Archive for : Heroes

From Queen Esther to Emma Watson

It’s no coincidence that the Jewish holiday of Purim typically falls in March, AKA Women’s History Month. Okay, maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s a great one. The Purim story, after all, is built around two mighty women: one who stands up for her rights (Queen Vashti) and another who stands up for the rights and safety of her people (Queen Esther).

As we remember and celebrate Jewish tradition’s early female heroines, it is also important to remember that women’s rights issues – everything from gender pay inequality, to women’s healthcare and education access – are still critically important both in America and around the world. That’s why, this Purim, we want to shed light on this ongoing work.

Who better to do that than Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, Emma Watson, herself? In addition to giving a killer speech about gender equality at the UN a couple years back, Watson is a leader of HeforShe, a UN Women campaign focused on bringing all voices around the world together in support of women’s rights.

In the video below, Watson teams up with Broadway star Lin Manuela Miranda (of Hamilton) for an amazing beat box/freestyle flow session about gender equality. It’s worth a watch – we may have watched it twice – and a visit to the UN’s HeforShe campaign page.

And for more on Purim’s heroines, check out this post on My Jewish Learning called Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective.

Repair Inspiration: Auschwitz Survivor Meets German Hip-Hop Duo

File this under awesome: A recent New York Times article told the story about an 89-year old Holocaust survivor who is teaming up with a German hip-hop group called Microphone Mafia to spread music and a message. Read an excerpt below and find the whole article on the Times’ website.

NEW YORK TIMES
Amid the Rap Music, Echoes of an Orchestra Playing in a Dark Past
By: Sally McGrane
June 27, 2014

“BERLIN — AT various points during shows, the German rapper Kutlu Yurtseven gestures to a bandmate sitting demurely off to the side. That’s the cue for 89-year-old Esther Bejarano, a diminutive woman with a snow-white pixie cut, to jump in with a song. “When will the heavens open up, again, for me?” is one favorite, the refrain of a local carnival tune. “When will they open up?”

It is an unusual pairing. Ms. Bejarano is one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz Girls’ Orchestra, the only all-female ensemble among the many Nazi-run prisoner musical groups in the camp system. Among other duties, the Girls’ Orchestra was responsible for playing the marches that imprisoned women had to keep step to as they went out to work in the morning and, even more cruelly, as they returned, half-dead, at the end of the day.

Five years ago, hoping to reach more young people with her story and her message of tolerance and anti-fascism, Ms. Bejarano teamed up with Microphone Mafia, a German hip-hop duo with Turkish and Italian roots. They have released their first album, and have been playing concerts throughout Germany and Europe ever since.

The music combines songs like the poignant Yiddish resistance song, “We’ll Live Forever,” composed in the Nazi-run Jewish ghetto in Vilna just before it was liquidated, with rap passages about current problems like racism that, in Ms. Bejarano’s view, show that the lessons of the Holocaust still need to be learned.”

Read more…

Repair Inspiration: Malala’s Dad

By now you’ve likely heard of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous teenager who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for the simple act of getting an education. But have you heard about her father, educator Ziauddin Yousafzai?

In today’s bit of Repair Inspiration, here is a video of Mr. Yousafazai giving a TED Talk about his amazing daughter. It begins: “In many patriarchal societies..fathers are usually known by their sons. But I’m one of the few fathers who is known by his daughter, and I’m proud of it.” Let the chills subside, then check out his words in the video below:

Hungry for more? Find more than 1,000 inspirational TED Talks on their website.

Meet Laura Kassen!

Meet Laura Kassen, our Education Campaign Fellow and AVODAH Corps Member! We asked Laura a few questions about her decision to join AVODAH, and her work with Repair: 

Why did you decide to serve with AVODAH this year?

