By Noa Tal
Four blissful days in Halkidiki, Greece, brought together young adults from all over Europe & Israel, where they could explore and celebrate what it means to be Jewish, and learn how you can be Jewish in many different ways.
My first placement as a Ralph I. Goldman fellow was working with the JDC Junction Europe team. Junction is an initiative of the JDC, the Schusterman Foundation, and YESOD, that seeks to empower young Jewish adults and professionals to engage with the pan-European Jewish community by providing innovative international opportunities that connect them to each other and to meaningful, relevant, and forward-looking Jewish spaces. I have the privilege working with them on various international gatherings that take place throughout the year.
Gesher is the largest annual event we worked on, and it was very meaningful for me to be working on its program since I participated in Gesher gathering last year, and this experience literally changed my life, as at that point I decided to apply for the RIG fellowship. You can imagine the excitement I felt starting my year working on it! Gesher 2015 was also a turning point in the festival design, because for the first time international participants were invited to participate and lead sessions. Until that point Gesher was exclusive for Jewish young adults from the Balkans. I was one of these new faces in 2015, thanks to the Schusterman family foundation and JDC Europe that invited me. At Gesher I was exposed for the first time to the rich and vibrant Jewish life that exist in the Balkans. Meeting the diverse participants enriched my notion of Jewish identity, drawing the threads of European and Israeli Jewish life together while learning from the deep conversations that arose at the gathering. This year, we wanted to emphasise this notion exactly – exploring your Jewish identity through meeting Jewish individuals from all over the world.
We aimed to create a space, an atmosphere, where people can feel comfortable getting to know people from different Jewish communities, and by that enable them to learn more about themselves and about their Jewish identity. We built a program that would allow exploring and celebrating their Jewish identity in different forms. They attended workshops and discussions and heard about the variety of sectors, various movements and different initiatives in the Jewish world. The program ranged from sessions in Improv theatre, drum circle, and breathing techniques, to sessions on what does Shabbat means to me, and how do I build my own Jewish story. We invited professionals in their field to lead the sessions: Tom Franz, the Israeli master chef, that shared his story, growing up in Germany as a christian and converting to Judaism; Avishay Wohl, the manager of the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem who led Hevruta session; Benji Lovitt who performed with his brilliant stand-up comedy show and made everybody laugh to tears while feeling identification with his story many more.
We dared. We dared having the program partially on the beach. We dared raising issues of inclusivity and challenge participants to think about women rights, LGBT rights, people with disabilities and people who come from different Jewish backgrounds. We heard Tikvah Sendeke speak about her story as an Israeli and Ethiopian, Deborah Blausten who spoke about being a woman who studies Reform rabbinical studies, Arnon Zamir and Dana from Tikun Olam Makers and David and Dave from the LGBT Jewish organisation, Keshet UK. As one of the participants put it wonderfully “the session was a truly eye opener, and enabled us to learn that you can be Jewish in many different ways.”
Welcoming Shabbat all dressed in white, really emphasised the feeling of elevation that was created. Along with the sounds of the musicians from Perach Adom and Aletchko bands, and together with the beautiful melodies of Miriam Camerini and the beloved Greek Rabbi. Being close to the sea added an extra feeling of spirituality.
In my opinion, we made a huge mind shift this year that made all the difference, moving from focusing on communities to focusing on individuals. This was a key factor on the way we built the program and on the experiences we aimed to create. To allow this individual experience, we created tracks in the program, showing different experiences you can engage in during Gesher, and to show that you can choose your own experience and find something for everyone. The tracks ranged from “mind, body and spirit” where you can engage in breathing and yoga session, Shabbat reflection and more, to “beyond your comfort zone” where you can participate in Improv theatre session and inclusivity activity.
There were so many concerns that we had to deal with while planning the program, such as that people will not wake up for the program or it will constantly rain (we actually had to change the locations of the activities throughout each day because of rain and other factors). Also, the fact that Gesher exists for 15 years now as a gathering of the Balkans added an additional challenge. How will people who regularly participated in Gesher will react to this change, and how will new participants will feel welcomed in this space. The notion of one of the participants in the closing ceremony supplied an answer to this concern in the most genuine and beautiful way, saying that “under all the layers we peel, we are all basically the same, we are all just Jews and just people”.
I’m really grateful for this opportunity to work on Gesher program, and to take part in this point of our history. Thank you Lela. Thank you Polly. Thank you Maia. and thank you all Gesher team!
Noa Tal, from Jerusalem, is the 2016 JDC’s Ralph I. Goldman fellow in Global Jewish Leadership.