Now in Jerusalem: Israel Returns’ 2014 summer seminar for young Polish Jews

Iga

Iga

Iga is in the process of converting to Judaism. In the meantime, she works with a Jewish youth organization in Krakow called Czulent (Cholent) – which is also the name of the traditional slow-cooked Jewish stew served on Shabbat day.

Martha didn’t have a Hebrew name but desperately wanted one. She told Israel Returns’ emissary to Katowice, Poland, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis that she is a big fan of the Israeli army. He gave her the name “Tzahala” which is related to both “army” (the acronym for the Israel Defense Forces in Hebrew is “Tzahal”) and the Hebrew for “rejoice.”

Damian has no documentation of a Jewish past but suspects he has Jewish roots. Why? His great grandmother’s last name was “Yehuda,” the oldest son of the biblical patriarch Jacob and one of the 12 tribes.

As Dymitr’s grandmother was dying, she revealed to her grandson that in the town where she was born there was a “tragedy” regarding the Jews. Dymitr began putting the pieces together. Did that mean that Dymitr’s family was Jewish too? He too is now researching his roots.

Martha, Damian, Iga and Dymitr are among a group of 21 young Poles with Jewish roots who on Wednesday will begin a two-week seminar in Israel sponsored by Israel Returns. The annual summer program is the highlight of Israel Returns’ activities in Poland, and this year’s contingent – which includes 15 women and six men from Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice, Poznan and Czestochowa – is 30 percent larger than the group Israel Returns brought in 2013.

The seminar, which mixes study, travel and home hospitality, will be led by current and past Israel Returns emissaries to Poland: Rabbi Ellis who heads up our activities in Katowice, along with Rabbi Avi Baumol, who now serves in Krakow, and his predecessor, Rabbi Boaz Pash.

Basia Wieczorek, who we wrote about previously and who subsequently made aliyah to Israel, will be the group’s counselor.  Yaakov Wasilewicz, who was born in Poland but moved to the U.S. to study in a yeshiva when he became religiously observant several years ago, is returning to help with prayers, classes and leading Shabbat zemirot (songs).

The group will be in Israel for two Shabbatot; one will be spent in the Kabbalistic city of Safed, and the other in Jerusalem. Israel Returns’ community Shabbat encounters are consistently cited as one of the highlights of the program.

The participants, who are all between the ages of 20-35, will have a chance to study in a Jerusalem yeshiva for a day, and of course will tour the country extensively: the itinerary takes the group from the north in Beit Shean and Tiberias, to the Dead Sea and Masada. In Jerusalem, the group will visit the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall tunnels in the Old City, Yad Vashem, Meah Shearim and Mount Herzl.

For most of the group, it’s their first time in Israel. Four participants are returning, including Olga and Katarina who we wrote about here.

Israel Returns sponsors and heavily subsidizes the seminar; program participants pay only a nominal “symbolic” fee. The total cost for the seminar, including lodging, food, touring and instruction, comes to more than $20,000. If you’d like to help defray some of these costs, please visit the Support page on our website.

Here is a video we made about a past program. Watch this space for more news as the 2014 session unfolds.

Bnei Menashe social worker Esther Colney follows a family tradition

Esther Colney

Esther Colney

If you ask a Bnei Menashe immigrant to Israel what the happiest day of his or her life was, you’ll often receive the response, “When I made aliyah.” For Esther Colney, who came to Israel from India with her family at age 15, it was an achievement that occurred a few years later that topped her list: receiving her high school diploma.

“When we made aliyah, I didn’t know a word of Hebrew,” she explains. “So to finish school and pass my matriculation exams, I felt like, yes, I made it!”

Helping other Bnei Menashe immigrants to “make it” like she did is now Colney’s life work: a year and a half ago, she received a master’s degree in social work from the Safed Academic College in Israel’s northern Galilee. Throughout her studies in Safed, Colney received assistance and support from Israel Returns. Today she has a caseload of some 50 teenagers – including, although not exclusively, Bnei Menashe – in a religious community south of Jerusalem.

It’s something for which Colney, now 30, derives great satisfaction. “When you receive something, sure that’s fun and nice. But when you can help people, it gives you a very special feeling, like you’re worth something,” she says. “When I come home in the evening after work, I’m just so happy.”

Colney is not the first social worker in the family: her older brother Itzkhak also studied in Safed and received the same degree two years before his sister. For the past year, he has been working for Israel Returns, providing counseling services for Bnei Menashe immigrants at the Kfar Hasidim absorption center, where the new olim live when they first arrive in the country.

The first group of Bnei Menashe have left the center already, relocating to their own apartments in the cities of Acre and Migdal HaEmek. Now Itzkhak is moving out with them: the Migdal HaEmek municipality has hired him as a full time social worker to handle Bnei Menashe cases. We have a full profile of Itzkhak here.

