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!

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: