Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Book


I have drafted, both in my head and electronically, many versions of some sort of post to wrap up my year in Hungary, which formally concluded one week ago yesterday, and attempt to in some way to summarize and process the experience.

I have accepted that I can't do so. Definitely not yet, maybe not ever. The world was a very different place when I departed for Hungary last September. As things changed around me, I also changed in many expected and unforeseeable ways. I discovered new perspectives on my identities as a Jew, an American, an expat and traveler, a white male, and a human being. I have observed new ways in which much of the world is rethinking the intersection of their many identities: religious, ethnic, national, gender, etc.

Those reflections, while deep and important, are quite raw and personal. I am not yet ready to formally unpack those thoughts.

However, something I can clearly grasp (but still not adequately articulate), is my overwhelming gratitude. I have never felt so blessed as I did this past year. I never felt alone, and never once broke down and wondered where I was or what I was doing. I felt supported by many people, both near and far, and I used that as a constant source of strength and motivation. I knew that I would only succeed this year if I managed to at once be my best and truest self while also being totally open to new ideas and experiences. I could not lose touch with my values and my strengths, but I needed to accept the challenges and opportunities that could help me learn and grow. I think that I succeeded as well as I could have hoped.

I owe many specific thank yous. Whether or not they see this blog, I have hopefully thanked them all sufficiently in person, and recording these thank yous briefly here can just serve as a permanent reminder to me of the "village" it took to give me the year that I had.

Thank you to Linda and Tomi, my Hungarian parents, supervisors, friends, and mentors. Without their leadership and hard work, the Hungarian Jewish community would not be what it is today. Also without them, I could never have had the personal and professional experience that I had.

Thank you to Sam, my Hungarian wife and roommate (in that order). Sam and I really made a life together in Hungary and had each other's backs through all sorts of situations. Sam heard every detail of my life, and without her, I would have never made it through the year.

Thank you to the many friends I made in Hungary. Especially to Zsófi, who was my basketball teammate, BBYO friend, travel partner to 4 countries, neighbor, guest, host, and much more. I can't thank everyone else by name, but so many friendships from this year were real and have changed me for the better.

Thank you to Moishe House Budapest for welcoming me into their community. I was so happy that Budapest was my first exposure to the amazing work that Moishe House does, and Tomi, Bálint, and Rudi embody the organization's mission of providing a deep and engaging Jewish space for a diverse audience. Without them, many of my social and Jewish needs would never have been met.

Thank you to the amazing teens and leaders of BBYO Hungary. This group of teens is committed, creative, and passionate. It was an honor getting to know them. I could go on an on, but suffice it to say that I cannot wait to follow from afar as they continue to develop as leaders and take the group to new heights.

Thank you to the Szarvas Camp for welcoming me into your community and making me feel appreciated and valued as a staff member. I feel like I am my best self at camp, and culminating my year in such a special camp was simply perfect.

Thank you to the Muslim Jewish Conference for providing me a final spark of inspiration before my journey ended. Sarajevo was the perfect host city, and the participants from this conference are simply incredible.

Thank you to the Budapest Jewish community for welcoming me into your already vibrant and strong community. Thank you to the Frankel Synagogue for being my Hungarian shul, and to the Bálint Ház JCC, The Mozaik HUB, the Jewish Museum, Limmud Hungary, and others for creating a professional relationship with me and finding ways for me to become a part of the fabric of the Hungarian Jewish community.

Thank you to the JDC for hiring me, supporting me, and letting me have a role in the work that you do for the Jewish people. Thank you to the other Fellows of the Jewish Service Corps for your support, humor, Whatsapps, hospitality, and for sharing this journey with me from near and far.

There are so many thank yous that I can send, not to mention the friends and family who rooted for me from afar, but I hope I will be able to thank everyone in person.

I titled this post "The Book" because while cliche, a book is the perfect metaphor for where I'm at now. A chapter is over, and a new one begins. In Judaism, we understand our stories to be cyclical, as we roll back all the way to Breishit each Simchat Torah. Books are shared, loved, cherished, and needed. Books are translated into different languages.

On the theme of writing, I haven't decided yet what to make of this blog now that my year in Hungary is over. The feedback and support have really warmed me, and I never expected to have any readership beyond my closest family and friends. Thank you all for being a part of this journey with me. I imagine I will keep writing, once I figure out what types of entries would be most interesting to me and others. Besides, less face it, the title of this blog is too good to let go.

While I look forward to settling into a routine in New York, a city that I have been to many times, I know that adventure always awaits.

---Benjy (With a Why)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Muslim Jewish Conference


I am writing from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, where I have actually been since August 6. I came here as a participant in the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC), an annual international gathering of 'young' Muslims and Jews. I saw an alumnus post the application online, realized that this would be my best chance ever to attend (since it has always taken place in Europe), applied, and am glad to have been accepted.

The week before MJC, my work in Budapest essentially concluded, with just some final things left that could be done remotely. I packed a big suitcase and took a train to Vienna, and continued my travels over the next week to Ljubljana and Lake Bled in Slovenia (HIGHLY recommend!) and then to Rijeka and Zagreb in Croatia. It was a lovely vacation that involved beaches, old towns, castles, museums, walking tours, and more. Then from Zagreb, I boarded a 6 AM bus to Sarajevo.

Coming in to the conference, I actually had little interfaith experience and an admittedly minimal knowledge of Bosnian history, including the wars of the '90s. Before coming, I tried watching some Youtube videos that could summarize the collapse of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars. Realizing that those videos simply wouldn't suffice, I decided that rather than pretend I knew more or hide my lack of knowledge, I would ask many questions and try and learn as much as I could.

MJC began with a room full of Muslims and Jews from 40 countries spanning all continents (besides Antarctica, which we will assume is simply anti-Semitic and Islamophobic) sitting in a hotel ballroom. We were all greeted with the traditional MJC salutation, "Shalom Salaam." Immediately after that, we were asked to organize into tables of just Jews and Muslims, which seemed like an uncomfortable start. We were then asked to list all stereotypes about our religion, which we then presented and debriefed. We all had a good laugh acknowledging that we are well aware of how the world has or does perceive us, and that this conference would be a time to understand and surpass that type of ignorance that pervades many of our home societies.

At the official opening ceremony, we entered the Town Hall for a lovely evening of speeches and refreshments. Per the agreement ending the Bosnian War, the country still has 3 Presidents, a Croat, a Serb, and a Bosniak (Muslim). The President representing the Bosniak Muslim community spoke to us, as well as the Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Both spoke with pride about living in a country of such great diversity in which Muslims and Jews do not face the types of fears that they do elsewhere in Europe and around the world, and where unity lies in diversity.
Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegović
During the conference, we were divided into committees (that we requested as part of the application), and we spent much of the day with our committee. Committees included one about gender, sexuality, and intersectionality, one was about human rights, and mine was called 'Beyond Religious Borders,' in which we explored core ideas of our faiths, and unpacked the complex identities of Jews and Muslims today. It's hard to exactly define the common thread of what we discussed, but it essentially became a safe space to explore topics including gender, rituals, perceptions of Prophecy, and how our religious and national identities overlap and conflict today. I learned a great deal about Islam from these conversations, and I was glad to share my understanding of Jewish tradition and history.

What I loved most was that neither the Jews or Muslims tried to simplify their religion into clear definitions that they could present to the other group. If we wanted that, we could have read a textbook. Instead, our religions were presented through personal stories and values, and the diversity not only between our religious groups but also within them became abundantly clear. Obvious splits like Shia and Sunni or Ashkenazi and Sephardic present different understandings and traditions, but differences also come from having different heritages, from using different tools to read our texts, and from living in different places. Religious belief and practice is personal and nuanced, and I was lucky to have the chance to understand those complexities. This diversity was obvious in conversations about topics like Zionism, head scarves and modesty more broadly, Shabbat, and prayer.

Each participant entered with a sense of curiosity, which led to openness, understanding, and respect. Rather than feeling defensive, people felt empowered to share their values so that we could all understand each other and not hide any part of ourselves. People became vulnerable about the most sensitive aspects of their identities to complete strangers, and real communities of trust and understanding quickly emerged.

During one committee session that we held at the Jewish Museum, housed in a Sephardic Synagogue dating back 500 years, I was asked if I wanted to lead a Jewish prayer meditation to begin the session. I was asked as if it were something common that I would know how to do, but I have actually never done such a thing for a Jewish audience or for an interfaith one. I had everyone close their eyes and I used some meditation techniques that I've learned from Headspace (a daily meditation app), and used the structure of the Amidah, which includes thanks, request, and praise, to guide the meditation. One girl opened her eyes and tears rolled down her face, and a secular Israeli girl later messaged me saying that she had never connected with Tefillah--Jewish prayer--until that moment. I do not take the credit for what they were able to achieve in their minds, but I was happy to facilitate a space that was meaningful to all faiths and individuals.

The one topic most committees avoided until it was intentionally addressed on Wednesday was Israel-Palestine. We first built up trust and understanding before delving into the topic. The topic was finally presented with a panel featuring an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, both of whom participate in a program called Parents Circle, an organization for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family to the Conflict. From hearing their stories, everyone in the room connected on a human level, which must necessarily be the starting point of tough dialogue. The panel challenged many people, and about 30 of us formed a reflection circle during the coffee break that followed to unpack our thoughts.

Being in Sarajevo, we spent time during the conference to understand Yugoslavian and Bosnian history, unpacking both the traumatic lows and the wonderful highs of diversity in the region. As we learned from the President and from various speakers, the diversity of the country exposes all of its citizens to the "Other/s" from a young age, and people grow up in a colorful and accepting society. From walking the streets of the city, I must agree with that opinion. However, the looming awareness and discomfort of the genocide just over 20 years ago constantly lingered.

The whole conference took a long bus ride together on Thursday to Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia that was a focal point of the atrocities of the war. There, despite the presence of Dutch military personnel through the UN, thousands of people, mostly boys and men, were systematically rounded up and murdered. The former HQ of the Dutch mission is now the site of a new museum documenting the Srebrenica atrocities. There, we watched videos and heard video testimonies of survivors. It shook me to my core to see such clear color footage of genocide in Europe. Also, the collapse of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars were absent from any history curriculum I ever learned. So beyond the emotional impact of the visit, I simultaneously had to digest a great deal of information and history, and I was simply overloaded mentally and emotionally and felt numb.

From the museum and empty warehouse where thousands of war refugees were forced to sleep, we walked across the street to the cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica massacres. Some graves were fresh, as bodies as still being found and identified. Rows and rows of simple white tombstones marked the spot where murdered humans now rest. Finally, our group had a space to let the pain and grieving out, and we mourned and prayed together. Both communities recited traditional words of mourning, and then prayed our afternoon services side by side.

As the conference concluded, I felt indescribably fulfilled and lucky. I met people who escaped Syria for new lives in Europe, and others who live in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Egypt, none of whom I would have ever met without an opportunity like MJC. The best part was that while we began trying to be very intentionally open-minded, it became natural and fluid within days. From laughing, going to restaurants and cafes, staying up late, and singing with friends from different backgrounds, we simply became a group of people who care for one another. Of course, most people left with more questions than they came with, and some people remain challenged and even confused. However, through the experience of opening ourselves to others (and to the 'Other') and uniting on a human level, we broke barriers and created the type of space that our world desperately craves.

On Friday night, some people whom I was sitting with asked me to teach them a Jewish song. I taught Hinei Mah Tov, thinking that its lyrics were an appropriate choice. They not only picked up the song quickly, but a Muslim girl actually corrected my singing, because her mother had played the song for her when she was younger. There were many moments, both in the hotel and in the streets of Sarajevo, when we joined together singing songs and niggunim.

We ended together with Havdalah on Saturday night.We joined together in song and blessing, transition from holiness, the space we created together at MJC, to chol, our communities and 'normal' lives around the world. Afterwards, a South American rabbi now living in the UK told the group that Jewish sources tend to be conspicuously unclear about what the time of Messiah and the World to Come look like, but that it looks exactly like this.


After the conference ended, I had another special treat. There is a observant Bosnian Jewish man named Yehuda who lives outside Sarajevo. Being the only Kosher-keeping man in the country, MJC had been in touch with him. He came to Sarajevo for Shabbat, and he and his family joined us for prayers and dinner. He is married with 5 adorable children, including 4 boys who wear the type of big kippah that I wore at their age. He asked me what my plans were for after MJC and I told him I'd be around, so he excitedly offered to give a private Bosnian tour to me and anyone else interested.

I wasn't able to reach him after that, but bumped into him Monday morning at the hotel. He was thrilled to see me, and ready to take me anywhere. We assembled a group including me, a German girl, an Australian guy (originally from Lebanon), and an Israeli guy. 2 Jews and 2 Muslims spanning 4 continents. Yehuda drove us to lunch in his big white van (we made many jokes about the absurdity of getting into someone's van in a foreign country), showed us more of Sarajevo, and then took us out of the city. Yehuda is a musician, and we listened to a CD of his choir that sings Jewish songs (Bosnian, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic), and is composed not only of Jews but of Muslims and Christians as well.

Yehuda fled Bosnia during the war and moved to Norway, where he started a life. He returned after many years, believing in the diversity of Bosnian society and the importance of maintaining a Jewish presence there.

We drove first to some beautiful ponds where water flowed from the mountains above us, creating the Bosna springs. We continued to the city of Visoko, where there are three mountains that some local researchers believe to be the world's oldest pyramids. Experts have denounced those claims, but the pyramid-believers persist in their research. We entered some tunnels where researchers have been excavating, and our tour guide not only sought to convince us that these are indeed pyramids, but explained to us the mythology therein (she spoke in terms of physics and metaphysics), including discussing the frequencies, ions and negative ions, various sorts of energies, and other physical (and metaphysical) phenomena that they discover and measure. They estimate that some civilization 29,000 years ago created these mammoth structures, and that once their excavations enter the heart of the pyramids, they will unlock all of the answers that they seek. Regardless of my skepticism, it was certainly an interesting place and project, and I was glad to visit.

Yehuda had told us he had to be back in his village at 7:30, and we didn't finish at the pyramids until 6:45. Instead of driving us back to Sarajevo, he drove us to his village, where he was set to perform. Little did we know, the village was having some annual celebration, and we joined the community to listen to the mayor provide an annual report, to hear Yehuda perform two songs with singing and piano (he then introduced his 4 guests from the stage and had us all stand up), and watch Yehuda's oldest daughter Rivka join a group of about 20 children perform traditional folk dances. Following this gathering, we joined the rest of the town in the town square for free drinks and live music. Rivka changed into a Tshirt, and I noticed that it was from Szarvas 2017! I was so excited to tell them that I worked there this summer during another session, and I played with Yehuda's kids in the street and sang songs from Szarvas with them.

After inviting us to his home that proudly features menorahs and other Judaica in the window, Yehuda took us further up the hill to a restaurant that reserves Kosher dishes and recipes just for Yehuda. We ordered fresh fish from the stream nearby and enjoyed our final stories together. Yehuda drove us all the way back to Sarajevo (1 hour roundtrip for him) and I got home at almost 1:00 AM. He thanked us profusely for our company and gave us each a copy of his CD. However, I am still overflowing with gratitude for his hospitality that day, and for his life devoted to promoting diversity, creativity, and Jewish values.

Abraham is famous in the Torah for, amongst other things, welcoming guests to his home and establishing the eternal Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham also had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, who go on to be the fathers of great nations: Ishmael the forebear of Islam and Isaac of Judaism. Having Yehuda, a deeply principled Bosnian man raised in the plurality of Bosnian society, welcome his four guests, both Jews and Muslims, into his life felt like an allegory for Abraham taking his two sons on the family road trip he craved, but that the Biblical narrative never mentioned. Finally, the family was together. A taste of the World to Come, already Here.

Standing on the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, triggering WWI

I'm now road-tripping for the next 5 days in the Balkans with 2 friends from Hungary. I'll be back there on Sunday and enjoy my last few days, before flying back to Chicago on Wednesday, August 23!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wondering what I've been up to?


If the title of this blog post doesn't resonate, I am not offended. BUT for those of you who sometimes remember that I am still living out here in Budapest presumably busy with some sort of thing or another, here is a little update to catch up to speed a little bit.

I confess that reopening this channel is daunting, because I have had many formative experiences in the last two months, and it is hard for me to imagine wrapping them up nicely in a blog post. That being said, I want to give a quick update on some of the highlights since I last blogged, just to keep the good folks at home assured that I'm still keeping busy and enjoying myself.

My last blog post is dated just days before Shavuot. Right before Shavuot, my good friend Aryeh, the JDC Fellow in Latvia, booked a flight to join me in Budapest for the long chag. This was a very exciting treat, and we enjoyed a dairy dinner together, followed by a stroll through the city, and then some singing and learning together. During Shavuot, our friends Shoshana and Adrian, JDC Fellows in Estonia and Finland respectively, joined the fun. We had a great time walking throughout the whole city on a beautiful spring day. I liked playing host/tour guide, but I also liked taking a step back to just enjoy having great company in a great city. When people asked me in the first few months of my fellowship how I liked living in Budapest, I answered timidly that it's a nice place and I love the community. I think I felt too much pressure to say that everything was perfect, when I very much still felt myself adjusting to life here. As the spring and summer months have come, and as my guest list has grown longer and longer, I find myself pinching myself when I realize how lucky I am to call this great city home for the year and share it with others.

