Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community, JDC help flood victims

Members of the tiny Jewish community of Macedonia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee distributed hundreds of aid packages to victims of deadly floods that forced thousands out of their homes in the Balkan nation.

The Joint, or JDC, along with the Jewish Community of the Republic of Macedonia and the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia, created and distributed 1,000 hygiene relief kits throughout the hardest-hit areas, JDC said in a statement last week.

Macedonia, which used to have more than 10,000 Jews before the Holocaust, currently has about 250 of them, according to JDC and European Jewish Congress.

The packages, created at a Jewish community volunteer event on August 14, will help address personal and household hygiene needs, a critical component in flood recovery zones.

Torrential rain and floods in the Macedonian capital have left at least 17 people dead, six missing and sent 60 others to the hospital, authorities said earlier this month.

Koce Trajanovski, mayor of the Macedonian capital, Skopje described the damage as “the worst Skopje has ever seen,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

“Our response puts into action the Jewish teaching that every individual life has value and it is our duty to offer care and relief in in times of disaster, no matter a person’s background or faith,” Alan Gill, CEO of the JDC, said in a statement earlier this week.

The hygiene relief kits distributed included medical soap, disinfection solutions, and cleaning supplies to sanitize homes filled with flood debris. They reached approximately 5,000 people in Stajkovci, Smiljkovci, Brnjarci, Indzikovo, and Chento, JDC said.

Community Briefs

U.S. Theaters Pull Controversial Turkish film
Click on big arrow to see ‘Valley of the Wolves’ trailer

A Turkish film featuring a venal, bloodstained Jewish doctor has been mysteriously withdrawn from screening in the United States.

In “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” American actor Gary Busey portrays a Jewish U.S. Army doctor who cuts out the organs of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison and sells them to wealthy clients in New York, London and Tel Aviv.

A blockbuster hit in its native country, the film had been scheduled to open last Friday at two theaters in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.

However, in early November, “Valley of the Wolves” was quietly dropped from the theaters’ advance schedules.

Gregory Gardner of Luminous Velocity Releasing, a company involved in distributing the film in the United States, said the Turkish producer, Pana Films, had withdrawn the movie without explanation.

Attempts to obtain further information from American or Turkish sources were unsuccessful, but a protest filed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) may have played a role in the cancellation.

In an Oct. 19 letter to Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy in Washington, ADL leaders expressed concern at ”the incendiary anti-Jewish and anti-American themes and characters in the film” and pointed to previous inquiries about the wide availability of anti-Semitic publications in Turkey.

The letter was signed by ADL National Chair Barbara Balser and National Director Abraham Foxman, who did not receive a reply from the ambassador.

The Busey character, listed only as “The Doctor” but clearly identified as Jewish, isn’t even the chief villain. The distinction goes to another American actor, Billy Zane, who plays a rogue American officer and self-professed “peacekeeper sent by God.”

In one scene, the officer and his men shoot up an Iraqi wedding party, killing the groom in the presence of the bride and a little boy in front of his mother.”Valley of the Wolves” was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and has played in theaters in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Bosnia.

According to one Turkish diplomat, who spoke unofficially and requested anonymity, the film became such a hit in Turkey because it is a spin-off from the country’s top-rated TV series of the same title, though the series’ villains are local mafiosos and militant ultranationalists.

The movie is also seen by Turks as payback for the 1978 film “Midnight Express,” in which some Americans and Britons are caught trying to leave Turkey with a stash of hashish, thrown into a hellish prison and viciously mistreated.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Writer

‘Emergent’ Network Could Help Define Synagogue

Christians have their “emerging church” movement that seeks to redefine the traditional church. Now, Jews have an “emergent” network of their own.

A group of mostly young American and Israeli Jewish leaders will start meeting regularly to brainstorm ways of pushing the boundaries of what a synagogue is supposed to be.

The leaders will focus on creating “sacred communities unbound by conventional expectations,” said J. Shawn Landres, the Los Angeles-based research director of Synagogue 3000, the national organization sponsoring the Jewish Emergent Initiative.

The initiative, which includes Los Angeles’ Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, met twice this year in working-group sessions. Now, with more than $300,000 in grants from the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Awards Committee and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the leaders will meet formally twice a year. The next meeting will take place in Simi Valley in January.

