Original Article in Jerusalem Post:

Team Israel’s Cody Decker continues his playful ways – even in American professional baseball.

Cody Decker was arguably the heart, soul and class clown of Israel’s baseball team, which took the world by surprise in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Decker and his teammates won the qualifiers in Brooklyn and they beat three opposing teams (South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands) in the first round in Korea. Team Israel then lost two of three games in Round 2, played in Japan.

“Cody Decker played for all three teams that Israel has fielded in the WBC and there is no doubt that he has been a vital cog in all of them. Aside from his playing skills and ability to play a multitude of positions, it’s his personality, his way to keep the guys loose, his perspective on life and the game, that have made him most valuable. He ‘gets it’ and he’s able to get others on board.”

Decker and nine teammates visited Israel last year before the tournament.

“I think that having Cody and Jenn [his wife] on the trip to Israel made ‘the cause’ that much more real for him. For the first time, he really understood what he was playing for and the speech he gave at the Beit Shemesh field dedication exemplified that commitment,” adds Kurz.

Decker currently plays infield for the Reno Aces (the AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks) in the Pacific Coast League, where he is batting a solid.261 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs.

The love and admiration felt for Decker during the World Baseball Classic continues in Reno.

Aces catcher Anthony Recker observes, “Cody is a blast to be around. He’s always one of the first guys in the building and last one out. He’s the kind of guy who knows when to have fun and when to get down to business. I’m glad to have him as a teammate.”
Aces manager Greg Gross adds, “Decker has provided us some offense off the bench this year and is always a threat to go deep. His personality is obviously there and is fun for the guys in the locker room. He’s a talented ballplayer and has been for a long time in this league.”

The Magazine caught up with Decker in the dugout after the Reno Aces defeated the Sacramento River Cats (the AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants) 8 to 2. Decker struck out in the bottom of the sixth, his only plate appearance, when he appeared as a pinch hitter.

Have you seen the 2018 documentary film Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel yet?

Yes, about four times now. Jenn did a Q and A for a group; I’ve done some Q and As and will be doing another in Orange County (California) in the off season, so that will be fun.

My impression is that the film is good. I am very glad they made it; they need to work on marketing. It is far less a Jewish story than a baseball story. It is about putting together a ragtag bunch of players who had been overlooked their entire careers. We had a chance to go out in front of the world and show that we were better than they thought. That was the story, but it was more that – we happened to all be Jewish. I kind of love that this is how it was all put together. I think that is the right story to tell; there are plenty of Jewish elements. It is as much that as it is the other story.

You and Jenn both got to go to Israel? You recently got married?

We went to Israel – Tel Aviv, then Jerusalem and stopped in Beit Shemesh. At no point did I think that I would enjoy Jerusalem more than I enjoyed Tel Aviv – this big, beautiful thriving city. I was expecting Jerusalem to be old and very historic but not as grand as it was. WOW – was I way wrong! I loved every second in Jerusalem. It was beautiful, amazing watching all faiths throughout. That was really cool when the Muslims were praying. My wife (we got married six months ago) is Christian, so seeing a lot of the old churches and going with the tour guide and learning. This right here is where Jesus was. The whole trip was very fascinating. It was fantastic and we loved every second of it.

When you think about what it has done for your relationship with Judaism, and Israel – what is it like looking back?

I can’t wait to go back! I wouldn’t say it necessarily made me more religious or spiritual or anything but it makes you appreciate… I have always appreciated my heritage. Going over there and seeing the Western Wall – it was probably the most striking thing to me. We went on a Friday night. There were so many people praying and dancing. It was crazy – it was great – I loved every second!

Do you think Team Israel will be part of your future down the road?

Peter [Kurz], the team president, is hoping that I am coming back to Team Israel!

Do your teammates on the Aces know about this Team Israel and Jewish part of you?