Both Esther and Itzhkak made aliyah from the Indian state of Mizoram with their parents in 1999. This was before Israel Returns was active and Esther Colney says it was tougher then than it is today for Bnei Menashe immigrants to find their way in Israel. “There was no absorption center, no social workers, no job assistance in those days,” she says. ”Fortunately, we were able to stay with another Bnei Menashe family that had come before us.”

Colney was a good student and picked up Hebrew quickly. After high school graduation, she performed her National Service in a home for seniors. “My supervisor was a social worker and I saw what she did and how she loved her work, helping people,” Colney says. “Until then, I hadn’t really thought of becoming a social worker myself, but after my brother enrolled in school in Safed, I thought, I could do that too.”

It didn’t hurt that her best friend Sonia Manlun – also a Bnei Menashe immigrant – signed up with her. Although they are both from India, Sonia is from the state of Manipur and speaks the Kuki language, while Colney speaks Mizo. “So we speak to each other only in Hebrew!” Colney says.

At first, the other students in Safed didn’t know what to make of Colney and her friend. “They wouldn’t believe we are Jewish. They’d think we were from China or Japan,” she recalls. “That was hard. We came here to live fully Jewish lives and it’s not so nice to get reactions like this. But the thing about Israelis is, once they get to know you, they treat you like Israelis very quickly. Today I have many friends – both native-born Sabras and Bnei Menashe.”

The classes Colney took towards her degree prepared her for more than just the specifics of the work she would be doing. She also learned a lot about her place in the multicultural melting pot of modern Israeli society. “We had classes where we would learn about all the different cultures in Israel – Ethiopian, Russian, ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “After a while, I didn’t feel so different. Studying actually made me feel more a part of Israeli society.”

Colney’s parents always knew they were Jews and they joined the Bnei Menashe community in Aizawl, the capital city of Mizoram when she was 5 years old. Her brother, then 9-years-old, was circumcised at that time, and the family did its best to live according to Jewish Law, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

It wasn’t always easy. At school parties, pork was usually served, which Colney wouldn’t eat. And her classmates were sometimes cruel. “Some would say that I was going straight to hell,” she recalls. “But it didn’t really hurt me, because I had friends who supported me and a big family. I was proud to be Jewish. And most important, I knew we would be making aliyah soon.”

“Soon” turned out to take longer than she expected. “We talked about it in our family for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Year after year passed. After ten years of thinking about it, we finally came.”

Colney has been back to visit only once since moving to Israel. She was 19 and said she “felt like a stranger there. I still have friends and family in India, but I now feel more connected to Israel. It actually feels really good – to know where you belong. The same thing will happen with the new immigrants – after 2-3 years, they will stop missing India, too.”

One thing Colney stopped missing almost immediately was Indian food. “My brother will tell you that I don’t eat any of the food my mother makes!” she laughs. “I like falafel, schnitzel, spaghetti and frankfurters” more than traditional Indian curries.

The Bnei Menashe teenagers that Colney works with in her role as a social worker have similar clashes with their parents – but it goes beyond just different culinary preferences.

“Especially with Bnei Menashe teens that are born in Israel, they have half the culture of India and half the culture of Israel and they really don’t know how to act,” she explains. “They are always asking ‘who am I?’ And they get frustrated with their parents for not knowing Hebrew, for not being able to help them the way that other parents can help their children with their schoolwork. Sometimes they almost switch roles, because of their parents’ language difficulties.” These are just a few of the issues Colney addresses in her work.

Colney has been very focused since she came to Israel: learning Hebrew, graduating from high school, studying in a women’s religious seminary (she learned at Jerusalem’s Machon Ora after finishing her National Service) and of course her four years of social work courses in Safed. “I was so busy, I never had time for a boyfriend,” she says. “Now that I’ve started working, I can finally think about dating!”

Indeed, her biggest dream, she says, is that “now that G-d has given me everything I need, I want to establish a family – a Jewish family – in Israel. ” She pauses, then adds, “I also want to be successful in my job, to be able to help my community…because they need a lot of help.”

With Esther Colney and her brother Itzkhak serving the Bnei Menashe, it’s clear that help is on its way. And for Esther, we have no doubt that love will surely follow.

Michael Freund: The Indiana Jones of “Lost Jews”

Michael Freund in Subbotnik Jewish village in Russia

Michael Freund in Subbotnik Jewish village in Russia

The Jewish Voice newspaper ran an in-depth profile of Israel Returns Founder and Chairman Michael Freund this past week, calling him the “Indian Jones of ‘Lost Jews.’” We have the article, written by Ariella Haviv, for you here.

For the past 15 years, Michael Freund has been leading a quiet and unflagging revolution, one that is transforming how the Jewish world relates to descendants of the people of Israel.

A former New Yorker who made aliyah in 1995, Freund’s peripatetic adventures have taken him from the jungles of northeastern India to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to small villages in the southern Italian countryside, driven by a remarkable sense of mission: to reconnect lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities with their roots.

