|People of the Book
A Technion architecture student’s personal journey to his Jewish roots and spiritual heritage
By Amanda Jaffe-Katz
2010 was an intensive year for Joseph Abkin. This 27-year-old completed his fifth and final year of studies at Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, participated in the national delegation of Israeli students to Poland in the footsteps of the Holocaust, and was a member of the Journey into Jewish Heritage delegation to Sarajevo, volunteering to uncover and preserve the vestiges of Jewish life there. And then, as a newly qualified architect, he landed first-rate employment in a local studio in Nesher, Israel, not far from the Technion campus.
Yet Abkin’s personal quest into his Jewish heritage started a couple of years previously, when he was an exchange student - and the only Israeli - at Polytecnico di Torino in Italy. There, this quietly charismatic student, who had immigrated to Israel aged eight with his family from Sakhalin, a remote Russian island located north of Japan, began to explore what being Jewish means to him. “Until this point, my Judaism was merely a feeling, devoid of content,” says Abkin.
“I began to think of the Holocaust as the most recent event on the continuum of attempts to exterminate the Jews,” Abkin explains his growing interest in joining the mission to Poland. “Passover and Purim commemorate our ancestors’ persecution, and although we’re unable to visit the ancient tree from which Haman was hanged in Shushan, I feel that it is imperative that every Jew alive today should think of himself as a Holocaust survivor.”
(l-r) Technion students Gilad Kahala and
Throughout the year, Abkin joined meetings prior to the Jewish Heritage journey to Sarajevo, Bosnia, organized by the Zalman Shazar Center and sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation. Classes included conservation and archaeology. “We were well-prepared through these 2-day seminars so that we could start our work right away when we arrived,” Abkin says.
Joseph Abkin at work in the Sarajevo
Ashkenazi Synagogue, cataloging the
2,000 volumes of Jewish books stacked
on the floor
And, leaving Israel mid-August, the 32-person delegation made the journey across Europe. “Our mission was to document the mainly Sephardi Jewish community that once existed and flourished in Sarajevo, up until WWII.” The Holocaust and the more recent war in Bosnia decimated the population. “We went through a process not unlike an excavation to uncover Jewish life through pictures and stories.”
The delegation comprised student architects (eight of the 15 from Technion), photographers, and students of Fine Art, and also one Technion Electrical Engineering student, Gilad Kahala, whom Abkin had co-opted to the cause. They were aided by Bosnian students, who also helped interview the local population.
The students self-allocated into work groups. Abkin and Kahala joined the book group. Here, they worked to catalog the 2,000 books written in more than 10 languages that were piled, at random, on the floor of the Ashkenazi Synagogue. “We found a catalog that was made 100 years ago,” Abkin reports. “We were able to update and computerize this and nearly completed the task of classifying all the volumes.”
Other groups included the urban group who documented the living conditions of the community; the cemetery group who documented the patterns of burial place, determined by socioeconomic status and age group; and the Synagogue group, who worked to preserve the three synagogues once in use. For example, a big Sephardi Synagogue, constructed just prior to WWII, was damaged during the war. It was turned into a concert hall, and the student delegation found not only plans for renovation of the concert hall that would erase the building’s last vestiges of Jewish identity, but even discovered the original dome complete with Jewish paintings and symbolism that no one knew was there.
Journey into Jewish Heritage delegations have taken place since 2002, always with a significant Technion presence. Currently, the initiative is endangered due to financial constraints. The final presentations of the Sarajevo mission took place at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem at the end of December 2010, to an emotional audience - mostly originally from Bosnia.
“We are continuing to process the feelings and insights gained in Bosnia,” says Abkin. “I am working out what it means to be a Jew, and how to pass this on to my children when I become a parent.”