Thankful Kosovar Refugees Leave Israel for Home

Never in his wildest dreams did Astrid Kuci believe that he would fall in love with Israel. In fact, he hardly knew anything about Israel.

“I used to know that you are a country in the Middle East which is constantly in a state of war with its neighbors. I used to think of you in terms of a large military camp,” he said.

Ironically, it was war — in his native Kosovo — that brought Kuci, 24, to Israel.

He had just two months to go before completing his dental studies at the University of Pristina when Serbian forces moved in last April and forced thousands of Kosovar Albanians out of the province.

Driven from his home, he worked with an Israeli medical team that had been dispatched to the Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia. He later found himself among the 217 Kosovo refugees who received temporary shelter in Israel.

When Israeli officials first issued the invitation, they had a difficult time finding any Kosovars willing to fly to the Jewish state. Germany and the United States were far more popular havens.

On Wednesday, 145 of the refugees were scheduled to return home — all of them now enthusiastic friends of Israel.

“All that they told me in Stenkovec about Israel is true,” said Kuci, as he was escorting a group of refugee children Tuesday aboard a bus making a farewell tour of Tel Aviv. “I was lucky twice during the war. Once, that my home in Pristina was not destroyed, and, then, that I had the opportunity to get to know Israel.”

Israel’s Kosovo refugee aid project was launched last Passover at the initiative of Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The agency was also responsible for sending to the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia an airlift of 12 planes loaded with humanitarian aid.

Following the successful absorption of refugees from Bosnia seven years ago, the government decided to take in Kosovar refugees as well. A first group of refugees landed in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael on April 12. On May 26, another group was absorbed at Kibbutz Kramim.

Along with the Kosovars, Israel also absorbed some 274 Jews from elsewhere in Serbia. Most of them have returned home, but some 95 made aliyah. A group of 40 young Serb Jews now stay at the youth villages of Hadassah Neurim and Ibim in the Negev.

Seventy-two of the Kosovars — six families — have not yet returned home. They are planning to remain for the full six months that were granted them by the government and are expected to go home in October.

During the Kosovars’ stay in Israel, two children were born — Kosovar “sabras,” as native-born Israelis are called.

Kuci came here with his entire family — his parents, a brother and sister. During their stay, his brother, Pritom, fell in love with an Israeli army officer. Astrid reserved his love for the country itself.

“I traveled from place to place, from Eilat to Tiberias, from Haifa to Jerusalem. I just could not get enough. I had never imagined that the country was so beautiful, the people so nice.”

During their stay, the refugees worked on the kibbutzim and also went on cross-country tours hosted by the Jewish Agency. Some learned Hebrew in the kibbutzim; extra classes were given to the children.

Initially, the plane bringing the Kosovars home was scheduled to leave Monday for Skopje, Macedonia. But the plane needed to fly over Egyptian air space, and Egypt refused permission.

“An hour before we were to board the plane, we were notified that the flight was postponed for two days,” said Astrid Kuci. “It was very, very disappointing. I so much wanted to go home.”

To make up for the delay, Israeli officials gave the Kosovars a farewell trip to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

“I am very excited to return home, but I am also very sad. I will miss Israel,” said Kuci, who then offered a comment that would be music to the ears of those Israelis who have grown weary of the decades of tensions with their Arab neighbors: “For the first time in my life, I felt peace.”

Kuci, who described Israel as his “second home,” also found a second family during his stay.

When the first group of Kosovars arrived in Ma’agan Michael, the local newspaper in neighboring Zichron Ya’akov published an advertisement urging local people to contribute donations to the refugees.

Shelli and Avi Mautner of Zichron Ya’acov went to the kibbutz with a parcel of donations and began talking to the refugees. First, they met Pritom Kuci, then Astrid. They invited the young Kosovars home and have been in touch ever since.

“They are like family to us,” said Avi Mautner.

Astrid Kuci echoed the sentiment. “They helped me; they comforted me at a time of distress. Without them, I would not have managed.”

