about the difference between finding and not finding a relative, not just historical data.”
Some eight million people visited Yad Vashem’s Web site last year alone, seeking general information about the Holocaust or searching for names. Seventeen percent of those who log onto the site are Israelis, according to Estee Yaari, Yad Vashem’s spokesperson. The rest are from around the world, including Iran, where the Holocaust is publicly denied. To encourage Iranians to see the truth for themselves, the site provides resources in Farsi. An Arabic-language site, launched in 2008, presents a historical narrative of the Holocaust; stories of Righteous Among the Nations, including Muslims from Turkey and Albania; and the movie We Were There, about Jews and Arabs visiting Auschwitz together—all antidotes to Arab Holocaust denial.
“There is growing interest in the Holocaust around the world, in places that you wouldn’t expect it,” said Yaari. “It’s essential to have data easily available.”
Information flows in as well as out. The site requires constant updating. For example, a private name-collecting campaign by members of the Shir Ha-Ma’alot Synagogue in Irvine, California, contributed hundreds of photos and 214 previously unknown names and stories. “It’s a giant puzzle and we’re searching everywhere for the pieces,” added Wroclawski.
And information can come from unlikely sources. Take, for example, the story of William Buckingham, a building inspector in Melbourne, Australia. “I had always been enchanted by my grandmother’s stories of life in Riga, the capital of Latvia, before she immigrated to Australia,” he said. “[She had brought with her] her Old World eiderdowns and silver service.”
Salme Krums told him how, in Riga, she had bought beautiful fabrics for sewing from a shop owned by the Slovins, a Jewish couple she became close to. She also would sadly tell him how all that ended with the Nazi invasion and how the Slovins were taken away—never to return.
“Only when I was grown up did I notice that one piece of Grandma’s silver didn’t match the set, but by then Grandma had passed away. My mother explained that the small candy dish wasn’t ours. It belonged to the Slovins.”
Both Buckingham’s mother, Vera, and his grandmother had made inquiries with the International Tracing Service at the Bamberg displaced persons camp in Germany, where records of survivors were kept, but, sadly, there was no information on the couple or their five children.
The silver bowl was only a candy dish—trivial compared to the other losses of the Holocaust—but wouldn’t it be wonderful to return even one possession if any of the family had survived? Buckingham traveled all the way to Riga, but turned up no clues.
“But then, surfing the Internet one day, I came across Yad Vashem’s site,” he said. “My only language is English, but I figured I’d give it a try.”
So, Buckingham typed, “Slovin, Riga.” Instantly, he learned that his grandmother’s friends were survived by one son.
Sioma Slovin was living in Haifa. He had left home before World War II to study at the Technion and never saw his family again. From the day he learned that they were all murdered, he had refused to talk about it—not with his children and not with his grandchildren. Now here was a stranger phoning from Australia, claiming to have a candy dish from his parents’ home and offering to send it express mail.
When Slovin unwrapped the package from Australia, he remembered caressing the silver dish with its arched handle and engraved flowers. He recalled how his mother had loved placing it on the table for holidays.
Like a magic lantern, the dish released him from his pledge of silence. Since it was returned, he has begun sharing his own difficult story with his children and grandchildren.
Often it is young people, who may be more adept at computers than older family members, whose inquiries to Yad Vashem begin: “My grandma was in the Holocaust, and we’re looking for her relatives.” Wroclawski is thrilled that the search for family has become a collaboration of generations. She also gets many requests from youngsters who want to twin with someone who shares their birth date or name as they celebrate their bar or bat mitzva.
The work is far from complete. Photographers are taking pictures of plaques, records and names engraved on tombstones in Israel of those who were killed in the Shoah and memorialized by survivors who came to the Jewish state and have since passed away. Researchers are culling other information in eastern Poland, the Baltics, Estonia, Moldavia and Belarus—countries that have opened since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yad Vashem has only recently begun scanning the complete postwar Red Cross archives. “The digitization will take time,” said Yaari. “When names of Jews who were killed are uncovered they will be added to the database, but this is a long-term project. People who want to access [the Red Cross] archive can do so by sending an inquiry to our Reference and Information Department,” a process that can be started through the Yad Vashem Web site.
