Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Back in Business


Now that I'm feeling more settled, here's a quick update on what I've been up to since being back, and what is in store for the coming weeks.

American U Hillel Trip:

  • An American University Hillel came to Budapest on a JDC spring break trip. I joined them for a few days, visiting sites in the community and meeting with members of the Jewish community, most of whom I know well and have worked with. As a way of transitioning myself back into my life here, I loved the chance to play host and remind myself how well I know the city and how happy I am to be here. We also visited some places I had not been yet and was so happy to see, including the Jewish kindergarten and Cafe Europa, a group of Holocaust survivors who gather for conversation and activities. 

Grandparents visit:

  • This past weekend, I was very lucky to have my grandparents visit me! So many people were out of town this weekend, so I could be totally happy and present throughout their visit. We saw some of the great highlights of the city, ate delicious meals, and enjoyed the chance to catch up. It is always special when close family and friends visit so that I can give them a glimpse into my life here, which is so hard to capture over words or pictures. 
  • This past weekend, all of our madrichim/leaders were out of town, leaving only Linda (my supervisor) and me. We usually let the madrichim lead the programs, but this was our time to shine! We decided that it was a chance to include some more serious content in the meeting. She suggested that we introduce the idea of the Talmud...little did she know that I created a Hebrew school curriculum on introducing the Talmud to middle schoolers with no background on the subject back when I was in St. Louis. We did an activity in which each group was given a text from the Torah: one group about Shabbat and the other about Kashrut. In different areas of the page, they had to answer a number of prompts. They then had to clarify the terms so as to understand the literal instructions, then they had to extract the overarching values, and finally to reflect on how this law could be meaningful over time and to them today. Little did they know that by answering the questions, they were acting as junior rabbis and creating their own page of Talmud! After presenting, I opened a book of Talmud to show them what they had done, and then offered them some thoughts on what it means to have a tradition of interpretation that is alive until this day.
  • We have a camp (weekend retreat) this weekend, focused on the topic of antisemitism. Through programs and lectures, the teens will understand the background and context of this tricky issue, as well an understanding of how it may relate to their lives today and how they can respond to a number of situations. I wish I could understand the lectures, but I will happily attend and spend the time with the teens, and learn from them what they are taking away from the experience
  • We have some exciting programs with the other two Jewish youth groups in the area in the next few weeks, including a ball (like a prom) together, and a camp at the end of April, of which I am a co-educational director.

And.... Passover is staring us all down! Sam and I are going to be visited by our friend Samantha (JDC Fellow in Berlin) next weekend, and then we'll gear up for Pesach! Wow, does time truly fly...

Pics or didn't happen


I thought I'd take the chance to upload just a few pictures from this last month+ to capture some of the fun. Especially since so much of it felt out-of-body because of how quickly I went through busy, exciting days, these pictures are a useful reflection for me as well. Enjoy!

BBYO-Hungary takes IC!!!

Opening ceremonies at IC is a CRAZY mix of music, dancing, lights, and dozens of flags and colors representing 20+ countries from around the world. Here I am getting excited about Hungary (note: A Hungarian might mistake this photo for a far-right political rally, but it is in fact a Jewish teen convention in the US)

The JDC-BBYO Fellows at IC

While in Israel, I saw many great friends. I was lucky that two of my college roommates were both around and able to meet up! We have spent this year in 3 separate countries and did not expect to be in the same place for a long time.

Back in Buda

3/8 (Sorry for not posting immediately)


Wow, what a wild month! I left Budapest in the early morning a full month ago (February 8), bound for Dallas, TX for the BBYO International Convention, accompanied by 5 Hungarian teens and one other Hungarian staff member. Today, I boarded a flight from Tel Aviv and am sitting back in my bedroom in Hungary that feels comfortable and familiar, yet strange. Over the last month, I slept in 9 (I think) beds in 5 cities. I spent each day with amazing company and a packed schedule.