Moishe House Retreat:
I have been very involved in Moishe House Budapest this year. I think I've mentioned it in previous posts, but Moise House is one of the most exciting new Jewish engagement programs around the world, addressing the needs of Jewish young adults who want to create Jewish community that feels meaningful and meets their needs in ways that many traditional institutions are unable. Moishe Houses have sprung up throughout the US, as well as throughout Europe and indeed around the world. Being a part of MH Budapest has given me a built-in network of awesome Jewish friends, and a venue for consistent Jewish programs. I do not take any of those things for granted. MH hosts retreats a few times a year, which aim to train and network their residents and community members. I was very fortunate to be able to attend a retreat in June outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. Sam (my roommate/"wife" also attended) which was very fun. The theme of the weekend was the home, and as much as I have learned the impossibility of defining this term this past year, I found that the topic is actually quite complex for many Europeans my age. It was quite interesting exploring the theme together, guided largely by guest-speaker Chaya Gilboa, who started the Hevruta program at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I led the Kabbalat Shabbat service, infused with song, poetry, and conversation surrounding the theme of the home. I used the notion of the Sukkat Shalom, a temporary home of peace, in the opening Yedid Nefesh prayer to guide the prayers. The retreat offered me an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn with, and get to know some really incredible people from around Europe. I also enjoyed the chance to see Sofia, which I found to be a very pretty city cradled amongst a backdrop of lovely mountains. The country also famously saved all of its Jews during the Shoah, and it was very special to have a glimpse into their community's history and contemporary landscape.

My time at Szarvas demands its own blog post, or many. But in the interest of getting people to speed, I'll offer a reflection now, just days removed from my time there.

For those who don't know, Camp Szarvas (pronounced "Sarvash") is an international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. Founded right after the collapse of the Communist regime, this camp has helped sustain and reinvigorate Jewish life for the recent generations of European Jewry like few other institutions have been able to do. The camp annually welcomes large delegations of campers from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Czech Republic & Slovakia (which still join as the "Czechoslovakia Group" at camp), various Balkan countries (which still join as the "Yugoslavia Group" at camp), Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Bulgaria, India, Germany the Baltics, Israel, the US, and more. Each group is equipped with their own cheers and traditions.

I love camp. Camp has defined much of my life and growth, and my camp experience was one of my largest credentials for receiving this Fellowship position. Jewish summer camp has been a reliable backbone of modern American Jewish communities, and a major pipeline into Jewish community and leadership. Exactly for those reasons, the Szarvas camp founders understood that a Jewish summer camp would be the best tool to revitalize Eastern European Jewish life, because it's content and program are effective and deep, and it targets specifically the next generation of Jews.

Camp Szarvas is also one of the crown jewels of the JDC, because it is such a successful program that bridges communities from around the world and brings them together for meaningful Jewish experiences together. The Szarvas Director was one of my interviewers for my job, and all year I have heard over and over how incredible Szarvas is, and what it means to the community in Hungary and beyond. Culminating my time here with time at Szarvas was incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.

At camp, most groups are composed of 10-20 campers of a particular age group from a particular country. For example, there might be a group of 15 Hungarian 7-10 year old campers in a group, with two madrichim responsible for them. However, there is one group each session called the International Group that is for 15-18 year olds with strong English, and campers from different countries join together in this group for a unique kind of experience. Some of these campers do not have groups from their country to join that session so they join International instead, and others are camp veterans who want a change and want to practice their English. I was at Szarvas for the first two sessions of the summer, each 12 days long, and I was the madrich for the International Group. It was a great fit and a perfect capstone on my yearlong experience, because I got to work in a setting in which I thrive (camp), speaking English and working with interesting and awesome European campers. Actually, half of my first session campers were Indian, and having these incredible campers, as well as getting to know the Indian madrichim who were at camp, was so special. First session, my group was 6 Hungarians, 5 Indians, and 2 Russians, and second session I had 3 Hungarians, a Pole, a German, 2 Slovaks, and an Israeli. The cultural exchange was fascinating and wonderful. We exercised immense curiosity, patience, and openness, and we became truly enriched by the others' perspectives and ideas.

Throughout the day, we rotate through a variety of programs, each day with a different schedule. Every day we have an hour at the swimming pool, an hour of 'Peulah,' during which the madrich presents a content-heavy session based on the theme of the summer (this summer's theme was Judaism & Time), and an hour of 'Madrich time,' which is time to hang out and play games. The other time slots can be filled with dance, art, singing, ropes course, sports, and a variety of other activities.

The wildest times of the day are always at meals, when the room shakes and echoes with cheers from different groups. Each country has a cheer proclaiming that it is in fact the greatest group at Szarvas, and it's a pretty crazy scene to behold as people stand on chairs and scream out their country pride. When people in the room have a birthday, they stand on a special brithday chair while each country takes turns enthusiastically singing their country's Happy Birthday song. Certain meals are "Happy Meals," which means that the camp musician plays a whole list of Jewish and Israeli songs in rapid succession, while everyone in the room circles the room dancing and hugging and high fiving.

During one Happy Meal, as Am Yisrael Chai played and the room burst with lively singing and dancing, I remember someone tapping my shoulder, although I do not remember who, and gesturing towards the room as if to say "Right there! Am Yisrael Chai -- The people of Israel are alive! Don't you see!" And indeed there they are. While separated by region and language, they are bound together by song, joy, and history.

Again, I could say much more about Szarvas, and perhaps I will. This reflection above only scratches the surface of the powerful memories that I am taking away from the summer. I will also try and include pictures and videos to help color the experiences I have described in writing.

In the meantime, I have a BBYO English day camp in Budapest this week, and it will be very nice to wrap up my year with BBYO-Hungary this way. In exactly one month from today, I fly home to Chicago! And then on August 31, I head to New York, where I will begin learning at Mechon Hadar the following week.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Back to Berlin; Discovering Denmark


I arrived back in Budapest this past Thursday, after having spent the last week outside of Budapest. It was an incredible week split between Berlin, Germany and Copenhagen, Denmark.

I had been to Berlin six months earlier (and obviously blogged about it, link attached), but I had the privilege of returning in beautiful weather for the Junction Annual Convention. Junction is a JDC program that seeks to engage and build networks for European Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s. Most importantly, my roommate/wife* Sam is a full-time member of the Junction team, through the same JDC Fellowship that I'm on. While all other fellows work locally with communities, Sam gets to be part of this cool project that works across Europe.

