The First Face – The One In the Mirror

Photo courtesy IsraAID

By Doron Krakow

When JCC Association of North America first conceived a leadership seminar in Israel, I wanted it to be an opportunity to explore the many facets of Israeli life and culture, beyond the two most contentious issues – geo-politics and the religious divide – that dominate so many of our conversations about the country. To do that, I wanted participants – JCC leaders, both lay and professional, from across North America – to engage with faces of Israel with which we have limited if any contact and expand the ways we think, talk about, and experience the Jewish people’s national homeland.

With that in mind, I knew that, ironically, a delegation focused on Israel needn’t necessarily begin there. It could begin in a place where Israeli organizations are doing life-saving work that reflects Jewish values and helping to repair our world. So, our group started our 11-day 70 Faces of Israel delegation in Lesvos, to bear witness to the humanitarian aid and emergency response work of IsraAID. This NGO is JCC Association’s partner in JResponse, which brought dozens of JCC staff members from across the continent to Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre to help meet the community’s needs. In Lesvos, we observed firsthand how IsraAid is responding to the enormous humanitarian refugee crisis.

This leg of our journey has not only enabled JCC leadership to evolve a better understanding of what IsraAID does and why we want to build a growing partnership with the organization, but also drives home a message about how the tiny nation of Israel continues to serve as a light unto the nations – leading by example through this all too often-unheralded work. Another face. Another side of our ancient homeland.

Lesvos is a beautiful and tranquil Greek island at the edge of the Aegean Sea. Home to some 80,000 residents, it is everything you’d expect from a sleepy Mediterranean paradise; one now intruded upon by wars both across and beyond the Middle East.

At its northern edge, Lesvos is just four miles from the Turkish coastline. Turkey has seen a huge influx of millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iran, South Sudan and the Congo. A growing number of them set out in rubber dinghies hoping for safe haven in Europe. They are crammed up to 80 a trip into rubber rafts made to hold no more than 20. Their destination? Lesvos. More than 1,500 have drowned when their boats capsized amidst the waves or after crashing onto rocky shores. Over 800,000 made it safely.

In Lesvos, when the flood of refugees began to arrive, IsraAID was among the very first to respond – and they have been there ever since, having touched the lives of more than one in five of the 800,000 refugees. Today there are roughly 10,000 such refugees in Lesvos, almost all of whom are living in three refugee camps of varying quality and diverse circumstance, many for a year or more, waiting …

While they wait, IsraAID provides medical services, post-trauma counseling and psychological support. A school for children ages 6 to 17, The School of Peace, operates in partnership with Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth movement also based in Israel. It serves the refugees in a dozen languages and dialects and enables qualified professionals among them to become productive partners in the classroom, clinic and community. The IsraAID team members are both proud and readily identifiable faces of Israel: Jews, Arabs, Druze, Circassians and Bedouins extending a helping hand and a gentle embrace to people whose governments in most cases only ever stoked hatred and fear of the Jews and Israel.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the trip was our visit to the life jacket graveyard. More than 600,000 discarded life jackets lie in huge mounds in the hills above Mithymna. They were removed and discarded by exhausted and emotionally spent refugees – the ones who made it safely across. The scene and setting are striking and one can’t help but think that it looks like the huge piles of shoes, suitcases and eyeglasses that we’ve seen in photographs of Auschwitz. Only after taking some time to reflect upon what we saw there did we understand that it wasn’t the same as those scenes from Auschwitz. In fact, it is a perfect mirror image.

The suitcases, shoes and glasses of the concentration camps were viciously torn from their former Jewish owners, who were led to the gas chambers, tortured or starved to death by the savage Nazi regime and its equally savage allies. The life jackets, in stark contrast, were handed over in a moment of triumph following a successful escape from the ravages of war. And this time, the hands that reached out to receive them, to share in their moments of joy and to provide dry clothes and a warm meal as they begin the next still-arduous steps on their journey to a better life, were the hands of those who came from Israel – the national homeland of the Jewish people. Israel, which rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, ending almost 2,000 years of exile and despair for an exhausted but determined people.

Like gazing at an image in the mirror, what first seems exactly the same is precisely the reverse. This experience and the many ensuing conversations are the first of what I expect will be many for the participants on this trip. I want them to expand the number of faces they see in Israel and take this exposure and resultant insights and inspiration back to their JCCs, their home communities and then re-imagine the types of engagement they can have with and about Israel.

JCCs are an obvious place to start because they are the largest platform for Jewish engagement in North America. But they need not be alone. All of us who lead, from the smallest local Jewish group to our continental leadership agencies, must make this leap if we are to strengthen our Jewish communities, both here and in Israel, today and tomorrow.

The life jacket graveyard is a monument to the living, not the dead. It heralds the promise of a brighter future and a better life. It is sign-post on the road to all that is possible. And there, as each refugee turns to future, with blankets in hand, are Mollie, Rania, Ana, Jonathan, Kerem, Yotam, Hagit, Jamal and countless others. There is IsraAID. May they be blessed.

Doron Krakow is president and CEO of JCC Association of North America, which leads and connects the JCC Movement, advancing and enriching North American Jewish life.