From Virginia to Europe, My Jewish Journey Goes Full Circle
Our generation, with screens everywhere and friends at our fingertips, don’t need to be engaged. We need to be inspired. We need to be uplifted, and empowered, and given the space to build the communities we want to be a part of.
By Samantha Levinson
I’m a military brat. Before I was seven years old we’d lived in eight different houses, with the one constant being that no matter where we lived the Jewish community was our home. It wasn’t until we made our final move to Northern Virginia that our sense of connection to community became rooted in one place.
I’ve always felt deeply invested in the growth of DC Metro Area’s Jewish community and looking back, it’s because of the transient nature of my childhood that I seek to build a vibrant Jewish community wherever I am.
As a junior in high school, I attended BBYO’s International Convention where I met Shauna Ruda, a young woman serving as a fellow for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps in Izmir, Turkey. She brought a delegation of Turkish teens who met, in that weekend, more Jews from around the world than they may have ever met in their entire lives.
And in that moment, something clicked – just as I’m sure it did for the JDC and BBYO – if the Jewish community was going to have a future, it had to be global. Along with president of my region I served as BBYO’s Global Ambassador to Argentina, and one year later was elected International Teen President, a role that entails traveling to the ever-expanding BBYO communities across the world, working to strengthen Jewish teen life. During my tenure my counterpart, Oz Fishman, and I got to see firsthand the JDC’s work in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Israel. We promised ourselves that post-graduation, we would apply to become part of that effort, just like Shauna.
We had relationships with Jewish teens all over the world, leadership experiences – including skills in listening and asking questions, understanding that there are no blanket answers or one-size-fits-all solutions, and that each Jewish community is nuanced and complicated – and wanted to apply it overseas. And a little more than a year ago, we got our shot.
Once accepted as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow – Oz in Argentina, and I with Junction. We began our training with an exploration of arevut, or Jewish mutual responsibility. My cohort and I took a deep dive into our roles as guarantors of a Jewish present and dreamers of a Jewish future; to carry on the same mantle of leadership our parents had carried for us and becoming part of the fabric of Jewish history. A few months later, in October 2016, I packed my bags and my “skills” and relocated to Budapest.
And right there, in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community – that braved both Nazism and Communism in rapid succession – my job was to focus on working with Jewish young adults through Junction, a partnership of JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod. Our goal was to empower young European Jewish adults to engage with, and build, the pan-European Jewish community.
But – and here was the big reality check – what did I really know about these young Jews? And what could I offer?
As much as I was there to listen and learn, there were a lot of things that quickly caught my eye – many of which I saw in myself, too. They were over-programmed, overcommitted, and often over-stimulated. And that was when the second light bulb went off: the same challenges that many North American Jewish institutions were grappling with today were relevant in Europe, namely how to “engage” our generation.
The complexity of identity in our generation and the inability to be boxed and labeled ultimately means that Jewish programming needs to see every person as an individual and also as a part of a larger community. European Jews want to be European Jews – they want to be French or Hungarian or Danish, and they also want to be Jewish.
The fact was alive and well at the Junction Annual in Berlin, a gathering of more than 150 participants, in their 20’s and 30’s, from over 23 countries, who came together to celebrate, explore, and question what it means to be a young European Jew today. These young Jews traveled from all over the world because they were excited by the opportunity to have a hand in building a bright Jewish future.
During the gathering, between Shabbat and workshops, speakers and social events, I remembered a conversation with a friend about the work we were doing. We asked ourselves, “What’s the point here? What is the point of gathering young Jews together? Of strengthening a European Jewish community? Of investing in Jewish life?”
And the answer is directly embedded in the question. When institutions wonder how to “reach” or “engage” our generation, it makes me wonder if we need to reframe what they’re asking. Our generation, with screens everywhere and friends at our fingertips, don’t need to be engaged. We need to be inspired. We need to be uplifted, and empowered, and given the space to build the communities we want to be a part of.
I’m not convinced that the answer could be centered on simply survival or a burden of responsibility for the past. For us, and the young European Jews we’re connecting with, the answer had to be found in timeless values and knowing that being Jewish added value to our lives and that by being Jewish, we add value to the world.
That conversation has bubbled up in numerous places since then, and it’s the conversation we’re constantly having at Junction as we strategize what comes next. Without boasting, I think Junction has the answers to these questions. And if my experience and the experience of thousands of Jews in our network are any indicator, it is an answer that works.
Because ultimately we’ve been met where we are and also asked where we want to go. We are empowered to imagine what we want the Jewish world to look like and then made to feel the responsibility for beginning to create that world.
And yes, our world – the wider and the Jewish – is in transition and there are many unknowns.
For some, that void causes worry, skepticism, and nostalgia for the past. We can’t approach this change through fear. That’s a message that professionals, stakeholders, funders, and leaders alike need to remember.
Our Judaism must be aspirational. It must be global. It must be an identity and a culture and a civilization that evolves with each and every person who considers themselves part of it.
Whenever we might feel overwhelmed by what might happen to Jewish life, let’s remember that the Jewish people, over their 3,000 year history, have never stopped changing. And it is in the moments when we forget that fact, or resist that change, or refuse to empower as many people as possible to make those choices, we lose what is so fundamentally Jewish about us: that questioning and affirmation of our divine purpose. In Judaism, power is the only thing that grows when you give it away.
In the most aspirational of ways, the fate of our people relies on the hope and trust that the next iteration of the Jewish people will be greater than any that came before it – if only we give them the space to create it. And it’s in that spirit that we will embrace the awesome responsibility of being guarantors of the Jewish future.
Samantha Levinson, 24, is the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow working with Junction and a past International President of BBYO.
Photos from Junction Berlin; courtesy JDC