*Not actually, people, calm down

A small group spent a night out at the Berlin TV tower, whose glow you can see behind us

I have wanted all year to get the chance to see Sam in action and experience the Junction community, and I finally got the opportunity. I was invited to facilitate some ritual elements of the weekend, including leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service and some Friday night niggunim. It meant a lot to me to have the chance to be in front of a crowd in this capacity, and even though I have led Kabbalat Shabbat a number of times, it was a very different environment and audience than I'm used to. Still, it went well, and I felt happy to be facilitating a tefillah experience for people who come from what must have been 10+ different countries.

The entire convention was tremendously inspiring and interesting. Over 150+ attendees from throughout Europe (spanning geographically from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east) came together to reflect on the theme for the weekend: Our world in transition. Speakers including academics, clergy, media professionals, and more led amazing sessions. I heard from Michael Miller, an American professor who teaches at Central European University and started the Jewish studies department there, Jonathan Schorsch, an American professor teaching in Berlin and also the brother of Rebecca Schorsch, my high school teacher, Abby Stein, a young woman living in New York who was born a male in ultra-Orthodox society and has since left and created a new life and identity for herself, and a writer originally from Glencoe, Illinois (right next to my hometown) who works in France, often writing for Charlie Hebdo. All of the speakers were interesting, and the chance to reflect in the hallway or at meals with other people or with the speakers themselves was quite exciting.

I left the conference feeling energized and excited about the new friendships I forged, and the knowledge I gleaned.

S/O to Sam for being #1 wife and helping plan such an awesome convention!!


From Berlin, I flew directly to Copenhagen, Denmark. There is a JDC Fellow, Becca, who lives there with Shva, a shlicha, whom I met at BBYO IC in Dallas. I was so happy to stay with these awesome ladies in what I could tell was a delightful city as soon as I arrived. The Danish concept of hygge (loosely translated as 'coziness') became quite famous this year, as the city embraced the chilly winter and branded the warm, snuggly attitude and lifestyle. I was blessed with quite warm weather throughout my visit, but I could tell that this city is truly incredibly cozy and pleasant. Bikes ride by on every street, and they come in shapes and sizes I had never seen before, including many with all sorts of giant baskets to hold belongings, pets, or other people.

I spent some amazing time catching up with Becca and Shva, and I had the chance to travel solo around Denmark. The first day, I took a train north to the coast that stares down Sweden across the blue sea. From there, I took a ferry into Sweden, where I ate lunch and wandered around the cute city of Helsingborg. Pretty fun to be able to go to another country for lunch! When I told my family about my day, my mom remarked that it's so nice I made it into Sweden, because I actually have a Swedish ancestor. Who knew?? From relaying the story to my grandparents, it turns out that I actually have Danish roots as well! I guess that's where my light complexion comes from.

I returned back to Denmark to the city of Helsingør, which famously houses the Kronborg Castle, which is the site in which Shakespeare sets his famous drama Hamlet. An incredible coincidence occurred that afforded me the most moving experience I could have hoped for at the site. I spent most of the day listening to podcasts, and that weeks episode of NPR's This American Life podcast was titled Act V, and told the story of Missouri inmates performing a full performance of Hamlet from prison. I walked the perimeter of the castle, with the coast marking the northern border of Denmark on my other side, listening as prisoners shared their reflections on remorse, regret, and redemption. I graduated from university in Missouri just a year ago only to find myself at the gates of this very castle that those inmates imagined. I recalled the lyrics that conclude Bob Dylan's Ballad in Plain D that my friend Brett played for me years ago:

"Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
'How good, how good does it feel to be free?'
And I answer them most mysteriously
'Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?'"

Back in Copenhagen, Becca showed me around the city, highlighted by the adorable canal with the colorful houses, the mermaid statue (although she definitely has legs), the courtyard with the royal residences at its perimeter, the hippie commune of Christiana, and various other towers, buildings, and gardens.
Another highlight was visiting the Jewish school where Becca and Shva teach kindergarten and work with the teens. I really lucked out with the day of my visit. First, we walked through the gan, where the children were set to perform a circus! It was the cutest thing in the world. Then, the 9th graders led a water fight outside. I hung back with the kindergarteners who were quite perplexed by these goofy big kids. The teachers explained that because it was their last day of class, the big kids wore costumes and had a water fight, but the kindergarteners understandably didn't quite connect all the dots.

With Becca and Shva on my last day in the country, we visited Bakken, the world's oldest amusement park. We rode a rickety wooden roller coaster hoping that it was the oldest roller coaster in the world, but it turns it that it was just 'one of the oldest.' Still, pretty cool. The amusement park was compact, with rides, restaurants, and carnival games packed side by side and hovering over each other. The park also had an authentic feel to it, not covered with corporate logos and brands. From there, we went to a grassy beach nearby and read our books before heading home, and I set off the airport.

Even after just a week ago, I did miss Budapest, and was glad to come back 'home.' Berlin, Copenhagen, and Budapest are all great cities, and all have totally different vibes. I am very lucky to be able to get a taste of each within a single week.

PS: I started reading the Harry Potter series for my first time (!!!!) 2 months ago, and I brought the final book with me on the visit. I enjoyed reading while sitting in these gardens outside Frederiksborg Castle, which had a sort of Hogwarts vibe to it

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Never too late for new friends


I haven't blogged about life in Hungary for a little bit, but that's because life has been pretty routine and solid, and I have been enjoying living in the present, and blogging about it felt too formal and preemptively retrospective.

However, the routine did break for a week, as I traveled back to Chicago for my cousin Brad's wedding #FromLowtoJo #LololoJoseph. Going home is always exciting, strange, satisfying, and fleeting. It was great gathering the 5 Foresters from the 4 corners of the Earth and having us all back together in our house. We have all had transformative life experiences and traveled to all sorts of places since we were last together as one family, and there is just nothing like family time. Gathering for such a wonderful simcha was extra special. Being able to see as many other friends and family that I could squeeze into just a couple days was also very nice, yet fleeting. It's a funny feeling knowing that on the one hand, many of the most important people in my life are in Chicago, and I have a bedroom there and still feel so at home. On the other hand, I don't really have a life there, because I have nothing to really do there at this time, and my daily life this year is very different from what it would be in Chicago. Nonetheless, it was important for me to be able to catch up with close friends and get a glimpse into their lives, and offer them the same to mine.

