Blog: AJC NJ Day to Day

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The Art of Blending Cultures--Siona Benjamin and the B'nai Israel Jews of India
Amy Hollander, Assistant Director, AJC New Jersey

Last night I attended an event at the Indian Consulate featuring the art work of Siona Benjamin an Indian Jewish artist originally from Bombay, India.  The event featured a screening of a rough draft of a documentary about Siona’s work and her heritage as a member of the 1,000 year old B’nai Israel Jewish community In India.  Siona calls her art work transcultural, saying that as a Jewish woman of color, her work blurs the boundaries between the different cultures that make up who she is.

 At the end of the program during the Q & A Siona was asked about her opinion of the fighting that was happening in Israel and Gaza.  She spoke about what a painful topic this was for her saying, “Through my art in my own little way even though it is only a drop in the ocean, I hope that I can make images that can contribute to some kind of realization or peace or love.  There is nothing else I can do.  I would love them to live together because they are step brothers and sisters.  I don’t want to say it gives fuel to my art, but it gives more meaning for me to do more of it.”

I was not alone in representing AJC New Jersey at this event, having gone with a dozen lay leaders from our Metro, Central and Bergen regions many of whom are involved in our Indian-Jewish outeach.  I was not the only one who was impressed with Siona’s work. 

Jeff Boyarksy, a new AJC Central Board member and an active member of our newly formed Hindu-Jewish Coaliton, had this to say:

”I also learned that Jews were trading in spices, gems and wares as well as living in India thousands of years ago which makes a lot of sense given the fact that Jews and Hindus have a great deal in common (teaching each other for many years Kabbalah or Hinduism) and given that India is a country that never treated Jews any different than their own.

In Siona’s film, in particular, the image of an Elephant with bodies within it reminded me of the fact that Elephants are an endangered species and being attacked and killed and their land taken away.  Sounds familiar.

While reading The Secret, The Way, Becoming Like God, The 72 Names of God by Michael and Yehuda Berg, I learned a concept that we will keep coming back until we get it right (like Groundhog Day, the movie). I asked my Rabbi, Eric Wisnia about the concept and he said it sounded more like Hinduism.

One day I asked Rabbi Eric if there is a life after death. He said he did not believe so. I suggested that there is proof.  He thought for a moment, and knowing that a big part of my financial work is life insurance and legacy planning.  He then said you mean those that will survive us.  I just smiled and knew we were on the same page. He said this is more like what the readings in the Old Testament are telling us to consider.  To take care of those that will still be here.

I was going to speak with Siona but did not have a chance because of the line of people waiting, and a train schedule to NJ. Being a Board member of the Hindu Jewish Coalition, I am dedicated to attaining meaningful results for the benefit of members and society in general.

On the way to catch a cab I waited under an awning sheltered from the lightning bolts and very loud thunder. The man next to me asked if I was at the event with Siona. I looked at him and realized this was an Indian man dressed in orthodox Jewish garb (Talit) and a business suit like mine. He proceeded to take a cell call from his wife and he spoke in Yiddish. He explained that he was a professor of finance at a NY university. I explained that finance is the work I have done for 37 years, but directly with business owners and other wealthy people.  I discussed briefly the Hindu Jewish Coalition. He was fascinated.  He did grow up in India.  His English was perfect and without an accent.  He did not have cards and a cab opportunity was approaching. I gave him my contact info and he said he will be in touch.

I hope he contacts me.”

Panel discussion following the film screening with Siona Benjamin (holding the microphone) 

Date: 7/24/2014
At Solidarity Rally AJC Goldman Fellow Takes a Stand For Israel
Molly Fisch-Friedman, AJC New Jersey Goldman Fellow

We’re now in Week 3 of Operation Protective Edge.  Tensions have been running high in the press and on social media.  There’s been name-calling and numbers-throwing.  And there’s been far too much death and destruction all around.
Here at AJC, we’ve been working hard to support Israel’s right to defend its citizens from terrorism and to work toward a ceasefire agreement.  We secured statements from Senators Menendez and Booker strongly condemning Hamas and its actions, and we thanked them for their sponsorship of Senate Resolution 498, which reaffirms the Senate’s support of Israel.  We also co-sponsored rallies in the Metro and Central regions in conjunction with the local Federations.  I was fortunate enough to attend both rallies, and because the Central region is my home base, I had the opportunity to speak at the Central rally as a “Voice of the Community.”
But before I talk about the Central rally, let me tell you about the Metro rally.  Over 700 people gathered at the Federation in Whippany, and it was standing room only.  We heard from three incredibly powerful speakers, Senator Menendez, Congressman Lance, and Consul General Ido Aharoni, who reaffirmed their support of the state of Israel and its right to self-defense, expressed condolences for all of the innocent civilians and IDF soldiers who lost their lives, and brought the crowd to standing ovations for their powerful condemnations of Hamas’ terrorist destruction.  All in all, I’m very glad that I was able to attend the rally because it was a fantastic expression of solidarity with Israel.
The same expression of solidarity was seen at the Central rally, held later the same night at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.  There were around 450 people there, and we heard from community rabbis and from the Deputy Consul General in Philadelphia, Elad Strohmayer.  He shared a moving personal story of his brother, who is in the IDF reserves, and how the sirens and the threat of rocket fire are especially terrifying for him and his family.  Mr. Strohmayer also stressed that it is not just our right, but our obligation to defend Israel from terrorism, a statement that drew tremendous applause from the audience.
One of the unique pieces of this rally was the fact that the audience heard from “Voices of the Community.”  10 of us, Jews and non-Jews, gathered on stage to share why we stand with Israel.  The panelists included leaders in the Christian community, a New Jersey member of the IDF reserves, Senator Linda Greenstein, an AIPAC past president, a member of the Hindu Jewish Coalition, the Religious School Director at the Jewish Center, and me.  I was thrilled to be able to tell the audience why I stand with Israel, as a student, as a young Jew, and as AJC’s New Jersey Goldman Fellow.  And in case you missed it, here’s what I said:
“Last summer I had the opportunity to travel to Israel on Birthright, and it was an eye-opening experience.  The land is breathtaking, the food is delicious, and the people have a spirit that is so unique to Israel.  In talking with the soldiers on my trip, they told me that they loved Israel with a deep passion, and they were incredibly committed to defending Israel and promoting peace.
And so am I.  I want to see peace and justice in the Middle East.  I want to see an end to violence, to death and destruction.  But I also know that Israel is facing unparalleled danger, and I want to see Israel survive and thrive.  I want to know that the friends I have in Israel from my Birthright trip and beyond are safe from the threat of terrorism.  And I want Israel to continue to be the Jewish homeland for our people, and a homeland for all of the peoples of the world.  That’s why I stand with Israel."
I am proud that I was able to stand before that crowd and show my support for Israel.  With everything that’s been going on, it’s so important for us to let Israel know that we have its back.  Not everyone has the opportunity, like I did, to speak at a rally.  But each of you can play a role in building support for Israel.  So I am asking you to attend one of these rallies (including a rally being held Thursday night the 24th in Bergen County) and show that there is power in numbers.  Write letters to your Senators and Congressmen, thanking them for supporting resolutions that uphold Israel’s right to self-defense and condemn Hamas’s terrorist actions (Senate Resolution 498 and House Resolution 657 passed unanimously this month).  And perhaps the easiest thing you can do is talk to your friends and family.  Tell them that Israel needs to be able to stop terrorist attacks and rocket fire onto its soil.  Tell them that Israel has an unquestionable right to exist as a country, even though Hamas’ charter denies that.  And tell them that you stand with Israel.

Date: 7/22/2014
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