Wednesday, July 10, 2013

CCD Minsk 2013

My speech to frame the content for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) Mission this morning:

Good morning. Boker Tov. Dobre Utra. Buenos Dias.

Why did we want you to come here?

Because the reason why it was so important for you to be here, to see, to touch, to taste … has nothing – and everything – to do with Belarus itself.

(Because) This is Our Jewish Story.

What you’re seeing this week, and especially what we’ll see today is the story of who we are, and why our lives are intertwined.

Not in some nice, comfortable, we’re-all-in-this-together warm-fuzzy encounter.
But, rather, in some very real and surprising ways.

This, among others, is the story of Meyer Suchowljansky, born in Grodno, Belarus, in 1902.

In the long-established Jewish community of Grodno, up the road from where we were yesterday, Max and Yetta Suchowljansky called their firstborn son Meir, a bringer of light.
Grodno, like all of today’s Belarus, has changed hands many times over the years.
Sometimes it was in Russia, other times it’s been Polish or German.

At a conservative count, if you’re one hundred years old and lived in Grodno all your life, you’ve been the citizen or subject of at least a dozen different countries.

Nearly 70% of the population of Grodno was Jewish when Meir was born, almost everyone spoke Yiddish. There were over 40 synagogues, a Jewish orphanage, a Jewish theater and a Jewish hospital.

Meyer Suchowlijansky grew up in Grodno. He went to cheder, the religious school, where he learned his prayers and the Hebrew alphabet.

But the warm and textured life created by Jews in the five centuries they had lived in Grodno was collapsing.
New laws prohibited Jews from buying land, from going to university, from changing their names to non-Jewish ones. All Jewish identity passes were marked with the word Ibray - “Jew.”

Worst of all, the czarist government approved of pogroms against Jews.
They said it was the Jews’ fault for exploiting ordinary Russians.
When Meyer was five years old there was trouble in nearby Bialystock, and Jews fled by the hundreds to Grodno with stories of rape and murder.

So: what was special about Grodno?
Grodno was one of the first – and one of the only – eastern European communities where the Jews met violence with violence. There were some tough Jews around here.

They formed a self-defense organization, hiding weapons in their homes.
They fought back against policemen who helped their persecutors.
They assassinated the Russian police chief who had organized the Bialystock pogrom.

Grodno’s endurance earned it some reprieve from the worst effects of anti-Semitism, but the odds were not on its side. After centuries of life here, Jews were starting to contemplate their options.

They are the same options that they have today.

One direction was aliyah.
As early as 1851 a Grodno kolel, a religious community, was set up in Jerusalem. By 1902 it was a small township outside the city walls with 2000 Grodno Jews.

Another option was America, a different kind of goldene medinah.

And tens of thousands of Belarussian Jews started to move there in the late nineteenth century.

Max, Meyer’s father, set off for America in 1909. Within two years he had saved enough money for his wife and children to join him.
They reached Ellis Island in April 1911.
10-year old Meyer was so skinny and malnourished that he was redefined as an eight-year old by American immigration officials.

He was also given a new birthday, July 4th, since he was now “made in America.”

Growing up, he fell into occasional street violence on the Lower East Side, petty crime and street gangs.

“I never got on my knees,” he said proudly. “We had the choice. We could run away, or we could fight back.”

There were Jews who fought back.
Jews in Belarus and Jews from Belarus.

Jews like the Bielskis, an organization of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination.
They fought against the Nazis and their collaborators in the vicinity of Lida, now western Belarus.
Under their protection, 1,236 Jews survived the war, living in the forests.
It was one of the most remarkable rescue missions of the Holocaust. 

Jews like Maria Klimovitch, a Hesed client, whom some of you will meet today.
Maria is eighty-one years old and survived the War by hiding in the forest.
Later her family joined the partisans and they all stayed with them to fight for freedom and survival until the end of the war.
Maria is now a Hesed client with homecare services, food packages, and – most importantly – the knowledge that people care about her, that she is part of our community. That she's not forgotten.