“Some people travel the world to see beautiful vistas or breathtaking scenery,” Freund says, “but I go to search for Jews.”

Through the organization that he founded and chairs, Israel Returns, Freund – a Princeton graduate with an MBA from Columbia University’s Business School – has succeeded in bringing thousands of souls back to the Jewish people, ranging from Chinese Jews to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

And it all started with an innocuous orange envelope.

In 1996, barely a year after Freund had moved to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him to serve as Deputy Communications Director during his first term of office.

In the Spring of 1997, a letter arrived to Netanyahu from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, requesting to return to Zion after more than 2,700 years of exile.

“I remember opening the battered letter – it was in a crumpled, orange envelope – and reading it with a mix of incredulity and surprise,” he recounts.

At first, Freund says, he thought it was “nuts”. But something about the appeal touched him, so the young aide penned a polite reply. Subsequently, he learned that, “the Bnei Menashe had been writing to Israeli prime ministers since at least Golda Meir, and probably since Ben-Gurion and the founding of the State of Israel, but they had never received an answer.”

After meeting with Bnei Menashe community members and learning more about their history, traditions and customs during a visit to India, Freund became convinced that they are in fact descendants of the Jewish people.

“As peculiar as it might sound, after carefully studying the matter I became persuaded regarding the historicity of their claim. I believe the Bnei Menashe are in fact descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel,” he says.

But Freund didn’t suffice himself with historical musings. Instead, he moved quickly to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and stubbornly persisted, overcoming various obstacles until he was able to obtain permission from Israel’s Interior Ministry to allow large groups of Bnei Menashe to make aliyah.

When Netanyahu left office in 1999, Freund says he began to think more broadly about the question of descendants of Jews and their relationship with the State of Israel and the Jewish people. That is when he began embarking on visits to various far-flung communities, earning him the nickname “the Indiana Jones of lost Jews”. His journeys, he says, led to him to two important conclusions. The first was “that there are enormous numbers of people around the world with an historical connection to the Jewish people who are still conscious of that link”.

No nation, he insists, “has been exiled, persecuted, massacred and forcibly converted like the Jews have throughout the ages, so it is only natural that we would find remnants or traces of Jews across the globe.” The second realization was that, “something needs to be done to engage descendants of Jews and forge closer ties with them.”

This prompted Freund to establish Israel Returns, which has grown rapidly over the past decade and now works with a variety of communities in more than 15 countries.

These include: the Bnei Menashe of India; the Bnei Anousim (or “Marranos”) in Spain, Portugal, southern Italy and South America; the Subbotnik Jews of Russia and the former Soviet Union, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, China; the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the Holocaust era and others.

In 2007, after the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an unexpected halt to the Bnei Menashe aliyah, Freund launched an intensive lobbying campaign. He spent the next five years nudging, cajoling and pushing to get the aliyah restarted, meeting with Government ministers, Knesset members and other public officials.

His commitment bore fruit in October 2012, when the Israeli government voted unanimously to resume the Bnei Menashe aliyah, granting Israel Returns the right to bring 274 immigrants to the Jewish state. Freund arranged for their arrival in December 2012-January 2013, covering all the costs involved. In October 2013, the Israeli cabinet passed an additional resolution allowing another 900 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel in 2014-15. The first batch of 160 made aliyah in January, and another 250 are arriving this month.

All told, thanks to Freund’s dedication over the years, there are now some 2,200 Bnei Menashe living in the Jewish state. All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate and received Israeli citizenship.

“I made a promise,” he says, “to the Bnei Menashe that I will not rest until the remaining 7,000 community members in India are able to make aliyah. And it is a promise I intend to keep.”

In addition to his success with the Bnei Menashe, Freund chalked up another achievement this year when he succeeded in persuading Israeli government officials to open the door to the Subbotnik Jews of Russia and the former Soviet Union.

“The Subbotnik Jews are descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism more than two centuries ago under the Czar and were then persecuted ruthlessly by the Nazis and the Communists for their adherence to Judaism,” Freund explains.

“Some 15-20,000 Subbotnik Jews currently reside in the former Soviet states. For more than a century, they had been making aliyah without a problem, until suddenly, in 2005, Israeli officials inexplicably decided to shut down their immigration”, he adds.

Over the following nine years, Freund lobbied on their behalf, and in March of this year, the Absorption Ministry agreed to work for the resumption of their aliyah. The Israeli government is slated to approve a decision soon that will formally enable the Subbotnik Jews to come home to Jerusalem.

In Poland, Israel Returns currently has rabbinical emissaries serving in Krakow and Katowice, where they work with the growing number of young Poles who have been discovering their families’ Jewish roots, which were often concealed after the Holocaust.

