At Junction, Cultivating the Next Generation of European Jewish Leaders

At Junction, Mike Mendoza helps power Europe's Jewish future.

By Mike Mendoza - Programme Manager, Junction | January 30, 2023

As programme manager at Junction, Mike Mendoza (second from right) helps power exciting new initiatives from Europe's rising Jewish leaders.

Mike Mendoza brings a wealth of Jewish experience to his role as program manager at Junction––a JDC pan-European initiative that seeks to empower young Jews to take part in European Jewish life. With the Junction Annual––a two-day gathering of rising Jewish leaders from across Europe––right around the corner, Mendoza reflects on his Jewish journey, and how Junction creates pathways for rising Jewish leaders in the region.

I was born and raised in Northwest London, and like most of the London-based Jewish community, still live here today. As a young family, we were thoroughly involved in our local Reform synagogue, my dad having been the chairman for several years and my mum on many a planning committee for various festive occasions. My brother, sister, and I attended Sunday morning classes, enjoyed our Bnei Mitzvah with the shul, and continued with leadership training to support the weekly cheder programme. 

From the age of 10, I became involved in my youth movement, RSY-Netzer, albeit predominantly as a summer camp experience. These were formative years where most of my lifelong friendships were established. There was a clear pathway through the movement: camps till age 16, a month-long Israel trip, leadership training at 17, and then the process started again, this time as madrichim (youth leaders). I’ll admit that, at this stage of my life, the engagement was very much one of enjoyment, mixing with young people who had a lot in common and similar values, in a safe and engaging environment.

Mike Mendoza

There was a potential obstacle, though. The older I became, the more competitive it was to find a leadership position. Senior roles are limited. At 21, though, I was fortunate to succeed in being employed full-time as a movement worker. My cohort, which had begun in 2001 as nearly 100 people, was now only 3 professionals. Of course, some went on to do wonderful and meaningful work in the Jewish community, whereas some dedicated themselves to other ventures. I myself was headhunted into the largest Reform synagogue in Europe as Head of Family Programming for the next 7 years.

My professional movement tenure gave me access to the adult Jewish world, professionals, finance, board members and rabbis. What had once been a cultural experience became a deeply spiritual one instead. I saw universal human values of kindness and felt proud to have inherited Judaism as my platform for engaging with these principles in the wider world. I began to mentor with rabbis, attend classes at the London Kabbalah Centre, and explore the synergy between faith, science, film, and literature. I even convinced myself that the Lion King is an allegory for a Shacharit service and Superman the story of Moses.

I loved working with young people, making Judaism fun and accessible, an identity piece that each person can feel connected to and proud of. However, I was always aware of the drop-off. Students grew up, often went travelling or to university, and then what? There was no structured young adult programme available at the synagogue. I knew of some local minyanim for 18-35 year olds, but what about activity beyond prayer? What keeps a young adult engaged in Jewish life between childhood and parenthood? And as I mentioned earlier, where do you belong if you’ve moved away from your home community?

Junction felt like the natural next step for me. This is a programme that recognises these challenges and seeks to go directly to the source, asking young adults themselves what they want and need in their Jewish lives. The Junction tagline “for you, by you” speaks to this, recognising that JDC cannot create a homogenous programme that fits all communities. Each has their own culture, language, histories, and geography. Of course, we all have Jewishness in common, but the meaning, role and, purpose of that Jewishness in our day-to-day lives is diverse, vast, and wide.

When encountering new young adult initiatives, Junction asks three simple questions:

1)What need or gap is it filling in the community?

2) In what way does this initiative create a sense of community?

3) What is the long-term plan/how is this sustainable?

If we can understand why there is demand for something, then people will be want to participate. This initiative can then become a regular programme or series. Junction then activates its support mechanisms, providing grants, consultation, and training for the initiators.

Being Jewish and just being human can often feel complex and contradictory; we’re here to explore why that’s okay.

As with every generation, there is a cycle. Young adults cannot remain forever young. And so, every year we bring our flagship conference, Junction Annual, this year in Berlin February 2023. Annual seeks out the volunteers and participants involved in the programmes around Europe that we have encountered and supported. We are looking for the next generation of change-makers who can bring fresh ideas and challenges to the table and go home with building blocks for the future of their communities. It is important to gather, to hear voices across the Jewish spectrum and to foster the sense of European Jewish peoplehood – you are not alone.

This year, our theme is “Diverse Identities” recognising that to be human and to be Jewish can often feel like a complex and contradictory head space, as an individual and as a collective. We’re here to explore why that is okay, how our complexity is beautiful and how we can learn from and bridge the increasing polarities in political and religious discourse.

I do not want to see Jewish communitiesshrinking due to lack of young adult engagement. I do not want to see future generations of the youth movements disappearing without structures in place. I want to see Jewish people activated to make a difference in the world, on a large scale, even just by being beacons of kindness. I want to see clear pathways for engagement after youth, that respect our age brackets need to progress in our careers and family lives but makes space for volunteering and learning.

Thankfully, Junction, and the wider JDC professional network, are working hard to support European communities and institutions make this a sustainable reality, bringing young adults into the natural Jewish life cycle.

 I am proud to be a part of this moment.

Mike Mendoza is the programme manager at Junction, a JDC pan-European initiative that seeks to empower young Jews to take part in European Jewish life. A London native, Mendoza started off as Mazkir of his youth movement, RSY-Netzer, and went on to become Head of Family Programming at Alyth Synagogue, the UK’s largest Reform community.

Mike has worked professionally in the Jewish informal education sphere ever since graduating from University with a degree in Human Geography. How people navigate and engage with physical (and spiritual) place and space has always been core to Mike’s leadership.

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