Jewish young adults from 32 countries connect at WUJS conference in Israel
By Maayan Hoffman
Law student Rebeka Levi is trying to learn how a Jewish minority can influence their local politics and economy. That’s because Levi is one of only 250 Jews living in Macedonia, located in the southern Balkan region. Ninety-eight percent of the Macedonian Jewish community was wiped out in the Holocaust, including most of Levi’s relatives.
“The community is fascinating,” said Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), who attended a conference in Macedonia in 2014. WUJS spearheaded a conference in Israel last week, the WUJS Congress, which brought together 131 young Jewish adults from 32 countries.
Macedonian Jews are Sephardic and speak Ladino, explained Tarshish. The community was formed after the Spanish inquisition, when Jews fled Spain and Portugal. Many sought refuge in Turkey and Macedonia. The country was under Ottoman control for nearly 500 years, from the first half of the 15th century. In the 1940s, Bulgaria occupied Macedonia, soon signing an agreement with German officials to deport all of its Jews for extermination.
According to Levi, the Jewish community is slowly starting to recover. A new synagogue – the first in generations – was inaugurated in March 2000 in the city of Skopje. Macedonia is also home to the second largest Holocaust museum in Europe, erected in the old Jewish neighborhood in 2000.
“Even though we are a small community, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays,” said Levi, who attended the WUJS conference as a representative of the Macedonian Jewish Youth Club. She said her organization is focused on infusing Jewish history lessons into the Macedonian educational system and creating a law against Holocaust denial.
“I believe the right to free speech must be balanced against the right not to be subjected to anti-Semitism and a potential revival of Nazism,” said Levi.
At the WUJS conference, Levi said she spent most of her time listening and learning from others to improve her efforts.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
WUJS is a 93-year-old organization. However, according to Tarshish, following an unfortunate bankruptcy and other challenges, it was largely inactive for most of the past decade. Since his hire in 2014, Tarshish, 25, infused new life into the organization. This year, for the first time in more than 10 years, WUJS received a certificate of good practice from the Israeli government, indicating that its books are in order.
Tarshish’s said his main focus has been expanding participation.
“We view ourselves as building a diverse Jewish student movement driven by Jewish leaders,” he said, noting that there was an increase of 61 congress participants this year. Because of the added diversity, WUJS offered sessions in Russian and Spanish.
The congress focused on union development, building political activism and personal leadership skills, and finding a central uniting factor among the variant Jewish identities and personalities.
He said that although there are very large differences between countries like Macedonia, with 250 Jews, and the University of Maryland with 6,000 Jewish students on its campus alone, “there are enough shared values that the barriers break down quite easily.”
He said Jews in all countries are facing similar challenges, from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to assimilation, anti-Semitism, the rise of the far-right and media bias. Nonetheless, he sees that this generation of young Jewish people wants to engage with their Jewish identities in a meaningful way.
“When you look at our participating countries, people are often surprised there are Jewish communities there or there,” said Tarshish. “But they [the members of those communities] are not surprised.”
JEWS ARE JEWS
Angela Penkar, president of the Jewish Youth Pioneers of Mumbai, is one of those people. She said around 200 young adults are involved with her organization on a regular basis and she feels “totally connected to my brethren. I have lots of Jewish friends and there are plenty of [Jews].”
The Mumbai Jewish community of about 5,000 people is located in what has become a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, said Penkar. This has led to some aggressive attacks against the community, including anti-Semitic and hateful graffiti on synagogue walls. In recent years, large numbers of Mumbai Jews have made aliyah.
Still, Penkar sees the Mumbai community as thriving. Her mother brought Limmud to town, her grandfather is a trustee of the first Jewish school in Mumbai and her grandmother is active with the Jewish women’s league. In late December, Penkar spearheaded Khei Fest, a large fundraising event and show, featuring singing, dancing and Israeli comedy. In mid-January, she will run a Shabbaton for Jewish young adults from across India.
“Coming to WUJS is a great opportunity to talk about our community,” said Penkar. “People think we don’t exist, but we are very much here.”
Magda Korakhashvili, the founder of the Georgian Union of Jewish Students, expressed similar sentiments. Korakhashvili, who has lived in Georgia since she was eight, only became connected to her Jewish roots when she was studying for her bachelor’s degree in Austria. Now, she is trying to get others from her hometown involved in the European Jewish Student Union and WUJS.
“There are a lot of interesting conferences and congresses and there is no way that Georgian Jewish students are represented there,” said Korakhashvili. “My wish is that Georgian students will be active and present with Jewish students their age from different counties and learn from them and share about our culture.”
The Georgian Jewish community is one of the oldest, dating back to as early as the sixth century. Korakhashvili said people often confuse Georgian Jews with the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan or Armenia, but Georgian Jews are unique to Georgia. However, similar to Azerbaijan, there is no anti-Semitism in Georgia.
However, the Georgian economic situation is quite poor. According to Korakhashvili, the average salary per month per person is less than what it would cost to pay for one conference in Europe, notwithstanding the ticket and accommodation costs.
“I meet these European Jews and they never heard about the country,” said Korakhashvili. “It is a pity, because it is a one of kind, wonderful Jewish nation.”
“It doesn’t make sense that in the 21t century to be a small Jewish community,” said Ivona Gacevic, founder of the Serbian Union of Jewish Students (SUJS). Serbia has about 3,500 Jews, one-tenth of them young adults. SUJS is the first ever organization in Serbian founded and run by students.
“I hope Serbia will be a motivator for the whole Balkan region – that is the greater goal,” said Gacevic. “
Added Korakhashvili: “It does not matter from which country they come from, Jews are Jews and we have to share things and stay connected and learn from each other.”