Before leaving Israel, each of the Kosovars was given financial aid to ease their return home. Every adult received $200, every youth $100 and each of the infants got $30.

The aid came from public contributions made at the beginning of the temporary resettlement effort.

Astrid Kuci, who radiates so much love toward Israelis, possesses a far different sentiment for his Serb neighbors in Kosovo.

“One day they were friends; the next day they turned enemies,” he said. “No, I am not ready to receive them again as neighbors. Not now, at least. Perhaps in the future.”

Always, The Next Generation

I suppose it comes under the heading of accident and happenstance, but the response last week of The Jewish Federation to the plight of the Kosovar refugees seems to me very much on target. The Federation’s staff and leaders acted quickly and effectively. There was relatively little bureaucracy to be seen, though considerable work and planning was conducted behind the scenes by a hard-pressed staff. To their credit, they found ways for volunteers to reach out a helping hand. The whole, improvised effort offers a useful window from which to view the future.

That future, it should be emphasized, is in need of change. It seems clear, for example, that The Federation will have to market itself to many small and diverse groups. At the moment one idea calls for local Federations to align themselves with a growing number of synagogues, many of whose new members are searching for ways to renew a Jewish identity in America.

Presumably the different community Federations will have to expand some of their current mechanisms — e.g. the women’s and men’s divisions focused on fundraising — and introduce additional programs that involve families working together. A Federation initiative in Los Angeles aimed at helping schoolchildren learn to read might be ideal here. It is currently in the planning stage and will require volunteers — maybe (a suggestion here) husbands and wives and teen age offspring could all participate, though not necessarily together. There are also other possibilities: Study groups, forums, challenges to the ways in which we relate to one another, as well as to the wider roles we might play in a non-ethnic America; these are all ideas “out there” for The Jewish Federation to test and sample.

This of course barely scratches the surface. The hopeful side in all of this is that national leaders within The Jewish Federation movement recognize the organization must change if it is to survive into the next century. A structural reorganization on the national level has already taken place, with empowerment now delegated to the local communities, whereas in the past it resided with the UJA, the UIA and the national Council of Jewish Federations.

The problem here is that organizational readjustments touch only those who are already committed; that is, members of the Federation bureaucracy and lay leaders, rather than the large majority who still are seen as indifferent. It is in fact a realignment primarily for the current players, without reaching many of those who continue to remain outside The Federation world.

The Federation is still burdened then with a narrowing base of constituent-contributors; still confronted with an older generation of leaders who are beginning to retire, with fewer successors at hand; still competing for who often turn looking to all sorts of American organizations — Ivy League universities, museums and hospitals, libraries and education programs. Nor are they interested in merely donating money. Many wish to participate; others want to connect with their Jewish roots, hidden from view until recently.

What united Jews in the past generation was a set of commonly shared experiences and perceptions: Of struggling in an America that was anti-Semitic; of remembering images of a Europe callously indifferent to their fate; of recognizing that many who died in the Holocaust were relatives, often unknown but talked about by parents who had been bold and fortunate enough to have fled Europe in an earlier day. Their outlook stemmed from the world they knew in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; even in some cases, on into the 1960’s.

Their success today looks like the American dream come true. And their contributions, their shaping of The Jewish Federation these past decades as a way to help large numbers of other Jews should not go unremarked: They were instrumental in assisting those in need here; in Israel; and in other parts of the world (e.g. Russia, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, the Balkans) who were oppressed and/or discriminated against.

But I believe The Federation served another purpose as well. It became a way for many of these benefactors to reify their identity as Jews. In some cases they had discarded the more traditional forms of observance in their daily lives, had moved away from the rituals of Judaism. That had been their ticket of admission to America. In The Jewish Federation movement they discovered a way to knit past and present together.

Ironically, one result of the philo-Semitic America that has emerged these last two decades has been that many younger Jews do not feel the need to become active within Jewish organizations. The rallying cry of anti-Semitism, the images of the Holocaust are less effective today, even as knowledge of survivors and victims who perished becomes more familiar and widespread. These after all are young men and women unfamiliar with the Second World War, and with no recollection of a time when Israel did not exist.

