European Jews Build Community Beyond Borders

July 6, 2010


“I’ve participated in Gesher four years in a row because it provides an unparalleled opportunity to bond and connect with international peers in a Jewish context,” shared Olivera J., a 25-year-old medical student from Macedonia, after participating in the annual JDC-supported leadership development event for Jewish young adults from the Balkan-Black Sea region last month in Serbia.

Like hundreds of her peers who hail from the Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and beyond each year to network in a Jewish environment, Olivera relies on Gesher’s rich program to enhance her personal Jewish journey.

The four days are packed with chances to engage with Jewish culture, from baking challot to learning Israeli dance, exploring Sephardic music to analyzing “Jewropean” cinema. The seminar also offers a unique opportunity to openly converse about comparative religion, anti-Semitism, how to build Jewish identity among people in each of the participants’ home countries, and more.

“It’s an environment where we learn a lot from both our similarities and our differences,” noted Olivera. Precisely this kind of exchange has made Gesher a touchstone for young leaders who are concerned not only with their own personal development, but with contributing to a bright future for their Jewish communities at home by becoming more connected internationally.

For Olivera, it was another JDC cross-border experience that began her Jewish journey: the Ronald S. Lauder/JDC International Summer Camp at Szarvas, Hungary. “I learned about my Jewish roots when I was 8 years old…once it became more comfortable for us to be open in my country,” she shared. “My Jewish foundation has all been built on what I experienced in that camp…”

Today, in her role as president of the young adults club in the small Jewish community of Skopje, Macedonia, Olivera applies the “advertising techniques” she’s learned at Gesherto engage every Jew she can reach. “Participating in this seminar reinforces for me how important it is for each of us to be present and to be part of a community in order for it to exist,” she said. And Olivera gets re-energized and connected every time she taps into the international network of Jewish peers she has come to rely on, whether via social media or at other JDC-supported regional gatherings. “These people have become my closest friends….”

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