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!

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.