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Conversation with Susan Firestone

By Stacey Dresner

Photo: Facebook/Rabbi David Wolpe

In November, Susan and Bill Firestone of Longmeadow went to Budapest and Vienna as part of an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Ambassadors Mission. The small group of 10 included Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of many books and columns, who led the mission.

The JDC, “the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters,” according to its website.

The JDC offers trips to countries around the world for groups like college students and young adults who want to visit and connect with the Jewish communities where the JDC is entrenched.

JDC Ambassador trips, like the one the Firestones participated in, are for philanthropists who want to learn more about the work of the JDC and where important Jewish Federation funding goes in assisting the JDC’s world-wide clients.

Susan Firestone, Immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., and member of the Executive Committee, recently talked to the Jewish Ledger about the trip to Budapest and Vienna and about the important work the JDC is doing around the world.


Q: How did this trip to Vienna and Budapest come about?

A: This trip came about through the JDC Ambassadors program. They are very focused missions, and on this particular trip we were going with Rabbi David Wolpe.

It is not that often that he takes this kind of trip so we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.


Q: This trip took you to visit sites in two beautiful, historic cities, but what is the true purpose of these JDC Ambassador trips?

A: The purpose of the trip was to get a close-up view of the wonderful work that JDC does in 70 countries around the world, but in these particular locations the purpose was to witness the work that the JDC does in helping Jews in need and also revitalizing Jewish life in these places where Jewish life is very difficult in terms of surviving the Nazis, then surviving Communism and now trying to revitalize Jewish life.


Q: What kind of programming is the JDC providing in Vienna?

A: They don’t do so much programming in Vienna because it is a small community, but we spent Shabbat with this group called Junction, which is an initiative of the JDC and the Shusterman Foundation.

They were having a conference in Vienna so we went to Vienna first so we could meet with all of these young adults, all around 30 years old. They are trying to create a “pan-European” network of young Jewish people who come to these conferences, musical Shabbat services and dinners. We met all of these really interesting young people who traveled from all over Europe to Vienna to do something Jewish. Part of it is to empower them — they are very mobile so they could have a job in Paris and end up getting a job in Milan or something. So this is a way of creating a network of young Jews across Europe so these young people always have somebody that they know, a network of young Jews.

A lot of times people think about the past, but they really don’t think about the Jewish future. The JDC is doing a lot to empower the young people to take charge of their communities and to create communities. It is very heartening to see.


Q: Who are the people being helped by the JDC in Budapest?

A: We went on a home visit to a woman who was only in her 50s who was recovering from cancer and kidney failure and there was no husband in place. She had two kids, a 23-year-old girl with Down syndrome and then a younger girl who is a freshman in college. They had to go live in a one-room apartment – state-sponsored housing – but they are getting help from the local Jewish Family Service in Budapest, which is funded by JDC. They also take advantage of being able to go to the Balint JCC, which offers all kinds of programming. So we saw this web of services that JDC helps to support for Jews in need. We saw that through the help of JDC, this family’s lives are being made better.


Q: How is the JDC revitalizing Judaism in Budapest?

A: JDC is doing that in a bunch of ways. One of the main things is the Lauder Szarvas Camp. Some kids get sent to the summer camp and it might be the first time they find out they are Jewish. Their parents put them on the bus and say, ‘Oh by the way, we are Jewish.’ And then they go to camp and have this amazing Jewish experience. Some of these kids latch on to that and end up becoming counselors at the camp. That is one of the ways JDC is helping to build Jewish leadership for the future. They are training young people to be active participants in running the Jewish community.

We went to a Moishe House in Budapest where young people are living and providing programming for young Jews. We went to a dinner there and they told us about all of these activities they were planning. They are very much like a Moishe House you would find here and JDC helps to fund that.

We went to a JDC Mosaic Hub, which is a shared workspace – an incubator for Jewish organizations and other grassroots initiatives. It is a really cool office space for all of these different, emergent Jewish organizations to share space and receive leadership training. It is pretty exciting.


Q: You also got to see a lot of the beautiful sites of Vienna and Budapest on this trip. What was that like?

A: Everywhere you go in most parts of Europe you sort of feel the ghosts of the Holocaust. For example, one night we went on an hour-long cruise on the Danube. It was beautiful and the lights were all lit up – but we also know happened there. The next day we went to the Holocaust memorial, The Shoes on the Danube Bank, which memorialized the Jews who were shot and thrown into the river in 1944. So one night you are taking this beautiful cruise, and the next day you are walking by the memorial and seeing what happened. You can never mistake what happened no matter what you are doing.


Q: This trip was for philanthropists like you who are already very involved in aiding struggling Jews and strengthening Jewish communities. Why should others get involved and support the work of the JDC?

A: The JDC is one of our primary partners, who we fund through our Federation annual campaign. So I think to see the work on the ground firsthand is just a reminder of how we touch lives – individual lives and whole communities by what we do. I think as much as you read about it, it’s much more compelling when you can experience it. Despite the fact that I have been on many missions and seen our work in many places, it doesn’t get old going to see it somewhere else. And things are always changing — the times change, the needs change – so what we do changes. I mean, who would have thought 20 years ago that we would be revitalizing Jewish life across Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe?

So going to things like the Junction conference in Vienna and seeing the young people celebrating the Jewish renaissance in Europe is really exciting and heartening.

For more information, visit www.jdc.org.

CAP: Susan Firestone, left, and Rabbi David Wolpe, center, visiting a Budapest mother and her daughters, who are receiving assistance from the JDC.

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