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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News October 2008

October 10, 2008

Three Dutch Jews

Three Dutch Jews – Marianne van Praag, Albert Ringer, and Tamarah Benima – were ordained as rabbis this August at the Levisson Instituut in Holland, an institution opened by the Dutch Reform community five years ago to train rabbis for their community. What is especially gratifying to the Foundation is that all three were Fellows at Nahum Goldmann Fellowships in the first decade of its existence – van Praag in 1987 in the United Kingdom, Ringer in 1991 in Russia, and Benima in 1993 in Russia.

After announcement of their future ordination appeared in the European press, I immediately contacted them by e-mail. All three, as I remembered them as fellows, demonstrated profound commitment to the intensification of Jewish life in their communities and determination for self-growth and personal advancement

I should like here to present their profiles and achievements as examples of the efficacy of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in stimulating and motivating young people to pursue their aspirations and inner dreams as Jews.

Marianne L. Van Praag's journey to the rabbinate appears to be the most straightforward, in comparison with her colleagues. She was teaching in a cheder in Holland when she was fifteen years of age. After she completed Teacher's Training College in Holland, she was awarded a scholarship from the Memorial Foundation to enroll in a one-year program in Israel to prepare community workers for Europe. Subsequently, she received another scholarship from the Memorial Foundation to participate in a training program for educators developed by the Reform Movement in Holland. She then began her formal career as an educator teaching Judaism at the Leo Baeck School, the first and only Reform elementary school in Holland.

In 1987 she participated in the first Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Carmel College in the United Kingdom. She reports that she benefited greatly from the stimulating environment of the fellowship, especially the lectures by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Prof. Arthur Hertzberg. What was most important to her was her personal contact with the faculty. At that juncture in her career she had doubts about her work, feeling that she was not doing enough, that her activities were only marginal. Prof. Arthur Hertzberg who left his mother in law's shiva to attend the fellowship made an especially powerful impression. Although the group was not as large as he usually lectured to, he came to the Fellowship, he said, because one should not aim at large groups, but at reaching individuals. These words inspired her greatly to continue her professional quest.

Finally, her biggest dream came true, an opportunity to study for the Rabbinate. During the five years of her studies, she was again supported by the Memorial Foundation with two scholarships in 2004 and 2006. Marianne is now serving as rabbi in two communities in Holland.

Albert Ringer participated in the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that took place in Zvinigorod, a small provincial town outside of Moscow in 1991. The Fellowship was a memorable one for Albert, which he reports, "affected my life strongly". That Fellowship was the first time young men and women from Western Europe and other Jewish communities around the world could freely travel to the former Soviet Union and meet their peers, from whom they had been separated since the communist revolution in Russia. Fifty Jews from all around the former Soviet Union studied and socialized together at Zvinigorod with fifty young men and women from Jewish communities in Western Europe and others parts of the world.

Several days into the seminar, we learned on the radio that a military coup had taken place against Gorbachev. The news shook both the Russian and other fellows from Western European Jewish communities. The Russian Jews feared that their limited rights, recently achieved, would now be aborted, and their communities would regress to the hard repression of earlier days. Some of the fellows from Western Europe sought to leave Russia as soon as possible. Fortunately, the majority stayed. According to Albert, at that juncture he felt for the first time in his life that he was part of the international Jewish community.

From this experience Albert came to believe that Judaism, "which gave meaning to our past, also does so to our lives, here and now." He saw himself as a link between the Jewish religion and culture and the Jewish community of the Netherlands, most of whose Jews were not connected with any Jewish organization, had no knowledge of the Jewish community and sometimes had negative attitudes towards our faith.

After returning from the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, he undertook an intensive course of Jewish studies and became more involved with the Jewish community in the Netherlands. Five years ago he entered the Levisson Instituut and with the help of two scholarships from the Memorial Foundation in 2004 and 2006 he began to study for the rabbinate. After his ordination he began working as a Jewish chaplain in the Dutch army and is also engaged in pastoral work in the Hague.

Tamara Benima's wish for smicha was buried in her soul for practically all her life, but it was a long road for her to get there. One of the first steps was to become conscious of the fact that she was a "child of triumph". When she asked her father back in the seventies why he had wanted children, he answered, "I wanted a Jewish wife and Jewish children to show the Nazis that they failed." During the first three decades of her life, her major association for Judaism was therefore with the Shoah.

In 1993 she attended the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Zvinigorod and was greatly inspired by her contact with Professors Arnie Eisen and Ruth Wisse. They and the other faculty opened new vistas for her, including a broader appreciation of Judaism and Jewish culture. Subsequently, as a journalist and later editor in chief of the Dutch Jewish Weekly (Niew Israelletische Weekblad), she had the opportunity to become acquainted with other aspects of Judaism, and was especially attracted to Jewish mysticism.

Tamarah will be the rabbi in the synagogue in Groningen, serving the three northern provinces of the Netherlands.

In her report to me, Tamarah concludes that in her rabbinate she will seek to find a connection to the people who search for something beyond the established synagogue and community. "Whether I shall succeed, I do not know. As for now, I feel to be still under the wings of the Schekina, wrapped in a talit of hope, creativity and joy. I am a child of triumph once more, but this time very differently, this time a child of a tradition, holding it, showing it and sharing it with all who want to join with me, with us, with the Eternal One."

Her last sentence marvelously summarizes the spiritual odyssey of these three Dutch Jews. All will certainly make invaluable contributions to the intensification of Jewish communal life in whatever communities they serve. They will be the foot soldiers of the Jewish community in our ongoing fight against assimilation. We are awed by their dedication and commitment in the past, and will certainly share with pride in their future achievements.


The Wandering Jew

We have just successfully completed the first course in the 2008-2009 academic year's series of on-line courses organized by the Memorial Foundation for Nahum Goldmann Fellows all around the world. The course, "The Wandering Jew," led by Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem, a Professor of Jewish Folklore at Hebrew University, focused on the role of the legend of the wandering Jew in Christian society, and how Jews have reacted to, or co-opted, this myth over the centuries. Over 500 Nahum Goldmann Fellows alumni from all around the world enrolled in the course.

The next two courses in the series will be given by Prof. Ada Rapoport-Albert of University College, London on Chasidus and Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University on the American Jewish community.

The six on-line courses offered to date by the Foundation have been successful in reproducing the same quality of academic discourse that we have achieved at the regular Nahum Goldmann Fellowships. They have also enabled the Foundation to stay in contact with the Nahum Goldmann fellows when they return home.

These courses and the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship website are an important step in stimulating a global conversation among the fellows about academic and cultural issues that deepen their connection to each other and thereby hopefully stimulate their continuing involvement and leadership in Jewish life.

Best wishes for a joyous Sukkot.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President