The best way to summarize what the experience was like and where my head is that is to say that 1) everything was truly amazing and 2) there was so much happening that my head was consistently 10 steps behind my body. On point #2, it sometimes felt like I was watching a series of short movies about my own life, and I just needed some time to sit down and process everything. I generally need time and space to recharge and process. I try and be present in all my interactions, and it was hard to do so when my head felt like it was spinning. I also try and be very reachable for catching up and making plans, and I found it nearly impossible to stay on grid and available when I was struggling to even have my head totally present in my actual face to face encounters.

As I identified this reality, I made sure to be honest with others about these feelings, and try and take whatever time and space that I could to try and soak in all of the great things that were happening.

To recap (maybe this will help me process):


My first (almost) week in Dallas was spent in home hospitality, as the international contingent for BBYO International Convention descended upon the city. IC itself is a huge production with 2500 teens from around the world (a few hundred of whom are not North American) and as many staff, guests and speakers. Before that unfolds, the international delegation arrives to acclimate to being in the US, have extra time to tour, and additional programming to build them into more of a cohort that they can lean upon during IC and continue to leverage after IC ends. During this week, I had the chance to see the 8 other JDC-BBYO fellows who have been working on teen engagement and programming in their placements this year. Additionally, I met staff and participants from other countries across Europe, the FSU, Israel, and Latin America. It was really special to see this community coalesce and learn how much we all have in common. It was also incredibly special to finally be with all of the other fellows after only formally meeting as a group during our September orientation. We were all craving sunshine after cold European winters, and also to be around native English speaking friends. Some highlights of the week were my birthday, going with a group to a Dallas Mavericks game, watching my teens start to grow more comfortable as a group, and spreading the fun of the game Happy Salmon that I brought with.

When this pre-IC week finished, we migrated to the Dallas Hyatt Regency for IC. The hotel is a large and beautiful hotel, and the entire facility was rented out to BBYO. This means that every space of the hotel was converted into a programming space. The restaurant, bar, common spaces, windows, elevators, and beyond were all covered with pictures, signs, booths, and more. It was an impressive transformation to behold. The role of the international staff throughout the week was basically just to support our teens, so I was able to sit in on sessions and experience the convention for myself. The convention included top-notch educators, innovators, activists, and performers. I found that at times, it seemed like the schedule was inundated with options, and it was actually hard to provide a nurturing and content-heavy experience for the teens. It was honestly somewhat of a reverse culture shock to be around 2000+ Jewish American teens, because it forced me to really think about the major differences in educational approaches and appropriate content between them and the international delegation. My name tag had the Hungarian flag, and people were frequently impressed with my English, before I admitted that I am from Chicago. I think that BBYO's attempts to create a global network of Jewish leaders, very much in line with my JDC experience, is an incredibly exciting front for Jewish education and community building. I thought a lot about how at Camp Ramah, we try and build an immersive Jewish experience that brings serious Jewish content into every hour of the day and models what observant progressive Jewish community and identity can look like. Because IC was this major production with so many teens and so many options, it was harder to create a space like that, and was much more about building excitement and pride. IC was also a pluralistic space, so it's harder to model a particular Jewish identity or lifestyle, and their whole vision revolves around teen-led programming, meaning educators advise the programming but do not impart their vision upon the teens in the same top-down way that I see at Ramah. These approaches are different and reflect different conditions and values, and it was interesting for me to see this model.



After IC, I came to Chicago for a very quick visit, essentially a <48 hour layover. For those of you who may be surprised to read that I was within a few miles of you, I kept my visit covert because I just didn't have time to see all of those with whom I would have loved to catch up. I really only saw family (and only for a brief time) and a few close friends. I loved the chance to go home, but it also felt like an out-of-body experience. Even though I haven't lived at home since high school, it felt extra sentimental to return to the house I grew up in that still holds so many of my memories and belongings (and also my parents). I had beyond no time to process all of the emotions, but I knew that I was glad to have made the pitstop.



