Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

I'm off!

I'm embarking on a week-long lecture tour all across Europe.

When Leah Liberow, who together with her husband heads the European Jewish Study Network, called me several months ago to ask me if I'd do this tour, I agreed without actually realizing what I was agreeing to, nor ever really believing it would materialize.

But here I am, getting ready to leave. I'll be speaking in eight different cities within a seven day period, traversing five countries and passing through several more en route, until my return home next Monday afternoon.

I'm excited, nervous, full of anticipation, and unsure of what to expect.

My flight leaves Toronto at 6:30PM. I won't be sleeping much tonight as I am scheduled to arrive in Zurich, Switzerland, around 8:00AM local time, or 2:00AM Toronto time...Ugh!

My husband and youngest daughter accompany me to the airport. After parking, as we walk to the terminal, my husband notices a sign: Note your zone, remember your location. It is reminding travelers to take note of their zone area and exact parking location, lest they forget it upon their return. But it's also an apt message to keep in mind throughout our life's journey—remember who and what you are, keep in mind where you are going and to where you are heading...

Monday, November 3rd, 8:00AM

Sleepy and bleary eyed, I reach my first stop, Zurich, Switzerland, en route to my first speaking destination, Athens, Greece. From the plane window, I note the tall, majestic Swiss Alps. Though this stop-over is a short one, it is significant for me.

My father was born in Basil, Switzerland, a stone's throw from Zurich. In this country, his family found a haven of safety and security as they, unlike too many unfortunate others, were spared the horrors of the Holocaust.

As we land, I quickly purchase a small souvenir to add to my shelf of souvenirs at home. I feel an indescribable fondness for my father's birthplace, where he, together with most of his ten siblings, spent their calm, early childhood years.


I arrive in Athens, Greece. I try to force my eyes open to view the spectacular scenic countryside—the vast brown mountains and the crowded high rise buildings heavily dotting this city's landscape. Over six million people live in Athens, but only about 3,000 are Jewish.

Rabbi and Mrs. Mendel and Nechama Hendel, shluchim (Chabad emissaries) to Greece, arrived here seven years ago, for the sake of these 3,000 people. Each one of these individuals is to them not a mere number, but a real person, with a story, a history and a connection to Judaism that the Hendels hope to rekindle and intensify.

Aside from the Hendels' personal challenges — learning a new language, culture and becoming acclimatized to a new country far away from friends and family — their task is a difficult one. As in many small Jewish communities the world over, assimilation here is rampant. The local Jewish school accepts children of families where at least one parent is Jewish; unfortunately the norm here for many families. When her child's school mate has the Greek surname "Stephanopoulos," Nechama explains, this means that the mother must be Jewish, but a surname like "Cohen" may be questionable.

For Nechama and her husband another daunting challenge is the difficulty of raising their family in an environment so different—and so sparse in Judaism—compared to their own upbringing. Nechama, from France, and Mendel, from Israel, grew up surrounded by family and friends leading lives similar to their own. But for their three children in Greece, life is very different.

As soon as my plane had landed in Athens, I noticed a parked plane on the runway, marked with the bold and proud words, "Hellenic Emporium." It brought my mind back to my history lessons back in grade school, where we went back thousands of years in time learning about the Greek and Hellenistic culture. The miracle of Chanukah was not only the victory of the small, Jewish army of Maccabees against the great Greek Empire and the ensuing small cruse of oil miraculously burning for eight days. But more significantly, it was a war of ideology, a fight for the very survival of the Jewish people—preventing the forces of the Hellenistic culture from pervading and extinguishing the Jewish flame of existence by enticing the small Jewish nation to be swallowed up and assimilated within the greater whole.

It was the small, flickering flame of Jewish faith that overcame and burned brightly, surviving and even flourishing, despite being surrounded by the darkness of the encompassing culture.

And, on a different level, Nechama and her husband are on the front lines facing this battle today, daily.