The group of innovators will document their efforts so Jewish communities around the world can emulate their work. They will also write essays for a book that will attempt to map the future of Jewish congregational life.

In a separate initiative launched last month, Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing synagogues, introduced the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. The institute’s first report, written by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, draws on data from the National Jewish Population Survey to examine who joins American synagogues and why.

For more information, see

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

Fund Brings Macedonian Mom to L.A. for Treatment

Thanks to contributions to the newly created Rachel Fund of Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, Rachel Razankova, who was suffering from cancer in Macedonia, has arrived in the United States and is now under the care of Dr. Marina VaysburdVaysburd, a hematologist/oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, had been consulting on the case even before the arrival of Razankova, the mother of Beth Emet congregant Roni Razankova. (See “Beth Emet Works to Save a Mother’s Life,” The Jewish Journal, June 9, 2006.) Razankova has now undergone three chemotherapy treatments. Pending an evaluation, she is likely to continue with more, according to her daughter, who lives in Valley Village.

Every other day Rachel Razankova talks with husband, Jordan, who is still in Macedonia, as well as their son, Vanche, 30. Meanwhile, Roni Razankova has applied for a resident visa for her father, a process that takes nine months or longer.

Rachel Razankova grew up a non-practicing Jew, forced to keep her religion secret in communist Macedonia, and she attended synagogue for the first time at Temple Beth Emet on Yom Kippur morning. Beth Emet’s Rabbi Mark Sobel and other congregants warmly welcomed her and presented her with a tallit.

Although weak, she greeted the congregation, gave them handmade crocheted placemats and, in English, which she is learning, said, “Thank you.”

Created to raise money for Razankova’s care, the Rachel Fund has now become a permanent charity at Temple Beth Emet. It will continue to assist her with medications not covered by Cedars-Sinai, but will also be extended to other families affected by cancer.

“No matter what happens, I will for sure continue to raise money for people who are in the same situation as my mother is,” Roni Razakova said.

To contribute to Temple Beth Emet’s Rachel Fund, contact Rabbi Mark Sobel at (818) 843-4787.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer

Sneakers for Mirjeta

During my visit to a refugee camp in Macedonia with a group of 16 American Jews last week, a waif-like girl wearing a dusty black-and-red parka stood on her toes to peer into my notebook.

She was painfully thin, had big black eyes, short black hair and a huge smile. Instinctively, I drew a smile face in my notebook and showed it to her. She took my notebook and pen and began to draw a body on the smile face. With a few strokes of the pen, she drew the figure of me, complete with a camera bag and yarmulke.

I indicated that she sign the picture with her name and age. Mirjeta Bajrami, 14, she wrote.

It was the perfect way to meet across the language barrier that separated us. Mirjeta, like all the Kosovar refugees, spoke Albanian, but she also understood quite a bit of English. Where did she learn it? In school, she told me, and also from her favorite bands, Back Street Boys and Spice Girls.

She told me she was from the village of Seva Reca, a name I knew because it had been the scene of a massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb forces in March. Draw me a picture of the house where you lived, I asked, handing Mirjeta my notebook. She drew a small farmhouse with the roof ablaze and surrounded by soldiers.

My group spent 10 hours that day at Stankovich 1 refugee camp, part of our mission to bring supplies and words of support to ethnic Albanians who had fled the tragic war in Kosovo. We visited with a troupe of amazing Israeli youth volunteers who run an athletic, crafts and music program for the refugee children among the 30,000 souls in the crowded and fetid tent camp. “Our job is to make children smile,” said the head of the program, Azi Rahim. “Nobody else does that.” Our American group brought 32 huge duffel bags stuffed with shoes and toys for the children.

Mirjeta spent the day playing with her friends, but on regular intervals, she would seek me out to draw in my notebook and give me additional details about her life. Her father had died three years earlier in a car accident, leaving her mother with five children. They fled their village with Mirjeta’s aunt and her family after the Serbian assault in March and arrived at the Macedonian border with only the clothes on their backs.

