The Many Faces of ROI Community: Argentina, Israel, Belarus and Copenhagen

Israel, especially during the summer months, is a melting-pot of innovation. And one of the real pleasures of living here is having the opportunity to meet, and interact, with young adults from around the world who are involved in these new endeavors. As we have in previous summers, over the next month or so, we will bring you snapshots of just some of the many, people and projects, that are shaping our collective future.

With the ROI Global Summit opening on Sunday, we introduce you today to four who are a part of this growing, vibrant and important community.

Evelyn Goldfinger is Creator/Director of El Toratron Jewish Educational Theatre in Argentina, for which she received an ROI Community grant in May. She is an actress, playwright and director. Together with Hillel volunteers, she directs a theater company that performs for underprivileged children.

In 2005, she took advantage of the opportunity to study and work abroad, where she took a production and administrative internship at the Folskbiene Yiddish Theater. There she wrote “The Bubbe´s Trunk”, a play to teach children about Yiddish language and culture. Evelyn presented her program to local Iwo in Buenos Aires (YIVO) and she started the production of ‘My Yiddish Lessons.’ Evelyn’s shows were presented in many Jewish schools for children and their grandparents.

El Toratrón is her third and biggest program. She created this theater company to make educational interactive plays to transmit Jewish values to children, teenagers and adults. El Toratrón performances deal with Jewish holiday and weekly Torah portion themes. Evelyn has written, performed in and directed each of the 14 plays the company has presented since 2007, at schools, congregations, and theaters. Evelyn knows art can be a perfect way to share, teach, laugh, cry and gather people. Art makes more sense to her when she can use it as a tool to transmit Jewish values. (Here’s Evelyn talking about El Toratron on TV)

What I gained the most by attending the ROI summit in 2009 was encouragement, confidence and support to continue and deepen my work in the Jewish community. The truth is that I was about to give up my Jewish Educational Theater program because it was too hard to keep it alive, I felt really alone, and that I was fighting for something that everyone seemed to like and enjoy but no local organization would support. This is a great and innovating program where Jewish children of every denomination can learn about Torah, Jewish life and values through performing arts. And then, “myn Hashamaim” the ROI summit acceptance letter came and it changed things. At the ROI summit I felt like the ugly duckling flying amongst the swans. I felt recognized as a Jewish innovator and that what I do and believe in really matters. After I came back, I had renewed strength and a network that supported me and luckily I decided to give my program another powerful chance. It was a great challenge, but it blossomed like a flower. El Toratrón is what the Jewish Educational Theater program is called, and we achieved a large number of performances and new audiences. We even toured outside Buenos Aires and it is still growing. I know I have ROI to thank for that. I also have an online network with which I can share ideas, questions and programs. I was able to apply to a grant as an individual (when economic crash made almost impossible to get a local institution to apply for founding for my program). Now I have the strength to introduce proudly what I do and I have renewed confidence in who I am: a Jewish artist and educator, and a Jewish innovator who has so much more to offer and who knows she is up to flying among swans.”

Maya Abarbanel, director of Parallel Lives, a private Israeli initiative that promotes dialogue between Israeli soldiers from top combat units and their Jewish peers in Israel for study programs, received an ROI grant to develop an alumni program. Each group is likely to represents future leaders in Israel and the Jewish world, hence the urgency for dialogue. The idea is for the soldiers and the students to explore issues of Jewish identity over eight facilitated sessions throughout the year. Parallel Lives then sends the soldiers to a diaspora community for up to two weeks so they can have a taste for what Jewish communal life means. Maya discovered the meaning of Jewish community when she went on shlichut to Ohio for two years. Beyond the ROI grant, Maya says there are two new developments with her organizations: 1) After a pilot project, they just signed an agreement with the Minneapolis Jewish community to host the Israeli soldiers when they are in the US; and, 2) the Jewish Agency just ordered a redirection to promote Jewish identity among Jews abroad, dialogue between Israeli and diaspora communities and promoting Jewish identity in Israel. “We knew all these things were necessary eight years ago, and we’ve been acting on it ever since,” Maya told me this morning.

Olga Skulovich of Belarus, who has been an ROI member since Summit 2009. Born in Vitebsk (Marc Chagall’s birthplace), she is an ecological analyst working on her Ph.D. She was first introduced to Jewish traditions in 1999, when she attended a Jewish Agency summer camp. She then started working at the Jewish Agency – first as a counselor in Minsk in 2002, then as a youth leader in the Minsk Jewish Agency Youth Club. She has led a number of projects and children’s groups. She now feels very connected to Jewish tradition. She spent five months at the MASA program in Haifa. She now sees her future and that of her community strongly linked to Israel.

I had been in Haifa on a MASA program, but I came back to Belarus in February. Since then I’m running a project, called “Mind Games,” with my sister’s help. We meet once a month and play a game built on a base of a famous quiz show. We ask questions and teams answers. The questions are usually connected to Jewish history, Jewish tradition or to Israel. So Jewish education is one of our goals in this project. We have more than 10 teams and an audience (they also can answer questions and get their prizes). More than 80 people are participating in this project. Most of them are Jewish youth from 16 to 30 years old. Also some of the teams are non-Jewish youth. They got interested because they like mind games. We see this as a huge opportunity to create a strong and positive connection between Jewish youth and non-Jewish youth inside the Belorussian society. This project exists thanks to help from the Jewish Agency for Israel in Belarus and the Jewish Student Center Hillel in Minsk.

We recruit participants to “Mind Games” through my personal connections in social networks (Russian Facebook) and we use flyers.

Mischa Szpirt is project manager of ViAid in Copenhagen. Born to a religious family in 1983, he spent most of his teenage years at a Christian boarding school. Losing most of his religious practices, he somehow managed to maintain a strong Jewish identity. After completing high school, Mischa volunteered for the Danish army, concluding his service as a sergeant in HM Queens Royal Guard. After the army he studied physics and was very active in the Danish-Jewish Community. He participated on birthright in 2007 and ROI in 2008. When Mischa isn’t concentrating on his studies as a Software Developer at the IT-University in Copenhagen, or working for IBM University Relations, he focuses his time at the not-for-profit Cafe Retro. Currently he is working on opening a second not-for-profit cafe and also engaging in early planning on re-organizing the Jewish community youth programs in Denmark. To date, Retro Café has sent 100,000 Euros to children in Africa and India.

I have gained an invaluable worldwide network, consisting of amazing innovative people and I am still in contact with many of them. I have received tools that I now use for project planning, organizing and fundraising and have greatly increased my knowledge of Jewish culture and community around the world. I learned about other projects, ideas and possibilities that have inspired and helped me with my own projects. I have found that so much information and inspiration can be found in Jewish texts and philosophies, even from a non-religious perspective. I have gained many new friends that I am excited to meet again! Thanks mainly to ROI, I have been inspired to look at the problems of the failing youth community in Denmark and developed a plan for changing it mostly inspired by projects I encountered through ROI channels. I am currently talking with the community about executing and managing this plan.