Jews like Galina Naumova, a wonderful and inspiring client of our Hesed whom some of you will also meet today.
Galina is eighty-eight years old.

She grew up in Vitebsk, the child of partisan fighters; her brother was killed in the Siege of Leningrad.
Galina herself was caught by Nazi policeman, but she miraculously escaped execution.
She's now a widow, disabled and finds it difficult to move around the house. She suffers from a heart condition and is partially blind and deaf. 
She is alive today because of Hesed.
Because of you.
Because her state pension won't cover her medicines and her basic food needs.
But you do.

There were other Belarus Jews who fought.
Jews like Menachem Begin, born in Brest.
Like Yitzhak Shamir in Ruzhany.
Like Shimon Peres in Vishnyeva.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Chaim Weitzman … and countless others. Born in what is now Belarus.

Because in Belarus we created the foundations of the Jewish State.

In Belarus, we created vibrant, beautiful Jewish art.
With Jewish artists like Moishe Segal, born near Vitebsk, who later changed his name to Marc Chagall.

And in Belarus, we created the foundations of the American Jewish experience.
With Belarussian-born Jews like Irving Berlin and Louis B. Meyer; and the children of Belarussian-Jewish immigrants like Kirk Douglas, and Ralph Lauren.

And immigrants like Meyer Suchowljansky.

Fifty years after he fought in his street gang in the Lower East Side, Belarus-born Meyer Suchowljansky stood in the lobby of a beautiful hotel that he had built.

It was New Year’s Day, January 1st, 1959.
He had kept his first name, he was still called Meyer.
But he had changed his last name to Lansky.
Meyer Lansky was standing in the lobby of the Riviera Hotel in Habana, Cuba.

Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, had boarded a plane at 3am, escaping Castro’s rebellion and fleeing to the Dominican Republic.

By 4 o’clock, news of Batista’s departure had begun to spread.

People started to leave their homes and gathered cheering in the streets, honking their horns.
But the mood quickly turned angry, there were clashes between the police and the rebel militia, who were coming out of hiding in Habana.

There was a wild shoot-out at the Parque Centrale hotel.
(I know some of you have stayed there recently.)

Years of frustration were bubbling over, anger was mounting and directed at anything and everything that symbolized the Batista regime: the parking meters, the slot machines
… and most of all, the hotel-casinos that had sustained the dictatorship for all these years.

And the greatest symbol of the hotel-casinos was the Riviera, built by Meyer Lansky.

In an act of revolutionary anger, campesinos brought into the city a truckload of pigs and set them loose in the lobby of the hotel and casino, squealing, tracking mud across the floors, and doing their business all over Lansky’s pride and joy, the beautiful lobby of the Riviera.
As dawn rose on the new Habana, there was dancing in the streets,

The workers at the Riviera deserted their jobs to go out and celebrate, and Meyer Lansky, limping on a swollen knee, worked personally in the kitchens to give out food, free of charge, to the bewildered guests.

Teddy, his wife, poured some vinegar into a bucket of water, took a mop, and started to wipe up the Riviera’s lovely marble floors.

Several months ago, sitting in the same beautiful lobby, looking at the same marble floors, I was comparing the nature of Jewish life in Belarus and the former Soviet Union to that in Cuba, with a Jewish federation mission from North America.

I’m not the first to make these comparisons.

Many of us here this morning have done the same.

And what surprises people is that, like in Cuba, every Jew in Belarus can leave. They don’t need our help in getting out.
Every Jew in every country around the world can leave. From anywhere.
They don’t need our help in getting out. They need our help in bringing in.

And in Cuba, like in Belarus, like in Russia and Ukraine and dozens of other countries, the challenge that we face is twofold.
Because in so many of these countries what strikes us is hunger and thirst.

Make no mistake. There is real hunger in the Jewish world.
Hundreds of thousands hungry, needy. They need food, and medicine, and homecare.
And you will see this today.

