How a Jewish Outsider Found Community, Everywhere
By Ariel Constantinof
I’ve publicly identified as a Jew for about twelve years now.
It all started when I was kicked out of my Jewish school in Romania and the press covered my story. But my Jewish journey started long before that.
I was born in Israel to Romanian Jewish parents who fled the country right after the fall of communism, traveling inside my pregnant mother on her first flight ever to her new home. Seven years later, my parents decide to return to Romania with me.
So, you may ask, am I Romanian or Israeli? Truth is I’m both, but depending on who’s asking.
In Istanbul a few months ago, with tensions high, I said I came from Romania. In Western Europe, though, I’d say I’m Israeli because people there tend to dislike Romanians. It’s fair to say that throughout the years I’ve learnt how to play it safe, being part of parallel realities.
But in April 2007, when my expulsion story became news and the press published my name and my religious background, my Jewish identity surged to the forefront. All of a sudden, I was a Jew to the general public and I started getting tons of hate-messages.
Thankfully I was never physically in danger, but it did make me realize how important my Jewish identity was. Understanding what that meant for my future was an entirely different thing.
You see, my point of view is constantly tempered by my current landscape.
For instance, today I am a 27-year old living in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I am part of a small, but thriving Jewish community of 8,000 throughout the country that competes, in terms of population numbers, with the numerous Israeli tourists who visit.
Added to this, I am also a reluctant celebrity who’s made a career in writing for the past ten years and, for better or worse, has always been seen as a very public Jewish figure. It comes with a lot of pressure and responsibilities
To my Jewish and Israeli friends, I am a barometer for Jewish issues, identity, and support for Israel. Among non-Jews, even friends, there is an expectation of Jewish “wealth” and “arrogance” I have never quite lived up to.
All of this was not the case when I was 11-years-old, and my Jewish identity was first being formed.
At that time my parents decided to send me to the Hungarian countryside to the International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas.
Well-known now by many in the global Jewish community for its impact on fostering Jewish identity, Jewish leaders, and communities in post-Communist Europe, Szarvas – founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Ronald S. Lauder foundation – was actually a place I didn’t really like at first.
It had too many demands: be social, learn English, participate in all those camping activities, and be far away from my parents for what felt like an interminable fourteen days in the summer.
But something kept me going back year after year, until I turned 18 and felt like giving back. So I became a madrich, or counselor, to young campers. I returned again and again, sometimes for one session, perhaps two, or even three.
After all, Szarvas, felt like home.
But time passed and eventually the madrich role began to feel rote. I wondered, what was my next Jewish step?
Not considering myself religious in the traditional sense, I wasn’t sure the direction to head in. After all, I had the knowledge base. I knew Jewish songs, Jewish culture and traditions. And by knowing Hebrew, I understood way more about the songs and prayers of our people than my peers who did not know the language.
So where was the next place to call home? Where was my adult Szarvas?
I found it at a place called Junction, the pan European community of young Jews powered by JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod. At Junction, young European Jews gather to explore their Jewish identities, learn from one another, tap training and educational offerings, and apply for micro-grants to catalyze our dreams, both in terms of Jewish programming and improving the communities around us.
More importantly, Junction is where I discovered my fellow travelers: young adults, like me, with Jewish roots and a growth mindset. Together, we are people from all around Europe – and even some from the U.S. and Israel too – who want to change the world, to make it a better place, to create a better future.
These are people who I can talk to for hours about so many things, as if we were brothers or sisters parted at birth, and we have so many things to catch-up on.
Just a few months ago, Junction gathered one hundred and fifty of us in Milan. What amazed me most about our gathering was that I didn’t feel shy or anxious at all. I was meeting people who were so very different, but with whom I shared so many things in common. True confession: at one point I just started writing down their names and the topics I wanted to talk about with them later on.
Probably the most powerful interaction I had at this year’s Junction Annual took place at a session called “The Art of Hosting (a conversation, a debate).” I found myself sitting at a table with other four or five peers. We were asked to imagine our “Jewish future” together and write down all the ideas.
At first it seemed like a simple, imaginative exercise, but imagination is vast, especially when you share it with four other people, and those four people are Jewish and love to talk, a lot. So we came with ideas that sounded crazy. We didn’t reject anything. We made a big-big-salad of ideas and I must say I loved our overall result for the exercise.
But what blew my mind was that when all the other tables around the room started sharing their ideas, it was obvious we all wanted the same thing for us all, but we mostly used different words.
In the end, we wanted community. And not Jewish community, but a community of human beings that extended out of our sense of ourselves Jewishly, of a history marred by persecution and the Holocaust, and a sense that we have emerged eager and enthuastastic to connect and grow.
I understand now that Judaism is ever-changing, just like life itself. I understand that I’ve been the witness of many years of evolution of a living organism that I simply call “my community.” More than ever, I felt I was part of this huge thing that is almost impossible to define in words, especially for my non-Jewish friends.
This was underscored for me when I heard from Jews my age – living far away in places like Australia, America, or even Latin America – that they thought there were no more Jews in Eastern Europe. (Even in Bucharest we have a JCC and home for the elderly that would look familiar to many American visitors!)
The notion gives me goose bumps because, as Junction has made possible, there is a growing realization of our connectedness as a people. Its something I am capturing in a global video series, an accessible platform to introduce others what I have learned about Jews my age, on a similar journey, searching for something bigger.
After all, while we may not always be united by religious practice or political points of view, we are connected by a mindset, a culture, our deep roots and the pain and successes our ancestors experienced.
Until recently, my community was on a precise street in Bucharest, and all events took place there. Now my community stretches all around Europe, at least!
And this crazy realization, when set against a journey that includes family history, a tale of aliyah and return, of Jewish experiences that have built me up, has made me grateful for many things including the opportunity to keep forging links in the chain of Jewish life here and around the world.
And if it helps brings world peace and promotes love – love of oneself, of one’s people, and the larger world – maybe its not so crazy after all.
Ariel Constantinof is a Bucharest-based blogger whose work can be found at https://arielconstantinof.com