by Lauren Wilner
From New York City to Jerusalem to Budapest, participants in the Jewish Social Leadership Training Program gathered in the office of Jerusalem’s Memizrach Shemesh January 4-10 in the first of a series of meetings designed to engage participants from vastly different Jewish communities in Jewish values and traditional texts as sources for solutions to contemporary social issues. Though the exchange has run for several years now, this is the first time it has included Jewish communities from three different countries.
Memizrach Shemesh, funded by the Avi Chai Foundation and Alliance-Kol Yisrael Haverim, is a center for Jewish social activism and leadership in Israel that uses the traditional Beit Midrash model to train, inform and educate its participants, with a special emphasis on the texts, writings and commentaries of Sephardic rabbis and sages. The organization runs groups for youth, students, parents, rabbis, social activists and community leaders with the aim of empowering these populations to strengthen their Jewish identity while taking action for social change within their own communities.
The exchange, funded by Partnership 2000 and the UJA-Federation of New York, is a three-semester joint program through the Bronfman Center at New York University, Memizrach Shemesh-The Center for Jewish Leadership in Israel and Marom Budapest.
Using traditional texts as their basis, participants spent their first semester understanding what poverty is, how it is measured, and why it is important to break down related stereotypes. At the end of the semester each group is intended to spend time learning specifically about poverty at the partner city of the exchange.
When asked what the greatest social problem facing each country was, Israeli participants were united on one issue: the working poor. “People work a lot,” said Israeli participant Sara Levinger, “and they still don’t make enough money to survive.”
The group moved the conversation into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara for a tour in the footsteps of the Israeli Black Panthers where they met with founder Reuven Abergel to learn about the hardships facing Mizrahim. “I never heard about these issues between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim before,” Hungarian participant Szofya said. “I didn’t know a problem like this existed in Israel.
For a couple Hungarian participants, this trip to Israel would be more than learning about Israel’s social issues. For one student, this trip meant celebrating her first Shabbat. Coming from a “close-minded” family with mixed religious views, she said, “I have a very hard time connecting to Judaism because my father’s side is very anti-Semitic.” And for another participant, this would be only her second time outside of Hungary.
Though it may have been easier for the Israeli and American participants to describe their connections to Judaism, all the participants are characterized by a strong commitment to social activism and leadership in their communities.
Hungarian group leader Esther explained that while there may be 100,000 Jews in Budapest only about 10-15 percent are active. “We had no role models for Judaism,” she said. She continued that because social activism isn’t everywhere in Hungary, “It was special for us to explore ways of helping through Jewish texts.”
Through the course of the year, the groups will focus on issues related to education and leadership and rejoin in Budapest and New York to familiarize themselves with how these communities are individually affected by these issues.
Lauren Wilner is a volunteer with Memizrach Shemesh.