Cultivating Jewish Leaders Across Borders

June 14, 2011

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A lot can happen in 10 years. Just ask the more than 300 participants in May’s annual Weinberg Gesher Young Leaders Institute, held in Bulgaria. What began a decade ago as a cross-border seminar to network Jewish students has blossomed into a premier annual event that connects, educates, and empowers Jewish youth in Europe to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Martin, 23, is one of them. Growing up in Sofia he attended Jewish Sunday School, a local Jewish summer camp, and Szarvas International Jewish Camp in Hungary (where he became a madrich and then a unit head for three years)—all of which receive support from JDC. When Martin heard about the JDC-sponsored Gesher event, he couldn’t wait to hit university age and get involved; he has been a volunteer since 2007.

“The Gesher experience is unique: we balance the Jewish dimension and fun aspects because this is a gathering for young people who are interested in tradition, history, and religion, as well as in their modern environments and the things around them.”

Martin and most of his cohort are part of the first generation in the Balkan-Black sea region to grow up openly Jewish, and events like Gesher are critical in shaping that experience. They view it as a unique opportunity to explore Jewish tradition and identity, network with peers from other communities, and form strong personal and cultural bonds within a greater Jewish family.

This year’s group included participants from Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, newly joined by Croatia and Moldova, as well as guests from Israel, Holland, and France.

Beyond transcending geographic, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, the best part about this grassroots event is that it’s completely volunteer-organized and run. Lela Sadikario, director of JDC’s Weinberg regional activities throughout the Danube and Balkan regions, herself from Macedonia, describes it as “a pluralistic and engaging place where young lay leaders voluntarily join together to build a Jewish experience for themselves and their peers on an international level.”

The volunteer team is comprised of one person from each country, who in turn represents and communicates with peers from their home communities. Together the team hones their leadership and professional skills as they start each year’s planning from scratch, organizing themselves into teams to deal with PR, programming, logistics, and other aspects of putting of on an enriching four-day program.

Over the past decade, Gesher has impacted more than 3,000 participants and evolved thanks to volunteers like Liza from Belgrade, Serbia, whose been involved since 2006. “The level of involvement has changed. There is more momentum, more people, more integration, more everything,” she said. “Everyone gets caught up in the atmosphere because the experience is completely unique and it is the only place one can have this special feeling!”

Lela said that at first the idea of such growth scared her. “I imagined that the larger a community becomes, the less it would actually feel like a community,” she shared. “But Gesher proved to me that not only can a community become stronger with size, it can be more dynamic, diverse and enriching and succeed in touching every heart and soul!

Ultimately, Gesher is a resounding success because the participants take the skills they hone through the leadership and mentoring seminars—as well as the invaluable friendships—back with them to train other local leaders, collectively contributing to a brighter Jewish future. Martin, who is a member of the Youth Board of the Jewish Community of Sofia, feels “a personal connection to the people that come from other parts of the region. It is important to create bridges with them because they, just like me, are the future leadership of their Jewish communities.”

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