I realize as I write these words that there is a personal subtext present for me. I remember, as though it were yesterday, meeting my father years ago for lunch in New York. It was, as they say, another time and another place. And a different America. We talked about friends and relatives; about his and my summer plans; about my recent honeymoon; things like that. Then in a shift that caught me unaware, he invited me to join his men’s club.

It actually was part of a large national fraternal order, with a philanthropic core at its center. But in reality it served as a social club for him and his friends, all of whom had been president at one time or another, and who acted as the organization’s power brokers. Now that you’re a married man and so an adult, he began, warming to his favorite theme, well, maybe almost an adult, perhaps I should put you up for membership. It was said casually, almost as a throwaway line. Who knew, he joked, ten or fifteen years down the road I too might become the presiding officer.

There was one problem: I did not want to belong. It was his world… and it reflected attitudes and a style that I associated with his America, not mine. And I would always be viewed as his son there. I tried to decline gracefully, murmuring regrets and seeking to buy time: I was newly married; there was the press of work and career; not possible at the present moment. We both put a good face on it. Two years later my father was dead.

I wish I had been able to see more clearly those many decades ago when I turned down my father. I am not sure I would have behaved differently. But I would have liked to have shared some of these thoughts with him. I suspect he would have found a way to bring us together. — Gene Lichtenstein

Swift Response

With echoes of the Holocaust and pogroms haunting a collective conscience, the Jewish community in Los Angeles has mobilized forces to come to the aid of Kosovar refugees left homeless and hungry by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Schools, synagogues and organizations have moved into action over the past few weeks, putting aside political opinions and historical complexities to send basic necessities — food, shelter, medicine — to the sea of ethnic Albanian refugees flooding Albania and Macedonia.

About $100,000 has come out of Los Angeles to support the Joint Distribution Committee’s operations in the region, according to John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation. About $50,000 came through the Federation, while he estimates another $50,000 went directly to JDC, which is set up to provide food, clothing, shelter and medicine for the masses of refugees as well as for the Jewish residents of the area.

The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation energized the fund-raising with an initial donation of $10,000 from a disaster relief fund. Other donations began to flow after the Federation also asked the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to urge its 250 member rabbis to appeal to their congregations.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance announced last week that it has purchased a mobile medical unit equipped to aid 54,000 refugees, along with enough money to support four months of operation.

“It is impossible for an institution such as ours to remain indifferent to the plight of tens of thousands that have been driven from their homes and seen their lives destroyed,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, which is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and defense of human rights.

The brutal imagery so familiar to the Jewish community — convoys of refugees, families separated, villages burning — has been a major force behind the emotional response.

Still, many are wary of drawing parallels to the Holocaust, saying that the Kosovo crisis does not compare to Hitler’s attempt to systematically annihilate a people.

But Hier says the question is irrelevant, that with such a massive humanitarian crisis at hand, there is no room for such debate.

“This is not a question of whether or not the tragedy of Kosovo equals Auschwitz,” Hier said. “Nobody can say Auschwitz and Kosovo are one and the same.”

But, he says, no matter the intensity of the persecution, our history and tradition call upon us to act. “We ought to protest it and do what we can to alleviate suffering.”

Whatever the degree of similarity to the Holocaust or pogroms, the Jewish community clearly empathizes with the Kosovars, collectively cringing at the eerily familiar scenes in refugee camps and border crossings.

The fact that the crisis coincided with Yom Hashoah, when the always-present impact of the Holocaust is brought into sharp focus, seems to have further cemented that empathy.

At the community Yom Hashoah commemoration in Pan Pacific Park last week, several speakers took the opportunity to encourage the Jewish community to act.

Many rabbis also used the Yizkor appeal on Passover — a time when victims of the Holocaust are remembered by family members — to appeal to congregants to support the refugees.