Not really – it is not something that regularly comes up in conversation. The fact that I am Jewish almost never comes up. Unless I make a joke about it – every time we have Sunday chapel, I say like, “When is the rabbi getting here so I can pray too? Can I join?” They say, “It’s nondenominational.” “You mean that Sunday Christian chapel you guys are doing? Nondenominational, huh? Cool. Yeah, I’m busy…

Sounds like there are not that many Jewish ballplayers…

There just happens to not be a lot of Jewish baseball players. I don’t think there is any particular reason for it, other than that there just aren’t that many of us. I grew up in Santa Monica [California], a huge Jewish community, and I played with a lot of Jewish kids. I’m not going to lie to you. Most of them were terrible! It is not because they were Jewish. They just weren’t very good at baseball.
Then when I got older and started traveling the country, and occasionally the world, you find out there just aren’t a whole lot of Jews playing baseball.

You go around the country, in Texas and certain spots in Florida, there just aren’t that many Jews around. It’s not like Santa Monica, where it is just normal. A large Mexican community, a large Jewish community, a large African American community, and for whatever reason, I was just unique, I was just brought up with that.

Has your role as team prankster continued with the Aces?

No, I’m leaving guys alone. People are watching me too closely. They know I’ll do it! I’d love to but… I’ll even say something and they’ll give me the side eye. They’ll think I’m lying or trying to set them up. I’m not. I’m actually enjoying that more than anything, that people are very suspicious of me at all times. It keeps them alert, I think.

Do they know about the Mensch on the Bench? Are they aware of that?

They are. The Mensch on the Bench was over in Jackson. He is back home in Santa Monica. We shipped him in a huge box. He is in my parents’ office and it’s just a gigantic box that happens to have a Mensch in it. I was thinking of selling it. I think it is time to sell it. Or auction it off for a charity. I don’t know how to do it.

But your teammates here don’t know about the Mensch on the Bench?

Yeah, they do. It was in my locker in spring training. It had its own locker in spring training. I had my locker, which said “Cober Commander” on it, and the next locker next to me was the Mensch. The Mensch was there.

How has the experience been with the Aces? I heard you had some injuries, pitched a little bit…

I pitched because we were out of pitchers. I don’t think I am too worried about my arm going to pieces, pitching 52 miles per hour! I am just going up there to throw strikes and let them get themselves out. Injuries? I’m good.

This is my seventh season in the PCL [Pacific Coast League], my fifth or sixth PCL team…Tucson, El Paso, Albuquerque, Omaha, Vegas… seventh! I’ve always had a lot of success playing here as an opposing player. Coming here I got off to a really hot start. Important guys in the Diamondbacks organization got activated so my playing time took a pretty hefty dip. I had to work on being off the bench, which is not the easiest of jobs. I had a DL [disabled list] stint during that time. I’m having a pretty good year all things considered. I know what I can do on the field. I’ve always felt I belonged in the big leagues; that’s why I’m doing this.

But I will say the Aces have been fantastic. The front office has been good. The stadium is always beautiful. Our locker room is great. Our jerseys have gotten better. We had a jersey issue… we had two jerseys that weighed roughly 35 pounds [15.8 kg.}. Luckily, we fixed one of them. The other one still weighs a solid ton and a half.

The Diamondbacks organization has been nothing but the most classy, honest and well-put-together organization. I really appreciate being a part of this organization. Hopefully I will get out there more consistently eventually and get a shot at the big leagues.

Any plans for All-Star break [which started the day after the interview]?

I’m actually flying to Las Vegas to meet up with my wife, which I am very excited about. Four nights with my wife will be very nice. Take her out to dinner, maybe go to a show or something. I look forward to seeing her.

Is that where you are living?

No, we are based in Los Angeles, but she is going there for work stuff. I’m flying there. She is driving there as we speak. I’m going to meet her there.

Has the Jewish community in Reno reached out to you?

Is there one here? I’m not gonna lie to you, I don’t know of one. So I have been reached out to by no one. Normally when I go play in a place, I’ll be stretching before a game, and I’ll have like five people yelling “Cody, Cody, I’m Jewish.” I don’t know, I don’t know of a Jewish community here. But in fairness, I haven’t been out trying to find it.

Do you think that Team Israel is something that can be in your future?

That’s a couple of years down the road. I guess we’ll address it when it comes up. The qualifier was a really great experience. Loved every second of the qualifiers. It was a special group of guys.

Are you still in touch with those guys?

I was already in touch with them to begin with. Nate Freiman and I had played together for years. Nate is one of my dearest friends. He was at my wedding. And I have known Zach Bornstein for a long time. Ryan Lavarnway is a good friend. There are not many of us. We kind of all have friendships. Blake Gailen, we would hit together every off season. He is still one of my good friends. He was almost in my wedding. He was on standby in case somebody went down. It is a good group of guys, every one of them. I miss them and look forward to seeing them all again. I’m sure I’ll some them again, somewhere down the road. All in all, it is a good deal.

Will I be back in a couple of years? We will see…

Filed under: Jerusalem Post (Source: https://www.jpost.com)
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Original Article in The Times Of Israel:

Despite a decade age gap, Julia and Lina Glushko are inseparable — on and off the court

When Julia Glushko began playing on the pro tennis tour in 2004, her sister Lina was a little girl of four. Fourteen years later, Lina is following in Julia’s footsteps — no mean feat, considering the trail her older sister is blazing.

On July 29, the elder Glushko won the $60,000 women’s singles title at the prestigious International Tennis Federation tournament in Granby, Canada. She upset top-seeded Arina Rodionova of Australia for the win.

Julia is currently ranked 196 in the world; Lina is 838.

The sisters recently added “doubles partners” to their impressive resumes, joining an elite club of professional tennis-playing siblings which includes the Bryan brothers, the Williams sisters, the McEnroe brothers and more.

At the April 2018 Fed Cup women’s tennis tournament in Athens, Greece, Israel’s team captain Tzipi Obziler and coach Sandra Wasserman decided to pair up the Glushko sisters in a doubles match.

“It was more than natural to let them play together,” said Obziler. “The combination of Julia, the experienced sister, together with Lina, who got her first chance to play matches in the Fed Cup, brought a very good high level doubles team,” said Obziler.

Wasserman agrees. “During practice sessions in the days before the competition, we saw that they were very motivated to play together. They played well and had good communication, so we gave it a chance,” she said.

The Glushko sisters became accustomed to each other on court during an intense four days of matches versus Norway, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Luxembourg and Denmark. After winning the first three deciding tie matches, they lost the semifinal 6-3, 6-4 to Emile Francati and Maria Jespersen of Denmark.

“The Danish girls were better the last day,” said Wasserman, their coach.

One love

Lina, who spoke with The Times of Israel by phone following her first week of basic training in the Israel Defense Forces, remembers the many years Julia — her “best friend” — was constantly on the road.

“I was a little girl, and she was in her 20s,” she said. “I don’t feel like she is 10 years older — we are more like twins. In the last two years or so, we talk 24/7 and we are very connected.”

When they’re in Israel, they practice together. “Now, I am no longer a little girl who doesn’t understand what is going on on the court,” Lina said.

Lina recently graduated from Ironi Gimel high school in Modiin, where she excelled in English (“It was really easy for me!”), her third language.

The Glushkos moved to Israel from the Ukraine in 1999, one year before Lina was born, and speak Russian at home. They are a true tennis family with both parents and 25-year-old brother, Alex, working as tennis coaches.

Alex has served as Lina’s coach for the past two years, taking over for their father, who had previously served the role.

“One match, my father wasn’t able to come, so Alex came instead. He made me feel so relaxed and good on court. I made it through to the finals, and we have been working together since then,” said Lina. “My dad was happy that I found my place with my brother.”

On the court

According to Lina, the Fed Cup pairing was not their actual debut as a doubles team.

“We played doubles for the first time in 2015 in Israel’s nationals,” she said, admitting that she “didn’t like to play doubles before.”

After that tournament, the Glushko sisters continued testing the waters as a doubles team.

“We played for fun in a tournament to see how it would go — we won first place. Then, we played in a [higher level] 15K tournament,” Lina said.

Representing Israel at the Fed Cup was memorable, though Lina didn’t learn she would be playing until 30 minutes before the Norway match.

“I was so nervous. My hand and racket were shaking. There was so much pressure. But I got used to it. I was so excited — to play with Israel on the back of my t-shirt and with my sister on court. The energy was so good. We played so good together,” she said.

Sibling doubles teams with Jewish roots include Brian and Larry Gottfried — and there are probably others, according to Sandra Harwitt, sportswriter and author of “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time.”

“At just 18, Lina Glushko has the benefit of following in her big sister Julia’s sneakers onto the professional tennis scene. Being 10 years older, Julia has a great deal of tour insider information that can help Lina as she’s really just starting her journey in the game. Undoubtedly, this shared sister experience will make the Glushkos feel like a part of a special club in the game,” notes Harwitt.

Looking forward

Fed Cup captain Obziler believes “Lina has great potential,” noting Julia’s recent success on tour.

“Julia is in a great run in the last few months, and the sky is the limit for her,” Obziler said.

Julia recently began working with a new coach, former Israeli tennis player Amir Haddad. She has consistently advanced to the late rounds of recent tournaments in Asia and North America and has won tournaments in Singapore and Thailand.

In a phone interview from a tournament in Gatineau, Canada, Julia told The Times of Israel that the last year was “tough,” with “a lot going on.”

She took three months off, spent some time in Israel “to reflect on things” and changed her coaching staff. She is now “back on track” with her new coach and fitness trainer and feels more self-confident.

“There is lots of positive energy around me, and people who believe in me,” Julia said. “Of course, I train very hard, day in and day out. And I am enjoying my time on court.”

Based on Haddad’s advice, Julia is focusing on smaller tournaments and playing many matches. “I have a nice North American summer ahead of me. I am really excited,” she said.

As a sports mitztayenet (elite athlete) in the IDF, Lina will serve for the next two years with adequate time for tennis training. Her near-term goal is ambitious – finishing the year in the top 500.

And in the not-so-distant future?

“Of course, like everyone, my goal is to win a [Grand] Slam,” Lina said. “And to be #1 in world, kind of obviously.”

Filed under: Times of Israel (Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com)
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Original Article in Jerusalem Post:

When E.’s plane from Amman touched down in Rome, she started to cry. After spending a semester studying abroad in Jordan, E., in town to visit friends, felt she could safely put on her Star of David necklace and her prized “If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem” necklace.

Every year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, more than 300,000 American students – 1.6% of the population enrolled in higher education – leave the US bound for universities in Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

Four Jewish-American students – E., D., A., and Z., who preferred not to use their actual names – independently spent a semester studying in Jordan. They spoke with the Magazine about being surrounded by anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments while remaining connected to Israel and Jewish practice. 

Living among the Jordanians

Officially, Jerusalem and Amman have had diplomatic, economic and cultural relations since 1994, when the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late Jordanian King Hussein signed a peace treaty, three months after declaring an end to the state of war between the neighboring countries.

But the experience of E. and other American Jewish students studying Arabic language and Middle East studies in Jordan tells a very different story of relations between Jews and Jordanians on the ground. These students often hid their Jewish identities and pro-Israel feelings from host families, language partners and in one case, from a Jordanian Palestinian boyfriend. 

“The only time I explicitly lied,” says E., a student at a large state university in the Midwest, “is when a cab driver asked about my religion.” When she informed him that she was a Christian, he smiled and replied, “We Christians and Arabs are brothers.” In another instance, E.’s Arabic teacher asked the language class to reply to the prompt, “What did you do yesterday?”

“I had to lie,” E. recalls. “I wasn’t going to tell them I was in Israel for Pessah [Passover]!”

D., a student at a private Midwestern university, plans to make aliya upon graduation and work on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. While in Jordan last year, he observed the public level of antisemitism to be high. His taxi driver announced “Jews in America – lots of money!” D. also learned of a widely-accepted belief that no Jews died in the September 11 attacks and that there is a conspiracy between Jews and ISIS.

E. heard similar comments. One professor taught that Jews in America occupy a prominent place in politics because they have all the money and all the power. Another used a specific Arabic word meaning “to invade” only when referencing Israel, and claimed there was no Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia due to its close relationship with Israel.

“I felt that everything I said had to fit in to the mainstream narrative, and that I wasn’t sharing a huge part of myself,” she says.

A., who also studied in Jordan last year, recounts professors referring to Hamas as “freedom fighters” and to Jordan’s neighbor to the west as “Palestine.” 

Z., a student at a small northeastern private university, had one scary incident when he chanced upon a Muslim Brotherhood rally protesting the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. He had to hide his discomfort and disgust when hearing cries of “Jews are descendants of apes and pigs,” followed by, “We need to fight for Palestine.” During the semester, Z. was shocked to learn that some students “knew more about Neturei Karta than I did!” He reasons, “It fits into a certain narrative – this anti-Zionist fringe group was mainstream to them.”

