Spring Chicken

Anny Junek, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, loves dressing up for the Jewish holiday of Purim. In fact, she’s the three-time champion of her Israeli retirement home's annual costume contest (as a bride, a Smurf, a doctor, and a handyman). She basks in the element of surprise and never reveals her costume before the contest. After losing her parents in Auschwitz and surviving Bergen-Belsen, Anny moved from Austria to Mexico where she raised her family. Now a great-grandmother in Israel, Anny and her family have hatched a plan for a fourth win.

Spring Chicken is a short documentary which follows Anny as she celebrates life's small moments and finds beauty in the most unexpected places.

Big Sky Documentary Festival, 2017
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2016

       
     
Reviving a Lost Community, One Loaf at a Time

The rich Jewish culture of a Ukrainian town was all but wiped out by the Nazis and the ensuing Soviet era. But one New York Jew is trying to bring it back, one loaf of challah at a time.

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A Household Name | The New York Times

Devorah Benjamin zips up her fatigues — a black hooded sweatshirt with “The Wedding Planner” embroidered in fluorescent pink across the back — and is ready for another day’s battle. Her army stands at the ready: musicians, photographers, florists, hair and makeup artists, and a team of middle-aged mothers who volunteer their nights to cook and donate food.

Their mission: to make weddings happen, even for couples who cannot afford them.

“I’m a part of everyone’s lives,” Ms. Benjamin said recently. “If you walk around Crown Heights and say my name, people know exactly who I am. I’m a household name.”

In Hasidic households in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she is.

The Dutch-born Ms. Benjamin is the founder of Keren Simchas Chosson V’Kallah, a nonprofit organization that pays for and plans the weddings. The foundation’s nearly $500,000 annual budget comes entirely from donations collected at annual fund-raisers and charity drives, and via mailed-in checks.

Ms. Benjamin explained that in most Hasidic households, parents are traditionally expected to pay for their children’s weddings, which average about $20,000.

In a community where families typically have many children, make do on one income and send their children to private religious schools, weddings can present intimidating financial obstacles. Still, the resourceful Ms. Benjamin decides to operate quietly, never divulging exactly what she donates to each couple.

“I tell the couples to pay for what they can, and I’ll do the rest,” said Ms. Benjamin.

Ms. Benjamin said her organization thrives because of the emphasis on charity among ultra-Orthodox Jews, though donations come in from non-Jews as well. It is not uncommon to receive anonymous checks in the mail for $1,000, she said.

“It all runs on miracles and miracles and love,” she said.

       
     
Struggling In Israel: The Boys Of Nitzana

Amar escaped the repression in Eritrea as a teenager in order to find a better life. A grueling journey led him to Israel and a small school for undocumented migrants known as Nitzana. While the school welcomed him with open arms, Israeli policy does not, and he will soon have to survive on his own.
 

       
     
Meet the Female Drift Racers of Palestine

The Speed Sisters compete as the only female drift racing team of the West Bank. 
 

       
     
Remaking a Life, After Years in an Israeli Prison | The New York Times

Israel has released 78 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal to restart peace talks. The prisoners are welcomed by many Palestinians as heroes, but many Israelis feel their release is an injustice.

 

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Young Latin Americans Choose Duty and Danger -- In Israel

Franco Ortaza felt nervous when his commander ordered him to drive his tank to the Syrian border late last year. After all, he had finished his basic training in the Israeli Army only three weeks earlier.
“I didn’t know what I had to do. I didn't know if I was prepared enough,” said Oratza. “Then I thought, ‘Whoa, what am I doing here?’”

Having patrolled the Syrian-Israeli border, Ortaza and his unit withdrew their tanks without incident. But his mindset had changed, realizing that his decision to volunteer for the Israeli Army was not just a manifestation of lofty ideals – rather a choice to enter into one of the most complex conflict zones in the world.

Ortaza, an Argentinian volunteer to the Israeli Defense Forces, is one of a growing number of foreign-born soldiers who join the Israeli military each year. According to an IDF spokesman, about 20% of all enlistees in the past two years, are new immigrants – both men and women. Most volunteers still come from Russia and the US, though 300 from Latin America have enlisted since 2011. Jewish Agency statistics show that more than half of the 115,484 Latin American immigrants in Israel come from Argentina, followed by Brazil, and Mexico.

While the IDF remains a central institution in Israel's national identity, military service has become increasingly contentious. Young Israelis are consistently refusing their mandatory service either on personal or political grounds. Conversely, there has been a strong push to extend mandatory conscription to Ultra-orthodox and Arab residents of Israel – both of which have thus far been excluded from the mandatory draft, a situation that has caused resentment, conflict, and further polarization throughout Israeli society.

Ironically, foreign recruits often times arrive more ideologically committed to the country's defense than their Israeli-born counterparts. “Coming as an outsider and volunteering to be here, I feel like I have more motivation,” said Ortaza, referring to the Israeli-born soldiers in his unit. “They don’t want to be here. They just want to enjoy themselves. They’re kids still. I came here out of my own free will, and I don’t have an excuse to complain. I want to be here. I want to better myself. I want to help the country.”

Haggai Matar, a 29 year-old Israeli who served 2 years in military prison for refusing his mandatory service on ideological grounds, says that the shifting attitudes likely stem from a growing individualization within Israeli society.

"It might have to do with a lesser feeling of ongoing security threats," said Matar. "I think it has much more to do with the change in the Israeli economy, which used to be much more of a welfare state and has become more neoliberal." Israelis today generally feel that they owe less to the state and will still be able to be a part of Israeli society despite not serving, added Matar.

Foreign-born soldiers typically perform the same duties as all others in the Israeli military, ranging from combat units, to gathering intelligence, to educational and administrative roles. Their service can last from six months up to several years.

Many recent immigrant soldiers choose to gain Israeli citizenship, though it is not a condition to serve. “If you prove your Judaism and you're the right age, it doesn't really matter whether you're a citizen or not,” said a Ministry of Defense official.

Foreign-born soldiers in the IDF with no immediate family in the country are officially classified as "lone soldiers." They are awarded special benefits by the army such as a higher base salary and other financial assistance, additional time off base, and at least one free flight during their service to visit their families abroad.