Last year, on the eve of Yom HaShoah, Freund organized a special Shabbaton and weekend seminar in the Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) for dozens of young Poles with Jewish roots from around the country. It was the first time since World War II that such an event occurred.

In other locales, such as Spain, Portugal, Colombia and Sicily, Israel Returns has rabbinical emissaries working with Bnei Anousim, whose Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries.

And the organization also runs Machon Miriam, a Spanish, Portuguese and Italian-language conversion and return institute in Jerusalem, the only one of its kind.

Freund devotes himself full-time to Israel Returns, but he does so as a volunteer, refusing to take a salary. Moreover, he and his extended family fund about half of the organization’s annual budget, and Freund then raises the rest from supporters worldwide.

“I think it is imperative that Israel and the Jewish people reach out to descendants of Jews in a concerted fashion,” he says. “It is not just about conversion and aliyah. The moment someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it naturally makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes,” Freund points out, adding that, “It is therefore in our collective interest to strengthen the bonds with those whose forefathers were once part of our people.”

Israel Returns emissary inaugurates first “Ride for the Living” in Poland

Biking through Poland

Biking through Poland

In 1909, Robert Desmond’s grandparents left their home and family in the small shtetl village of Chernigov, just north of Kiev in Ukraine, and moved to the United Kingdom. It would prove to save their lives, as they escaped the atrocities that would decimate Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the decades to come.

Some 100 years later, in October 2013, Desmond, a London-based software engineer, marathon runner and avid long distance cyclist, embarked on a modern day roots pilgrimage. He set out on his bicycle to trace what he called his family “liberation path” – in reverse – from London down to the Normandy D-Day landing beaches in France across to Paris, into Germany and then to the Czech Republic before finishing up at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Following his 1,350-mile month-long journey (which he blogged about here), Desmond ended up in Krakow where he met and became fast friends with Israel Returns’ emissary there, Rabbi Avi Baumol. Over many Shabbat meals and sessions learning Torah together with the community, Desmond began to appreciate the remarkable revitalization of Jewish life that is taking place in Poland today. He wanted to demonstrate to the world what was happening. And how better to do that than once again through bike riding?

Desmond and Rabbi Baumol got together with Krakow JCC director Jonathan Ornstein and came up with a plan: they would create a new cycling event, this time not to Auschwitz but from it – back to Krakow, ending up at the Jewish Community Center there which, under Rabbi Baumol’s stewardship, has become the focus of the city’s dynamic Jewish life. They called it “The Ride for the Living” a variant on the long standing “March of the Living” that also takes place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

The 50-mile ride from Auschwitz to Krakow took place on Friday, June 6 and Rabbi Baumol and Desmond were joined by another 15 riders, including a group that Desmond brought from London, local members of the Krakow JCC, and a small contingent from the U.S. An online fundraising campaign was held to support a trip to Israel for senior members of the JCC.

The day began with a ceremony at 11:30 am in front of the gates of Birkenau at which Rabbi Baumol, several members of the Jewish community, and the Deputy Director of the Auschwitz museum spoke of the significance of this first-of-its kind event.

“Millions of visitors made their way to Auschwitz by planes, trains and automobiles,” Rabbi Baumol writes, “but we were the first to mark the return in a Ride for Life, symbolizing the indefatigable spirit of the Jewish people—you can break our bones, destroy our communities and seek to eradicate our memories but we will still survive, we will continue to build.”

Rabbi Baumol recited two prayers before setting off on the ride: baruch dayan ha’emet, honoring the memory of the past, as well as the Tefilat Haderech prayer to G-d for guidance on future journeys.

“The ride was lovely with the countryside flat and the weather perfect,” Rabbi Baumol continues. “Each rider managed the 55 mile journey back to the JCC…back to life in Krakow. We all learned that we have the physical capacity to make such a journey and, as the sun set and we joined for prayer and Shabbat dinner, we understood the importance of our message.”

On Saturday night following the ride, Krakow celebrated “7@nite,” an annual event in which thousands of mostly non-Jewish Poles come to Krakow to walk around the seven synagogues, which are still open in the city’s central Kazimierz district. The evening began with a havdalah service conducted by Rabbi Baumol on the rooftop of the Krakow JCC. Rabbi Baumol later gave a midnight lecture on the “symbols of the synagogue” – a hundred people showed up, he reports.

Rabbi Baumol and Desmond plan to turn the “Ride for the Living” into an annual event and hope that next year the number of riders will be triple that of the inaugural journey. Rabbi Baumol says that the aim is quite simple, yet incredibly important: “to spread the message that we must always commemorate the hell that is Birkenau and the souls who perished there, it must never be our final resting place. The Jewish journey will never stop at death but will return from there, not in cattle-cars led by others, but with our own two feet, riding ourselves to freedom and restored Jewish life in Poland.”

