Volunteer Takes Her Jewish Spirit From Durham to Duisburg and Beyond

October 10, 2012


Sarah Goldenstein, 25, never imagined she’d go from teaching Sunday school in her home state of North Carolina to helping build Jewish community among Russian immigrants in Germany, but that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the past two years as a Jewish Service Corps fellow through JDC’s Entwine initiative for inspired young Jews.

A one-of-a-kind movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues, JDC Entwine offers short- and long-term service opportunities in Jewish communities worldwide, in Israel, and in countries where JDC is involved in international development work.

In her first year as a Jewish Service Corps fellow, Sarah traveled to Berlin, Germany, where she worked with the Bambinim Family Club, a JDC early childhood development program centered on the Jewish calendar and life cycle. Diving right in with the three- to five-year-olds, Sarah was charged with co-running the Shabbat playgroup, organizing holiday programs, and creating special events.

Working with the largely Russian and Israeli immigrant population was a new challenge, but Sarah decided to infuse herself into her work directly. “I love to bake and I grew up getting together with my family to cook on every Jewish holiday. I wanted to help teach people to be Jewish in different ways (not just religiously), so I introduced Challah-making to the families. They loved it! It helped get more people to our Shabbat and also helped them bring Shabbat back to their homes.” The community continues to run the program today.

Her unique, hands-on approach helped her land a second-year fellowship, in Duisburg, Germany. This time, working with primarily Russian speakers was a very different experience because she was trying to get a myriad of her own initiatives off the ground: she taught English in the kindergarten, worked at a youth center for 12- to 18-year-olds, and prepared Shabbat and holiday activities to help teach the community about Jewish traditions.

“I was working with people who’d had tough lives and really struggled. They’d not been dealt the best hand, so their attitudes and needs were shaped by that.”

Sarah spoke to everyone she encountered about the meaning of community. “At first I looked for the simple components of Jewish life—going to synagogue, celebrating Jewish holidays, doing service work, sending kids to religious school—and wondered why people didn’t adopt those. Then I started to see that for immigrants there are a whole host of other issues: assimilation, having to reform their lives, teaching their kids their language and the language of their new country, learning how to be prosperous. Being Jewish is important but it’s just one component of the whole experience of their immigration.”

Again, Sarah approached her work with sensitivity. Realizing Hebrew was already the third or fourth language for many of her youngest students, she decided to focus on visuals in her teaching. For example, for the chagim she’d make memory cards with pictures or symbols pertaining to the holidays and then she’d blow them up and turn them into puzzles. “It was new for them and they really learned through this approach.”

After her second year in the field, Sarah sees things are more nuanced. “‘Community’ here is something different and developing it requires looking for unique solutions and models. The reality is it’s going to take generations.” She compared this development to that of the American community, which went through marked transitions and didn’t instantly flourish. “Ideas like faith, community life, and philanthropy didn’t exist for people in former Soviet countries for so long,” Sarah adds. “They don’t become a part of people’s lives immediately. It’s the creative and untraditional models that I think are going to be the most compatible here.”

Learning through experience and developing perspective are some of the key take-aways JSC fellows continually speak about. “A lot of people come in thinking ‘I’m going to give so much, I’m going to teach so much,’ but at the end of the day the most important thing that happens is you learn a lot.”

With the start of the New Year, Sarah is journeying to her third JSC placement, now in Belgrade, Serbia, where she’s looking forward to working with young adults in the youth center and doing programming with the madrichim (counselors) who serve in JDC-supported seminars and camps throughout the region.

“To me the JSC fellowship is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You get directly implanted into the field with Jewish communities and people who want to work with you. You are supported, gain tremendous experience, and learn so much.”

For more Information: JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps fellowship

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories