By Madison Jackson
In 2014 I participated in the Szarvas Fellowships, a program which brings North American teens to the Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp in Hungary in order to engage in camp activities and interact with youth from around the world. Little did I know that this trip, my first time ever in Europe and my first time flying on an airplane without anyone that I knew, would change the course of my life.
It was during my time at that summer camp that I first really thought about the existence of Jews in other countries. It was during my time at that summer camp that I first met Jews my own age from 25 countries around the world. Upon returning to the United States I became devoted to learning about European Jewry. I was so inspired by my time at Szarvas that I decided to major in college in Judaic Studies with a focus on Jewish life in Europe, become a virtual intern for Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden and spend a summer living and interning for the American Jewish Committee in Warsaw, Poland.
Jews around the world, often from a young age, have the chance to connect with Israeli Jews through pen pal programs set up at Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools, or through organized trips to Israel. While this connection between North American and Israeli Jews is very important it is equally important that Jews from other countries have the chance to build connections both with North American and Israeli Jews and Jews from other countries in the diaspora. Our religion is so small as is we must unite together as one global Jewish peoplehood. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities for this to happen. Schools rarely set up pen pal programs with Jews from other countries and trips to Europe or Asia are expensive. As a result, many people don’t understand what it means to be Jewish in other parts of the world and worse, negative, false impressions are created.
To remedy this lack of connection between Jews from all over the world I began the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. Using four main criteria I match people from all over the world together:
1) Pen Pals must be from two different countries
2) Pen Pals must be around similar ages
3) Pen Pals must have signed up for the same form of communication (i.e. to have a virtual Pen Pal, or to have a Pen-Pal to write handwritten letters with)
4) Similar interests/places in life (i.e. students, lawyers, etc.) are taken into consideration
All ages are welcome to participate in the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. So far, there are over 165 people ranging from 9 years old to 77 years old, signed up from 18 countries. Some people get matched instantly, and others, it takes weeks to match. It’s a process that looks different for every person but upon receiving a match, that waiting process will be so worth it.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus served as a catalyst for starting this program. I have seen a need for this type of program for a while and with everyone stuck at home in social isolation, this was the perfect time to begin it. Everyone could use some human connection right now and it is a great chance to learn about Jewish life in other countries. Yet, the Coronavirus will not be the end of this program. Long after the Coronavirus is gone my hope is that pen pals will continue to be in touch and that this program will continue to create matches – and do more than that. Further developments are on the way to prompt and motivate pen pals to stay connected to one another.
For those interested in being matched with a Jewish Pen Pal in another country, please fill out the following form.
If you know someone who might be interested, please share this with them.
If you lead an organization, school, synagogue, camp, foundation, federation, or are an individual with whom this project resonates, please be in touch as well.
It is through these one on one interactions with Jews all over the world that we can work together to better appreciate the rich Jewish life that exists not just in our own countries, but everywhere.
Madison Jackson is a graduate of Binghamton University where she received a double BA in Judaic Studies and English. She currently works full time as the Jewish Life and Culture Program Associate at the Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, and writes monthly blog posts for KAHAL Your Jewish Home Abroad. The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is not affiliated with any organization, but is a project of Madison’s individual passion. If you have any questions about the program you can reach out to her at [email protected]