The aliyah resumes: 80 Bnei Menashe arrive in Israel

Bnei Menashe girl from Manipur at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel

Bnei Menashe girl from Manipur at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel

We have exciting news to share with you: the aliyah of the Bnei Menashe from India is once again under way. Just four months after bringing 160 Bnei Menashe to Israel, Israel Returns has now started to bring the next group of 250 community members home to the Jewish state.

Over the past week, 80 Bnei Menashe have arrived, all of them from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, with another 170 slated to come in the next few weeks..

The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which were exiled by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago. Over the past 15 years, Israel Returns has brought more than 2,200 Bnei Menashe to Israel, and in October 2013, the Israeli government granted Israel Returns permission to bring an additional 900 Bnei Menashe in 2014 and 2015.

Upon the arrival of the first group of Bnei Menashe at Ben-Gurion Airport last Thursday, Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund told the new immigrants, “Your arrival is part of the miracle of Israel’s return to its Land. Being an immigrant is not easy and you will face many challenges along the way. But always remember that the State of Israel is one of G-d’s greatest gifts to the Jewish people, and our generation is privileged to be living here.”

The new arrivals include Edna, a young woman who has been separated from her fiancé, Gamliel, for more than seven years since he made aliyah. In 2007, after Gamliel and 230 other Bnei Menashe moved to Israel, the government froze the community’s immigration. It was only restarted in 2012.

Edna and Gamliel’s reunion was particularly emotional, Freund says. “As Gamliel stood with Edna, he said to me he felt like our forefather Jacob who waited so long to marry Rachel.”

Freund also mentioned several other moving reunions in this particular aliyah, including a grandfather who had never met his four Israeli grandchildren, and two siblings who had not seen their sister who has lived in Israel for 21 years now.

Click here to see photos from Ben-Gurion Airport last week.

Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund wins “Lion of Zion” award

Shavei israel Chairman Michael Freund this week with Bnei Menashe new immigrant at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel

Shavei israel Chairman Michael Freund this week with Bnei Menashe new immigrant at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel

We are delighted to announce that Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund has received the 2014 Moskowitz Prize for Zionism.

Dubbed the “Lion of Zion” award, the prize was established by Dr. Irving and Cherna Moskowitz in 2008 “in recognition of the people who put Zionism into action in today’s Israel society, at times risking their own personal security, placing the collective before personal needs, and doing what it takes to ensure a strong, secure and resilient national Jewish homeland.”

Freund joins two other recipients for this year’s award: Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, who founded the JobKatif employment agency for former residents of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, and archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, who created the “Temple Mount Sifting Project” to reclaim archaeological relics from debris removed from the Temple Mount during 1999-2000.

The three winners and their organizations will split a cash prize, which will be awarded at a ceremony in Jerusalem, not far from Barkay’s excavation center, this Thursday, May 29, 2014, the day after Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day.

Moskowitz Prize logoThe Moskowitz Prize organization explains that the need for this award “arose from the feeling, shared by many, that the true Zionist heroes in today’s Israel – those known to the public as well as those far outside the public spotlight, both young and old – do not always receive the institutional recognition and public praise they deserve.”

Freund joins past prize winners including Yigal Cohen-Organ, the chancellor of Ariel University; former Mossad chief Meir Dagan; Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh b’Nefesh; and Israeli emergency medicine innovator Dr. Yitzhak Glick.

The “Lion of Zion” prize committee consists of Cherna Moskowitz, former Defense Minister Prof. Moshe Arens, Rabbi Yedidya Atlas, Ambassador Yoram Ettinger, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Brig. General Avigdor Kahalani, Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Daniel Moskowitz. Nobel Prize Winner Prof. Yisrael Aumann serves as the organization’s special academic advisor. Ruth J. Lieberman is the overall director.

Please join us in congratulating Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund and all the award recipients for this special honor.

Three remarkable Polish women visit Israel to strengthen their journey to Judaism

Olga, Kinga and Catherine visit the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Olga, Kinga and Catherine visit the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Kinga’s mother had the unusual custom of saying Gut Shabbos (Yiddish for “Good Sabbath”) every Friday night, but she had no idea what the phrase meant. “My mother just repeated it because she liked the way it sounded,” Kinga says, recalling her childhood in Poland. It wasn’t until she left for university that Kinga put the pieces together and discovered the truth about her Jewish heritage.

Olga’s family took her and her siblings on a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp when she was only 5-years-old. “It was just something Poles do,” she was told at the time. Seven years later, she learned she was Jewish and that very early visit took on an entirely different meaning.

Catherine doesn’t have a Jewish background but has worked as a tour guide with groups visiting Poland from Israel and South Africa for the past 10 years. She regularly participates in the March of the Living pilgrimage to Auschwitz. She is today studying towards conversion to Judaism.

Three very different stories with one common theme: Kinga, Olga and Catherine were all in Israel recently on an Israel Returns-sponsored tour and study program to further their knowledge of Judaism and strengthen their connection to this 3,000-year-old people.