Since the information first started appearing online five years ago, people all over the world have reconnected and discovered previously unknown facts about family members. Dozens of cousins and three sets of siblings have found each other—among them Hannah Katz and Klara Bleier.
Merav Zamir remembers driving two hours to her grandmother’s home in Kerem Maharal, a farming village south of Haifa, and trying out different ways to tell her grandmother the news. She settled on a lighthearted approach: “Grandma, what would you give me if I told you that I found your sister?”
Somehow, her grandmother sensed she wasn’t joking. “But everyone said they were all dead!” she said.
Zamir dialed Bleier’s number and introduced the sisters by phone. Bleier sounded confused and unbelieving at first. She invited them to visit the following Sunday when she would have her children around her. But it was only Thursday and Zamir was unwilling to wait. She drove Katz right then to an apartment building in Tel Aviv. A woman with red wavy hair opened the door a crack. Katz pushed the door open and threw her arms around her sister.
The two women couldn’t stop hugging and crying. “I named my daughter Hannah in your memory,” Bleier told her. The tears eventually changed to smiles and laughter. Before long, the apartment filled with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—aunts, cousins and second cousins exchanging stories. But in the center sat the sisters with identical grins, holding hands—grateful for modern technology.
For More Information
Yad Vashem’s Web site: www.yadvashem.org
To find the Pages of Testimony on Yad Vashem’s site, go to Remembrance, then Names.
Yad Vashem calls on the public to submit Pages of Testimony for Shoah Victims so they will always be remembered. For information, contact email@example.com
Efraim Zuroff: Nazi Hunter
People are living longer these days. That is good news for Efraim Zuroff, who is racing against the clock in his pursuit of aging Nazi henchmen and collaborators.
“They don’t deserve a prize for reaching old age,” says Zuroff, 60. “There’s no statute of limitations on murder.” The bad news is that time is not his sole nemesis. Zuroff faces personal death threats and pressure from governments that slow the investigative process and brand him a troublemaker.
Such are the challenges of the world’s foremost Nazi hunter in 2009—a title Zuroff has inherited from Simon Wiesenthal after Wiesenthal died four years ago at the age of 96. It suits Zuroff’s broad shoulders. At 6 foot 3 inches, he seems even larger when he describes the crimes of those he relentlessly pursues. He heads the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (www.wiesenthal.com), located in Jerusalem, but is frequently abroad ferreting out the guilty in what is aptly called Operation Last Chance (www.operationlastchance.org). The joint campaign of the center and the Targum Shlishi Foundation in Miami began in 2002 and offers financial rewards for information on Nazi perpetrators.
Much of Zuroff’s travel is to once impenetrable Eastern bloc states: Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Hungary as well as the infamous Nazi havens of South America. He runs public campaigns by holding press conferences, placing newspaper advertisements, hammering up billboards and setting up hotlines. His advocacy has been instrumental in the indictments by Lithuania and Latvia of war criminals such as Aleksandras Lileikis, Kazys Gimzauskas and Algimantas Dailide.
Named for a great-uncle murdered in the Holocaust, Zuroff grew up in New York and honed his activism during the struggle for Soviet Jewry. An ardent Zionist, Zuroff moved to Israel in 1970, married and had four children. He worked for the center in Los Angeles during a stay in the United States to complete a doctorate. in history, where he met Wiesenthal. Influenced by Wiesenthal, he switched from an academic career to working for the Office of Special Investigations of the United States Justice Department as a staffer, researcher and liaison to survivors whose help was needed in court. “When I got started, the United States government was beginning its own prodigious search for Nazis through the Office of Special Investigations,” Zuroff recalls. “Although [victims] were eager to see the Nazis behind bars, they mistrusted governments and were reluctant to submit themselves to aggressive defense attorneys they would confront by testifying in court.”
