On Helping Humans

by Shauna Ruda

My grandparents met and were married in the Warsaw Ghetto.

My great grandfather was once a wealthy pharmacy owner, but was forced to give up everything and move into the Ghetto. Even in the Ghetto, people found ways to be resourceful, to do work, to keep life going and so, to provide for his family my great grandfather decided to take on a new business – the selling of “shmatas” or old rags.

He had heard of some teenage genius – a boy who knew all about selling rags – more than anyone else. So he found him and begged him to teach him the trade. The teenage boy agreed, so long as he introduced him to my grandmother, a blond bombshell with bright blue eyes.

And that’s their story. The genius teenager was my grandfather who fell in love with my grandmother and they married in the Ghetto as their final act of love so that everyone could witness their marriage before they all died.

When the Ghetto fell, my grandmother snuck through the sewers and ran away. Even though she was Jewish she grew up going to Catholic school, because her father believed in the best education, and found a job teaching Catechisms at a Christian school in a small village in Poland. She was eventually sent to a labor camp as a Catholic teacher. My grandfather was sent to Majdanek death camp. He suffered through the most disgusting acts of inhumanity. They thought they would never see each other again. They thought they’d lost each other forever.

When the war was over, my grandmother was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to interview Jewish refugees of the Holocaust to try to assist them in finding their lost family members or at least in finding out what had happened to them. She spoke seven languages and that was important working out of Poland where refugees from across Europe had been misplaced. It was in this role that she was able to re-find my grandfather. I exist because this organization cared enough to reunite families and to bring people who loved each other back together.

For over three years, I’ve had the privilege of giving back to the organization (though I somehow feel that no time or no amount of work will ever be enough). I served as a Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Turkey and then became a full-time JDC employee as a part of the JDC Entwine team helping to support young professional volunteer networks across the U.S. educate peers about global Jewish needs and guiding trips to see JDC’s work overseas.

I am more inspired by the lives touched and by the personal care taken to ensure that every human being interacted with feels valued and special – because we all are, every human, so uniquely special.

Right now, JDC is accepting applications for two fellowship opportunities around the world. The first, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship, is a unique prospect for a single individual to shape the Jewish world today in different placements across the globe. The second, the Global Jewish Service Corps, a year-long service opportunity (short term provided as well) to serve a specific community based on the unique talents that individual applicants have to offer and give.

I think about the people who hired my grandmother, about the people who set up the refugee camps after the war, about the people who sat for hours every day helping lost souls sort out their lives. Those people shaped history. They restored goodness in the world, when it seemed so lost. They were us. They were young people trying to make a difference. Now it’s our turn and I hope that any young, Jewish, leader, advocate, change maker, dreamer out there will consider taking a leap and engage globally with the Jewish world in a meaningful way. It’s our time to give to the world…

Shauna Ruda currently lives in Tel Aviv and is a student in Tel Aviv University’s International MA Program in Migration Studies.