Feature Stories

Investing in the Balkans: Bringing Together Europe’s Emerging Leaders

JDC’s Gesher is not your average networking event or professional development conference.

For the emerging young leaders of the tiny Jewish communities of the Balkans, it’s a lifeline — a reminder that there’s a big Jewish world out there waiting for them to get involved.

“Gesher gives us opportunity to feel part of the global Jewish community,” said Mila Stojanovic, a 24-year-old Serbian studying to become an elementary school teacher. “Meeting people from all of the Balkan countries, sharing experiences and knowledge, learning from each other — it makes us stronger as a community.”

Held this year in Thessaloniki, Greece, the conference brought together more than 250 young Jews from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey. Participants attended lectures and workshops on a variety of topics — “Bringing Judaism to Life Through Storytelling,” “21st Century Confusion: Who Is a Jew?”, Instagram-ology, challah baking, recyclable arts and crafts, and more.

Gesher also includes a volunteer day. This year, participants visited elderly Holocaust survivors at the local old age home, planted trees in the city center near the Jewish community center, and painted the outdoor recreation space at the Jewish day school in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.

Daria Melamed, 23, a program coordinator at JCC Beit Shalom in Sofia, Bulgaria, said the hands-on service was the most meaningful part of Gesher for her.

“It was a powerful experience that taught us that all of us can make a difference to the world by performing acts of tikkun olam,” she said. “The volunteering was just a few hours, but it had a great impact on all of us and definitely brought Gesher to a whole new level.”

Though there’s a strong and powerful pan-Balkan identity and unity at Gesher, Melamed said the individual is not lost in the rush of exciting events that characterize the conference each year; in fact, the event’s focus is on empowering each and every participant.

“It helps you develop yourself professionally and also gives you the opportunity to do all the things that we all love — like socializing with other people, learning about Jewish traditions and culture, finding new friends, playing sports, and participating in arts and crafts workshops,” she said. “It helps people to build their Jewish identity by creating an environment for establishing a Jewish community without walls and without borders.”

Gesher is just one component of JDC’s robust and holistic approach to Jewish communal identity in Europe and throughout the world.

“JDC is a key player in supporting and connecting communities, making them stronger and investing in their future,” Stojanovic said.

And to hear Melamed tell it, JDC’s investment in the next generation of young Jewish leaders in Europe is not just appreciated — it’s essential.

“Thanks to JDC, we have these bridges built between all the communities in Europe,” she said. “JDC gives us the opportunity to live a Jewish life in a special way. It gives us the sense of a bigger community, more opportunities, and wider perspectives. JDC helps us to develop our identities as young Jewish people.”

JDC’s global programs are made possible by the generosity of our supporters.

Tags for this story: Youth / Young Adults

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