In 1980, he returned to Israel and continued working for OSI. After discovering he could pick up a Nazi trail within previously unread refugee records, Zuroff became the center’s agent in Israel and eventually its Israel director. He remains a fan of OSI’s work and America’s commitment to rooting out the Nazis who emigrated after World War II.
His search continues today. “I’m not naïve,” Zuroff says. “I know that most of the perpetrators are dead, but not all of them. The Holocaust was an enormous crime spread over 20 different countries. In places like Holland, Norway and Greece, local police enthusiastically rounded up Jews.”
The search in the Eastern bloc was delayed by the inability to travel there during Communist rule. “The former Soviet countries have only become independent in the last two decades, and are now writing their history,” says Zuroff. “They say, ‘the nasty Germans and Austrians came in and killed our Jews.’ The problem is, that’s not what happened. Eastern Europeans were hands-on, killing Jews themselves or together with the Nazis.”
Countries don’t look for those hiding within their borders if they are not pushed, he insists. Lithuania had been pardoning many Holocaust perpetrators, so in 1991 Zuroff pressured successfully for the establishment of an Israeli-Lithuanian commission of inquiry to stop the practice, which led to the cancellation of the so-called rehabilitation of some 200 felons.
Every report of a perpetrator dying of natural causes is a disappointment. The latest was Erna Wallisch, a concentration camp guard at Ravensbruck in Germany and Majdanek in Poland, who allegedly beat women on the way to the gas chambers. She died in 2008 in Vienna, at age 86.
Zuroff had found Wallisch after a reader of an Austrian right-wing paper in which he had placed an ad contacted him with information. An earlier investigation in the 1970s was dropped due to lack of evidence linking her directly to the Nazi genocide. Living witnesses surfaced in 2007 and testified to Wallisch’s sadism. The prosecution was slowed when Austrian Justice Minister Karin Gastinger decided that her crimes came under a statute of limitations, and Zuroff appealed to the Polish Institute of National Memory to seek her extradition to Poland to face trial. However, Wallisch died before they could formally take action.
Satisfying moments are few. One was the conviction of Dinko Sakic, the last-known living commander of a concentration camp, in 1999. Sakic, found in Argentina, was the commander of Jasenovac in Croatia, called the Auschwitz of the Balkans. He was charged with responsibility for the murder of more than 2,000 civilians and received a 20-year prison sentence.
Hundred of letters come to Zuroff from those who claim they have useful knowledge. Some are hoaxes and others attempts to settle personal scores. But he read them all, looking for nuggets of valuable information. For instance, in February 2005, Zuroff received a tip from a man in Scotland who had overheard a former Hungarian Nazi in a pub bragging about his exploits. A Scottish journalist agreed to follow up on the story for Zuroff. The suspect had mounted a photo on the wall of his home of his former commander Sandor Kepiro, and he knew where Kepiro now lived—Hungary. A lawyer, Kepiro had been convicted but never imprisoned for his role in organizing the murder of several thousand civilians, mostly Jews, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). Zuroff found Kepiro’s name—he had not bothered to change it—in the Budapest phone book.
“Kepiro is 95,” he notes, “and you might assume that he was too old for us to prosecute.” In 2006, Zuroff called a press conference at a local synagogue near Kepiro’s home in an attempt to get Hungary to retry him. Last September, Hungarian state officials seized Kepiro’s passport and have started questioning him about the massacre—which may be the start of the first major war crimes trial in the country since the fall of Communism 20 years ago.
“I’m often asked when I’m going to let go,” says Zuroff, whose book about his search, Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (McMillan), is out this month. “My answer is always the same: when the last Nazi or collaborator is dead. Imagine that the person I’m seeking murdered your grandparents. Would you ever give up?” —B.S.
