Mandy Shunnarah: Pizitz, Civil Rights; Montgomery Survivors; BJF's Miss Israel

CONNECTING THE BJF DOTS

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We think you'll enjoy today's Update. Below are three great stories.

The first highlights Israel's new Miss Israel, who is an Israeli who immigrated from Ethiopia; the second is a superb Civil Rights piece by Mandy Shunnarah, the granddaughter of Palestinian immigrants; and the third is one more reflection of the great work done by the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.

While the three stories may seem vastly different, there are connecting threads. Each deals with people overcoming racial and religious barriers, and each offers one more reflection of the scope of the work done by The Birmingham Jewish Federation.

Enjoy today's Update, and if you are a donor to The BJF Campaign, have pride in knowing that your dollars are helping us enrich lives and educate and connect people with one another everyday in so many ways.

ONE OF 'OUR WOMEN'BECOMES MISS ISRAEL

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Yityish Aynaw, a former Israeli army officer, has become the first Ethiopian-Israeli to win the Miss Israel pageant. A panel of judges awarded the title this week to Aynaw, a 21-year-old model who came to Israel about a decade ago.

"It's important that a member of the Ethiopian community wins the competition for the first time," she was quoted by Israeli media as telling the judges in response to a question. "There are many different communities of many different colors in Israel, and it's important to show that to the world."

Aynaw came to Israel with her family when she was 12. Acclimating to Israel was difficult at first, Aynaw said, but she picked up the Hebrew language quickly with the help of a friend. Funds raised by The Birmingham Jewish Federation helped facilitate their family's immigration to Israel and entry into Israeli society.

During the competition, Aynaw cited the slain American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. as one of her heroes. "He fought for justice and equality, and that's one of the reasons I'm here. I want to show that my community has many pretty qualities that aren't always represented in the media," she said. She has been working as a saleswoman at a clothing store since her army discharge.

Above information is from Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a worldwide Jewish news service that receives funding from The BJF Annual Campaign.

50 YEARS FORWARD, HOW MANY LEFT TO GO?

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The below was written by Mandy Shunnarah, a senior at Birmingham-Southern College interested in a career in journalism. Mandy, 22, is the granddaughter of Palestinian immigrants and a participant in The Birmingham Jewish Federation's Leadership Writing Project.

By Mandy Shunnarah

Earlier this year, my friend Sarina (who I met on my trip to Israel last year through the Jewish National Fund) visited from Washington DC. I couldn't wait to play tour guide and show her the great things Birmingham has to offer.

The week before her visit, Birmingham had been named a top travel destination by several respected travel publications because of our current 50th anniversary commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement. The city's "50 Years Forward" campaign had also been launched the week prior to her visit. Because of the city's commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement, and the movement's cultural and historical impact on our city and nation, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was a must on our list of stops.

Growing up in Birmingham and being a lover of museums, I've visited many times. I find myself there several times a year. Despite not being religious myself, I'm always inspired by the resilience and faith of the African-Americans who lived through those tumultuous times and how they found comfort in their religion.

As I walked the museum's paths with Sarina, I could only imagine what she was thinking. We were encountering stories that Sarina, as a young African-American, had read about in history books and heard from her family; suddenly they were coming alive. Having been to the museum multiple times previously, I followed her pace and read the wall plaques a bit absent-mindedly. But at the very end of the museum, I noticed something I'd never noticed before.

In a glass case before you enter a replica of the office of Richard Arrington Jr., who was Birmingham's first black mayor, there's a customer comment card donated by Pizitz department store, which was a cornerstone of downtown Birmingham at the time. I don't see a need to repeat the card's hateful words verbatim, however, the gist of the feedback card is important. It was probably written by a woman (I make the assumption based on the looping, feminine handwriting). She explained that she wouldn't be spending her money at Pizitz anymore because she found out the store was owned by Jews and employed blacks.

MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

I can only imagine had I been hosting a Jewish friend from out of town how he or she would have felt upon seeing that comment card. I imagine he or she would have probably felt much like Sarina did as she walked through the museum. That comment card is proof that for those Southern whites who were filled with hatred during the Civil Rights era, their animosity toward others went beyond skin color. Their hatred was directed to the very core of other people, attacking their values and systems of belief.

Sadly, at times it doesn't appear that all that much has changed -- despite the passage of laws promoting equality. The media reports, for example, growing hatred of Jews in parts of Europe and there remain profound wealth and education gaps between blacks and whites in our own country. I find the hatred I read about particularly horrifying. I worry about the false mentality in our city of believing that today "it can't happen here." It can happen here. It can! And it still does though we may be less aware of it.

While I appreciate and value the efforts of Birmingham's 50 Years Forward campaign, it's important to remember that civil rights, and human rights, do not end there. People are still being discriminated against everyday in Birmingham and elsewhere. Our city has made great strides, particularly with campaigns like the 50 Years Forward, and descending generations should be proud of the progress that has been made. However, the task is far from over. Our city as a whole must face ALL of its negative past (and often present) directly to facilitate real and lasting change.

Toward the end of the museum in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, there's a message of hope. The contributions of African-Americans in Birmingham are highlighted and praised -- as they should be. Sarina told me as we exited the museum that this was her favorite part. She said it left her feeling contemplative and thankful rather than melancholy.

However, after viewing the Pizitz comment card, unfortunately there is no message of hope highlighting the contributions Jews have made in Birmingham (and it's a long list!). Birmingham would not be where it is today without the contributions of multiple minorities who all deserve acknowledgment and appreciation from our city.

Graphic is from CBS 42.

BROWN BAG HOLOCAUST SERIESFOCUSES ON MONTGOMERY PROJECT

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The first program in the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center Brown Bag Lunch Series at the Birmingham Public Library will be on Wednesday, March 6 at noon in the Linn-Henley Research Building on the 4th floor. It is free and open to the public.

Louisa Weinrib, of Montgomery, will present her story of how she conceived and created an Oral History Project during 1989-1991. She interviewed 16 people who survived the round-ups and concentration camps in Hitler's Europe, and who were able to immigrate to the US and create new lives in Montgomery.

Her project included interviews with survivors, children of survivors and American military liberators. Her completed project is housed in the Alabama State Archives and the transcripts will soon be posted on the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center's website.

The Holocaust Education Center is one of 32 agencies and programs funded by The Birmingham Jewish Federation Annual Campaign and does great work providing a wide range of outstanding Holocaust education programs.