At one point, I asked if I could see Mirjeta’s tent. With a skip in her step, she led me down a dusty road past row after row of army tents, pitched one right next to the other. The stench from overflowing latrines fouled the air. In the doorways of the tents, adults sat, looking bored and hopeless. And there were long lines of people everywhere, at the water faucets, at the hospital, at the mess hall and at the government tents where refugees could register for asylum with different countries.

We arrived at Mirjeta’s tent, a space no bigger than the modest living and dining room in my Manhattan apartment. Inside lived 10 people — Mirjeta’s mother and her five children, her aunt and uncle and their two children. Her mother was not in, but her aunt greeted me and beckoned me to enter. The place was immaculate, with blankets covering the dirt floor and clothes and blankets piled neatly around the perimeter. In one corner were the family’s rations for the day: a few tins of meat, some bread and a bunch of bananas. The aunt bent down, retrieved a can of juice and offered me a drink. Even in such crushing poverty, these people retained their essential human dignity.

On our way back to the children’s program, Mirjeta asked me a question. “Tomorrow?” Yes, I reassured her. My group planned to return to the camp a second day, and I would see her again. She pointed to her feet and, for the first time, I noticed that she was wearing bedroom slippers. “Shoes?” It was the first time all day she asked me for anything. I asked her to take off her slipper. I rubbed the dirt from the sole and uncovered the size: 37. I said I would get her shoes.

When we returned to the children’s area, I marched right to the tent of the Israelis who ran the program. It was there, earlier in the day, that my group deposited our duffel bags of gifts. I started to open them to find the right pair of shoes for Mirjeta, when an Israeli asked what I was doing. “Shoes for a friend,” I said. “You can’t do that,” he told me politely. “You’ll start a riot. You give one, you’ve got to give them all.” He said that the camp officials had a system for dispensing gifts and that those who need shoes would get them.

That night, back in my hotel room in the nearby city of Skopje, I couldn’t sleep. I had shoes. I had a bed. I had electricity and running water. The child that I chose (or had chosen me) to be a symbol of the suffering of the Kosovars had become my conscience. I got out of bed and stuffed anything of value I had into my pillow case: my Dartmouth sweat shirt, three cans of tuna, my towel, my rain poncho, my flashlight. In the bag, I put my business card, circling my phone number in the vain hope that someday Mirjeta would have an opportunity to call me.

When I got off the bus at the refugee camp in the morning, I swung the pillowcase over my shoulder and nonchalantly walked past the barbed wire and Macedonian border guards. Mirjeta and a small band of children were waiting at the gate. I handed her the bag and said, “Tent!” She ran off to bring the goods to her family. I went straightaway to the Israelis’ tent. Luckily, no one was there. I unzipped one of the duffel bags and knocked it over so that shoes began to spill out. I bent down ostensibly to clean them up, furiously looking for a size-37 girl’s shoes. But the sizes on the shoes were American, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. There was no one to ask. I picked up a pair of black suede sneakers that looked like they would fit and snuck them out in a bag, feeling like a smuggler, convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me and my contraband. After a few tense moments, I spotted Mirjeta. She circled around, took the bag and again ran off.

The leader of our group suddenly announced that we were leaving the camp to visit the Kosovo border, just eight miles away. We were told to board the bus. I, of course, wasn’t the only one in our group who had formed a friendship with the refugee children. Others hugged and kissed new friends they made and surreptitiously gave them gifts and business cards. Several of the children started crying, making us wonder if we did the right thing by befriending them. “Maybe we got their hopes up,” we wondered out loud. I stared blankly out the window as our bus began to pull away from the camp. Suddenly, I saw a girl running toward the bus; she was waving, smiling and throwing kisses. It was Mirjeta, and on her feet were the black suede sneakers. I blew her a kiss.

That afternoon, we started on the long drive from the Macedonian capital to Salonika, Greece, where we would catch the flight back to the States. At one point, there was a thunderstorm and lightning and the skies opened up with torrents of rain. Everyone on the bus fell silent. No one had to say it. Our minds all went back to the refugee camp where we knew that the dirt roads were turning muddy and the adults and children were all huddling in their tents, waiting for a brighter day.