After my Chicago 'layover,' I headed off to Israel for our JDC Mid Year Seminar. The seminar was really incredible. All of the fellows, not just the BBYO fellows who were with me in Dallas, joined together for the first time since September. People came from Argentina, Europe, Rwanda, Israel, and India. The seminar helped us all reflect, focus, and plan. Most of us are about halfway into our placements, and it's incredible how quickly that time has flown by, and also to think that I still have half my year still ahead of me. The group of fellows is an incredibly special group. Everyone is smart, accomplished, and motivated, and also incredibly humble and honest. Nobody tried to outcompete anyone else for being more successful professionally or socially in their placements. Instead, we all spoke very modestly about the challenges of living and working abroad, which I'm sure was a relief for everyone to realize how we are really in this together. And when we had the chance to share our accomplishments, there was a sense of sincere pride in each other. The group had diverse personalities and backgrounds, and truly no weak links. I felt like I could really be myself in this group, including feeling vulnerable about insecurities, free to test my sense of humor, and invited to share my opinions. Even though I felt like people still were learning about me with every new day, I felt very comfortable to be myself, which meant a lot. Everyone felt incredibly lucky to have this chance to recharge and reflect.



And then I was back! I hate to talk about the weather, but it was what struck me first. When I left, it was still bitter winter, and I needed a thick coat to brave the walk even to the grocery store. Now, cold days are in the 50s and warm days are 70. So many of my formative memories took place during during the winter months, and it is strange that the whole winter season has simply passed. With spring, I cannot wait to see what good vibes the good weather brings. AND I am soooo relieved to have the time and space to breath, reflect, and get my bearings in my own head and also in the world. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Are you employed, sir?"


In The Big Lebowski, which is of course the most important piece of cinematic excellence to ever exist, one character impatiently demands of another, "Are you employed, sir??" On that note, in case it seems like I've been spending my time lately just frolicking around Europe (did I mention that I went to Bratislava, Slovakia for one night to meet friends?), let me assure you that I do work, work is great, and good things are coming!

BBYO events

We've had some really exciting events over the last month and a half that I've planned and that our great team of madrichim has implemented with me. Before Chanukah, we held a trial for Matityahu, exploring themes of identity, assimilation, extremism. A few weeks later, we held an exciting peulah during which we simulated being trapped on an island. We split into three groups of 8-10 and each person was given a slip of paper explaining their identity. Most people had a particular skill set, as well as an Achilles heel. For example, someone had worked in the army for many years acquiring a variety of survival skills, but he has a short temper and is hard to work with. The premise was that the 5 people seen as least valuable towards building life on the island would be sent off on a dangerous rescue mission. People argued on their own behalf and ultimately voted, Survivor style, and as Jeff Probst says, "The tribe has spoken." Another great peulah was an interactive/experiential walkthrough of Jewish history through the major geographical movements of the Jewish people. The group first entered the land of Israel, and divided up into the various tribes and made flags. After the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, everyone reorganized into the tribes of the Southern Kingdom, and built their own little Temples. After those were destroyed (well, eaten, because they were made out of marshmallows), people redistributed one final time into the three new edot that developed in the diaspora: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi communities. With their new groups, they learned about the lifestyles, names, and traditions of people typical of those backgrounds, and made life sized portraits to convey sort of a prototypical person of that background. The teens were split into their three groups by each getting a playing card at the beginning, and they split into tribes (13) by number/face on their card, into Southern Kingdom tribes (4) by suit, and into edot by color -and face cards all joined together (3). The teens had tons of fun during the day, and they really grasped the content to the extent that we hoped.

I have been running a weekly leadership training that I call Hadracha, during which I teach a group of ~10 teens practical skills and strategies for creating programs. So far, I have broken up the concept of a peulah into its many different components that must be considered if the program is to be successful. We discussed the difference between goals (e.g. teach about a Jewish holiday) and strategies/methods (e.g. arts & crafts, bringing in a speaker, etc), and which methods work best with which types of goals. We practiced public speaking and useful English phrases. We discussed best methods for quieting groups, and creative ways of dividing the group into smaller group for activities. We talked about program evaluation, and clarified how to make goals SMART (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, considerate of time) that can be evaluated properly after the activity. We touched on some other ideas and did some team building as well.