Ask Noah Berman what he wants to do when he grows up and he answers readily, “I want to be Martin Luther King Jr.” For Berman, 18, past national president of Young Judaea, his response means “making an impact—doing community work for the greater good.”
Berman represents the latest generation of Young Judaeans who insist, as he does: “I am who I am because of Young Judaea. I learned more in Young Judaea than anywhere else: community responsibility, Jewish pride, acting against apathy.” His perspective differs from that of his friends. “Going to a party isn’t enough for me,” he says. “They are excited for college. I am excited to go and volunteer. They are excited for a job that pays well. The job I’m excited about is helping people.” A Minneapolis native, Berman has attended Young Judaea camps for 10 years. Though he was accepted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he deferred to go on Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel and is considering joining the Israel Defense Forces afterward.
As Young Judaea (212-303-8014; www.youngjudaea.org) observes its centennial this year, it is celebrating its enduring values: Judaism, Zionism, pluralism, tikkun olam, peer leadership. A study by sociologist Stephen M. Cohen showed alumni emerged ahead of the general Jewish population on every meaningful identity measure, from connecting with Israel to Jewish philanthropy. Many become Hadassah members and associates and take leadership roles in the organization.
“I learned to dream about a better world and to work to make it happen,” says Gil Troy, a Judaean since 1975, professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today(Bronfman Jewish Education Centre). “Because of the joy in so much of what we did, we learned that values, tradition and commitments are not shackles but can be liberating, freeing us…to lead a better life.”
Rabbi Ramie Arian, the movement’s national director, sums it up: “For 100 years, Young Judaea has been motivating young people to build the connection of the Jewish people, writ large, with our historical homeland.”
In 1904, three yeshiva students in New York—Abba Hillel Silver, his brother Max and friend Israel Chipkin—were inspired by Theodor Herzl’s life and death to form the Dr. Herzl Zion Club, dedicated to the dissemination of the Zionist ideal. Dues were five cents a week (about $2 today); one cent was donated to the Jewish National Fund. Other Zionist youth societies sprang up across the country and, at the urging of Henrietta Szold, 50 delegates in their twenties met in New York in 1909 to formalize an organization that they named Young Judaea.
By the 1950s, 15,000 members were enrolled in 1,000 clubs—whose programs included everything from Hebrew lessons to discourses on Israel, art and drama. Some groups focused on single activities, such as basketball, singing or dance. The clubs were sponsored by Hadassah, which in 1936 had voted to subsidize Young Judaea, and the Zionist Organization of America. In 1967, Young Judaea made Hadassah its sole sponsor.
“Young Judaea was by and for young people,” says Arian. It still is, he adds, though the age has migrated downward and adults oversee the administration. “The kids are invested in the movement because they are in charge of it. That empowerment is articulated as a matter of ideology and pride.”
Today, clubs have taken a back seat to six summer camps—Camp Tel Yehudah, the national leadership camp, and five junior regional camps: Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in New York; Camp Judaea, North Carolina; Camp Young Judaea Texas; Camp Young Judaea West, Washington State; and Camp Young Judaea Midwest, Wisconsin—which typically have a combined annual enrollment of about 2,500. And there are Israel experience programs for high school to college ages with over 1,000 participants.
“Immersion programs that remove people from their normal surroundings and expose them to values on a 24/7 basis are deeply powerful,” says Arian. “It’s an opportunity to get into their heads but also into their hearts.”
A winding road snakes through the Catskill Mountains to Tel Yehudah on the banks of the Delaware River in Barryville, New York. With its strong Zionist atmosphere, staff and campers call it “the closest thing to Israel in America.”
It is also a microcosm of Young Judaea ideals. The hadar okhel, dining room, is decorated with Israeli flags, signs with facts about the country and the Hebrew word of the day. Israeli music plays in the background and aliya is a popular topic of discussion. “Jewish kids should at some time realize they have a decision to make about where to live as Jews,” says David Weinstein, Tel Yehudah’s director.
