7 of the most heartwarming Jewish stories of 2018

7 of the most heartwarming Jewish stories of 2018

This year hasn’t been an easy one. From shootings that claimed many innocent lives, including at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, to political turmoil in the United States and abroad, there have been many moments of sorrow.

But there were bright spots too. As 2018 comes to a close, we look back at some of the heartwarming stories we reported on this year, from a group of German volunteers who are fixing Holocaust survivors’ houses to an Iranian refugee who raised money for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Here are some of the highlights.

(JTA Wire Service)

Mikhl Baran leads Jewish culture programming at Camp Kinder Ring. (Sharon Strongin/Camp Kinder Ring)

A 95-year-old Holocaust survivor teaches summer campers Yiddish

There’s one teacher at Camp Kinder Ring in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., who always keeps kids captivated with his stories. That’s Mikhl Baran, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor from Lithuania.

“I ask them to call me Mikhl,” Baran said, noting that the name is the Yiddish form of Michael. “That’s already, in a sense, imbuing the idea that Yiddish is a great national treasure of the Jewish people.”

The Workmen’s Circle opened Kinder Ring in 1927 as a Yiddish-language camp, but today the mamaloshen isn’t heard quite as often. That’s why Baran’s lessons — about both Yiddish and the world in which it was spoken — hold a special significance.

“I worry a great deal because my generation is passing already,” he said. “It’s almost gone. And we are the remnant. If we will not tell the story, who will?”

From left to right, Gabby, Cole and Serena Deutch are organizing an initiative to raise money to end gun violence by baking hamentaschen. (Courtesy of Gabby Deutch)

A Florida congressman’s
kids use hamantaschen
to help end gun violence

Gabby, Serena and Cole Deutch wanted to do something after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last February. Since Purim was around the corner, the siblings — who all are college-age, and whose father, Ted Deutch, is a Democratic congressman representing the district where the shooting took place — came up with the idea of baking and selling the pastry associated with the holiday, hamantaschen.

They started recruiting friends at campuses around the country to do the same and urged them to donate the proceeds to groups fighting gun violence as well as to the families of the Parkland victims.

Gabby Deutch, a student at Yale University, said she was happy to make a difference.

“I was feeling disappointed by a lack of response, at least on Yale’s campus,” she said. “A lot of people since this has become public have come up to me and really expressed gratitude that something is happening about it, which makes me feel like there are people who care about this issue.”

J.K. Rowling (John Phillips/Getty Images)

J.K. Rowling uses Twitter
to fight anti-Semitism

The creator of the Harry Potter books has taken it upon herself to fight Jew hatred online. Amid debates about anti-Semitism in British politics in April, J.K. Rowling, who is not Jewish, used Twitter to define the term for her more than 14 million Twitter followers.

“Most UK Jews in my timeline are currently having to field this kind of crap, so perhaps some of us non-Jews should start shouldering the burden,” she said in response to a user who argued that “Judaism is a religion not a race.”

“Antisemites think this is a clever argument, so tell us, do: were atheist Jews exempted from wearing the yellow star? #antisemitism,” Rowling continued.

But she didn’t stop there. In August, she called out a fellow British writer on Twitter over his criticism of Jewish complaints about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. And her latest book, “Lethal White,” which came out in September, comments on the dangers of anti-Semitism by including a character whose obsessive anti-Zionism morphs into anti-Jewish hatred.

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, right, wrote a Facebook post about his conversation with a German man who travels to Israel to renovate Holocaust survivors’ apartments. (Courtesy of Zalmen Wishedski)

A German group renovates
Holocaust survivors’ homes for free

The Saxon Friends of Israel brings volunteers from Germany to Israel to fix the houses of Holocaust survivors living there. The group’s efforts drew publicity in October, when a rabbi met one of its volunteers on a flight and posted about it on Facebook. Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski described his meeting with a 54-year-old house builder named Roland, who had been traveling to the Jewish state twice a year for about five years to help Holocaust survivors.

“I cannot change or repair the whole world,” the rabbi recalled Roland telling him. “I cannot repair all my people did 70 years ago. All I can do is painting. It’s what I’m doing, bringing a little bit of good to the world.”

In a promotional video, one volunteer explains that both of his parents were avid Nazis and that he is the only one in his family who wants to “deal with the issue.”

Khashayar “Shay” Khatiri (Courtesy of Khashayar Khatiri)

An Iranian refugee raises
more than $1.2 million
for the Pittsburgh synagogue

Khashayar “Shay” Khatiri, who is not Jewish, was moved to action shortly after hearing about the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, which left 11 people dead in October. So Khatiri, who was born in Iran and now lives in Washington D.C., started a fundraiser on GoFundMe. Donations poured in, quickly reaching more than $1.2 million.

Khatiri, who is seeking political asylum because of his political activism against the Iranian government, says that he was happy to see people coming together to aid the synagogue.

“It was nice to see that people really cared and wanted to help the survivors,” he said.

These 10 Americans made aliyah to compete for positions on Israel’s 2020 Olympic baseball team. (Israel Baseball)

10 American baseball players
become Israeli citizens to help
country make the Olympics

Ten American baseball players became Israeli citizens so they could play on the country’s national team in international competitions leading up to the 2020 Olympics. The Jewish athletes made aliyah in October. They want to represent Israel in Tokyo in 2020. Some of the players also represented Israel in last year’s World Baseball Classic, where Team Israel shocked followers by reaching the quarterfinals.

“These players showed great enthusiasm for working in Israel to reach the Olympics in particular and to develop the game in Israel in general, and the players who played in the World Championship were exposed to Israel and saw how they can help the country become a force to be reckoned with in international baseball,” Israel Baseball Association President Peter Kurz told Ynet.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rabbi saves 4 Torah scrolls
from burning in California fires

At 3 o’clock in the morning, a neighbor awakened Rabbi Barry Diamond to let him know that their Southern California neighborhood was under a voluntary evacuation order becaue of the wildfires that were ravaging the state that November. About 20 minutes later, the rabbi arrived at Temple Adat Elohim, the Reform synagogue in Thousand Oaks where he works, to see fire surrounding the area by the building.

But that didn’t deter Diamond, 56, from dashing into the synagogue to save his congregation’s holiest objects. He ran in twice, grabbing four Torah scrolls, one of which had survived the Holocaust, as well as the Book of Esther scroll traditionally read on Purim.

“I would say I was a cross between nervous and determined to get these out,” Diamond said. “Sometimes you just have to put your head down and do the work and worry about your feelings later.”