Upon returning, I had to readjust to my Budapest routine. It's always strange doing so, because it is sort of the inverse of my feelings in Chicago. I do have a life here and things to do, but I do not have a lifetime full of memories and relationships here. I do feel at home here, but it doesn't take much time after landing to remember that I am actually living in a foreign country.

I also have less than 5 weeks until I leave for Szarvas Camp for the majority of the summer, which means that the routine that I have built, my life as I have come to know it in Budapest, is soon going to change. I still have 3+ months of experiences and adventures left, but my routine of 8+ months is coming to an end. Before camp, I will be attending Junction Annual in Berlin (more on that in a future blog post most likely), a conference for Jewish 20-30 year old Europeans. I will attend as a participant and also in the capacity as a Jewish professional and educator, as I will be leading a Friday night tefillah option and zemirot. I will then visit a friend in Copenhagen. I am also going to a European Moishe house retreat in Bulgaria. And some great friends are planning on visiting Budapest. So this whole "routine" thing is kind of a fallacy anyways, but at least my basic job responsibilities and obligations will remains consistent until Szarvas.

Now, to get to the actual impetus for writing this post...

All year, I have been trying to develop the position of JSC Fellow in Budapest, and forge partnerships with various people and programs in the community. As the first Fellow here, I want members of the community to understand that I am available and eager to help in different ways they might find useful, and hopefully they can start to imagine ways to build a vision for utilizing a JSC Fellow in the future.

One recent development began when I helped staff a JDC trip of students visiting with American University Hillel. We visited a number of programs and organizations in the community, including a group called Cafe Europa. This group is JDC supported, and it consists of Holocaust survivors joining together for schmoozing, conversation, and sometimes more specialized events. The group is filled with tremendously kind and interesting individuals. I approached the director of the program after the meeting and introduced myself, and said that I would be so glad to find a way to remain involved. With the help of a translator who works for the JDC and whose mother attends Cafe Europa, we met on a later date and discussed how I could be involved.

This morning, I had my first session teaching English to the group!

Six lovely ladies showed up to the JCC to learn English with me. They all said that they had learned some English once upon a time at an introductory level, but they confessed that they had forgotten most of it. One lady worked in international trade throughout her career and her English is fluent. They wanted to join the group to keep their minds limber and have the chance to refresh their knowledge.

Immediately, one woman asked me if I would speak with a British accent and not an American one, because American English is too hard to understand. I said I'm from Chicago and it's hard to hide that, but I would try and speak clearly. The thought of speaking for an hour in a fake British accent while six old ladies attentively listen makes me chuckle, but I appreciated her honesty.

Our first game was Two Truths and a Lie, a common icebreaker in which each participant tells two true facts about themselves as well as one lie, and the rest of the group must guess which was the lie. I love this game because I always get to stump people with my "I have a sister who lives in Vietnam" truth. The ladies caught up relatively quickly to the game and shared some funny answers, including "I hate classical music but love rap" (lie), and "I hate my grandchildren" (also a lie).

We then played a game that was inspired by an activity that we did in AP Spanish, in which the instructor reads out questions, and the participants compete against each other to swat the answers, like flies. I prepared a list of questions in Hungarian, and then I taped the English translations of those questions to the walls, each of which also had a picture of a fly. When the question was read in Hungarian, they had to swat the proper translation, read it in English, and answer it in English. The first one to do so received a point! One lady shared that if she could have dinner with one historical figure, it would be Mr. Trump, but she would poison the food. I told her to just make sure that he picks up the bill first. One question asked how many languages they could count to 5 in, and the lady did so in Hungarian, English, Hebrew, German, and Russian (I think most of the group could probably do so in all these languages as well). Another question asked what interesting item they always carry in their purse/wallet, and the lady said just a handkerchief. I asked the group if any of them carry pictures of their children or grandchildren, and they all ran to their purses to show off all of their lovely families. 

After that game, I passed around a song sheet that I prepared, with Kol Haolam Kulo lyrics written in English, Hebrew, and Hungarian. I taught the song and we sang it together in all three languages!

Even at 10:00 AM (which is early for me), I felt incredibly energized and excited from our wonderful lesson together. The ladies were all very patient and participatory, and I appreciated their ability to be vulnerable by speaking a language that is not their first. 

Even with just a few more weeks of this "routine" that I have created, I was so glad to fit in these new friends just in time! I know that we will have some nice times together before I leave, and hopefully this connection with the group continues past my time in Budapest.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Something Was Illuminated


Budapest-->Bucharest (trust me, they are different!)

With the seders around the corner but not a whole lot of actual work to do towards the end of the week (I front-loaded most of my tasks for the week), I decided to look up potential travel options for just a couple days at the end of the week. I searched for roundtrip flights for under $100 and found Bucharest, Romania as my best option.

Romania has always been shrouded in a layer of mystery and mythology for me, and I'm not talking about the vampire legend. With all of my grandparents born in the USA, I never heard stories about life in the Old World, and have had access to virtually no information or records. However, whenever I would ask my dad where we came from and where the name Forester comes from, he would say he knows his grandparents came from Romania, but that's all the information he had. He had heard that Forester was an anglicized adaptation of a similar-sounding word in Romanian, but he wasn't sure what it meant.

Back in the fall, I met a Jewish-Romanian grad student in Budapest studying Jewish studies who offered to help with my inquiries, but ultimately couldn't offer me many answers. The one document we have is an record that says that my great-grandfather Samuel Forester, father of my namesake Benjamin X Forester, was born in Tgnaewitz, Romania in 1884. I googled that town and found ZERO results. I spent time googling cities in Transylvania, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, and I found a number of possible candidates, but no major leads.

Now here I was, heading off on a solitary trip to Bucharest, Romania's capital city, eager to encounter the country that my once housed my ancestors.

I arrived on early Wednesday morning with just my backpack with me, having successfully avoided any extra fares on my budget flight. The hostel was not ready for my checkin at 11 AM, so I took a map from the lobby and headed out.

