Mission to Berlin and Budapest

Laura Drachler, Marty Haberer, Rich Kasper and Sheryl Press pay tribute to the 5,000 Jewish victims who were brutally murdered and thrown into the Danube between 1944 and 1945.           

Sheryl Press is the director of Campaign & Women’s Philanthropy for Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. She and 10 other Valley Jewish leaders in the community took part in Jewish Federations of North America’s mission to Berlin and Budapest. Here are her reflections on the trip.

Being Jewish in Berlin

A year ago, I was walking in Israel and today I’m walking in Berlin. The year in between has been quite a journey. Last year, Federation and Valley of the Sun JCC sent me to Israel with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. That experience inspired me to shift my career from 20-plus years in public relations to Jewish communal work, and I became Federation’s director of Campaign & Women’s Philanthropy. In this role, I am fortunate to participate in my first mission to see first-hand the work Federation is doing in Germany and Hungary. That I am feeling inspired is an understatement. I am proud to be among our delegation of 10 from the Greater Phoenix area — the largest group of participants on the mission.  

We arrived on Friday and welcomed Shabbat at one of the very few still-standing pre-World War II synagogues in Berlin. Beyond the beauty of the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue sanctuary and the fact that almost every pew was full, the impact of more than 200 people reciting the Shema, Aleinu and kiddush, was incredibly moving. 

I thought about how this congregation was decimated during the war and how it has been rebuilt, returning to the vibrant Jewish community we were privileged to experience that evening. I thought about and honored those who had come before us and took satisfaction knowing that, through our generous donors and the work our partner organizations are doing here on the ground, more and more young people are identifying with and embracing their Jewish heritage, and that they continue to build vibrant Jewish communities throughout Germany.  

In addition to meeting with young adults who have been recipients of aid from our partner agencies, we honored those lives lost in the Holocaust and experienced some of modern-day Berlin. 

Sunday afternoon, while walking through the city, we passed the monument dedicated to the Kindertransport. As a mother of two young children, I cannot fathom sending them off in the hopes of sparing their lives, knowing I would never see them again. But, as we continued to walk proudly with kippot on our heads, it was evident by what we witnessed that Germany fully acknowledges the atrocities of the past and is finding a respectful balance to move forward.  

Next stop: Budapest! 

Discovery in Budapest

We arrived in Budapest and I could not help but compare and contrast it with Berlin. Berlin is a city coming to terms with its past, where its young Jews are figuring out how to incorporate Judaism into their lives. It seems the Jewish young adult community in Budapest is more focused on cultural than religious Judaism, yet is vibrant and optimistic.  

While most American Jews would think it strange to be asked when they found out they were Jewish, for young Jewish adults in Berlin and Budapest, it is common. It made me pause and reflect. I realized that I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was Jewish or when Jewish traditions and rituals were not an integral part of my life. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, it has been and continues to be an intentionally kept secret for many families. But Federation is funding work to change this.

Our group met with Sofie. She works to engage Jewish teens in a Jewish Agency for Israel program. She shared how, when she was younger, one of her teachers referenced a concentration camp. Sofie had never heard about these types of camps so she looked it up online to see if it might be something she would want to experience over summer vacation. Her mother sat Sofie down and explained that they are Jewish and what their family had endured during the war. Sofie now leads a meaningful Jewish life and has encouraged her mother to become engaged as well.  

We also visited Balitz Has, a vibrant JCC in Budapest, which offers engagement opportunities for Jews of all ages. This center is of critical importance here in Budapest and is a fabulous success story of the work being done by our overseas partners, funded in part with the donations so generously provided by our and other Federation communities throughout North America.

I am also proud that our campaign supports our Valley’s local JCCs — true community centers that bring together the Jewish and greater communities, building vibrancy and strength for all. JN