Building Strong Global Connections

May 13, 2019

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For many young American Jews, “Jewish community” means family, their synagogue, perhaps a summer camp or youth group. But for Samantha Levinson, community extends much further.

Levinson is community and program manager for Junction, the partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod that catalyzes a network of young European Jews taking an active part in fostering Jewish life relevant to their generation and beyond.

How does an American Jew from Virginia find her way to the heart of Europe’s reemerging Jewish communities? For Levinson, the answer was JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellowship.

Every year, the fellowship offers college graduates and young professionals the opportunity to spend a year overseas volunteering with a community in one of the 70 countries where JDC works. It’s a powerful way to develop leaders and deepen an understanding of the global Jewish world.

While visiting Jewish communities abroad as co-president of BBYO, the international Jewish teen movement and longtime JDC partner, Levinson — then a teenager — frequently found herself crashing on the couches of JSC Fellows.

She realized quickly that she wanted to follow in their footsteps, and after graduation, she made her dream a reality. She moved to Budapest and became a JSC Fellow, working for Junction.

Her involvement in a pan-European program helped Levinson build a stronger connection to a Jewish world that had often felt remote.

“Jewish life was usually so America-centric for me,” she said. “JDC opened up what global Jewish life could look like.”

What she discovered is a diverse community of young Jews taking the future into their own hands — which often means building Jewish community themselves.

“They’re saying, ‘Yes, we have to do something and we have to do it now, during the biggest drop-off point in Jewish communal life,’” she said. “If we want to be resilient, if we want to be sustainable, we have to figure out how to put young people in the driver’s seat.”

Extending her placement for a second year, Levinson became a mentor to the new class of JSC Fellows, organizing a speaker series to showcase Jewish “communal professional superstars.” Last year, she joined the Junction team full-time.

Two of the young leaders she’s worked to support are Beni Hess and Bini Guttmann, cofounders of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students, a democratic organization for Austrian Jews aged 18 to 35. The Union has revitalized Jewish life for this new generation by giving them avenues to engage in politics, culture, and student life through a Jewish lens.

Through a micro-grant, Junction provided Hess and Guttmann with crucial startup funds: Even a relatively small investment can give a young adult the resources to bring their vision to life, and to effect meaningful, transformative change in their community.

JDC OPENED UP WHAT GLOBAL JEWISH LIFE COULD LOOK LIKE.

“Junction helped us in an incredible way,” Guttmann said, “Only with the generous funding of events and the enormous network they offer were we able to organize all this while studying and working.”

For many Junction partners, the connection with other like-minded young Jews is invaluable.

“Junction has been a source of inspiration and networking with other passionate Jewish social entrepreneurs from all over Europe,” said Dekel Peretz, program director of the revived Fraenkelufer Jewish community in Berlin. “At Junction events, we found new partners and ideas, as well as acquired a deeper understanding of how what we do fits into a bigger picture of European Jewish revival.”

Today, Junction is building bridges beyond Europe with Global Co:Lab — a collaboration between Entwine and Junction that brings together young Jewish leaders and changemakers from around the world for a global gathering rooted in Jewish responsibility. Now in its third year, Co:Lab has been a successful and natural outgrowth of the relationship built through JSC Fellows like Levinson.

“Cultivating a Jewish future means more than just supporting Jewish communities around the world,” says Diego Ornique, JDC’s co-chief program officer. “It’s about bringing community leaders together, sharing best practices, and amplifying younger voices. Programs like Junction and JSC are how we create a truly interconnected global Jewish community.”

Levinson has seen this cultural exchange firsthand: It is at the heart of her experiences with both Entwine and Junction, and it’s made her optimistic about the next generations of Jewish life.

Take it from someone whose Jewish community spans continents: “There are so many things to learn from each other. We’re much more similar than we are different.”

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