The Polish visitors were guided by Rabbi Avi Baumol, Israel Returns’ energetic emissary to Krakow, who played the roles of escort, teacher and cheerleader with eager aplomb during the two-week trip.

Their program paired a variety of only-in-Israel activities: a visit to the Western Wall; social cohesion and spiritual uplift at shul during a visit to Rabbi Baumol’s home; witnessing a demonstration the next week opposite the Prime Minister’s residence; soaking in the sights at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market, then immersing in some serious Torah study at the beit midrash of Nishmat, a women’s adult education institute in the Israeli capital; shopping in the Old City’s ancient Roman Cardo, followed by a tour of the ruins of Caesarea, a testament to the mastery of Israel’s Roman-era Jewish builder Herod.

What was the highlight? All three respond in unison: Shabbat. (The women spent the weekend in the Jerusalem suburb of Efrat.) “It’s like it’s supposed to be,” says Catherine, remarking that while they keep the laws of the Sabbath in Poland, “being in a community where everyone is celebrating Shabbat together and it’s normal,” was inspirational.

“It was so powerful, everyone was so dedicated and the singing was so wonderful,” adds Kinga.

It was Kinga who grew up with that out-of-place greeting of Gut Shabbos.There were a few other customs that she didn’t understand until much later. For example, her grandmother baked a bread resembling challah on the weekends, and the family never mixed milk and meat. It wasn’t until she left for Krakow to attend university that she discovered this was a Jewish custom, though.

“The other students saw the way I would cook and explained it to me,” she says. “My mother simply said we did this because it was healthier!”

It was only when Kinga, now 26 and a student at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, left Poland to study for a semester in Paris that she truly embraced her Jewish roots. By chance, her apartment roommate was from Israel. “She wasn’t religious at all,” Kinga remembers, “but when I heard her speaking Hebrew for the first time, I knew this was what I had been searching for. A Jewish consciousness started to grow in me and I started to observe Shabbat.” When Rabbi Baumol came to Krakow last year, she began to study with him and became an active member of the local Jewish Community Center.

Olga, 27, didn’t have the same discovery process as Kinga: her mother always knew she was Jewish (although she didn’t tell her daughter until Olga was 12) and she placed an emphasis on learning about Jewish culture above others. Olga didn’t initially connect to her own Jewish roots. “I felt proud to be Jewish, but nothing more at first,” she says. “Five years later, I came to Krakow for university and I wanted some connection with the Jewish community.”

Olga joined the Jewish Community Center, which she describes as “a second home,” while studying towards her Ph.D on the “Holocaust and Nazism in Pop Culture.” What does that involve? She brings the example of the propaganda films made during World War II by none other than Walt Disney. “In them, Donald Duck would play a German soldier, and the film was meant to show how difficult life was under Germany and how much better it would be in the U.S.,” she explains.

Catherine, 32, was drawn to Judaism when she began working with Jewish groups in Poland. “I’d keep in touch with the people I met and that strengthened my interest,” she says. “People had told me that working with Jewish groups would be hard, but I didn’t find this at all. The opposite, in fact!”

Catherine wrote her master’s degree thesis in university on the influence of Krakow’s annual “March of Remembrance” on the city’s Podgórze district and as a means for promoting “synergistic dialogue” between Poles and Jews. Today she is studying towards a degree in psychotherapy while working in a law office to pay the bills.

What do the three women’s families think about their Jewish journeys? Catherine, who has no Jewish background, says “in Poland, if you’re not familiar with this topic, you don’t know a lot about it. My parents don’t really have a full image of what I’m doing, so it’s hard for them to take any kind of position. They’re not against it, but I’m not sure they entirely understand what’s going on.”

Olga’s parents support her fully: “My mother said, you must do this.” She has one brother and four cousins, none of whom are interested in similarly pursuing their past (or future, for that matter). “That’s very common, actually, among the third generation after the Holocaust, for one person to want to be Jewish and for their siblings to not want to know more,” she says.

Kinga’s parents are also in favor of her process, and particularly her visit to Israel. But, she cautions, her father is worried about possible anti-Semitism and asked that we not include her last name in this article.

At synagogue in Efrat over Shabbat, Rabbi Baumol gave a talk about his experience bringing Kinga, Olga and Catherine to Israel. In front of a packed house of 75 and speaking in English so the girls would understand (their Hebrew is somewhat less than fluent…so far, at least), he told this powerful story relating to the prophecy of Ezekiel:

I always had trouble with the principle of “resurrection of the dead.” What did it mean that each individual was supposed to be returned to life with a second chance? Having now spent the last six months in Poland, I have developed a new understanding of the miraculous prophecy.

I recently heard a harrowing story during the liberation day ceremony at the Birkenau concentration camp. Three men wanted to say kaddish for one of the men’s father, but they couldn’t manage to stand up so they rested on a pile of bodies. When one asked the other where his father was laid to rest, the response was, “you are sitting on him.”

