For Young American, A Year of Connection, Discovery

November 11, 2014


Before he became a member of JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) as a JDC-BBYO Fellow charged with developing Jewish teen life in Estonia, Jonah Adams had spent time working for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But even that experience did not prepare him for the wave of emotion he felt when he visited the small village of Darbenai, Lithuania, where his great-grandmother Bubbe Rose was born.

During his visit to the village, Adams was able to pay his respects at the memorials for its murdered Jews, tour the town’s well-preserved Jewish cemetery, and more.

“I do not get emotional when I study the Holocaust, because I choose not to. I choose to distance myself so that I can more accurately understand the situation,” Adams, 23, wrote on his blog. “The experience in Darbenai was so specific and personal. Instead of a bird’s-eye view, I walked there. This vast and sudden magnification shattered my calculated distancing and hit me emotionally like I have never experienced.”

Adams, a Philadelphia native, was able to visit Darbenai when his JSC year took him to Lithuania to work with Jewish teenagers at Olameinu, JDC’s Jewish summer camp in the Baltics.

Adams said his experience in Estonia working with youth challenged many of the long-held assumptions he’d had about the nature of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Estonia is estimated to have about 4,000 Jews, most of whom live in the capital city of Tallinn. (To wit, Adams’s blog about his JSC year is titled “Tallinn It Like It Is.”)

“Estonia exemplifies that there are exceptions to every rule in regards to studying history and, particularly, Jewish history,” he said. “These small communities, people have forgotten about them, forgotten that they still survive and sometimes even thrive. I personally feel that we have a lot to learn from them.”

Adams said he was struck by the lack of anti-Semitism he observed within the Estonian culture and the unique identity the Jews have constructed there, being Russian, Estonian, and Jewish. He worked closely with the brand new Jewish kindergarten in Tallinn (for children ages 1-7) and was “inspired every day by the educators, none of whom are Jewish themselves, but who strive to create a Jewish environment to rival any American congregation.”

“To see that incredible relationship of non-Jews perpetuating Jewish life really hit home for me,” he said. “Every perspective gives us an added way of looking at problems, of looking at the world, and we are better for it. Maintaining the Estonian jewish community in Estonia, and having that perspective available, makes us better off.”

The JSC is a year-long, paid opportunity for Jewish young professional to volunteer overseas. Responding to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, JSC fellows facilitate and create innovative programs in the communities they serve — places like Argentina, China, Germany, Israel, Poland, Ukraine, and more.

Through a special partnership with the world’s largest global teen movement, BBYO, a select number of JSC Fellows are chosen to serve as JDC-BBYO fellows charged with creating and develop peer-led Jewish teen programming.

“The Global Jewish Service Corps provides young Jews with the opportunity to deeply engage with current issues abroad, seeing and feeling the impact of their efforts, while at the same time coming face-to-face with real world challenges,” said Shauna Ruda, Program Director of Global Volunteer Programs for JDC Entwine.

Adams said he considers the fellowship a chance to “not just see another part of the world, but be another part of the world — and within the Jewish network.”

”It’s like traveling abroad, but with friends. Even though you’ve never met anyone there before, because you’re all Jewish, it’s like visiting old relatives,“ he said. ”Anyone who loves their grandparents, anyone who loves to play ‘Jewish Geography,’ … ever since we dispersed to the four corners of the world 2,000 years ago, Jews have loved hearing about where Jews are from and what Jewish life there is like. To live it is a totally different thing.”

Applications for the 2015-2016 JSC cohort are currently open until December 15.

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

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