In December 2011, during the fall semester of my senior year in college, I was forced to face “reality.” After constantly being asked various forms of the question “What are you doing next year?” I decided to bulk down and actually figure it out…or at least come up with something I could say in response. At one point I was so overwhelmed with the process that my go-to answer became making up various professions and telling something different to each person who asked. Many people may actually think that I am becoming an astronaut or a professional fortune-cookie writer—I apologize that neither one of these is true, but in my opinion I am doing something way more exciting.

I knew that I wanted to work in some capacity at a non-profit organization, particularly in the Jewish world. I also have always had a strong interest in education and education reform. While perusing Idealist.org, I stumbled upon all these job opportunities that sounded amazing. Then I noticed that they all had something in common—they were all AVODAH placement organizations.

I spent time doing research on AVODAH’s website, talking to Corps members and participating in informational conference calls. AVODAH seemed like it would be a great opportunity to do meaningful work after college. I was excited about the possibility of working at a highly effective non-profit, while living in a communal environment, and engaging in learning opportunities that would help me become an agent for social change. I thought AVODAH would be a great way for me to learn from my peers and help me gain an understanding of what I’d like to do in the future. So in January 2012 I applied to AVODAH, and in May I was thrilled to learn that my placement organization would be Repair the World!

What excited you about serving at Repair the World?

I was super excited (and still am!) about becoming a part of an organization whose mission is something I really value. I have always been proud of my Judaism and interested in service, so it was thrilling to find an organization that seeks to truly connect these two important facets of my life and make them a defining aspect of American Jewish life. I am excited to spread the word about Repair the World and help the organization flourish.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I am looking forward to learning more about structure, and what goes on “behind the scenes” at a non-profit organization. I feel like Repair the World is a great place to do this because it is growing rapidly in terms of outreach, resources and education. I am also looking forward to applying what I learn through AVODAH to my work at Repair the World, whether it be by hearing from my fellow Corps members or learning something during our educational programming.

What would you say to college seniors who might be thinking about doing a year of service post-graduation?

I say if you are able to commit to a year of service, I would definitely encourage you to go for it. A year of service has really put things into perspective for me. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about myself, about social justice, and a wide-spectrum of unique opinions and ideas. And if you cannot dedicate a whole year to doing service, try to become involved in other capacities. Volunteer with your friends on weekends, read up on social inequalities, and attend events with topics related to social justice. You may find something that really grabs your attention!

How do you see this year informing your future career plans?

I think both my experience at Repair the World and AVODAH will help me figure out what I would like to do in my professional career. I hope that I will be fortunate enough to find something that combines all of my interests, and even if I don’t I would like to find out other opportunities to stay involved. I am very excited to grow professionally, expand my interests, and do my part to help with Repair the World’s mission.

Laura Kassen is from Westport, Connecticut. She attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she was an American Studies major and History minor.

 

Repair Hero: Rabbi Stephen Roberts on Providing Spiritual Service After 9/11

Rabbi Stephen Roberts is a professional chaplain – the person to turn to in a crisis for support, advice and spiritual counsel. But he’s also a deep believer in service, both within and outside his official job description. So when the New York branch of the American Red Cross wanted to build an interfaith team of chaplains to serve New York City residents after disasters, he jumped at the chance to volunteer and organize.

That group, which coincidentally started their official service about one week before the attacks on September 11th, ended up playing a pivotal role in providing spiritual care and comfort during the country’s darkest days. Rabbi Roberts took the time to speak with Repair the World about his commitment to serving others, his definition of the word “mazel” (luck in Hebrew), and the role we all play in rebuilding and looking forward after a tragedy.

A couple of years before 9/11 you’d started to recruit chaplains for the American Red Cross. What inspired that?
It was really a story about paying it forward. A close friend of mine – really more of a brother – was killed in a plane crash close to 25 years ago. When he died, one of the ways I got through it was because of some amazing spiritual care from a Rabbi. It really made a difference in my life. Many years later I heard that the American Red Cross was putting together a team of chaplains to provide spiritual care after aviation disasters. I believe deeply in service, and wanted to help create a core of colleagues to do this work. About 2 years before 9/11 I began recruiting a diverse group of chaplains in New York from all the faith traditions. We had actually just completed our preparatory work a week before 9/11. We had been working as a group for months – we were ready to knock on doors, we even had an application form for volunteers.