For all four students, seeing Israeli flags laid across the campus for people to step on was particularly eye-opening. “I was walking with American friends for coffee,” E. says, “and an eight-year-old and his mother stepped on the Israel flag and spit on it.”

Maintaining Jewish identity

For the four students, returning to Israel up to four times during the semester provided a welcome break from their time in Jordan. Crossing back into Jordan wasn’t always simple, though. D. had no problem carrying tefillin in his suitcase when he flew from New York to Amman to begin the semester. But when he tried to come back into the country after spending Rosh Hashana in Israel, he was detained at the border and questioned for two hours. 

He was told, “This is the law – you can’t go into Jordan!” Finally, a supervisor intervened and said in Arabic, “You will cover them up. Don’t take them out or use them in public!” D. did use his tefillin daily, but he made sure to pray in his room with the curtains closed.

D, who describes himself as “a religious Jew,” bought a crock pot, ate pita and hummus in some restaurants, and ate Shabbat meals with friends. Yet he deleted his phone’s Hebrew keyboard and went to Israel for most major holidays.

His true identity was nearly discovered while sitting in a Starbucks. A nearby woman saw Hebrew letters on his computer screen and whispered “Yahood!” 

All students employed tricks while in Jordan to maintain their connection to Judaism and Israel. Student A. baked hamentashen for Purim and called them “American cookies.” E. had a secret “Jewish box” in her room for keeping matza during Passover, and she was careful to get her “Hebrew fix” of Israeli news sources while in the safety of her room. Z. made sure to consume (Jordanian) wine and pita each Friday night. 

Student A. met a Palestinian Jordanian boyfriend through mutual friends. “It ended because he learned I was working at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace,” based in Tel Aviv. “He said, ‘Peres was a war criminal.’ We broke up – over ‘differences of opinion.’”

In a class of their own

The four students flew to Jordan to improve their language skills. Former meccas of Arabic study include Beirut, Cairo and Damascus – but these are no longer viable options. And Morocco, which currently offers an Arabic language immersion program, doesn’t offer exposure to the Jordanian Palestinian dialect which is of greatest interest to them, given their interests in future careers in diplomacy, military, academic and peace work between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. 

CET Academic Programs, through which all four studied abroad, has been sending students to Amman since the summer of 1994. While they don’t know the exact number of Jewish students studying in Jordan in any given year, a representative of the program said, “Anecdotally, I would say there are a number of Jewish students” with varying levels of connection to religion who participate in the program – “perhaps ranging from one to five on each term.” 

The program is aware that the issue of disclosing religious identity is complicated. “We offer students the chance to disclose information about their identity, but many opt not to,” said the representative, who preferred not to give her name. She mentioned that there is time built in during pre-trip orientation to discuss such issues. 

“Sharing connections to Israel, particularly citizenship, is not advised, given political tensions. We do our best to prepare students for the fact that they are highly likely to hear offensive and/or prejudiced language about Jewish people,” she said. 

E feels differently. “When the program director saw my evaluation at the end of the semester, she was shocked I didn’t feel comfortable as a Jew. And I was shocked that she was shocked!”

To never return?

D. will return to Jordan this summer for further study of Arabic. 

A has made aliya and currently serves in the IDF where soldiers in her unit initially thought that she was a Jordanian spy. She was recently asked to use her Arabic language skills as she escorted visiting Jordanian military officials back across the border. Looking back, she notes, “It is complicated – it opened up a narrative I never heard.” 

Z., who describes himself as “all over the Israel spectrum,” with past involvements in J Street and AIPAC, says his greatest disappointment was at the lack of knowledge among the other American students. He concludes, “The peace treaty is only between governments – not between people. There are no people-to-people ties.” 

E. concludes succinctly, “Being a Jew in Jordan sucked!”

Yet Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and who in 2011 was the first rabbi to be received in Bahrain by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, remains hopeful. “More young Jews and Muslims are recognizing that we share a common faith,” he says. “Our singular destiny must have caring and concern for each other.”