Community Involvement

I have worked to try and offer myself as a resource throughout the community and earn a reputation for being a creative and reliable partner. I have had some exciting opportunities to involve myself in new ways.

I saw on Facebook that there was an upcoming Limud Hungary, a day devoted to learning with a number of sessions offered throughout the day. I asked if there would be any sessions in English, and I was told that it would be great if I could do that. I happily agreed and created a source sheet for a shiur (lesson) called "Jewish Geography" during which I used a few different shapes as a conceptual framework for thinking about big picture Judaism. Essentially, I settled on the notion of the cycle as central to Jewish thought, and offered a few examples of that idea. My audience was active and engaged, and I was incredibly happy to have had the chance to facilitate adult learning.

Because of my involvement with Tikvah, the special needs unit at Camp Ramah, I have tried to find opportunities to bring the value of inclusion to the community here. One exciting idea is to pilot a special needs program at the Szarvas International Camp where I will work this summer. I have been in touch with the Szarvas Director, JDC professionals, and Szarvas alumni about crafting a vision and plan. We will see what I may be able to implement given the time and resources available, and how I navigate challenges including my newness to Szarvas and coming to the community as an outsider, but any baby steps go a very long way and hopefully become building blocks for future work and success. Stay tuned!

I have joined my friend Juci for her weekly after school program at the JCC, teaching Jewish topics to 6-10 year olds. The kids look at me with hilarious gazes, very curious who I am and why I can't really talk to them or understand them. The first time I came, Juci ended up running very late, and she called and told me to start the lesson without her. We prepared a lesson about tzedakah and had planned on showing pictures of homeless and wealthy people and assessing their backgrounds, wants, needs, etc. I gathered the group into a circle and took a deep breath. As it turned out, one of the older boys (RE: 10 years old) was in level 5 English (whatever that means..), and was able to translate very simple sentences. So there I was, with my translator, ready to each the room of blank stares in front of me. My translator frequently answered the questions himself in English in order to impress me, and I had to keep reminding him to pose the questions to the room. I relied on many hand motions and objects I found in the room. Ultimately, it was successful (against all odds). Also, Juci said that the kids referred to me using a formal title connoting respect (kind of like "sir"). I guess I managed to earn their respect!

A final project that I am helping out with is an effort to explore the establishment of a monthly partnership minyan. I am joining the team because I think I have some background knowledge and skills to help, and because I think it's a worthwhile project to offer a new model of Tefillah and community to Budapest that might resonate for people who had felt disengaged. 


It is now 5:00 PM, so that means that in 12 hours I will arrive at the airport with the group of 6 Hungarians who will be attending BBYO International Convention in Dallas, TX! I am so excited to return Stateside, to see the other JDC BBYO Fellows, and to witness the biggest gathering of Jewish teens in the world!

Following Dallas, all the JDC Fellows travel to Israel for a Midyear Seminar. I can't wait to be back in Israel and eat everything in site.

Once I return to Budapest, I will hit the ground running. Purim will be the first weekend, so I'll need to help plan and run our BBYO Purim party.

The next week, a JDC Entwine-American University trip will be coming to Budapest and Romania, and I will be joining them as much as possible, helping them explore Budapest and visit the community I've grown to call my own over the last few months. At the backend of that trip, my grandparents come to Hungary for Shabbat, so I will either come back after a night in Romania, or just stay in Budapest to host them. It will be so lovely to have them and show them around.

At the end of March, there will be a weekend retreat for Hungarian Jewish teens about anti-Semitism that I will attend and maybe help plan (depending on what preparations are necessary when I return), and then at the of April there is a Spring Camp that unites the three Hungarian Jewish youth groups, and I am a co-Education Director (along with a rep from the other 2 clubs).


Grand Benjypest Hotel / AirBnBenjy -- Pt. 4

Guest 11

After a week essentially hibernating in my apartment after so much social stimulation, I welcomed my big sister Rena to Budapest early last week! Rena has been living in Asia and working in international schools, first in South Korea and now in Vietnam. She was pretty unhappy coming to a cold place, but she was able to find a passable winter coat at her home in Hanoi that an old roommate had left. Ready or not, our adventure together began.

