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Norwood Trek 2015: Sudetes

Norwood Trek 2015: Sudetes

I was standing in a group of 40 in the mountains on the Polish-Czech border. We were saying the prayers to bring in the day of rest in the Jewish calendar, Shabbat, but the group was only about 50% Jewish. There were Muslims and Christians and a Hindu, not just from London, but from Ireland, Latvia, Czech Republic, Israel, Malta, the United States and Poland too. Ian Fagelson, who inspired the event, introduced the Jewish traditions by talking about the attempt by the Nazi’s to kill off the Jews in this area, but here we were still standing.Shabbat Dinner

Our group didn’t just contain Jews that would have been killed by Hitler, but we also had a couple of the service users of Norwood, handicapped but “highly functioning”, they still would be considered by the Nazi’s as too different and hence would have been sent to the gas chambers too. It was poignant on this trip to also respect the American traditions of the 4th July and discover more things about the Hindu and Muslim traditions.

There was no prejudice here, no preaching about how “our way is better than yours”, simply respect of others.

We spent 3 solid days hiking up to the top of the hills, along the plateau with some stunning views, and then down across the border into a valley to stay for the next night. On a trip like this you get to speak to people from all walks of life: there were innovators in business, technical strategists, business consultants, lawyers, charity workers, event coordinators, doctors and inspirational care workers who would take on the physical challenge whilst helping the service users for the rest of the day, ready for anything 24/7.

Stunning Views

For me it was a time to decompress from staring at a screen all day. It was a time to reflect on life, on love and to contemplate the bigger picture rather than focusing on day to day tasks. Whilst in the mountains for 10 hours a day hiking you are more open to share your life with your fellow ramblers. Immediately friendships are made as you learn the details of other’s lives in a relaxed environment; somewhere you feel you can share everything.

The people on the trip are outgoing enough to make the time and effort to fundraise, to travel somewhere new; they are adventurous enough to take part and are therefore incredibly interesting to talk to.


Hiking up a hill

You are told about other’s experiences, what they chose to do in life, what they are doing now and what they plan to accomplish in the future. With a diverse mix, you really get to experience the paths you haven’t yet walked (pun intended). People are relaxed to share their failures too, not just their successes and you have enough time to go into detail to learn what to do and what not to do.

Not only this, but it is wonderful to see the service users experiencing life and travel. Not so long ago and without services like Norwood, these people would have little chance to explore the world, let alone take on a physical challenge like this.

I highly recommend a Norwood challenge like this – something to perhaps take you out of your comfort zone. In fact, if you don’t enjoy it then I will give you your money back!

Life is made up of experiences, and if you haven’t experienced anything, you haven’t lived!

World Jewish Relief: The Ukraine and an Orphanage in Belarus

World Jewish Relief: The Ukraine and an Orphanage in Belarus

Just over a year ago, in 2012, my father and I had an extremely moving trip to Krakow and Auschwitz in Poland, combined with tracing our family history to Kiev and Chernigov in the Ukraine. We travelled with World Jewish Relief; a charity that support Jewish communities around the world – particularly in Eastern Europe.

During this trip we tried to imagine the terror and horror of the concentration camps; and the less well known ditches of bodies that have just been buried over with no suitable memorial. These ditches exist in every town around these areas where between 50-80% of the population was Jewish before the war only to be completely wiped out throughout the Shoah. This was contrasted with today’s Jewish life, where communities (albeit much smaller) sing and dance together in the Heseds (Jewish Community Centres).

The memorial for the ditch where eighty thousand were killed and buried over
The memorial for the ditch where over a hundred thousand were killed and buried over

I cannot express how valuable this trip was to me and how much it gave me a deeper perspective on life. Reading about the Holocaust and hearing stories is nothing compared to actually visiting. Many friends won’t visit these areas because they have a fear of being upset. This is a sad excuse; I believe you grow stronger emotionally when put in these circumstances. Also these trips needs to be done to remember the 6,000,000+ Jews who perished in the Shoah. To not visit is close to forgetting, and it was only 60 odd years ago now… I have a resolution for this year to get as many people as I can on at least a day trip to understand.

Remembering those killed
Remembering those killed

However seeing the current lives that are thriving in a Jewish community is a moving contrast.

My father and I both made an observation that the people supported by the charity need to be supported in more than just a “give presents to” kind of way. Instead: Teach a man to fish… etc… WJR agreed with this aspect and Dad has therefore committed funds for 3 years for a project that we both have input into.

There is no better way to check on a project (whether a business investment or charitable donation) than seeing it in action; so we made a similar trip this year to the Ukraine for this WJR project. Combined with this we went on to Belarus where Dad has supported an orphanage that he hadn’t visited.

First we visited Lviv, which is again another lovely European city much like Krakow – despite the poor attitude from the locals because perhaps we were Jewish? Or just foreign? I don’t know.

We visited the “warm home” aspect of the WJR project where the pensioners of the community would now meet together, instead of having one on one chats with councillors once a week, taking it in turns to make cakes/food and host their apartment to these gatherings. A small amount of funds would be given to contribute to the refreshments; but it gives all the participants something to look forward to, and something to be proud of when others come to their home. The group we visited were a lively bunch with different backgrounds. Some had recent hardships with partners passing away but they were part of this support group where they could meet their friends and new people.

Warm Home Group
Warm Home Group

The Hesed community centres are a hugely important part of the work done here. Acting as a place for people to meet, to sing together, to talk, to laugh. We saw a fantastic group of singers who were a mix of a young and an old generation, singing and playing music all together. This was extremely touching to see and fantastic to be part of making it happen from a funding point of view.

A lot of the funding for these projects comes from the German reparations which are sadly diminishing as the Holocaust generation are passing away. Supporting causes like WJR will help to ensure that these communities can stay together. The staff there were absolutely incredible and I would like to thank all of those involved in these great projects.

On to Belarus where, through a chain of coincidences Dad had met the Rabbi of Great Portland Street Shul, Rabbi Barry Marcus. Rabbi Marcus has run over 140 trips to concentration camps and had met Rabbi Moshe Fhima in Eastern Europe years ago. Rabbi Marcus immediately recognised his brilliance. Having grown up in Manchester and moved to Israel, Rabbi Fhima had gone on a trip to the Ukraine and stayed. He has fallen in love with helping the communities (not just Jewish) out there, as well as, in his spare time, building a property business to support his charitable work.

The country itself is essentially a dictatorship, but it seems to work. Living standards are good, streets are clean, transport is good, people seem very happy. We felt very safe there, almost like a smaller up and coming America with wide streets and modern buildings and shops.

Rabbi Fhima runs several orphanages where he and his wife are a fantastic team look after 150 children at once who have 1 or fewer parent (either because they have passed away, are in prison or have serious anti-social issues like alcoholism or drug abuse). The schools he runs are beautifully clean, the library was immaculate, the students very well behaved and they are all happy enjoying a great life that they were not naturally born into.

Kids and Rabbis
From back left to right: Robert Desmond, Rabbi Moshe Fhima, Richard Desmond, Rabbi Barry Marcus

Rabbi Fhima managed to take Steve Ballmer (the CEO of Microsoft) around the area to recognise his family heritage. Ralph Lauren and Kirk Douglas also originated from this area and we hope to get them involved in this work.

The children all look up to the Rabbi and love him. He loves all the kids right back and you can see the joy in his eyes when around his children. He has some incredible stories of saving children from their parent and helping the parent to sort out their drug/drink problem.

He is a true inspiration and the work he does is incredible. I feel privileged to have met him and glad to be part of supporting his cause.

As my Dad says: “we are very lucky they [his grandparents] left, and even more that they went left instead of right”.

Read the article in the JC