By Ben Tinsley
Dallas resident Vanessa Lustig traveled to Greece and Bulgaria on a JDC Entwine-sponsored trip in June to learn about global needs and disadvantaged Jewish communities.
But three days before she took that trip she experienced a very real need of her own — for some type of gift she could present to the young Jewish children she would visit at a Bulgarian preschool.
The 30-year-old was one of 20 young Jewish professionals on a trip sponsored by JDC Entwine, the young adult engagement initiative arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Lustig was the only participant from Dallas; the rest were from across the United States and the globe. One was from as far away as Australia.
Michael Geller, director, Communications & Media Relations at American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said young Jewish adults in this program are taken to economic “hot spots” such as Sofia, Bulgaria and Athens, Greece so that they can learn how to function and plan in environments of economic instability.
“This is how they learn about global Jewish needs,” Geller explained.
But back to Vanessa Lustig’s need for gifts: She had only a few days and was concerned that she didn’t have time to purchase anything of any true Jewish significance. She feared it would be difficult to get her hands on 20 to 30 authentic Jewish children’s toys.
But Lustig decided to ask for help from the very supportive Dallas Jewish community. She emailed and called friends and colleagues with connections to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and asked for help.
Mariam Feist — the chief operations officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas — responded first and suggested contacting Alyse Eisenberg, who runs PJ Library-Dallas and is also project manager for the Federation’s Center for Jewish Education.
PJ Library — a Jewish engagement and literacy program for Jewish and interfaith families with young children — sends out free Jewish children’s books and music on a monthly basis by subscription.
And as it turns out, the PJ Library book line may be the true hero of this story. Eisenberg agreed to donate around 20 to 25 PJ library books for Lustig to take as presents to Bulgaria.
Shortly after that, other response emails started rolling in. One was from Jackie Waldman, a very respected mentor of Lustig’s.
Jackie Waldman had recruited her daughter Melissa Plaskoff to help find some books to donate as presents.
Plaskoff immediately thought of — you guessed it — PJ Library books.
“I told my two older children, Hudson, 9, and Parker, 7, that we needed gifts for those children and they started running around the house upstairs and downstairs gathering books and stacking them up,” Plaskoff said with a laugh. “We gathered over 50 books for her to take on her trip. We thought they would be perfect to share with those kids she was visiting.”
Plaskoff said her children — including Annabelle, her 20-month-old — were adorable running around stacking books in service to other children they would probably never meet.
“They were really excited that kids in anther country would be holding and touching books they had read themselves,” she said.
So Vanessa Lustig had her PJ Library gifts. But with that success came a new problem: When she got to the airport she discovered she had so many books she was over the weight limit.
“Luckily my ‘flirting skills’ came in handy,” Vanessa Lustig said. “I brought up my two very heavy bags and my large carry-on to the ticket counter to be checked; the ticketing agent didn’t charge me a dime.”
The group arrived at Beit Shalom, the Jewish community center of Sofia, Bulgaria, the morning of June 23.
Beit Shalom is where majority of the Jewish programming takes place, Lustig said. In 2010, the Sofia community inaugurated a new Jewish preschool and kindergarten in the Beit Shalom JCC.
“It is the first Jewish preschool to open its doors in the city for more than half a century,” Lustig said. “It has been serving some 65 children, ages 2 to 6, and the numbers continue to grow every year.”
Members of Lustig’s group met with Betty Gershon, the director of the Gan Balahan kindergarten at Beit Shalom JCC.
“Betty explained to us that the preschool is not recognized by the Bulgarian state due to not having a playground and not being in a separate building,” Lustig said. “Therefore, since it’s not recognized by the government, Gan Balahan doesn’t receive a dime of funding from the government and relies heavily on donations and funding from the JDC.”
Somehow, despite the growing number of children, the officials there make it work, Lustig said.
“Surprisingly, despite the cultural differences, the lack of money and resources, the Bulgarian children receive a Jewish preschool experience similar to the one I did at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas — with singing, Israeli dancing, learning traditional Jewish songs, Hebrew alphabet, learning about Jewish holidays, and celebrating Shabbat,” she said.
Lustig was given the opportunity to present her gifts in a private setting.
The reaction she received was not exactly what she expected.
“So there we are, the three of us, alone with Betty and I present her with the 70 PJ library books that were donated by the Dallas Jewish community members,” Lustig said. “When I was presenting the books to Betty, she began to cry. She couldn’t believe it. And, of course seeing Betty get emotional made me get emotional and we shared a deep hug embracing one another.”
The gratitude in Betty Gershon’s eyes, combined with her smile and the hug she gave Lustig, made quite the impression.
“It was the true meaning of a mitzvah,” Lustig said. “It was a moment I will never forget.”
After everyone dried their tears, they joined the rest of the group Israeli dancing with the kindergartners who received their own little library of … YEP. PJ library books.
When it was time for the group to go, Lustig discovered she’d made some lifelong friends at the Bulgarian JCC preschool Beit Shalom.
“One of the kindergarten girls, Mya, kept hugging me and didn’t want me to leave,” Lustig said. “She started crying and then of course I got emotional … After all, I’d cried two times and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.”
They were tiny little children who didn’t speak a lick of English and they taught Vanessa Lustig an amazing life lesson.
“I am so inspired to do more to help not only the Jewish community in Bulgaria but in Greece, which is going through an economic crisis and the Jewish community there needs our help,” she said.
Evan Rosenstock, Entwine’s director for global immersive experiences, said this program runs about 25 to 30 such trips for young Jewish adults each year.
“It is such a pleasure to have young adults such as Vanessa come back from their trips so motivated to share their story,” he said.
Melissa Gendason, the Dallas PJ Library ambassador chair (Jennifer Charney is her co-chair), applauded the fact that PJ Library — made possible through the generosity of families like the Mankoffs and Waldmans as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas — can touch lives across the globe.
“Being able to share our resources with Jewish children in Bulgaria to help enrich their lives is truly what being a part of klal Yisrael is all about,” she said. “We are one family, and PJ Library is just another amazing way that we can strengthen the Jewish community worldwide.”