After two weeks of sunny spring days in Budapest, I was kind of bummed to walk out into a gray, chilly day in a city that has not shaken off its Communist facade. The buildings are boxy and mostly unadorned.

Coca Cola and Pepsi advertisements assert that Communism is over, but the buildings themselves disagree

I first walked to an old Synagogue that currently features the Jewish Museum, but I could not enter due to renovations.

I went to the Old Town, which is the main tourist neighborhood and was left basically untouched during Communism. After enjoying lunch alone (but with the company of some podcasts), I walked over to Parliament, which was built by the infamous Communist leader Ceausescu, as an attempt to cement his legacy. It is the second largest administrative building in the world, behind only the Pentagon. And let me tell you, it is HUGE, and it really stands out. It is also referred to as an iceberg, because only 45% of the building is above ground. It's hard to believe that the building occupies even more space below ground than it does above.
I had to use the panorama setting to capture the entirety of the building
I walked around the outer fence and found that Parliament is open for tours, so I walked in and bought a ticket for the upcoming tour. All tour participants needed to exchange their passports for some sort of identification necklace before entering. The interior is of course massive and quite elegant. The tour itself was rather underwhelming, because we probably saw 15 rooms out of the thousands in the building, and none that seemed to carry much significance. The tour guide listed mostly useless facts in each room, including dimensions and materials used for the structure and furniture. While underwhelmed with the tour, I was pretty overwhelmed by the experience of being in the building at all, and am glad I got the chance to do so.

After seeing Parliament, I finally checked in to my hostel and rested for a bit. I then headed to a park to meet a group for a free walking tour. I try to do these whenever I visit a new city. To my delight, the weather had greatly improved, and a nice group assembled with a really wonderful tour guide. She gave a lot of helpful background about the city, namely covering the rule of Ceausescu and his enduring legacy. While certain Communist countries became increasingly progressive towards the fall of the Iron Curtain, he maintained a firm grip and an oppressive rule until the 1989 Revolution had him removed and executed. After the tour, I joined five others from the tour group for dinner. They were from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Portugal, Germany, and Romania respectively, and it felt great that the arc of my day went from dreary and lonely to warm and social.

The next day, I woke up early (well, probably the time most working adults wake up), and headed to a meeting spot for a full day tour into Transylvania that I booked. While there was definitely more I could have seen in Bucharest, I felt that with a 2 day trip alone into Romania, it was well worth spending a full day out of Bucharest and into the beautiful Carpathian mountains.

While on the minibus, my interest in my family background came back with major force, and luckily there was wifi available to allow me to dive back into my research. Just from looking at my google map of cities in Transylvania, I decided that one city resembled the Tgnaewitz from our ancestry form. I googled the city and found that there is a rich Jewish history, and I found an email of someone who works in their Jewish community. I sent an email explaining my interest and I was delighted by her prompt response, in which she redirected me to a different city, Targu Neamt, in northeastern Romania, near Moldova. I googled this city as well and also found a Jewish history, including a still-active Jewish cemetery that dates back to the 1600s. On my dad's side of the family, we have had an unfortunate history of men not living to see their grandson's birth, so there has been a pattern of grandson's being named for their grandfathers. For example, my Hebrew name is בנימין בן שלום הלוי and my dad is שלום בן בנימין הלוי. My dad promised me at my Bris that we would officially end this pattern. However, seeing the link to the Targu Neamt Jewish cemetery made me emotional imagining that just a couple hour drive from my current location, there is probably a tombstone that reads my exact Hebrew name.

Throughout my researching, I started sending emails to any contact info I could find online, and to my family back home. Within 24 hours, my dad had confirmed, by networking through two more distant cousins, that Targu Neamt is indeed where we came from. Something was illuminated.

Back to the actual trip into Transylvania...

I enjoyed the change of scenery from the drab city into the cloud-shrouded Carpathian Mountains, especially because I knew that those mountains decorated the landscape of some of my ancestors' lives. Our minibus winded on narrow roads through active but old and simple villages. We arrived at our first stop, Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. This castle is not a remnant of Medieval Europe, but instead housed Romanian royalty for periods during the late 19th and early 20th Century. The palace does not have the imposing facade of a stone castle from centuries ago, and instead struck me as a lovely rural mansion. The interior was quite elegant (pictures weren't allowed, sorry), and I really felt like the rooms reflected the pride, interests, and legacy of Romania's leaders who lived there.

After having some time to walk around the premises and enjoy the landscape before us, we packed back into the minibus and headed deeper into Transylvania, bound for Brasov, where we would eat lunch. I admit that I had never heard of this town before this tour. We were given an hour and a half to eat lunch and explore some of the city's quaint streets and old-time square in the center of the town. The town rests cozily beneath a large mountain covered in trees, with a Hollywood-style "BRASOV" sign at the top, which I believe used to say "Stalin" back when he was cool.

It's hard to make out here, but look for the "BRASOV" sign up in the mountain.

 I wandered into a restaurant and found a man from my tour group sitting at a table, and he invited me to eat with him. We hadn't exchanged words before that, but it turned out he was a 58 year old American who was fortunate enough to retire early and is now on the Eastern European trip he always dreamed of. He is also personal friends with Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, and I really enjoyed our lunch together talking mostly about sports and travel.

After lunch, our group had a brief (~45 minute) tour of Brasov. We began at the foot of a church that dates back hundreds of years, and continued onwards until I saw an Israeli flag hanging from a building. Sure enough, this was the Jewish community building, and hidden behind it was a beautiful, large, and still-active synagogue. More than that, there is a kosher restaurant there! While I really enjoyed my lunch with my new friend, I would have loved to have helped support the Jewish community of Brasov as well as my belly. Besides stopping for a minute outside to hear some words from our tour guide about the Jewish community, I did not have the chance to really meet the community or see inside their buildings. I regretted not having had that opportunity. However, I had a crazy visceral reaction to seeing this Jewish community, alive and proud, in this city where I assumed I was probably the only Jew around. After seeing my Instagram of the shul, a friend who is also on the JDC Fellowship told me that she visited Brasov and had a similar emotional reaction when she discovered the synagogue, and that that experience was a major impetus for her applying to the JDC Fellowship. While I know Instagram is kind of trivial, I used the following caption for my post, and I really meant it: "'Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it' (Genesis 28:16)"

Here you can clearly see the BRASOV sign, as well as Israeli flags proudly flying in front of a beautiful synagogue

From Brasov, we headed towards the famed Dracula's Castle. Of course, Irish author Bram Stoker never stepped foot in Romania, but in his story, he identified a castle on hill in Transylvania, which clearly matches the description of a certain castle. Vlad the Impaler, the true historical leader of Romania who impaled his enemies and dissidents an the namesake and inspiration of Stoker's Dracula character, only spent a few nights of his life in that castle. Thanks to Stoker's legend, the castle has now become Romania's most popular tourist attraction. It was a nice and gloomy day, which was a proper backdrop, although I would have appreciated some lightning. The castle does stand at the top of a hill, but it's not as isolated and daunting as in the cartoons. The castle itself is interesting, but mostly because it provided a historical glimpse into Romania's function as a country inconveniently situated between competing forces in all directions: The Ottomans, the Russians, and the Austro-Hungarians. This castle is a remnant of that era in which defense and administration defined the country's needs.

The whole day left me incredibly satisfied, both to know that my brief trip to Romania had allowed me to actually get out and see a good amount of the country, and that it had revived my curiosity about my own roots in serious ways.

I returned to Bucharest and sat down for an amazing dinner at an Israeli restaurant that I had spotted in the Old Town the day before. I reflected upon the positive arc of my trip, from kind of lost and lonely in a strange city, to very fulfilled with social interactions, interesting sights, and full days.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Anti-Semitism Camp... more fun than it sounds!


This past weekend, we had a spring camp for our teens around the theme of Anti-Semitism. A camp in this case just means a Shabbaton/weekend retreat, and the theme was chosen because a benefactor offered his financial support to provide education on the topic. While Anti-Semitism is NOT a daily concern for the community here, it is important for the teens to understand it conceptually, learning about the history, modern iterations, and how to react in the face of ignorance.

Unlike our fall camp, for which I was tasked with planning all of the peulot and having our team of madrichim run them, this camp had many of its programs outsourced to other educators who could present more professionally on the theme. This was a relief for us in terms of our preparations, but it did mean that for a bulk of the programming, I read Harry Potter on the side as the program was conducted in Hungarian.

While I couldn't participate actively in all of our programming, I finally learned how to count in Hungarian right before the camp, and I was very proud to show off my new skill. I could tell that everyone saw this as a tremendous gesture of my intention to really make myself a part of the group, and I found teens approaching me more than ever to practice their English and to teach me useful words and phrases in Hungarian. It meant so much to me that we have lost so many of our initial inhibitions from the language barrier and are finding great ways to communicate.

One program that I did plan for the weekend was a Saturday morning activity to take the place of the traditional Tefillah service, but to offer Tefillah-pertinent content. I elected to introduce some theology. Struggling with the idea of God (or struggling with the struggle itself) is crucial to Jewish identity, and I was pretty sure these teens had not had the space to really imagine what it means to think about God.

The program began with me reading a series of cute, one line letters to God, such as "Dear God, Did you mean to make giraffes look that way or was it an accident? Love, Henry." As I read, the words were translated by one of the other leaders. I then instructed the teens to close their eyes for about 25 seconds and to think about God. They sat there in silence and interpreted my instructions in, I'm sure, many different ways. I then said that I would read a number of situations, and if this situation inclines them towards a stronger belief in God, they go to one side of the room, if the opposite is true then they go to the other side, and they stay in the middle if this situation does not affect their inclination towards belief. The situations ranged from mundane to serious topics, and from crises to miracles.

  • Your mom made your favorite meal for dinner without your asking
  • You are having a terrible day and it starts raining
  • Your best friend is diagnosed with a fatal disease, but scientists discover a cure.
  • You read about a hurricane in Haiti than destroys many villages
Teens really moved around the room, showing how malleable and circumstantial belief in God can be, which I found fascinating. A number of teens offered their explanations for their stances. One teen shared that while the devastation of a hurricane is tremendous, he consistently sees even more love and support emerge in the wake of that tragedy, and that makes him realize that there must be something bigger at play. Wow! Little does he know that he basically just thought of the thesis to When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Some teens debated whether scientific discoveries are more the work of humans or of an overseeing God, and one teen shared that he says a prayer with the "Baruch Atah..." opening before every exam.

After these amazing thoughts were shared, they were all led into the next room, in which a different conceptualization of God was posted on each side of the room. They were: 1) The God of the Torah 2) Zeus (bearded man in the sky) 3) God the Watchmaker (God set the earth in motion and then watched) 4) Eywa from the movie Avatar (A life force that permeates the world and connects us with God and all creation). People were told to check out the options and then sit by the one that resonated the most. After discussions about what they first thought of when told to close their eyes and think about God, and about why they find this particular notion of God compelling, they shared their ideas.

One teen admitted that while it is harder to pray to a life force like the notion of Eywa, she sees it is a more imminent God and requires less of a leap of faith to imagine its presence on earth. One teen, who liked the God the Watchmaker idea, said that the Torah says that on the 7th day, God rested, and the teen doesn't think that God ever woke up. WOWOWOW! The theological implications are fascinating! If I could embellish his idea a little, he basically says that the rest of the Torah is aspirational, and says what a relationship would look like between God and Israel, but that after God did His part in Creation, humans pretty quickly found themselves unable to continue that work, and while God wakes up occasionally to check on things, He never finds Himself completely ready to return from His slumber and maintain the active role in history that the Torah asserts. COOL, RIGHT?! And pretty similar to the premises of Kabbalistic thought, in which God retracts Himself, and it is up to humanity to perform the good deeds that will restore God's place on earth.

I left the weekend feeling inspired by the teens' brightness, comforted by their companionship, and excited about a really successful weekend!

We are now in the final stretch until Pesach, and I'm keeping busy with work and errands and gearing up for the cooking, cleaning, and other preparations that await!