How could the Jewish people ever think about a future after such a story? Yet they built and rebuilt, developed and thrived, ultimately creating the new modern state of Israel, a haven for all Jews and a light to the world. Is that not “resurrection of the dead?”

Moreover, in the 20 years since communism fell in Poland there has been a resurgence of Jewish Poland! Poles keep finding out that they have Jewish roots and they are inquiring as to what that means for them in their lives. The women I brought with me from Poland this week have such a story. Is that not the very essence of the prophecy G-d spoke to Ezekiel the prophet so many years ago?

If you would like to support Israel Returns’ work in Poland, and help bring the spirit of Jewish resurgence to even more “Hidden Jews” of Poland, please consider making a donation on our Support page.

We have pictures from the trip here.

Bnei Menashe immigrants visit the Western Wall

Young Bnei Menashe at Kotel for the first time!

Young Bnei Menashe at Kotel for the first time!

160 Bnei Menashe visited the Kotel (the Western Wall) last month. All were part of the most recent waves of aliyah from Mizoram and arrived in the early part of 2014.

This was the first visit of the group to the Kotel since they completed a full return to Judaism under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

Click here to see pictures AND a video!

Modern day Exodus: the remarkable story of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim community

Eliyahu and Talya Franco (left) with Yael, Sophie and Veronika, members of Beit Israel visiting from El Salvador

Eliyahu and Talya Franco (left) with Yael, Sophie and Veronika, members of Beit Israel visiting from El Salvador

Every Friday afternoon, an extraordinary modern day Exodus takes place in San Salvador. Between 50-60 Bnei Anousim make their way by bus and by car (but never by foot – that’s too dangerous!) to the Beit Israel synagogue in El Salvador’s capital. They carry with them a potluck assortment of appetizers, main dishes and desserts, along with a change of clothes for the weekend.

Once there, they place the food on hotplates connected to timers, then spread out mattresses to prepare for the weekly Shabbat sleepover in San Salvador’s only synagogue for the community. They eat together, pray together and have built a remarkably cohesive community in just a few short years. Add to that now the country’s first kosher mikveh (ritual bath), which opened during Hanukah within the Beit Israel building complex (see pictures below).

The creation of El Salvador’s only mikveh was made possible when, in May 2013, Israel Returns appointed Rabbi Daniel Touitou as its new emissary to work with the approximately 300 Bnei Anousim in the country. Rabbi Touitou came with the knowledge and Israel Returns contributed financial assistance to establish the mikveh.

Eliyahu Franco, 28, the president of the Beit Israel synagogue in San Salvador and head of El Salvador’s national association of Bnei Anousim communities, was in Israel recently with several other community members, including his wife Batya. He sat down with us and shared more details on Jewish life in his country.

Beit Israel has been in existence for about five years, but only opened a formal synagogue in 2013, Franco explains. “Before that we gathered in small houses. Now we have everything: a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), mechitza (partition between men and women used during prayer services), and bima (the platform upon which the Torah is customarily read). We’re still renting, but it’s a long-term contract.”

While it’s never easy to be Jewish so far from a substantial Jewish community, El Salvador is remarkably friendly to the Jews, Franco says. It’s not unusual to see a Magen David (Star of David) or a Menorah used as a design element on a sign on a bus or in front of a shop. Moreover, Franco wears his kippa (head covering) openly on the street “and people just come up to me and say ‘we love the Jewish people.’”

Franco thinks the affection may be connected with El Salvador’s history: between 30,000-50,000 Hungarian Jews were saved during the Holocaust in what was known as the “El Salvador Action.” In 1942, Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos, El Salvador’s Consul General in Geneva, issued thousands of “citizenship certificates” to be distributed to the Jews of Hungary, enabling them to escape the Nazis. El Salvador was the only country during World War II to issue passports to Jews. (There is now a neighborhood in Jerusalem with an “El Salvador Street” to commemorate the life-saving gesture.)

Although many of the Jews who were saved during the Holocaust have since left El Salvador or assimilated, a positive feeling in the country as a whole remains, Franco asserts.

Franco, like many of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim, has just fragments of a connection to his Jewish roots: his last name is known as one associated with the Bnei Anousim (it means “from France”), and his grandfather’s birth certificate listed his ethnicity as “Ladino,” the name of the Jewish language that’s a cross between Spanish and Hebrew. The villagers in his grandfather’s hometown were careful only to marry other community members (another sign of a secret history), and the name of the village was changed in the 1800s to “Jerusalem.”

Franco suggests that the location of the village along a river may have been to give the community access to a makeshift mikveh, making December’s dedication of El Salvador’s first kosher version all the more poignant.