Wow, what incredible timing!
You know, we normally think about the Hebrew word “mazel” as meaning luck, but I think there’s something more to it. If you read the word backwards, the letter “lamed” (L) stands for limmud, or study, the letter “zayin” (Z) stands for zaman or time, and then there’s the letter “mem” (M), which stands for makom, or place. The notion is, if you have put in the “time” and the “study” into preparing for something, when you finally arrive at the “place,” you are ready for it. That’s really what luck is all about.

What types of care did your team of chaplains provide after 9/11?
We basically had to ramp up our efforts much faster and larger than we’d expected. When I showed up to the Red Cross they told me, “Rabbi – you’ve done all this planning…well now you’re live.” I got on the phone and called my team in. I said, “We’re live starting tomorrow morning – if you can show up, then show up.” We began screening volunteers – imams, rabbis, ministers, and buddhist priests, men, women, black, white, hispanic. Our team ended up including 800 volunteers.

In the first few days after 9/11 we served in front of the family assistance centers – the place where people came to report who was missing, or where biological material was brought to make matches. People stood in line for hours trying to determine if their loved ones were alive or not. So our chaplains wandered the lines and made themselves available. Sometimes, the most powerful spiritual care is about being present. Our presence allowed people to let out their shock and make it through those darkest first days.

How did the work change as the days and weeks went on?
A week and a half or so later, when the memorial services began, we had chaplains there. We handed out water and napkins, and through that work people came to us. We were really a ministry of presence. A month after 9/11 we took over at ground zero, providing chaplains 24/7 in the recovery. We created things like a non-denominational prayer for whenever a body part was recovered. That was for the workers and volunteers – they need a sacred moment, and a reminder that the work they were doing, even if it was happening in the most horrible conditions possible, was sacred. We were there for 9 months until they finally closed the site.

What can rabbis, chaplains and community leaders be doing now – 11 years later – to help their congregations and communities move forward while honoring and remembering?
I co-edited a book with Reverend Will Ashley about training clergy to deal with disaster and spiritual care. I recommend that people read that because it talks about how disasters are a given in life, but what’s most important is how well you’re prepared for them. Our job as clergy is to help the community come back to a new beginning after a tragedy, but really anyone can help facilitate that for their community.

Learn more about the American Red Cross’ work around Disaster Relief, and find out how you can get involved.

Repair Hero: Rabbi Simkha Weintraub On Ongoing Healing After 9/11

The days and weeks after 9/11 were a time of chaos, as first responders and teams of dedicated volunteers picked through rubble – looking for survivors and beginning the years-long process of rebuilding. But away from ground zero, in New York City and across the country, those days were also a time of deep sorrow, fear and confusion. A time when people needed to mourn, process and emotionally rebuild.

All over New York City, and across the country too, support groups sprung up in churches, community centers, and people’s homes – all in an effort to provide solace and comfort for mourners, survivors, volunteers, and everyone who was impacted by 9/11. There were groups within the Jewish community too, like the one that Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a New Yorker and the Rabbinic Director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) helped create in New York City. Rabbi Weintraub played a critical role in creating opportunities and resources for healing in those first weeks, and facilitated a support group for Jewish people who lost family members in the attack that lasted for an astounding 9 1/2 years.

In this season of reflection, Rabbi Weintraub took some time out to reflect about those first days and weeks after 9/11, the support group’s incredible impact on its members, and a particularly healing trip they took to Israel. We’ve also shared some great opportunities to get involved – with JBFCS and elsewhere – going forward.