The camp is divided into Alumim (youth), entering 9th graders who study Jewish and Zionist history; Yachad (together), entering 10th graders who focus on community and pluralism; and Hadracha (leadership), entering 11th graders who concentrate on advocacy and activism. Two-and-a-half days of lobbying on Capitol Hill for issues of their choice are the highlight. Twelfth graders travel to Israel on Machon. Because Young Judaea is part of Atid, a partnership with Tzofim (Israel Scouts) and the Federation of Zionist Youth in Great Britain, Tel Yehudah has campers from both Israel and England as well.
Young Judaea’s pluralistic environment encourages kids to “try different ways of being Jewish,” says Weinstein. Campers come from backgrounds as diverse as biracial and same-sex-parent families, secular and modern Orthodox. “It’s the same challenge Israel has: how to live together as Jews,” he notes.
“There’s not just one way to think about anything,” says Assistant Director Jamie Maxner, pointing to the choice of activities from juggling to Pilates to sign language. “That is our mantra. You don’t have to be…one type of Israeli, one type of Jew, an athlete or an artist—you can be [all of them].”
Noah Gallagher, 32, director of YJ Midwest, notes that the junior camps give kids from towns in which they are the only Jews the opportunity to mix with those who attend Jewish day schools. “We have children of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis and kids from secular and Orthodox backgrounds,” says Gallagher, himself a graduate of YJ Midwest. “We want to give campers the tools to choose their own paths.”
Like Tel Yehudah, the junior camps intertwine Judaism and Zionism with environmentalism, community building and personal connections. Each capitalizes on its natural surroundings, whether it is the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the Texas Hill country, the Pacific Ocean or Wisconsin’s Stratton Lake. Kids learn the Hebrew names of ingredients while baking cookies, create tzedaka boxes and make lip balm or mouthwash from natural ingredients.
Most of the staff grew up in camp or have been on Year Course. “We’re Young Judaea, our kids are Young Judaea: That’s the circle of life,” says Weinstein, who met his wife, Amy Itkin, at Sprout Lake in Verbank, New York, when he was 11 and she was 12. Their children, ages 12 and 9, are now campers there. Tel Yehudah’s kitchen director, David Kogan, travels north every summer from Texas, where he runs Simcha Kosher Catering. “I would have been in Young Judaea all 100 years if I could have,” says Kogan, a former board member. Jenna Hopp, 20, a third-year counselor, adds, “I love it here. It’s like my home.”
Mel Reisfield can count his involvement in Young Judaea all the way back to 1947. “Finding out about the horrors of the Holocaust was very hard, and a whole group of us from the Bronx were mixed up socially and ideologically,” says Reisfield, 81. One day in his second year of college, he recalls, he passed Madison Square Garden on his way to a Frank Sinatra concert. “I heard someone with a strong accent talking to thousands of people at a rally, and thousands more overflowed onto the street. He was saying, ‘This is our answer to the Holocaust. We are going to make a state.’ The speaker was Menahem Begin. I looked up ‘Zionist movement’ in the telephone book and there were a lot of names [of organizations]. I did ‘eenie meenie’ and my finger came out on Young Judaea. It was my destiny.”
To prepare for kibbutz life, Reisfield attended farm training with a Young Judaea group in Poughkeepsie, New York, and, in 1948, joined the first Young Judaea kibbutz, Hasolelim, in the Galilee. Illness caused him to return to the United States—but not alone; he met his wife, Yaffa, on the kibbutz.
Reisfield became an educator and worked in Young Judaea’s New Jersey region and at Tel Yehudah for 40 years. “The leadership of the movement was at camp,” he says. “We sat together and made policy….” He made aliya again 25 years ago and has taught on Year Course for over 20 years. He was honored at the August centennial celebration at Tel Yehudah.
Other older Judaeans also recall the early years. “I was a Brooklyn boy growing vegetables as Rosh Gan [gardening head] of Tel Yehudah in 1949,” says Bob Levine, an accountant and lawyer from Teaneck, New Jersey. “We grew…radishes and tomatoes and lettuces that we carried into the hadar okhel with great ceremony on Hag Ha-bikkurim, a festival of first fruits and vegetables that we created. Each kid worked in the gan every week…. That was in addition to singing and dancing and discussing Zionist philosophy.”
While Levine came with a strong Jewish background, many Judaeans have deepened their Jewish identities through Young Judaea. In a publicity video, one woman declares, “I was a 14-year-old from Brooklyn. I never went to Hebrew school. All I knew was that on Yom Kippur you didn’t eat and on Pesah you didn’t eat bread. For social reasons, I joined Young Judaea. Suddenly, I had a purpose. From ages 14 to 17, I baby-sat, saving my money to go on Year Course.”
In 1951, Levine was one of two counselors on the first summer teen tour to Israel from America, pioneering the concept of the Israel trip as an educational and identity experience. A photo of the group on the gangplank of the El Al airplane shows 18 girls and boys dressed formally in suits on their way to the three-year-old state.
Like many other Judaeans, Levine met his spouse and most of his closest friends through the movement. He still practices the service ideal he helped develop—that the “highest growth level was not just learning, but when you could give back what you had learned,” he says.
“If there was anything we learned from the Holocaust,” Reisfield says, “it was never to let the world pass us by. We were pioneers in Soviet Jewry before anyone was interested in Soviet Jewry. We picketed every Russian group that came to New York and sent people on secret missions to Russia. We did the same thing for Ethiopian Jewry. We pioneered the concept of marathons for the March of Dimes. We didn’t just work for Jewish causes.”
“The details change but the overriding centrality of tikkun olam as part of the Young Judaea formula remains constant,” says Arian. “The State of Israel is not just a homeland and haven but or lagoyim—a light unto the nations. We have an obligation to model what a perfect world would be, and that includes lending a hand to people in need, our people or not.”
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, for instance, 1,300 Judaeans participated in Caravan for Katrina, with collection points in 35 cities where they packaged and loaded trucks with items solicited from local businesses. An Alternative Winter Break program hones in on service learning, which combines volunteer work and educational programming. In its first year, 2007, participants worked at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles; in 2008, they did post-Katrina relief; this year, they will help the needy in South Florida.
“Young Judaea builds Jewish leaders,” says Helene Drobenare, director of Sprout Lake. In addition to the list of well-known leaders who are Young Judaea graduates, she adds, “the list we don’t have is all the…silent leaders we create. The heroes who go out and make a difference. The kids who leave camp and raise money for muscular dystrophy….”
While children today grasp the concept of tikkun olam, Zionism presents a far greater challenge, says Shelley Sherman, National Hadassah’s Young Judaea coordinator. “Many young people do not think about Israel at all or are critical because of the media perspective,” she notes. “But that is not true of Judaeans. They have a living engagement with contemporary issues, not a romanticized view. We will make sure the story gets told and the advocacy gets done.”
“The future of Zionism for my generation is balancing the particular and the universal,” says Berman. “Zionism means we support the Jewish state, but not necessarily that we say yes to everything Israel does.”
For a group of Judaeans in 1973, however, aliya was the pinnacle of Zionist belief, and they acted on it by founding Kibbutz Ketura. “We didn’t want to join another kibbutz,” recalls Carol Hoffman, one of 4 of the original 25 founders still on the kibbutz, which has grown to a total of 430 adults and children. “We wanted to make our own way, our own mistakes…. Young Judaea values infuse the kibbutz through egalitarianism between sexes, egalitarianism of work and religious pluralism—something not known in Israel.”
