November 4, 2009

Jewish Young Adults Building Community Beyond Borders in Europe

Each year, hundreds of Jewish young adults from JDC’s Weinberg Balkan-Black Sea Gesher region of Europe transcend traditional notions of geography, language, and culture to engage together in Jewish exploration. The following is a first-person account of the 2009 Gesher Conference—a flagship initiative of JDC in Europe that is propelling the meaning of community beyond physical borders.

There are some ideas—like Israel itself—that are so visionary that few believe they are even possible … until they actually come to pass.

The Gesher Conference, which each year draws hundreds of enthusiastic Jews in their early to mid twenties from the Black Sea Region to a distinct European destination, is one of those ideas. As one observer said at the 6th annual conference, held recently in Halkidiki, Greece: “If someone had told me years ago that there would be 400 young adults who would come together from this region every year, who are so proud to be Jewish that they are dancing to traditional songs and debating the same questions our ancestors debated, I would have said that they were completely meshuguna (crazy)!"

But there they were—Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, Serbs, Brits, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Israelis, and Turks—all of them defying the historic conflicts and divisions that have marked the region to embrace one another and their Jewish heritage with equal enthusiasm.

Watching this eagerly anticipated yearly reunion unfold, with young people from different nations connecting with one another so freely and warmly, I began to understand the full significance of the phrase written on the back of each Gesher t-shirt: “A Bridge Has Been Built Through You.”

Gesher is the Hebrew word for “bridge.”

By now, the Gesher conference—part of JDC’s Weinberg Regional Initiative to cultivate and connect young Jewish leaders in Europe—has become something of a legend in the Jewish communities of this region. It is a time when strong personal and cultural bonds are formed in a setting that, for many, provides a rare opportunity to learn more about their shared Jewish heritage. And it is an opportunity to feel a part of the greater Jewish family beyond the small communities where some of the participants live.

The conference kicked off with the evening opening ceremony. A frenzy of participants made their way to the site, first previewing a display of pictures and memorabilia of past Gesher gatherings. The following morning, everyone met by the hotel pool—a sea of pink and blue in their Gesher t-shirts—for a short ceremony with introductory remarks by JDC organizers. The President of the Greek Jewish Community, David Saltiel, also addressed the crowd, followed by Israeli Ambassador to Greece, Ali Yahya. Ambassador Yahya, Israel’s first Muslim Arab ambassador, movingly underscored the “bridge” theme of the conference, speaking to the importance of Israel and the joy he felt being an Israeli living in the region.

On Friday, the participants plunged into the day’s activities, from challah making and Israeli dance to the many educational workshops. The entire day was filled with anticipation for the coming Shabbat, which began with festive music and dance lead by a young band from Israel. The performance was followed by Kabbalat Shabbat services, which were split into sections conducted for Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Alternative denominations. Some participants rejoiced in hearing the familiar prayers; others experienced their first Shabbat ever.

Dinner was followed by more singing and celebrating on the beach, which stretched into the wee hours.

The late night festivities didn’t discourage early risers. Saturday began with a flurry of activities. There were more workshops, with topics ranging form media coverage of the Mid-East conflict to the contemporary relevance of Torah. When not taking advantage of the opportunity to explore the many aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, participants could head to the beach for more dancing. Salsa and bachata (style of dance from the Dominican Republic) classes were well attended!

The celebrations in the evening began with a magical Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the rest of the week. Rabbi Aaron Israel and his wife lead the prayer, as JDC’s country director of Romania, Israel Sabag, lit the candles. While the young participants hailing from diverse communities united in prayer and dance with the Aegean Sea as their backdrop, it became clear that they were not only forming bridges to one another; they were also bridging past and future.

Sunday was a bittersweet day—time for farewells. As phone numbers and Facebook addresses were exchanged, one young man from Bulgaria shared a parting thought with JDC conference organizers. “If good work cost nothing,” he said, “then the world would be full of philanthropists. Thank you for all of your hard work.”

Another participant told me that some of the other hotel guests the night before were curious about the group in pink and blue. What country were they from? Why did the boys have “cloths” on their heads? What language were they singing in?

She told me she replied simply, with renewed pride and meaning: “We are Jews.”

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