Erin Coleman, a member of the Jewish Federation of North America National Young Leadership Cabinet, traveled to Latvia and Hungary on a mission trip.
Erin Coleman was the only Nashville resident among 170 young Jewish professionals on a mission trip, but she felt right at home. Coleman, 43, left her Whitland Avenue home on March 11 and stayed in Latvia and Hungary for a week with other members of the Jewish Federation of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.
The NYLC works to nurture and develop the future of organized Jewish life. Adults ages 30 to 45 embark on an annual trip to strengthen their involvement in and commitment to Jewish communities around the world, according to a previous story by the Jewish Observer Nashville.
Inclusion within Jewish community
The group’s first stop was Riga, the capital of Latvia. The Rumbula forest, near Riga, is where Nazis murdered nearly 25,000 Jews in two incidents in 1941. All but about 1,000 of these victims were Latvian Jews from the Riga Ghetto.
Coleman and the other Cabinet members also visited the site of the Budapest Ghetto, where tens of thousands of Jews were imprisoned during the Holocaust.
“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” Coleman said in a phone interview. “[The Ghetto Memorial Wall] was a reminder that this all occurred. There's no question in my mind that it occurred.”
The next stop was the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, and the Jewish Community Center in Budapest, Hungary.
Erin Coleman, pictured kneeling fifth from left, wit 170 participants in JFNA’s NYLC mission trip to Latvia and Hungary.
“The Jewish community has massive support for bringing Jews together, but bringing all of us people together,” Coleman said in a phone interview. “In Hungary right now, there’s a lot of discussion around the LGBTQ community and the JCC in Hungary is led by a gay man… Budapest has really gathered around them in a beautiful way so that everyone feels welcome within the JCC walls.”
In recent years, the Hungarian government has passed legislation that aims to discriminate and stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community. Sexual orientation is also a social issue, according to Amnesty International. Coleman spoke to the importance of showing solidarity with other marginalized communities.
“That was very, very important for Hungary, but it was also important, I think, as an international Jewish community, that we always are inclusive because for thousands of years, and even now, throughout our history, we’ve been persecuted just because of our religion and our beliefs,” Coleman said. “So we really need to be there and support these communities that are being persecuted for things that are out of our control.”
A ‘gift of life’ to be Jewish
Cabinet members also visited Camp Szarvas in Hungary, about three hours outside Budapest.
“It was just amazing,” Coleman said. “Why? Because this camp is a camp that was created through JFNA and Federation funding in order to teach Jews coming out of Soviet communism how to be Jewish. …We met people who learned that they were Jewish at 15, 25 and they had no idea because that was a family secret that you never said to anyone because you [didn’t] want them to be persecuted.”
Coleman added that Camp Szarvas teaches people what it means to be Jewish and how to practice Judaism. She said she did a similar mission as a junior in college — she and her Hillel group traveled to Odesa to teach Ukrainian students how to conduct a seder, among other Jewish customs.
“I think for me, one of the most significant realizations that I had coming out of the camp was how lucky we are to be Jewish,” Coleman said. “You couldn’t have said that comment in Hungary or Latvia 80 years ago because 80 years ago, being a Jew was a death sentence. Now, because of what we do with [the] Federation and the growing community work around the world, it’s a gift of life being a Jew.”
Donations have allowed JFNA staff members to winterize Camp Szarvas —which is closed until the summer — so that Ukrainian Jews can temporarily seek refuge from the war. Coleman, who served in the military in Iraq, said it was inspiring to meet and interact with them.
“These are Jews who don’t want to leave the Ukraine; they just need a break from the war,” Coleman said. “It was incredible to see them and the joy that they had on their faces, also to hear the stories. I’m a military combat vet, so I’ve been to war… I think it was really eye-opening for other people to hear the stories of what it’s like to have bombs overhead and hear sirens going off.”
Coleman said there was a series of bomb threats that occurred at the JCC in Nashville, where two of her children attended preschool in 2017. She spoke about the privilege of being able to get into her car and rush to the safe location for her kids but said the Ukrainian people often could not do the same due to the harsh conditions of the war.
“The other thing that was said that was heart-wrenching is that when they’re at the camp, it’s the first time in a year that they’ve heard birds chirping,” Coleman said of the Ukrainian Jews. “Obviously, birds are wild animals; they’re the first to scatter when a war comes.”
She said these interactions remind her to always be grateful for everyday sights and sounds.
“We’re very lucky to be where we are,” Coleman said.
A kiddush to remember
Coleman said one of the best aspects of the trip was being able to form close friendships with her fellow Jewish community members. Although she had already met the other Cabinet members in fall 2022 through retreats organized by the NYLC, she said this trip was a way to get to know her colleagues on a more meaningful level.
The most memorable night for Coleman was March 17, when the Cabinet members went out to dinner in Budapest.
“One of my favorite, favorite moments was …[when] we all went Friday night to get dinner together,” Coleman said. “There were 170 young Jewish professionals … on this trip from all across the Americas — Canada, Brazil, Mexico, all through North America — and we’re all sitting in this room, and someone sang ‘Prayer-eoke’ and you know the part of kiddush where everyone starts singing that one line, like midway through right before the last part… everyone knows the line.”
The line of “Prayer-eoke” translates to “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations and with love and goodwill given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.” Shabbat, the Jewish “day of rest,” is observed each week from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
“Everyone knew the line,” Coleman said. “Everyone. Everyone was singing the line. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn't matter how you practice, it doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not religious: Judaism is in the center. …It was all together. We were one people, and it was a beautiful thing. We all knew that tune and at that moment, we were one.”