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Original Article in The JNS:

When Rabbi Shmuel Halpert, outgoing Knesset member of the haredi party Agudat Yisrael, invited Rabbi Isaac Schapira to a meeting in July 2011, Schapira’s life changed forever. He was convinced that he had to improve the situation for Jewish cemeteries worldwide, which were suffering from disrepair, neglect and vandalism from outside communities.

Schapira describes Halpert as a pioneer in fighting for the rescue of Jewish cemeteries. “I don’t know who will continue this fight. I think you and your connections are best-suited for it. Just dive in!” said Halpert.

And so, Schapira did just that. “It spoke to me. It broke my heart.”

He has used resources, connections, bridge-building skills, determination and values that he learned from late father, Rabbi Avraham Schapira (Knesset member from the Agudat Israel party and chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee) to found the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative.

The ESJF was founded in 2015 to begin the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in places where Jewish communities were wiped out during the Holocaust. ESJF has so far placed fences around 102 Jewish cemeteries in six European countries. In addition, it has conducted mass field surveys of sites with an impressive 1,500 reports published to date.

Project partners in Europe and Israel

Schapira is proud that his organization has built an infrastructure that European governments recognize as “professional and economically efficient.” For instance, ESJF has obtained governmental funding from the federal government of Germany.

In Israel, Schapira has managed to assemble an impressive coalition of supporters, including Yossi Beilin, scholar—former Knesset and senior Cabinet member, who has held such important government positions as Minister of Justice and Minister of Religious Affairs. Beilin has served as a board member since 2013. He is actively involved in working with international governments with helping secure financial resources.

Rabbi Isaac Schapira, founder of the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, sitting with a portrait of his late father, Rabbi Avraham Schapira. Credit: Howard Blas.

Acknowledging the compelling nature of the work, he says: “It became a major issue for me. We found out in a short time that we are the only body on the ground doing the work of finding [and then funding] cemeteries in a systemic way. We are working with the map and creating a body of knowledge in order to prioritize and address the most endangered cemeteries first.”

Knesset members committed to the project include Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union Party, and Rabbi Uri Maklev of the ultra-religious Agudath Yisrael Party. Schapira is proud that members of diverse parties have come together to address the issue of European cemeteries.

Maklev reports, “We got involved when Rabbi Yitzhak Schapira turned to us. He works with much devotion and donates time and money. There is a real danger in the old cemeteries in Europe when they are left unprotected. The issue has worsened over the years. Jewish cemeteries remain unguarded and in constant danger, as Jewish community members now live far from its cemeteries. In addition, anti-Semitism and vandalism exist. It is a right and duty to act for this important cause. We must not stand idly by!”

Svetlova first became aware of the issue of Jewish cemeteries on a trip abroad. Svetlova, who immigrated from Russia in 1991, and served as a journalist and Arab-affairs analyst for Channel 9, was in Libya in 2005 in the remote town of Zlitan when she discovered “the horrible picture of devastation—broken or absent gravestones” at Jewish cemeteries. “It made me very sad. All we have is a grave. We cannot allow us to forget our past. A person who forgets his past has no future.”

Svetlova is also a member of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, where she initiated the Knesset Caucus for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries Abroad. She says she is proud that the caucus includes people “from all sides of the aisle.”

On the ground in Europe

Beilin says “people are very worried that cemeteries are vanishing. If we don’t save them now, they won’t be there.”

He has seen a shift from the initial work of providing fencing to cemeteries, to “finding those in immediate danger and giving priority to them, even if they are not in the most convenient places.” He estimates that “we have already lost between 4,000 and 10,000 cemeteries.”

Schapira adds that “the Jewish world needs to know how many Jewish cemeteries are disappearing and are at risk of disappearing due to vandalism, and geological and other reasons.”

Beilin and Schapira shared many stories of cemeteries discovered by accident, including a non-Jewish girl riding her bike in a forest and taking a photo of what she thought was a tombstone. Or of local people providing unexpected assistance to the work of ESJF. “People must have seen us working on a cemetery. One week later, we arrived and saw tombstones there which one week earlier had been missing. They must have thought that, if this was so important, we will give back what was stolen,” reports Schapira.

The restored and preserved Jewish cemetery in Frampol, Poland. Credit: Courtesy of ESJF.

