Moving Leadership Online: How JDC Entwine Redefined Service During COVID-19
October 6, 2020
Katya Rouzina had just finished leading Shabbat services in Kharkiv, Ukraine when she got the email: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows like her were being recalled to their home countries.
“I started bawling. I remember telling my friends, ‘I know I’ll be able to get another job, but I have so much more I want to do in this community,’” said Rouzina, the Roslyn Z. Wolf JSC Fellow. “This wasn’t just where I lived. This was my home.”
When the pandemic began, JDC Entwine leapt into action, transforming its programming almost overnight — replacing overseas trips and in-person events with online volunteering opportunities and giving circles, virtual film screenings focusing on global issues, and exclusive interviews with JDC leadership on Facebook Live. JSC Fellows like Rouzina, along with other Entwine leaders around the world, had to quickly adapt, too.
From her home in northern California, Rouzina — a Russian-speaking Jew from St. Petersburg who moved to the United States as a toddler — still leads three weekly English classes and a Jewish song circle for the Kharkiv Jewish community. She’s also pioneered a Moishe House sister city relationship between San Francisco and Kharkiv, appeared on Entwine’s “Not Your Babushka’s RSJ Podcast,” and helped organize a “language exchange game day” event connecting young Jews in Ukraine with alumni of Entwine’s RSJ Insider Trip there.
“Everything is what we make of it, and for me, the fellowship wasn’t just a job but an opportunity to live out my values,” she said. “Continuing to help my community is the most important thing in the world for me.”
For Josh Yudkin, an alumnus of Entwine trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuba, and Rwanda, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship was a chance to combine his passion for global Jewish life with a burgeoning career in public health.
The Dallas native envisioned taking a year off from his Ph.D. program before completing his dissertation to travel the world with JDC. But when the pandemic changed his plans, Yudkin realized he could use his public health expertise to help JDC develop its COVID-19 response.
Now based in Tel Aviv for the year, he’s helped JDC’s former Soviet Union team prepare for the virus and spearheaded — with the organization’s disaster response and international development team — a series of medical webinars designed to share best practices with Ethiopian medical professionals.
“For me, JDC Entwine is a way to grow and a way to give back,” he said. “This year is definitely not what I thought it would be, but at the same time, it’s created a space for me to explore the intersection of public health and Jewish community. I’m grateful the fellowship is flexible enough to allow me to find my own voice.”
Growing up in the Persian Jewish community, Matthew Nouriel (who uses they/them pronouns) never felt like there was a way to marry their queerness with their Jewishness until they attended an LGBTQ Entwine trip to Argentina and Uruguay. The Los Angeles-based activist and drag queen followed that with another queer-focused trip to Budapest and Berlin, and then a trip to Israel for Entwine alumni with leadership potential.
“That Israel trip — that they’d have a trip for everyone but still ensure there was queer representation — was next-level profoundness and acceptance on a deeper level,” Nouriel said. “I felt a sense of responsibility. If I’ve been brought back into the fold of my Jewishness, then other people should be aware of that opportunity, too.”
Inspired, Nouriel applied to become an Entwine Community Representative, with visions of a year full of travel and in-person programming — a chance to deepen the sense of connection and shared purpose they’d found on trips with a new cohort of 30 young leaders from across the Jewish world. Instead, the pandemic struck, and everything changed, along with Nouriel’s plans for a Los Angeles queer Shabbat dinner “where we could really sit and talk about our grievances as queer Jews, as well as moments we felt accepted.”
When the event became a Zoom session, it turned global, too, gathering together about 30 queer Jews from Winnipeg, Ann Arbor, Tel Aviv, New York City, and beyond for a frank discussion, musical performances, and an appearance by Nouriel in their drag persona: The Empress.
“We realized if we were going to do this, we would have to do it differently,” Nouriel said. “And my event was just one of many, too. Entwine has turned it around so quickly, and that’s important because you can either get involved and figure it out or fall off the map. The whole thing speaks to the forward-thinking way JDC has always kept going and sustained itself.”