What were the days just after 9/11 like for you and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services?
Once we could get back to our desks, nobody knew how many Jews – or how many people – had died. In the earliest moments, we heard and feared that the number was up to 30,000. We started to keep a list of names of Jewish people we’d heard about passing away, and started reaching out to family members. We developed a database early on of the 240 Jews who died. To do this we reached out to rabbis about people in their congregations. Of course not everyone is affiliated, but we did what we could. We wanted to let them know we were here, and we ended up being the de facto Jewish bereavement and trauma center in New York.

We also started developing resources a month or so after 9/11. There were questions flying in from all over – Jewish educators, rabbis, individuals, and we were getting requests for consultations and trainings. It was so close to the high holidays, and some rabbis were asking – “how do I teach the story of the binding of Isaac this year?” and “For yizkor, how do we add it into the ongoing bereavement?”

Did you do any on the ground work as well?
One synagogue in Lower Manhattan was concerned that everyone in their congregation was going to leave lower Manhattan. The damage was so extensive to people’s homes and the streets – they thought nobody would come home. For Sukkot that year, we did a program about “shelter in the storm,” and organized a sukkah decorating party for that synagogue. In the end, only about 10 people took part – but it was good for that community to be able to say, “we’re here.”

How and when did you decide to launch the support group?
It was intolerable to think of a communal trauma like this, and not try to do something for the Jewish community. We also offered Jewish spiritual counseling one on one. The group didn’t formally start until February or March of 2002. At the first meeting 12 people showed up, and a group of 8-9 regulars formed after that. Within two years, the group solidified as 6 mothers, so it became a group for parents who lost their adult children. We decided to meet formally through the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and now the group continues without official leaders, meeting in each others’ apartments.

How did the group change over the span of 9 1/2 years?
There’s no fixing the problem of losing an adult child, but various things surfaced over the years that the mother’s needed. Early on we had special meetings with the leaders of the Victim’s Compensation Fund, where they guided people about how to think about approaching it. The idea of documenting relationships was incredibly painful and challenging – how, for example, do you put a dollar figure on a husband’s ability to tutor a high school daughter in math?

As time went on, we often talked about politics, and for three years we worked on what became a very large interfaith service on 9/11 with a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Catholic and Christian who all lost relatives. Hundreds of people took part in that. As issues came up – like the bombing in Madrid and London – the group reached out to survivors through the internet.

One year on 9/11 the group organized a day of service with an organization called Selfhelp that was founded to help survivors of the Holocaust. The mothers in our group volunteered at a coffee shop on a Sunday morning, setting up and shmoozing with the retirees, many of who were survivors in their 80s or 90s.

Why did you decide to discontinue the formal group after 10 years?
I don’t know of any other group that met for 9 1/2 years – we didn’t just talk about the people we missed personally, we talked about the world. We could’ve continued, but the real question was whether or not the group wanted or need professional facilitators. At first they did, but now it’s very much about mutual support and navigating ongoing issues.

How did leading that group impacted you personally?
I’d like to answer that question with a story. We led a trip to Israel for the group with the purpose of drawing on all the dimensions of Israel that offer healing – nature, spiritual resources, human resources… We spent most of our time with Israeli Jews and Arabs who had lost close ones to violence and terror.

We also worked with a well known art therapist named Tamar Hazut who is very well known for her work helping people survive traumatic loss. She led a workshop called “Black Also Has Many Shades,” where she spread art materials all around the periphery of the room. She had black ribbons, black pipe cleaners, black tape – things like that. After a brief introduction, people are encouraged to make whatever they want and talk about it.

We sat in a circle and I was the fifth person to speak. I had made a tunic out of the black ribbons representing all the people who had torn their clothing in grieving their loved ones. As I talked about it, I remembered that our tradition says the resurrection of the dead will begin in Jerusalem. But there we were in Jerusalem and it wasn’t happening. I started to sob – I had never sobbed like that in the group before. I realized that, although the grieving was obviously very different for me, there was this very big sense of loss. There with that group of people in Israel, it felt okay to grieve, it felt kosher to grieve and I was able to let myself go.

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