But there is also thirst.
A real thirst for Jewish identity, for belonging, for community.

For Jews like Irina Mikhlina, a lovely young woman whom many of you will meet today at the JCC. In her professional work, she is an English translator and interpreter in the Minsk Transport Science and Research Institute.

But since 2005, as a 22-year old Hillel student, she got turned on to Jewish life.
She went to leadership programs, warm homes, working with youth groups.
She’s now volunteering on a program for small Belarussian Jewish communities.

Irina wants to celebrate what, in some ways, we take for granted in the United States.
But so many were cut off for some seventy years of Communist rule.
And then, precisely when the gates opened, as the Soviet system collapsed.
Precisely when the Joint came back, and we had the chance to start rebuilding, renewing … what happened?

All those on whom we would have built the next generation of Jewish leadership … left.
All those with the strongest Jewish identities … moved to Israel, or to the US, or to Europe.

So what you see now, the revitalization of hope, is not something we could have seen twenty years ago.
In some places not even ten years or five years ago.

It took time, and energy, and precious resources, to rebuild, and restore, and renew.
And we did it with the support of our federations.
With you.
Because at the end of the day, every single JDC program, in every country around the world, is rooted in the core value that we share with you, our federations: that kol yisrael arevim ze bezeh – that all Jews are responsible one for another.
Every day.

That's not just a nice abstract statement from the Talmud – (masechet Shavuot, 39a). It’s a business plan.

No one gets left behind.
Every Jewish community can stand on its own feet.
Every Jewish community can become self-sufficient.

For children, families, the elderly.
For communities, thriving and challenged.

In Israel, for hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable: the elderly, the disabled, youth-at-risk, the difficult-to-absorb, the difficult-to-employ.

For 99 years.

In Israel.
And in over seventy countries around the world.

We don’t need your help in getting out. We need your help in bringing in.
We need your help in building Jewish life here in Belarus, there in Cuba, there in Russia, there in Argentina, there in Hungary.

And those of you who have been with us on missions to these countries know this.

We have a global Jewish commitment that defines us.
It enriches our sense of community and Jewish identity.

Even if it’s hard. Even if it takes time.

We do this for the same reason that you do this.

Because we want our Jewish community to have meaning.

Because we want our children to be proud of us.

And because we love the Jewish world and all that it entails: the good … and the not-so-good …

We read this morning in our mission journals the beautiful song written by the Belarussian author, S. Ansky, of Vitebsk.

The Emigrant Song is our song. “Wanderers, wanderers we are.”
And who was Shlomo Ansky? He was the author of The Dybbuk.
And he subtitled his masterpiece, “Between Two Worlds.”
Those two worlds were the story of his Belarus.

Of our Belarus.

A story torn between the past and the future. Between the dirty, daily struggle … and the noble aspirations that we all share.

It’s the story of Meyer Lansky, who was so flawed … yet worked with the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, to help in the Allied invasion of Sicily and broke up Nazi rallies and spy rings in New York.

It’s the story of Marc Chagall, who moved from Belarus and worked as an art teacher in a JDC school near Moscow in the 1920s.

He wrote a beautiful autobiography, My Life.

It’s one of the most extraordinarily inventive and visually striking autobiographies you’ll ever see.

The text is accompanied by twenty plates which he prepared especially to illustrate his life story.

In the book, he writes, “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”

That’s why we are here today. That’s why our task is so sacred, so important, so filled with love.

Our love for Maria, and Galina.

And countless other Hesed clients.
Including the amazing and inspiring Righteous Among the Nations, who honored us and blessed us with their presence yesterday.

Our love for Irina and thousands of other Belarussian Jews, whose thirst for Jewish life is being met because of you.

They love you.

We want to show you this today.

This love is the reason why we’re so proud, and so grateful, to show you our past, present and future today.

Because this is our Jewish story.
It belongs to all of us here.

Thank you.

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