Feature Stories

In Turbulent Times, Community Brings Young Balkan Jews Respite

“Gesher gives us ‘seeds’ of Jewish life. Then each of us can take them home and make the plant grow fruitful,” said Eric, a participant in this year’s Gesher Young Leaders Institute.
“Gesher gives us ‘seeds’ of Jewish life. Then each of us can take them home and make the plant grow fruitful,” said Eric, a participant in this year’s Gesher Young Leaders Institute.

Eric, 26, echoes the frustration of his generation as they confront an uncertain future in their native Greece and neighboring euro zone countries. “Our economic and political situation is really difficult. People are struggling and they are angry,” he said. “My parents have been hit hard and now I need to help support my family, which puts a completely new pressure and perspective on what I can do next.”

Eric adds that his dilemma is not uncommon; many of his peers feel their sense of opportunity has been compromised by their country’s financial crisis. “I don’t know if I can continue to stay in Greece or if I will need to leave. The only thing I’m certain about is the value of becoming closer to Jewish life and the community I was once estranged from.”

Eric was among the 350 European Jews who came to JDC’s annual Gesher Young Leaders Institute this May. To ensure that young Jews from one of the communities hit hardest by financial crisis would be able to join the event, Gesher was held in Halkidiki, Greece. Participants in this regional Jewish networking and identity-building event hailed from Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.

This was Eric’s second time at Gesher since he came in 2010 and was first inspired to take a closer look at Judaism. Since then, he’s become Vice President of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and part of the Leadership Institute WING volunteer team, another JDC-supported, youth-led event that takes place during the winter for Jews primarily from Central European countries.

Eric is grateful that despite his community’s financial hardships, money didn’t stand in the way of his participating in Gesher this year. “Spending four days with hundreds of my peers from across the Balkans is incredible. This is the one place I can experience Judaism not strictly as a religion but in a colorful way that really appeals to me.” That’s because the grassroots, volunteer-led gathering is uniquely pluralistic and engaging for the young Jews that go to great lengths to attend—especially when their resources are so limited.

One of the event’s volunteers, Uros, a young engineer, reports that he has had to work a lot harder this year, as the business environment has become highly competitive. With financial pressures competing for his time, Uros put all his involvement in Jewish life on hold—except attending Gesher. “These four days are my only opportunity to learn about Jewish life and Israel. Here I can explore and practice Judaism in a more personal way. This kind of platform is the essence of keeping the Diaspora and Israel strong.”

For most of the participants, Gesher offers a unique opportunity to meet and cement bonds with fellow Jews across borders. It creates a time and a space for Jewish young adults to experience the strength and support of the global Jewish community beyond their own smaller, local communities. “This is my only chance to connect with my friends from Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and other parts of Greece. I leave with a widened network, new learning, and a lot of positive feeling,” Uros says.

This year’s program focused on Judaism’s view on social justice, volunteerism, and mitzvot (good deeds). But many participants were also deeply embroiled in parallel conversations about contemporary Jewish life, discussing the Arab world and its affect on Israel and Jewish communities, and being Jewish in rapidly changing and unstable countries.

Lela Sadikario, director of JDC’s Gesher activities throughout the Danube and Balkan regions, herself from Macedonia, said this year’s event really focused on building and strengthening connections among the participants. “These young people seek to have more opportunities to interact with other Jews around the region because it helps them feel safer, stronger, and more secure.”

Like many of his peers, Eric came away feeling re-energized and inspired. “Gesher gives us ‘seeds’ of Jewish life. Then each of us can take them home and make the plant grow fruitful.”

Tags for this story: Camps / Retreats

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