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New Year’s journey starts with local heroes
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New Year’s journey starts with local heroes

Ann was just a child. She was 10 years old when the Germans came. Her home was burned down in front of her eyes. “One house after another went down in flames,” she said. “We didn’t know where to turn.”

She hid in an attic above a brewery. The Nazis captured many members of her family and massacred them in a field. She and a few others were put on a cattle car to be sent to a camp. But Ann and her mother jumped out and fled for the woods. 

Amazingly, she was reunited with her sister, brother, and father, who had also jumped from the moving train. The family joined the Bielski partisans in the Belarussian forest. “We had to build our own shelters, and food was scarce, but our will to survive was so strong,” she said. “We hoped and prayed that we would be liberated.” After spending two years in hiding with the Bielski brothers, they were liberated by Russian soldiers in December 1944.

If you’ve seen the movie Defiance, you’ve seen Ann’s incredible true story. 

There aren’t enough Jewish heroes. We should find more of them. But I met with 70 of them the other day, including Ann Monka of Montville, at the Cafe Europa program run by our Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. Cafe Europa is an incredible program — an informal, relaxed group for survivors to meet, chat, eat, and learn new things. The day I was there we sat and listened to a presentation about Israeli music. My colleague Randi Brokman (from Greater MetroWest’s Israel Program Center) and I sat happily singing along to the classics, sometimes continuing on after the songs finished. 

JFS of MetroWest and JFS of Central NJ have set a national standard for the design and programming of Cafe Europa. Like so many things they do, it’s successful because of their volunteer and professional leaders. You can see their love, their dedication, and their care when you go to this amazing place.

And you can meet Ann Monka, who lives here in our community. Ann’s grandson is now a lone soldier, serving in the Israel Defense Forces. 

I was humbled meeting with her, just as I was humbled when I met with parents of lone soldiers from our community a few weeks ago. Just as I’m humbled, in my synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to be part of a 3,000-year-old tradition. Just as I am humbled — and grateful — to be sending a message to the community as CEO of one of the most incredible federations and communities in the country.

I’m going to go back to visit Café Europa shortly. We need more mini-missions to see this program. We need more mini-missions to see lots of the programs and projects run by our community, to remind us of what we do and why we do it. If you need some inspiration, if you need to meet some incredible people who will lift your soul…if you need to remind yourself what a Jewish community is and stands for…come with  me. Let’s go together.

L’Shana Tova Tikateivu – may you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of joy, good healthy and prosperity.

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