We spent a quick few days together in Budapest, during which it was too cold to do a grand walking tour like what the rest of the family got, but we did enjoy a great visit to the Dohany Street Synagogue. We even helped out an Israeli visitor who began speaking to us in Hebrew after noticing my kippah, and the ticket vendor raved about our Hebrew. You can imagine how happy this made our parents. Guess all of those years of Jewish education pay off eventually...

In order to avoid too much time in the cold, Rena and I ventured off together to Italy! Neither of us had been before, but we were driven by our motivation to relive the Lizzie McGuire (for real, we sang the soundtrack throughout the whole trip). Rena and I have slightly different travel mindsets, but the trip could not have been greater.
Rena's class pet, Jerry, joined the adventure as well
We first flew to Rome, and quickly began our mission to eat as much pizza as possible. We spent the first day trying to see as many sites as possible, venturing from the Colosseum, to Titus' Arch, to the Forum, to the Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum, to the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain (to make sure we had the complete Lizzie McGuire experience) and onward to other sites as well. The city is gorgeous, like a giant museum shrouded with layers of history on every block. The weather was also gorgeous, and it was just a magnificent brother and sister day together.

Gelato because Italy
My favorite pizza of Rome was our last meal there. Cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and ricotta cheese. YUM.
The next day, we headed off to Vatican City. I pretty quickly embarrassed myself and revealed my outsider status by asking about the line for St. Stephen's Basilica (which is in Budapest), confusing it for St. Peter's Basilica, probably the most famous church in the world. Sorry guys, just a Jewish tourist trying not to bother anyone, don't mind me. The Vatican Museums totally wowed me. The Catholic Church is a fascinating institution and the Pope is an equally fascinating position. The collection of items reflects a legacy of power, a deep appreciation of culture, and obviously a deep interest in theology. Witnessing the Sistine Chapel was an incredible opportunity. I wish I knew more about art, history, and Catholic theology to really appreciate the creation (pun intended, I guess), but its pretty incredible to stand below such a historic and magnificent work of art.

We journeyed by train through Italy and arrived at Venice in time for Shabbat. We found our way to the Jewish Ghetto, which is actually the oldest of its kind in the world. We joined the Chabad community for Kabbalat Shabbat, which was very nice. As it turns out, there is a Yeshiva in Venice and there was a reunion for the first class of bachurim, so there was a whole crowd of hilarious and nice guys in town. After davening, we all went outside into the main plaza of the ghetto, with candles lit behind us honoring a monument to Venice's victims of the Shoah that were lit in honor of that week's International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The men got into a semi circle and put their arms around each other and sang Shalom Aleichem and Eshet Chayil. We started singing other sings and even a call-response chant and one guy started doing summersaults. It was really quite the scene. One guy stood on a chair and said how absolutely incredible it was for us all to be gathered in Venice under kipat ha-shamayim (the open sky) celebrating Shabbat together. My thoughts exactly.

During Shabbat dinner, Rena and I enjoyed that between the two of us, we have plenty of small talk content. First, we explained that we were not a couple. Then we said we're siblings from Chicago. Then, we explained our divergent paths around the world. We had this conversation a few times, in English and Hebrew, and it was quite fun for us.

The rest of our stay in Venice really was just about exploring and relaxing. We walked, we ate, we rested, and we walked some more. The city is unlike any other. It's this beautiful city out in the middle of nowhere it seems, but so much history and culture is packed into its many streets and canals.

We boarded the first bus out of Venice on Monday morning (something like 4:30 AM) and headed to the airport. We connected through Rome and arrived in Vienna, where we planned to spend the day with Gerda, the 'relative' whom I mentioned in the blog post about when my mom, dad, and other sister visited. Rena had visited Gerda a few years ago when she traveled to Vienna after spending time in Israel, and they both looked forward to their reunion. Rena and I took an Uber straight to Gerda's from the airport at about 1:00 PM, and we stayed in her home until we left to catch our train at about 8:15 PM. We ate Gerda's delicious food and enjoyed her magnificent company. Rena and Gerda had a great time catching up, and I was so happy I could visit Gerda again so soon.