Franco’s wife Batya explains that community members among El Salvador’s modern Bnei Anousim have long been scrupulous about the laws of family purity, which require the use of a mikveh once a month. “We were using a lake or going to the ocean, but that could be very scary and difficult sometimes,” she says. “We’ve been thinking about building a mikveh for several years now, but we didn’t have a place to do it and we didn’t know the specifications – where the water had to come from, what percentage needed to be from rainwater.”

The opening of the mikveh in December was also an opportunity for the full community to come together to celebrate. “Since it was Hanukah, we had lots of fried foods for the holiday,” Talya continues, “plus an inflatable castle for the kids with face painting, dreidels, a soccer tournament, and music in Hebrew. 200 people came, including the Israeli ambassador to El Salvador, Shmulik Bass. There were speeches, a Hanukah candle lighting, and Ambassador Bass ceremonially cut the rope.” The mikveh is called Taharat Israel, which means “purity of Israel.”

Now that the mikveh is in place, Rabbi Touitou has also been helping the community procure kosher products. With the Israel Returns’ emissary’s help, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) has been trained in Armenia, another town where Bnei Anousim live in El Salvador, and now the entire community has access to kosher chicken (“although not yet beef,” Talya laments).

The three members of Beit Israel who visited Israel along with the Francos were making up for lost time, visiting as many of Jerusalem’s kosher restaurants as they could in their brief two week visit, while soaking up all that the Jewish State has to offer. Two of them, Sophie, 23, a university student studying communications, and Veronika, 35, who works in public relations, hope to return to Jerusalem in the near future to learn in a midrasha – a woman’s Jewish studies institution. Yael, 37, a school teacher, is not sure she’ll be able to make the trip, but hopes that her 11-year-old son will someday come to Israel to attend a yeshiva.

In the meantime, all five will certainly return to El Salvador super-charged and ready to lead one of Central America’s most surprising and thriving young Jewish communities.

If you’d like to help support Israel Returns’ activities for the Bnei Anousim in El Salvador, please visit our Support page. The next big event: Beit Israel has obtained its first kosher megilah from which they will read the Book of Esther on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Franco hopes that all the Bnei Anousim communities in El Salvador will come together to hear the ancient story of the Jewish people’s determination and faith in G-d to overcome even the most challenging circumstances.

BREAKING: Ukrainian Jews fear for their lives as political situation deteriorates

Ukraine Jew appeal (large)Political unrest in Ukraine  intensified over the last week. With thousands taking to the street to protest the government and facing off against armed police, hundreds have been injured and many left dead in the violent clashes. The Jewish community in Ukraine, which numbers around 200,000 members, has been caught in the middle of the anti-government protests.

The Jewish Agency announced on Saturday that it would provide emergency aid to the Jewish community spread across Ukraine. According to the Jewish Agency, the aid is meant to provide emergency assistance to the Jewish community and Jewish institutions of Ukraine.

Most Jews in Ukraine reside in the capital of Kiev. However, there are sizable Jewish communities in Odessa, Lvov, and Dnepropetrovsk. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, around 330,000 Ukrainian Jews have made aliyah to Israel.

The Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharanksy stated, “We have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s Jews.” Leaders of the Jewish community in Ukraine have expressed numerous security concerns revolving around the increased fighting and fear that violence will overflow against the Jewish community.

“We are in constant contact with the leadership of the Ukrainian Jewish community and are following events closely. The Jewish Agency’s assistance aims to increase security at the Jewish communal institutions in Ukraine,” said Sharansky.

The emergency assistance will be sent from The Jewish Agency’s Emergency Assistance Fund for Jewish Communities. The fund was established in March 2012, after the terror attacks against a Jewish school in Tolouse, France.

According to The Jewish Agency, “though most of world Jewry lives in physical safety, the fund provides financial assistance to Jewish communities that have security concerns, strengthening security measures and helping to ensure that Jewish life takes place in safety.” Over the last two years, the fund has granted over $4 million in financial assistance to 50 communities in 25 countries.

Commenting on the outburst of violence in the Ukraine, Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund said, “Ukraine is in a state of unrest and the country is saturated with widespread anti-Semitism. History has unfortunately shown that when Ukraine teeters on the brink of chaos, the Jews inevitably become targets. Now is the time for Israel to offer refuge to Ukrainian Jews and to encourage them to come home to Zion. Ukrainian Jewry needs our prayers, and they need Israel to bring them on aliyah.”

Israel Returns has been an instrumental organization in helping to bring Ukrainian Jews and descendants of Ukrainian Jews to the safety of Israel. “We have been working closely with the Subbotnik Jewish community in Ukraine, trying to help them overcome Israeli bureaucratic obstacles which have been preventing them from making Aliyah,” Freund said. “I urge the Israeli government to take action, cut the red tape, and bring the Subbotnik Jews of Ukraine on aliyah.”

You can help in this difficult time by contributing to Israel Return’s outreach to Russia and Ukraine. Click here to donate today.