Enterprising Community Leader Mirrors the New Dynamism of Turkey’s Young Jews

January 17, 2012


“Our community is small, but our potential is enormous. If given the right opportunities, there is nothing we can’t do.” That’s what 29-year-old volunteer organizer Lisi says about her peer-run Jewish leadership group in Istanbul, Turkey.

Judging from the growing numbers of previously unaffiliated young Jews that she’s successfully recruited into the club, Lisi’s enthusiasm is producing great results.

Lisi’s story is not so different from many of her contemporaries’, not just in Turkey but in many parts of the world. She grew up loving Shabbat celebrations at her grandparents’ house, going to Jewish school, and taking part in youth group. But by the time she graduated from university her Jewish circle was shrinking while her world and her horizons were steadily growing. At the same time, questions about her Jewish identity and whether she had the tools she needed to command her future began to arise.

“I learned about the local young leadership group and was curious about the professional opportunities that it offered. I didn’t even know it was Jewish at first; it was a nice surprise.” Like many of JDC’s leadership programs for young Jews, the group’s seminars combined Jewish learning with professional skill development.

In Turkey, JDC offers a myriad of opportunities for young Jews to become involved—or more involved—in the local community, and for those who are interested, to play key roles in its future development. Programs include training seminars such as Buncher Community Leadership, which helps strengthen Jewish identity and provides mentoring for young leaders; the Leatid Center for Jewish Leadership, which works with seasoned and senior Jewish professionals to hone their management and community development skills; and Jewish education and networking for young adults through Gesher regional programs. Additionally, the Hadracha Training Institute seminars for senior youth leaders, where Lisi says she garnered important know-how, are creating role models and facilitators for the Turkish Jewish community and other communities in the region.

Three years later, Lisi has become one of the group’s leading organizers, and she’s implementing the very strategy that got her interested to involve a whole new cohort. “Reaching people and attracting them into the community is the hardest thing to do,” explains Lisi, a successful account manager for an international fashion brand. “But our network is growing because we know our target group and what resonates with them: 20- to 30-year-olds who are thinking about their careers.”

The global recession hit Turkey particularly hard and recent university graduates unable to find work are turning to the Jewish community for help. “We give them opportunities, help them build skills in communications and management, and facilitate networking. We offer young people experiences they can’t turn down.”

Seeing positive results, Lisi and her friends started thinking more broadly about what kinds of activities young Turkish Jews might enjoy. They organized the group’s first heritage trip outside of Turkey, to Spain, which attracted over 100 participants. The following year the group traveled to Prague and to Rome, and by then participation had doubled in size.

“Part of the aim of each tour is to meet young Jews wherever we go. It seems like it is getting more difficult for Jews to find each other, because we are getting separated from one another as there are more challenges in life and more advantages outside of our communities. We are finding each other through this group and building a synergy by inviting new young people to every program.”

With each success, Lisi’s motivation redoubles. Looking ahead she is optimistic. “We’ve brought people together and we enjoy being together. Now the next step needs to make us even better!” she insists. “We are looking to organize bigger programs, setting new sights to attract even more people to our world.”

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