Once back in Budapest, we were met with cold and wet weather, so Rena didn't feel a huge urgency to go out and explore Budapest so much. We made sure to spend a great few hours at the thermal baths, but otherwise we kind of hung out and I caught up on some work.

Rena's visit was so energizing for both of us. When we said goodbye to each other last May when we were both home, we had no idea when and where we would meet next. Rena was a huge reason I decided to do this fellowship abroad this year, and her advice and support has been crucial to my comfort and success throughout the year. To meet up, show her my life here, and spend a week and a half together was something I will cherish forever.

I hugged Rena goodbye and buckled up for my final week in Budapest before heading out for a full month!

Here are the unique Forester family reunions we enjoyed that week:

Grand Benjypest Hotel / AirBnBenjy -- Pt. 3

Guests 7, 8, 9, 10

After a quick exhale from hosting my family, I was ready to resume my 'normal' life in Budapest, picking up my work after the holiday vacation. Knowing that I would be leaving Budapest in early February for nearly a full month to attend BBYO International Convention and then the Mid Year Seminar for all JDC JSC Fellows in Israel, January already struck me as an interesting month during which I hoped to work hard, but not get too busy with projects that I would have to abandon once I started my travels. Luckily, preparing for IC, creating programs and vision for BBYO, and undertaking some other projects kept me busy through January, and set things in order for the weeks that I would be away.

Converging with this "time to get to work" week, I had the true privilege of hosting one of my oldest and dearest friends Avidan, as well as his school friends Rachel and Solomon, and Rachel's brother Yoni who is spending a gap year in Israel. In order to accommodate them in our apartment, we opened up our couch, removed our coffee table, pushed in a futon, and created a mass of bed/s that officially converted our living room into a hostel. Sam was incredibly gracious to put up with the meshugas of this hospitality, but our guests were all incredibly sweet and helpful.

During the days, I let them go out and tour the city while I stayed back to get some work done. We would either meet for dinner or drinks afterwards, so it all ended up working out quite nicely. They were quite self sufficient and it was nice having them around, but also being able to have my days free to finally sit down with my work and schedule. It's quite nice that my job itself is flexible enough to let me organize my days in a way that could be productive, and also allow me to host this group.

One night we got dinner at a kosher restaurant, and when I got up to refill our water pitcher, a woman at the next table asked me if Avidan was single because she had an eligible sister. She even told me she had pictures on her to show off. I kindly informed her that he wasn't interested. Kind of disappointing that she didn't ask if I was single, but I'll just concede that I'll never have a beard like Avidan's that could have women at Kosher restaurants in Europe swooning.

The time with Avidan was especially wonderful, because he is the first friend (not family) to make the effort to come and visit me in Budapest. When he was on a gap year in Israel, I studied abroad in Jerusalem, so we were able to share many adventures there. I loved that our global adventures continued in my home for the year, and I'm sure it won't be our last one together.

For Shabbat, I brought them all to the Frankel Synagogue. Some community members were so impressed by our ability to participate so comfortably in the davening, and we appreciated the kind feedback. We prepared a delicious Shabbat dinner of salad, rice, meatloaf, and lentils, which was all warm and waiting for us when we returned back home.

Again, this goodbye did not feel sad, because I just felt so happy to have hosted Avidan and met his great friends. Being able to show people what Budapest has to offer really made me realize how comfortable and confident I am in this city.

Grand Benjypest Hotel / AirBnBenjy -- Pt. 2

Guests 4, 5, & 6:
Aaron and Ellie had an early morning flight on Christmas Day (the 25th), and in the early evening, my mom, dad, and sister Shira landed in Budapest. I surprised them at the airport and had a super out-of-body experience walking them around my neighborhood on the streets I know so well but are so far from home.
View of the Danube and Parliament from the Margaret Bridge. I walk past this magnificent overlook every time I go to synagogue or BBYO.