At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, congregants responded generously and immediately to Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ appeal, plunking down $6,000 the next day, with more to follow.

“They understand the language of sealed box cars, and the homelessness and hunger that people are experiencing,” Schulweis said.

Students at Milken Community High School evoked those images at a town meeting about the Kosovo crisis. Candles lined the auditorium aisles, and students wore blue ribbons to show solidarity with the refugees. Several students walked across the stage, stopping in the middle to give their personal reasons for supporting the refugees.

“I do this for my grandfather who died in concentration camp,” one said. “We do this so no child will be forced to leave his hometown,” another said.

According to Laurie Bottoms, director of General Studies at Milken, the tone of this town meeting was set by the students. Since a town meeting a few weeks ago about the history and geography of the Balkans, many students seemed to have internalized the crisis, relating it to the Holocaust and pogroms, Bottoms said.

While some students expressed ambivalence about the military action, all were ready to donate their lunch money or allowance to support the refugees.

The students sent around plastic bags to collect donations, and about 20 bags came back stuffed with dollar bills, Bottoms said.

Many synagogues have taken a similar tack, holding educational forums and, at the same time, soliciting funds for the refugees.

Adat Shalom in Westwood held an informational panel last Shabbat, dealing in part with the fact that it was the Serbs who helped the Jews during the Holocaust, while the Kosovar Albanians aligned themselves with Germany.

The forum, said Rabbi Michael Resnick, aimed to help congregants wrestle with the issues when “we are faced with a humanitarian crisis where the people being persecuted were not friends of the Jews 50 years ago,” he said. At the same time, the response to the humanitarian crisis must be decisive, he said.

In addition to the funds he solicited in a personal mailing to congregants, he is hoping his congregation will be able to adopt a refugee family.

Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom, has little patience for those in the Jewish community who look to the history of the Kosovars during World War II to justify inaction.

“That is in fact visiting the sins of another generation upon this generation, and it seems to me we have long ago overcome that,” Schulweis said. “There is nothing in our history or tradition that would countenance that kind of rationalization.”

Rather, he said, World War II history indicates that this is a time for action, and for the Jewish community to support that action.

“My hunch is that those of us who remember the frustration that we experienced in the 1940s when Allied bombers did not rip up the railroad tracks to Auschwitz… are especially appreciative of what the NATO countries are doing.”

The American Jewish Committee has taken ads in major international papers expressing just that idea.

“When history asks who stood up to evil in Kosovo, the answer will be: NATO,” a bold headline reads. The ad, part of an international educational campaign to garner support for NATO, also acknowledges Serbia’s history, stating Milosevic has “led Serbia to betray its proud anti-Nazi legacy.”

“The American Jewish Committee feels strongly that what is going on in Kosovo isn’t about oil or commerce or trading routes or anything. What is at stake here are basic principles like human rights and human dignity,” said Rachel Devon Schwartz, who is in charge of the international portfolio at the West Coast office of the American Jewish Committee.

The ads and a mail campaign have helped raise $500,000 for the AJC’s Kosovo Relief Fund, Schwartz said.

Apart from raising money, many in the Jewish community are raising their voices in prayer.

At Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, Rabbi Yehoshua Berkowitz recited a “Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for well-being, for the three American soldiers captured by the Serbs, as well as for the refugees. Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Cunin, director of Jewish Studies at Milken High School, led a prayer group for students, taking his cue from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a piece titled “Pray to be Shocked.”

“One of the purposes of prayer is to overcome a certain lethargy, to break through the everyday,” Bernat-Cunin said.

“Different people are revolted by different things, and at a certain point you just shut down, you can only handle so much. And yet on the other hand it’s a challenge to try to be open and receptive and responsive and empathetic,” Bernat-Cunin said, citing Heschel. Adults as well as students, he said, need to look inside and “be responsible for as much as you
can handle.”

Donations to aid refugees can be sent to:

JDC — Kosovo

Relief Fund

711 3rd Ave.

10th Floor,

New York, N.Y. 10017.