Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News December 2005

December 25, 2005

A Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran

We have just learned that the Iranian alumni of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship organized a mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran this fall, in cooperation with the Teheran Jewish community. Twenty-five young people from all over Iran, including Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz participated. The Teheran Jewish Community provided the accommodations and kosher meals.

The main organizer of the Fellowship, Elham Abai, a twenty-eight year old computer engineer from Teheran, advised us that the inspiration for this incredible event came from the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni - Arash Abaie, Farjad Aframian, Marjan Yashayaei, Naghmeh Aghel, Mahyar Cohenbash, Shahram Shahrad and Elham herself - who participated in Nahum Goldmann Fellowships XII, XIV, and XVI in Sweden, Uruguay and Sweden. Elham is the designer and editor of the Teheran Jewish Community’s website and magazine.

The Iranian program followed, in an abbreviated fashion, the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship model, consisting of lectures and workshops, visits to local organizations and institutions, including the Great Synagogue, and sight-seeing in the old Jewish quarter. Arash Abaie, Marjan Yashayaei and Mahyar Cohenbash also served as faculty. There were also meetings with the leadership of the Teheran Jewish community, with whom the Iranian participants exchanged ideas and discussed communal concerns.

The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture - Iranian Connection

The connection between the young Iranian Jewish leaders and the Memorial Foundation is itself a remarkable story. Sometime during the winter of 2002, after we announced our plans to organize an International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Sweden in August, 2002, we received a communication from the president of the Teheran Jewish community expressing interest in the program, which they learned about from our website.

They advised us that the improved relationship between the Iranian Jewish community and governmental authorities had created conditions that would allow them to participate in an international Jewish cultural event outside of Teheran. They told us they were prepared to recommend several young people as candidates for the Fellowship.

There then ensued a long correspondence mostly dealing with technical details concerning visas and travel arrangements. It was a cliff-hanger until the very last days before the fellowship, when we were able to finalize all the arrangements. I vividly remember the thunderous applause from the other fellows (who had come from nineteen countries around the world) that greeted the three Iranian fellows when I introduced them at the orientation session the first evening of the seminar. The warmth of their initial welcome was maintained throughout the seminar, despite occasional muted differences in political outlook.

They eagerly consumed the cultural content of the program, which like all the other Nahum Goldmann Fellowship programs, was on the highest level, despite what we thought were their cultural deficiencies. We were truly surprised to learn from Prof. J.J. Schacter that at his workshop on Jewish Biblical texts when he began quoting numerous Biblical texts, Arash Abaie, who was sitting alongside of him, was completing them under his breath. Arash, the cultural affairs director of the Teheran Jewish community, is multi-talented Jewishly, teaching religious subjects in the Jewish high school and serving as chazzan at his synagogue.

We learned from the other Iranian fellows that Arash, during Purim, rushes from one synagogue to another in Teheran to assure that all who are interested can hear the reading of Megillat Esther. Arash is deeply committed to the training of Jewish educators and leaders for the dwindling Jewish population in Iran.

Even more ardently, the Iranians sought connections with their counterparts around the world, as well as with the faculty, who all responded in kind. Many warm relationships were established at this fellowship and the subsequent ones in Uruguay and Sweden that continue to this day, sometimes accompanied by various forms of support and assistance.

The integration of the Iranians into the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program has grown progressively. It is expressed in the much more relaxed personal interchanges at subsequent fellowships that would appear remarkable to any outsider.

Two highlights of Nahum Goldmann Fellowship XIV and XVI demonstrate how deeply embedded in the group the Iranians became. At the pre-Shabbat program late Friday afternoon in Uruguay, an Argentinean Ashkenazi, Gabriel Romarowski, was joined by Naghmeh Aghel on her Iranian drum in a moving rendition of the Yiddish folk song about the Sabbath “Oib Ich Volt Gehat Koyach”. The closing banquet reflected the complete fusion of the Iranians into the diverse cultural strands present at the fellowship. Naghmeh, the Iranian drummer, led fellows from France, Argentina and England in an Iranian song and a dance in which a Chinese convert to Judaism, and others joined. Naghmeh is a teacher in the Jewish kindergarten and primary school in Teheran.

In Sweden last summer, Shahram Shahrad was the star on a panel of outstanding Jewish scholars contemplating the role of the Sabbath in contemporary society, with his description of how a Sabbath is experienced in Teheran today. Both his presentation and person were embraced with real affection by the fellows from all corners of the Jewish globe, from Montevideo to Moscow. Shahram, who can trace his family history to Isfahan, the predominant Jewish city in the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, serves as a leader of Gisha, the Jewish youth organization in Teheran and director of its theater group.

The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship has emerged as a small, but critical bridge between young Iranian Jews and the larger global Jewish community.

Most remarkable of all to us is that the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran was the first spontaneous effort by Fellowship alumni in a Diaspora community to replicate what they experienced in their home community. We are working to multiply such similar events in other Jewish communities with Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni.

The Iranian mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is the best demonstration of the potential impact of determined and inspired young Jews and the power that inheres in the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program.

Robert Berman

Another example of the impact of an inspired alumnus of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is Robert Berman, an American who participated in the 10th International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Glamsta, Sweden in August 2001.

A young man with a broad and eclectic range of talents, Robert Berman has been a social activist for many Jewish causes. His most meaningful accomplishment, reflecting his dedication to Jewish values, humanitarianism and social justice, has been as founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS).

Robert Berman became aware of the vital need for Jews to volunteer as organ donors in the late 1990s while working as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem. While researching an article about organ donation in Israel, he learned that in one 12-month period over 100 Israelis died while waiting for organ transplants. In the United States in a comparable year, over 7,000 people died while on the waiting list for organs. He learned very quickly that many Israelis and diaspora Jews were opposed to organ donations because of a traditional Jewish aversion to the procedure, sometimes on halachic grounds.

When he returned to the United States, he enlisted the help of Stephen Flatow, whose twenty year old daughter Alisa had been murdered in a 1995 Palestinian terrorist bombing in the Gaza Strip. Her parents decided to donate her organs while she was brainstem dead and on a respirator, ultimately saving the lives of three people.

Realizing he had to overcome widespread reluctance among Jews generally and Orthodox Jews in particular, Robert solicited the opinions of important rabbis and Halachic authorities in the United States and Israel. As Robert explains, while Jewish law prohibits any derivation of benefit from a corpse, most rabbinic authorities agree that pikuah nefesh, the saving of a human life, overrides most other halachic restrictions.

The halachic dispute with regard to organ transplants revolves mainly around the definition of death, since the optimal time to harvest organs for transplant occurs after brain death, while blood may still be circulating through the body. Once the heart stops beating and blood stops circulating, tissue degeneration often renders organs unfit for transplant. Robert Berman does acknowledge that other respected halachic authorities assert that death occurs only once the heart stops beating.

The Halachic Organ Donor Society, which Mr. Berman established, allows potential organ donors to choose when they would allow their organs to be removed for transplant - after brainstem death, or once the heart irreversibly stops functioning.

Robert Berman, devotes most of his time and energy nowadays to advocating support for organ donation and disseminating information on the religious issues involved. He has truly given expression to the Biblical imperative “Vchay Bahem”, to give life through Torah.

Robby, as he is affectionately known, also deserves a mazal tov on his recent engagement to Miriam Moschytz.

Helmbrecht's Walk

On April 13, 1945, five hundred and eighty Jewish women were forced to march two hundred twenty five miles in twenty-two days from the Helmbrecht’s Labor Camp in Germany to the Czech city of Volary, during which many of them died. Susan Silas, an artist, was able to re-construct the march route with the help of a court transcript of the 1969 trial in Germany of Alois Dorr, a former camp commandant.

On the fifty-third anniversary of this event in 1998, Susan Silas walked the route of the Helmbrecht death march and produced, with the support of the Memorial Foundation, a visual representation, consisting of haunting photos that tell the painful story of a landscape that has forgotten this part of its past. No memorials have been erected along the route of the death march. Helmbrecht’s Walk was exhibited this past November and December at the Kofler Gallery in Toronto.

Susan Silas contends that her work, a visual representation retracing the steps of victims, performed by a secondary witness, can serve as a portable memorial that avoids the problems of large public memorials. The latter allow a certain forgetfulness by becoming repositories for memory that displace the actual memory sites.

In Memory Affects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing, a book dealing with artists born after the second World War who are working in the field of the Holocaust, Dora Apel, its author, believes that Silas' type of conceptual art may be more adequate to the complex task of the presentation of the Nazi genocide, given the post-modernist mistrust of art’s ability to describe the indescribable.

In addition to this exhibit, Susan Silas has also produced, with Foundation support, a CD and Artist’s book dealing with the Helmbrecht’s death march.

Best wishes for a joyous Chanuka.

With warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President