Back home in New York, I can’t get Mirjeta out of my head. In the newspapers, there are reports that the refugee camps are slowly being cleared. The Kosovars are being granted asylum in Germany, Austria, Spain and other European countries. Some 450 arrived in the United States for processing at Fort Dix, N.J. I scan the newspaper and television photos for Mirjeta’s face. I know that there is a system for getting the refugees out, but, as I did with the shoes, I don’t want to trust her fate to the system.

The day after I returned, I called Jessica Pearl, the ever-capable information officer for the refugee camp we visited. I wanted to find out if I could sponsor Mirjeta and her family. Pearl put me in touch with Roger Winter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, in Washington, who told me that only family members could be official sponsors, but that if Mirjeta’s family applied for asylum in America, I could help settle them once t
hey are here. I developed my pictures and sent a copy of Mirjeta’s photo to Pearl, who said she would try to locate the girl and tell her to make sure her family applies. Pearl’s task is, literally, finding one in 30,000.

I’ve spoken about Mirjeta’s plight to my family, to my classes at Columbia and to the members of my Manhattan congregation, Ramath Orah. When I tell the story of one child, the story of the faraway Kosovo comes alive for them. They ask, “How can I help?” I pray first for Mirjeta’s safety and second that she contacts me when she is settled, either here or in Europe or, at the end of this terrible war, back at her home in Kosovo. I want to hear from her; I’ve found a lot of people who are willing to help.

Ari L. Goldman wrote this account for The New York Jewish Week.

An Israeli Mission

Soaring above the sea of green and white canvas tents in the dusty, wind-swept Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia are a handful of Israeli flags. It is a jarring sight whose incongruity is compounded by the fact that just a stone’s throw away are the Germans.

Approximately 700,000 Albanians from Kosovo are said to have been uprooted in the past month — and Israel filled a critical void in neighboring Macedonia by setting up an army field hospital for refugees. A second medical facility followed within a week, operated by the German Red Cross.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the two nations most familiar with ethnic cleansing have felt the greatest moral obligation to act. But that they are doing it in tandem has struck an emotional chord in at least one German team member.

“This is so touching for me, as a German, to be working so closely with the Israelis,” said Joachim Gardemann, dean of the nursing school at the University of Munster in Germany. “There are so many historical, diplomatic and ethical linkages here — the Israelis as victims, the Germans as murderers — that it makes me happy for us to cooperate to help a population in danger because of ethnic conflict.”

Indeed, for many Jews, the gut reaction to Kosovo has been one of horror that the world is witnessing yet another attempt at genocide. But Israelis on the ground say they see the situation more clearly.

“That this is happening in Europe, in 1999, is unbelievable,” said Dan Engelhard, a pediatrician and army reservist who also served in Israeli field hospitals in Cambodia and Rwanda. “But you can’t compare this with the Holocaust. No way. The Nazis tried to kill every Jew. However, when we see these pictures of Albanians forced out of their homes and into trains, it certainly reminds us of the Holocaust.”

Imbued with such memories, Israeli rapid reaction to crisis has become a niche of sorts.

In addition to setting up hospitals in Cambodia in 1979 and Rwanda in 1994, Israel sent a rescue team to Kenya after the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last year.

Gardemann, who proudly displays a red Star of David pin given him by his Israeli colleagues, touts them as “world champions” of army field hospitals.

But that is a dubious distinction, indeed. It is a specialty borne out of necessity, say the Israelis, what with so many wars and grisly terrorist acts in the Jewish state’s 51 years of existence.

“One of the greatest things about Israeli society is our ability to improvise and be creative,” said Ron Maor, a 14-year army surgeon who also served in Nairobi. “If something urgent needs to be done, we don’t need a lot of bureaucracy to do it. For a country almost continuously at war, we can’t afford the luxury of being surprised or caught unprepared for any mission.”

By any yardstick, the Israeli reaction to Kosovo was lightning quick. On March 24, NATO launched its bombardment of Yugoslavia — a federation of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. It was aimed at curbing the repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province. In response, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accelerated the emptying of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants had been Albanian. The vast majority of them are Moslem, in contrast with the mostly Orthodox Serbs.

Within days of the air assault, Albanians were on the move en masse, heading mostly south and southwest into the impoverished countries of Macedonia and Albania.