Ketura stands against the tide of kibbutz privatization, she says. It maintains milking cows and a date grove and has set up onsite environmental partnerships: an algae plant; the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies; and the Arava Power Company, a leading solar energy enterprise.
Ruthie Sobel Luttenberg, who made aliya in 1975 and lives in the town of Kadima, sends her children to Young Judaea camps. “In Israel it’s hard to give kids an understanding of the big picture they belong to,” she explains. “By stepping out of their bubble they have a better perception of who they are.
“What do the camps have? There is no waterskiing or high-tech equipment. But there is a wholesomeness and sincerity…and educational activities that are fun.”
Young Judaea expanded its pluralistic perspective even more this year through a new two-week summer program at Tel Yehudah called Havurah, aimed at strengthening the Jewish identities of American teens from Russian backgrounds. Havurah is funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Agency.
Yaniv Pereyaslavsky, 15, has little chance to interact with other Russian Jewish kids at home in Vancouver. Nor is his family observant. “It’s interesting to speak Russian freely and to have a common background,” he says. “No matter how I practice Judaism, I’d still be accepted here.”
Lately, economic realities have caused Young Judaea to make tough decisions. One of the most controversial has been cutting back the year-round club structure. In the age of Facebook, says Sherman, teens have not been joining clubs at the same pace they used to. “The whole concept of community has changed,” she notes. “We have to find vehicles for kids on a year-round basis to exercise their Judaean connection.”
The clubs are not shutting down unilaterally. Zak Schutzer and his friends fought to find funding for Club Maz (short for Mazkirut) in San Diego. “We are the blood of the Young Judaea club and we gotta keep pumping,” says Schutzer, 15.
He expresses excitement about the programs he is generating. His “Jewperheroes” activity asks kids to create superheroes like Latke Lad and Bagel Boy, then explore how these heroes see the Jewish community and the world. “Young Judaea is not just another youth group,” he says. “It’s a community we love.”
For its members and graduates, Young Judaea might as well be the superhero that has transformed their lives. “You can’t take Young Judaea out of a person,” says Levine, “no matter where he or she goes.” H
Rahel Musleah’s Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com
Young Judaea: A Brief History
1904 After the death of Theodor Herzl, three New York yeshiva students form the Dr. Herzl Zion Club to disseminate the Zionist ideal among Jewish youth in the city.
1909 Fifty delegates from the Dr. Herzl Zion Club and other independent Zionist clubs across the United States join to form Young Judaea. They adopt a constitution to advance the cause of Zionism, further the mental, moral and physical development of Jewish youth and promote Jewish culture and ideas.
1912 Hadassah is founded, launching decades of cooperation between Young Judaea and Hadassah.
1924 Young Judaea establishes a relationship with the Tzofim, Israel’s scouts.
1936 Hadassah approves an annual subsidy to Young Judaea of $2,500, one quarter of the Young Judaea budget.
1947 Young Judaea introduces peer leadership with the election of a National Mazkirut (board) made up of youth membership.
1948 Camp Tel Yehudah opens in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
1951 Young Judaea is the first organization to send a summer group to Israel.
1956 Young Judaea sends the first Year Course to Israel.
1963 Young Judaea is the only Jewish youth group to send an official delegation to the Civil Rights march on Washington.
1967 Hadassah undertakes sole sponsorship of Young Judaea.
1967 After the Six-Day War, Young Judaea is one of the first to return to the liberated Mount Scopus, moving its center and dorms of Year Course to Beit Riklis, the former school of nursing and home of Henrietta Szold in her last years.
1970s Young Judaeans are among the founders and most active members of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
1973 Young Judaea Year Course graduates found Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert.
1987 In a special ceremony, Kibbutz Ketura is granted the Jerusalem Speaker of the Knesset Award.
1996 Merkaz Hamagshimim Hadassah, Israel’s first combination absorption and community center for English-speaking immigrants and students, is established in Jerusalem. Among the center’s early successes, Atid Yarok, its Environmental Action group, lobbied the municipality of Jerusalem to bring plastic-bottle recycling to the city.