The group’s CEO Philip Carmel praises such work. “Rabbi Schapira has succeeded in changing the way we address the issue of Jewish cemetery protection. … He has brought the issue to the level of national governments and pan-European institutions, so that [it] is dealt with not just as an issue of Jewish heritage, but one of Europe’s common heritage. He has achieved this by absolute strength of conviction and by deep personal commitment.”

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich also admires Schapira’s efforts and feels that he is “following the spirit of his father in understanding what it means to fight for Klal Yisrael.” He is impressed with his drive and ability to bring diverse groups of Jews together. “It is about bringing Jews together for kavod hamet, ‘honoring the dead.’ It is important to build a future.”

Even the Queen of England has recognized Schapira for his lifetime of service. In 2013, she bestowed on him the title “OBE,” Order of the British Empire, for, as Schapira humbly reports, “building bridges of friendship between the British government and the Orthodox communities in England and Israel.”

In our two in-person meetings in New York City, Schapira prefers to direct praise to members of his team, especially Carmel, for “his commitment to the project and his unusual capabilities to achieve so much and so efficiently.”

Beilin agrees, saying the CEO is “there on the ground. He is a very important player. He knows the material of cemeteries. He is so dedicated to the work.”

The lifting of the Iron Curtain

“For almost 73 years,” reports Carmel, “the Jewish world has not been able to deal with the protection of these sites for a number of reasons. Firstly, that the priority after the Shoah was rightly to rebuild Jewish life, communities and institutions, as well as a new Jewish state. Secondly, because for most of this time, these abandoned sites, which were home to thriving Jewish communities for hundreds of years, lay behind the [Soviet] Iron Curtain.

“But since that period, resources have tended to go to specific sites, where there is a particular family connection or where a famous personnage was buried. At such sites, one has found a situation where individual demand from the West and readily available resources has met cheap supply of labor and materials in the East. This has pushed up prices, making the overall task of cemetery protection more difficult. That is why the ESJF as a starting point has looked to change this whole methodology—to work in a professional manner under strict processes of contracts and tenders. To reach viable and legitimate costs, enabling the maximization of the amount of sites we can protect.

“The ESJF looks where possible to target sites which are beneath the radar. Some of these places had all their community wiped out; there are no descendants. So these sites are a priority for us, of course, because if we don’t fence them, nobody will. In the major countries where we work, in particular—Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova—probably 25 percent of the sites have already been destroyed. And they are being destroyed by the week. From our mass surveys, we are looking at some two-thirds of all the remaining sites requiring urgent fencing.”

A restored Jewish cemetery in the Serbian town of Bela Crkva. Credit: Courtesy of ESJF.

Schudrich notes that “nothing was possible until 1989 and the fall of Communism. Then, we started working on mikvaot, kosher food, chedersminyanim . . . ”

A mission for the Jewish people

Svetalova relates that she is “very grateful for the work being done in Eastern Europe, and is hopeful Jews from the United States and other places will get involved as they learn more.

“Many American Jews come from Eastern Europe and will be able to relate to the importance of the project,” she says. “There must be cooperation between all sides of the Jewish world. We must try to use all connections in the U.S., Europe and Israel with governments in order to put this project on the map. Time is running out. If we don’t, we will find out it is too late!”

“Going forward,” notes Carmel, “we need to look at this as a mission for the Jewish people that is achievable. All peoples and governments protect their cemeteries. Any American can relate that just by driving up from the South to New York—of how the national government has protected graves in Civil War battlefields for more than 150 years ago. Or the graveyards in Normandy protected by the Allied governments from World War I from 100 years ago.

“As Jews,” he continues, “we have the same basic responsibility.”

Today, he notes, thanks to the work of the ESJF and many others, “we know the numbers, we know the areas of greatest risk, we know the costs, and we know the speed it can be done in. This is no longer a black hole. It can be achieved.”

Schapira reports proudly that “in 2017, we rescued our 102nd cemetery. We have the most wonderful, competent team and can do 300 a year.”

He continues to work tirelessly to make sure it’s not too late, that the work can be accomplished—but, he adds, “only if the Jewish nation worldwide develops a feeling of responsibility and partnership to allow this apparatus to continue operating.”

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