Macedonia, a nation of 2 million, now wheezes under the strain of more than 200,000 refugees, while Albania’s more than 3 million citizens, the poorest in Europe, cope with 400,000 refugees.

It wasn’t long before the flow overwhelmed local authorities and international relief agencies. They appealed for help.

On April 4, the Israeli Cabinet made a snap decision to contribute a field hospital for two weeks, at a cost of roughly $1.3 million.

Two officials from the Israeli Embassy in Athens were dispatched north to Macedonia to lay the groundwork. The next day, the Macedonian officials advised them to set up shop at Stenkovec — 10 miles north of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, but within sight of Kosovo’s snow-capped Shara Mountain range, located 20 miles farther north.

At that time, however, the camp housed only 2,000 refugees. So the Israelis were a bit mystified.

“They assured us that within a week, there would be 30,000 refugees,” said Jacob Dayan, one of the two Israeli coordinators and the No. 2 at the Athens embassy. “But just two or three days later, we were already up to 30,000.”

With a site secured, Dayan gave the thumbs-up to the Israeli Defense Forces. Six IDF cargo airplanes were soon airborne, laden with pieces of the hospital, plus blankets and tents. It arrived on April 6, and the entire Israeli contingent of 80 — including doctors, nurses and medics; some of them army staff, others reserves — worked feverishly through the night, erecting the hospital.

By 2 p.m. the next day, they were open for business.

Working round-the-clock, the Israelis treat about 200 patients a day, including refugees bused in from the 10 refugee camps scattered around Macedonia.

And while the Stenkovec camp itself is wracked with commotion, sunrise to sunset, the hospital compound, set on the camp’s western edge, is almost surreal in its order and tranquillity. Under its drab-green tents, the setting is straight out of the television series “M*A*S*H.”

There is room for 100 beds, and each tent serves a special purpose — emergency room, surgery, X-rays, laboratory, etc. What they lack, the Israelis say, is medicine and facilities to treat chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, epilepsy and diabetes.

But the tent drawing the most attention — including a steady stream of journalists from around the world — is the pediatric ward. As of Sunday, the Israeli team had already delivered 11 babies. Among them is 1-week-old Sara Berisha, whose Albanian Moslem mother gave her a Jewish name out of gratitude to her Israeli doctors.

But that celebration was fleeting. On April 15, twin 3-month-old boys arrived in the camp, suffering severe malnutrition and respiratory infection. Serb forces had flushed them from their homes two weeks earlier, leaving their parents no choice but to hide in Kosovo’s hills. Lacking milk, they were fed only tea and cookies.

They now lie in an Israeli army incubator in critical condition. But they weigh less than when they were born, and their tiny chests heave uncontrollably.

Monitoring their condition is Yael Goldman, a 20-year-old army medic. She also delivered Sara Berisha.

“In Israel, we feel helpless watching this on television,” said Goldman, who is on her first mission abroad. “Jews have been through so much hatred, it’s difficult to watch it happening to others. So when I was given an opportunity to help, I felt I had to do something.”

But there’s just so much she and her colleagues can do. At the Stenkovec camp, busloads of hungry, traumatized Albanians arrive daily. The food line is never less than hundreds deep. Scores of refugees crowd the various message boards, desperate for information on missing relatives.

Making matters worse, there are no portable toilets, only holed-out wood planks across large pits; the scent of human waste pervades the camp. In a murky stream nearby, men bathe, kids swim and women wash clothes.

For now, the weather is still cool, with intermittent rain and sunshine. But as the temperature warms, there will likely be epidemics such as measles, polio and dysentery, said pediatrician Engelhard, a professor at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Macedonian officials and relief agencies have been slow to provide good sanitation and immunization; without it, children in particular are vulnerable to diarrhea, vomiting, and skin infections, he said.

But the Israelis won’t be around to see it. Their two-week mandate expires soon, and they were expected to ship out Thursday.

However, they leave knowing the Kosovo refugees are in good hands — the Germans and a newly arrived team
from Taiwan will take over hospital care.

“These refugees are luckier than my grandparents were in Poland and Hungary during the war,” said Maor, the army surgeon. “When they were thrown into ghettoes, no one cared. At least for the Albanians, there’s an international effort to help them.”