2005 Young Judaeans organize Caravan for Katrina to provide relief supplies to hurricane victims. Trucks drive across the United States, stopping along their route at local Young Judaea groups to pick up relief supplies.
2005 Young Judaea and Hadassah are at the forefront of mobilizing on behalf of Darfur refugees.
2009 Young Judaea and Hadassah celebrate the movement’s 100th anniversary.
The Celebration Continues: Young Judaea Alumni Remember
Compiled by Rahel Musleah
My first realization that I was probably a Zionist was when I attended a Young Judaea national convention in the 1950s. A girl had just come back from Israel. I was infused with Israel and the Zionist atmosphere and I said, “I’ve got to see Israel for myself.” Many years later, I found my notes and letters from a Young Judaea summer in Israel and my leadership of the Student Zionist Organization. I typed them into memoirs and called them So Much at Home and Back Home Again.
—Sybil Kaplan, journalist and cookbook author, Israel
I owe practically my whole life to Young Judaea. In 1927, I won a Young Judaea oratory contest. The prize was a three-month trip to Palestine. On the ship I met a painter named Reuven Rubin. We fell in love. I came to Palestine for three months and I have stayed over 70 years so far.
—Esther Rubin, widow of Israeli painter Reuven Rubin, Israel, as told to Rabbi Ramie Arian, national director of Young Judaea
When I think back to my childhood and the usual turbulence of being a teenager, my Young Judaea crowd was my rock. Even then, they were the friends I felt I could be the most open and introspective with. Through the years, whether it was a family tragedy or family celebration, my Young Judaea friends were always there. Professionally, Young Judaea had an important impact as well. I was always intrigued by current events…. YJ helped me expand that to news and politics related to Israel and the Middle East. I think my first real intellectual debates came in Young Judaea peulot [exercise], where my friends and I were asked to consider and discuss Jewish identity, values, etc. The ability to listen and discuss is significant…and in no small way, the experiences of YJ at meetings, conventions and camps helped put me on a path to what I’m doing today.
—David Shuster, MSNBC anchor, Washington, D.C.
I remember Saturday nights with the shira shkehta, the quiet melancholy Hebrew songs leading to Havdala under the stars, with the entire camp in giant concentric circles, considering the past week and then bursting into dance after the blessings. My family growing up never did Havdala. My family in Israel doesn’t miss a week. I’m sure there’s a connection.
From Young Judaea, I learned how to face large crowds and talk with practically no preparation, how to reach a consensus with a spirited and heterogeneous group, how to feel the imperative of being a responsible member of whatever community I am a member of, how to take myself seriously enough to believe—and indeed expect—that I can change the world.
—Alon Tal, professor, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and deputy chair, Israel’s Green Party, Israel
I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters, in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Like many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make—and still enjoy. (From a Jerusalem Post article, June 2009)
I have been teaching at [McGill] university for over 20 years with no education courses—except for all that I learned in Young Judaea. As a father raising four Jewish kids in a confusing world, I often hark back to my Young Judaea experience for mooring and guidance.
—Gil Troy, professor of history, McGill University, Montreal
I was a member of the Zionettes in Jacksonville, Florida, in the ’50s and ’60s. We danced and sang to Israeli music, performed at local events and competed at southern region conventions. Camp Judaea opened in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in 1961, and I was a counselor. It was an exciting time as we painted bunks and planned hugim [activities] with the enthusiasm of halutzim [pioneers]. During the summer of 1963, I met Sanford Winer, the love of my life…. Camp Judaea provided a wonderful background for romance—we have been married for 43 years. The Young Judaea ruah permeates our lives, our activities and our gift of love.
—Elaine Winer, retired attorney, Chattanooga, Tennessee