January 30, 2009

Surge in European Volunteerism and Philanthropy Helps Meet Challenges of Global Crisis

From its founding in 1914 until the present, JDC financial support and programming have extended to the furthest reaches of Europe; whether providing vital welfare to the poor and needy, invigorating Jewish renewal in the aftermath of Communism, or responding to unforeseeable war and tragedy. But today, the dangerous confluence of the global economic crisis and the fall of the US dollar threaten to destabilize the critical foundations that JDC has laid in partnership with European Jewry.

However, these times of crisis and uncertainty—like others in Jewish history—are also proving to be an opportunity for increased and shared responsibility for the well-being of the whole Jewish community. Across Europe, a renewed solidarity is emerging. And after decades of JDC working hand in hand with European Jewish communities to engage and train a new generation of empowered young Jewish leadership, this new cadre feels up to the challenge that today’s economy brings to their doorsteps.

Mariann, chairwoman of the Switzerland Union of Jewish Students, and Tana, from the Italian counterpart organization, Unione Giovani Ebrei d’Italia, co-headed a committee of 15 leaders from Italy, Hungary, and Switzerland that organized the Wing Leadership Seminar in December of 2008. The seminar, which gives Jewish young adults from across Europe a chance to participate in social and educational workshops, is usually supported in partnership with JDC through its Danube Weinberg Regional Program.

Instead of allowing the economic crisis to limit the scope and reach of the program, the visionary young team launched a cross-national fundraising campaign and collected an impressive $32,000 USD, which they used to increase the seminar’s quality and participation—even providing scholarships for Eastern European leaders who are facing difficulties in the current crisis. The activism and commitment of Mariann, Tana, and others gathered over 200 young people together to grapple with the topics of Jewish identity in postmodern times, challenges facing Israel and the Diaspora, and the reshaping of Jewish culture.

“It was an honor to coordinate and witness the birth of the Wing ’08 team, made up of so many different people who share a common goal,” said Tana. “The positive spirit of these people was the real engine of this event.”

These days, the initiative and energy of this young group is a common theme spreading across the European continent.

In Budapest, the lay (or volunteer) leaders of the Limmud Keset team are also looking for opportunities to strengthen local involvement. While JDC originally helped initiate and fund this annual three-day conference of Jewish learning in Hungary, the organizers now wants to establish a foundation that will not only deal with the planning and organizational aspects of the conference, but will fund it as well. Though JDC will remain a supporter in the process, this foundation is a serious step by the local community towards having complete ownership over the fate and future of the program.

Maxim Benvenisti and Alek Oscar, President and Vice-President, respectively, of Bulgaria’s Shalom Jewish community organization, have also been engaging local philanthropists by creating bridges with both Israelis residing in Bulgaria and Jewish professionals who were disconnected from Jewish life.

“Development and revival of Jewish life are only possible when those who need and are receiving help realize that they are supposed to take responsibility and contribute with time, knowledge, and passion,” observes Alek, who works as a medical doctor in addition to his volunteer post with the Jewish community. “It is true that Bulgaria’s Jewish community needs financial support from JDC in these turbulent times, however is also critical to find answers from local sources, as the way to take the future in our own hands.”

Alberto Senderey, JDC’s Executive Director for Europe and Latin America observes that these are small but critical steps in process of shaping a different outlook—toward self-sustainable development—for European Jewish communities. “JDC has a critical role in helping the communities in this process by listening to the leaders, being sensitive to their needs, and by providing technical assistance as a tool to let them develop vibrant and flourishing communities with their own style.”

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