By Joey Eisman and Ivan Panchev
Many of us have read recent accounts of a resurgence of Anti-Semitism throughout Europe. While this is an unfortunate reality in some places, these pieces seem to have perpetuated a one-sided view of Jewish life in Europe.
Not making headlines, but very much making a difference, is a quieter story and more optimistic reality, one we’ve seen first-hand: a renaissance of growth and beauty as many European Jewish communities come back to life.
Earlier this summer, we led a group of 82 teens from 13 countries through Bulgaria on BBYO’s Ambassadors to Bulgaria summer experience. Throughout the 10 day program, we guided them in learning about the country, its rich history and our collective commitment to the global Jewish community. As the saying “it’s a small Jewish world” becomes truer with technological advances, it is increasingly important that Jewish communities around the world create real and meaningful connections – the kinds of connections that young Jewish people want.
On Ambassadors to Bulgaria, we brought these teens together to do just that: create life-long friendships built on a common heritage, values and narrative. Activities like cleaning the Jewish cemetery; making a minyan in Plovdiv (a rare occurrence, allowing the community to celebrate Shabbat) and visiting homebound elderly and Holocaust survivors were not just activities, they brought to life the global Jewish connection we share.
Throughout the program, we debriefed nightly. Without fail, these evenings turned into critical conversations that provided our teens with an outlet to learn from one another and grow as a community. While the teens on the program were from all over, they returned home with the same mission, which they’ll carry out in different ways: to share and perpetuate this Jewish renaissance which is, in this sense, the existence, building and strengthening of Jewish communities around the world.
Most of the North American participants didn’t know what Jewish communities looked like outside of their home experiences. They now have the responsibility to be ambassadors for the global Jewish community by raising awareness about the vibrancy of these Jewish communities by leading globalization programming, deepening relationships with their European friends and fundraising to provide scholarships for teens everywhere to be a part of meaningful Jewish experiences. They are our advocates in altering the perception of “Jewish Europe” and the continuing beauty depends on them.
The European teens are returning home as ambassadors of a network of people and peers who want to support them. This support can come in the form of global teen committees who meet regularly throughout the year via teleconferencing to strengthen friendships, create programs and discuss issues around the world. These moments of connection are some of the ways these teens continue to build and breathe new life into their local Jewish communities.
For years, after the fall of communism, many organizations and individuals worked to support the Jewish people of Europe through welfare, Judaic enrichment and cultural programs. However, less attention has been given to the youth of these communities. Through our work with these young people, we’ve seen their potential.
Seventeen-year-old Peca from a small town in Serbia has taken it upon himself to provide Jewish experiences for his local community, all because of the exposure he’s received to the greater Jewish world through BBYO. Teens like him are the lifeline of our people and it is paramount that we provide them with the meaningful Jewish experiences that will keep them engaged with the Jewish community.
The participants walk from the experience with a new outlook on our global Jewish community and understand the importance of helping one another. But above all, they understand the importance of their friendships. By building these kinds of relationships, the Jewish connection goes beyond email and Skype – it’s real and meaningful.
It is through efforts and programs like Ambassadors to Bulgaria that we can strengthen the global Jewish community. BBYO is fortunate to be able to offer more Ambassadors programs this coming summer – to the Dominican Republic and Argentina – to expand this reach. We are also fortunate to work with incredible partners at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Maccabi World Union to engage these teens and create connections between them and their North American peers.
Together we can create a truly unified people, continue to build our youth networks and support the Jewish renaissance around the world.
Joey Eisman is the Associate for Israel and Global Jewish Peoplehood at BBYO International and Ivan “Puki” Panchev is the Director of BBYO Bulgaria.