Our journeys together were fairly well documented on social media, but we really don't travel as a family, nor do we get to spend much time as a family these days, so we were just so excited to be on this adventure together. Of course, we missed my older sister Rena, who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam this year, but her visit wasn't far off (just a few blog posts away).

I prepared a pretty thorough Google Doc filled with activities for each day. The first day was Dec 26 and most things were still closed for the holiday, so I planned a grand walking tour of the city. It ended up being unseasonably gorgeous (low 50s! Not a very white Christmas...), so we ended up walking over 10 miles throughout the day to many many sites. From that first day, important thoughts about identity arose, including our national identities, our Jewish identities, and how those intersect historically and personally.

During another day of the trip, a wonderful tour guide showed us through some of the Jewish Quarter's important sites, highlighted of course by the Dohany Street Synagogue, a massive 3-story synagogue right in the heart of town. We saw other historic synagogues, a mass grave from WWII, Herzl's birthplace, and various monuments. It's hard to explain how special it was to have my family with me to explore Judaism's rich and complicated history in this city where I now live.

The same guide took us the next day to the Buda Castle and other sites on Castle Hill like Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion. Again, the layers of history in this city really humbled us and made us realize that while we love Chicago, its history feigns in comparison to Budapest and most major European cities. It's not a statement about which city is better, but we just aren't used to cities having identities emerge because of millennia of political upheaval, interactions between various cultures, official religious affiliation, and wars.

We spent Friday morning at the Szechenyi Bath House, one of Budapest's famous thermal baths, where we lounged in the heated pools both inside and outside. After feeling refreshed, we raced home to prepare a Shabbat dinner before Shabbat started at around 3:45 PM. Mom had pretty incredible vision and delegated tasks to Shira and me, and we managed to prepare a wonderful meal just as it was time to light Chanukah and Shabbat candles. After attending the Frankel Synagogue, where my family got to see where I go for shul almost every week, we returned for dinner with my friends Zsófi and Juci who are sisters. I work with Zsófi in BBYO, and with Juci in other Jewish community capacities. Especially since the Jewish exploration of Budapest carries with it a dark legacy, it was so wonderful that we also celebrated the vibrant and special Jewish community of Budapest today through experiences like Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat dinner. We also attended a family Chanukah party at the JCC and a BBYO candle lighting at someone's house. Altogether, it was a pretty comprehensive glimpse into the history and present day Jewish landscape of this city.

From Budapest, we took a New Years Day AM train to Vienna. Taking trains between most European countries is as simple as the train from Chicago to St. Louis. No security, no customs. Just get to your assigned seat, hang out for a couple hours, and step off into a whole new country with a different language, different currency, and its own very unique history. Vienna is gorgeous. Its architecture is similar to Budapest, but much of it was rebuilt and renovated after WWII.

When my maternal grandfather was growing up in upstate New York with his 3 brothers, his family decided to host an Austrian foreign exchange student, and Gerda and her family have remained an integral part of the extended family ever since. I had never met Gerda, but when my mom was 15, she stayed with Gerda's family in Vienna and went on a little road trip with them. Decades later, our family stayed at the very same beautiful house in Vienna with Gerda. Staying with Gerda was an absolute gift. She could not have been a more wonderful hostess, offering us beautiful and delicious meals, excellent conversation, and deep wisdom. We knew Gerda had spent some of her youth in Budapest, but I didn't find out until that visit that she and her family miraculously survived the Shoah in Budapest, and spent 9 months in hiding in an apartment not far from mine, on a street that I have walked numerous times.

Saying goodbye to family is never easily, but I felt so enriched and fulfilled by their visit that I carried with me only contentment once they departed. Coming from a family that prioritized Jewish education over travel, it was gratifying beyond words to have this once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that naturally had such important focus on Jewish identity. It felt like so much of my life had led up to an experience like this with my family, and I'm so excited that this experience is but another chapter in my life that I will be able to carry with me onward.