Jewish Participants Find A Welcome Antidote to Durban II


by Zalman Nelson - Geneva, Switzerland

April 20, 2009

(lubavitch.com) Tensions fomented inside the UN conference in Geneva on Monday when delegates walked out as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the platform to malign Israel. Outside, Jewish students and diplomats found a blessed antidote to the Iranian president’s hatefulness, as they were greeted at The Jewish Welcome Center.

Staffed by Chabad rabbis and volunteers, the Center, says Chabad’s Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pewzner of Geneva, was the response by the city’s Jewish community of 5000 to the climate of anti-Semitism.

Ahmadinejad’s presence at Durban II, the UN’s anti-racism summit which began Monday in Geneva, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, prompted several countries, among them Australia, Canada,  Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands, as well as the U.S. and Israel, to boycott the event.

Following the Iranian leader’s meeting Sunday night with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, Israel recalled its ambassador from Switzerland Monday morning.

Ron Alcessor, President of Geneva’s Jewish community, was at the center to meet with diplomats and to watch a live broadcast of Ahmadinejad’s speech. “Blaming Israel for the world’s problems is outrageous, unacceptable and will be officially condemned by the community,” he told Lubavitch.com. He said it was “painful to hear” and that he is “proud of the community’s response and Chabad’s leadership” via the welcome center.

Housed in the School for Hotel Management at the entrance to the UN building, the Jewish Welcome Center was sought out on the first day of the Conference by an endless stream of visitors who made use of its makeshift synagogue, conference room, kosher eatery, internet kiosk, and the only public place to print or copy documents. The building is the address for UN operations in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

A team of psychologists volunteered to help participants who may want additional support handling the conference’s speeches and content.

“We can’t stop the conference, but we can use the opportunity to bring Jews together, and to get information to participants and people on the streets so they can see the event’s lack of accuracy and neutrality,” said Rabbi Pewzner, who conceived of the center and received unanimous approval to represent the entire Jewish community.

At the center, many of the participants said they are reaching out to fellow Jews and investigate their Jewish roots. A man who visited the center and agreed to don tefillin, revealed to the staff that he never had a Bar Mitzva. An impromptu celebration has been scheduled for Tuesday to coincide with a pro-Israel rally and Holocaust memorial expected to draw thousands.

“People wake up spiritually, Jewishly over here. For many, it’s their first face to face encounter with the anti-Semitism of some world leaders,” said Rabbi Akiva Kamisar who joined the Chabad staff in Geneva in time for the Passover holiday and directs the welcome center.

Kamisar told Lubavitch.com that besides an anti-Israel demonstration of 500 Arabs in the city center on Saturday and an anti-Semitic pamphlet equating Zionism with Nazism that he found on the train, Geneva is quiet and residents are undeterred. He said the center is busy preparing 1500 kosher sandwiches for events on Tuesday.

According to Rabbi Pewzner, a recent internet poll by Geneva’s leading newspaper, Tribune D’Geneva, revealed that 70 percent of readers were opposed to the Swiss president’s meeting with Ahmadinejad, and many non-Jews are expected at Holocaust Memorial events and pro-Israel rallies.

The unified response by Geneva’s Jewish community was especially heartening to Rabbi Pewzner, who remembers when kosher milk was impossible to find. Geneva’s Jews are two-thirds Sefardic and one-third Ashkenazic, with a small contingent of Holocaust survivors. Its smaller size, says Pewzner, generates a feeling of unity and a need to look out for one another, despite differences.

In the course of the last 20 years, Pewzner has observed anti-Israel sentiments grow. “Israel’s image in Europe is not like it used to be,” he admits.

But his role, he says, is to strengthen Jewish life here. He points to Chabad’s preschool of 60 children, a day school with 80 students, the city’s new synagogue, the strong growth of Jewish observance, and the hundreds of bottles of kosher milk sold in Geneva’s several kosher stores as signs of Geneva’s positive growth and development.

“We are here to ensure that local Jews enjoy a rich spiritual life.” But as the host city of the conference, which drew Jewish participants, “We as a community had to have a presence and make a statement with our actions that we are strong and hatred will not scare us away,” he said.

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