Sex, sect, size and geography are no obstacle for these ROIers
By Maayan Hoffman
The modern Jewish leader cannot only be any size, sex or sect, but also from any place. At the ROI Community summit between June 23 and 27, Jewish young adults from around the world attended and shared about how they are building community in their hometowns.
Yaakov Rodríguez, a dentist from Costa Rica, is also a cantor and the founder and leader of Talmud Torah Beit Shalom, a community created for Jews who do not find their place in any of the existing synagogues. He told eJewish Philanthropy that the Costa Rican Jewish community is small and mostly Reform or Orthodox.
“There are people that don’t fit any framework,” he said.
So, he started the Talmud Torah to enable those Jews to stay connected to their faith. Through the program, Rodriguez holds Shabbat dinners, holiday events, Jewish classes and gatherings.
Because the program lacks funding, he said events take place in people’s homes and attendees bring food. However, he said that as the program grows, they are looking for a permanent place.
Rodriguez is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who came to the Caribbean from Portugal and Spain. His family embarked on a path of returning to the Judaism of his ancestors, which he has embraced with deep love and commitment. He studied in Jerusalem in the Shehebar Sephardic Center, where he trained to be a cantor and a rabbi, but ultimately chose not to complete the course. He’s worked as a Hebrew teacher, and a teacher of Jewish history, culture and religion. And he sings Hebrew and Ladino music.
He said young leaders today are “someone who is close to the people, in the field and not on a pedestal,” and a good leader is someone who can help transform others into leaders, too.
Rodriguez’s advice for other young leaders?
“Don’t be afraid of institutions,” he said. “Often, when something small is born, the bigger organizations will try to shut you down or give you a bad name. That’s because people are always afraid of something new. Keep going.”
Rodriguez’s message is not that dissimilar from Bitya Rozen-Goldberg’s message. A French native living in Jerusalem, she is one of the first Orthodox women to be ordained alongside men. She is also the founder of Ta Shma, a pluralist Beit Midrash for French speakers based in Jerusalem, through which she brings together like-minded French speaking Jews who are committed to tradition, innovation and equality.
Goldberg described the French Jewish community as “antiquated” and leaning toward Haredi. She said French Jews tend not to discuss women’s issues or intermarriage and she is trying to change that, as well as to educate them – whether they made Aliyah to Israel or still live in France – that Judaism can be “open and pluralistic.”
She is also teaching them text-based learning.
“I am trying to give these people the independence to read and understand the texts and examine them and their tradition so they can connect to something bigger,” said Goldberg.
Her weekly Beit Midrash draws 10 to 20 French speakers, ranging in age from 25 to 50-plus. All her source sheets have French alongside the Hebrew.
Additionally, she travels to France regularly to offer classes and train other people to run text-based learning workshops in their homes.
“I think that in the end of the day, people need to take Judaism into their own hands,” said Goldberg. “They need to take back Judaism – and take responsibility for it.”
That’s easier said than done in the former Soviet Union, where, according to Anna Frolova, “a lot of young Jewish adults have no idea they are Jewish, because their grandparents are still not comfortable talking about it.”
A regional manager for Moishe House, Frolova said that sometimes these young adults discover they are Jewish. When that happens, she tries to “create a comfortable, safe place for these people to have an entry point into Jewish life and discover their Jewish identity.”
In addition, Frolova for the past 12 years has been involved with various Jewish camps in Russia, Germany, Israel and Hungary, first as a madricha and then as a program coordinator.
“I believe in peer-to-peer engagement of young adults,” she said.
She also had advice for others working in the Jewish communal space.
“Find a field, activity or topic about which you are really passionate,” she said. Then, use your inner power to find a way to make it happen.”