Cultivating a Love for Jewish Life in Estonia

Meet Mark Dorfmann — a young leader at the forefront of Estonia's Jewish future.

By Mark Dorfmann - JCC Tallinn Staff Member & Jewish Educator at the Youth Center Makom Mifgash; Tallinn, Estonia | May 20, 2024

Mark Dorfmann (right) is committed to powering leadership programs for young Jews in Tallinn and across Estonia.

Mark Dorfmann, a young Jew in Tallinn, Estonia, discovered his passion for Jewish life and leadership at JDC-supported summer camps. Today, Dorfmann, 24, is a Jewish educator at the Youth Center Makom Mifgash and a team member at the JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn, where he helps power the future of Jewish Estonia. In this reflection, Dorfmann describes how JDC camps and programs sparked this lifelong love of Jewish life and learning — and how he’s passing it on to the next generation of Estonian Jews. 

Mark Dorfmann

My grandmother had always been known as a custodian of Jewish culture and tradition, and I remember celebrating holidays with her. She showed me that in order for Jewish values to be passed down to the next generation, there just has to be one person committed to doing this — just one person dedicated to making the world a better place for all Jews. 

My grandmother was that person, and now, her role has become mine — I always try to celebrate all the Jewish holidays with relatives and friends, sharing the joy of Jewish life. 

In all that I do, I want to pass down to future generations that same feeling of belonging and open up their hearts and minds. My greatest hope is that young Jews won’t be scared to be Jewish — and I believe that if our grandmothers could do this, with everything they had to live through, then surely Jews my age and younger should feel free to be Jewish, too.

My Jewish journey started early, when I was just seven or eight. That summer, I attended my first session of the JDC-supported Lehaim camp here in Estonia and became more actively involved in the JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn. At Lehaim, I vividly remember watching a camp performance of Moses crossing the Red Sea — he told us that without our help, we wouldn’t be able to make it to the other side. I carry that lesson of collaboration to this day.  

I couldn’t get enough of Lehaim, so when I was nine or ten, I decided to attend the JDC-supported Olameinu regional camp, too — a place for young Jews from across the Baltic states to discover Jewish life and build lasting friendships. I felt like everyone was going to Olameinu; it was just such a fun and adventurous experience. We did plenty of exciting camp activities and also got to learn about Jewish traditions. 

Lehaim and Olameinu would eventually lead to my first summer at Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary. At Szarvas, I didn’t just meet Jews from Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia — I made friends with people from around the world. 

All of these experiences inspired me to want to make a difference for young Jews in my home community, too. 

The first step on this path was becoming a madrich (counselor) and coordinator at Lehaim and Olameinu, as well as a unit head at Szarvas. Every madrich is a Jewish leader and a role model for every camper — and I gladly took this on. I had wanted to become a madrich since I was 12 years old. It was a way for me to develop confidence, cultivate Jewish pride, and be sure that I could help my local community thrive. 

The next step for me was to become a coordinator at a local camp, helping to design activities and programs for the summer. In all honesty, I was terrified — I worried I wouldn’t be able to manage all of the responsibilities of being a camp coordinator. But the camp director made sure that I had proper support and gave me the opportunity to believe in myself and do the job perfectly.

It’s that support, that absolute faith in each other’s potential, that best sums up Jewish Estonia for me. And it was this faith that allowed me to be the best madrich and camp coordinator I knew I could be. 

Looking forward, I’ll soon be organizing a retreat for Jewish teenagers. This will be my first time doing something like this, and I’m a bit scared about taking on this new role. Still, I know that I have people around me who will support and help me do my job smoothly.

Today, all of my friends either were or still are madrichim and camp coordinators that help in developing our beloved camps. Our madrichim experience is what ties us together –– a common thread that has enabled us to develop strong friendships and communicate effectively with each other. Even today, we still share knowledge and host community gatherings where we discuss different Jewish topics. 

I also have the privilege of leading the School of Madrichim here in Tallinn. I believe it’s crucial for our community to have a place where we can build connections with the youngest generation. Each day, I put a lot of effort into creating a safe space for Jewish youth, a place where they can develop their leadership skills, as well as a passion for volunteering and for making the world a better place. 

We’re lucky that JDC proudly supports a wide variety of madrichim trainings throughout Europe, with the firm belief and understanding that these opportunities guarantee a strong core of Jewish leadership for European Jewish communities for years to come. Currently, there are hundreds of madrichim in training for the 2024 cycle, and in 2023, JDC supported over 250 young leaders to become madrichim in communities throughout Europe, including in Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Being a madrich was a way for me to develop confidence, cultivate Jewish pride, and be sure I could help my local community thrive.

Here in Estonia, I do all of this work at the JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn. Spaces like JCC Tallinn unite us Jews and provide safety, comfort, and education to our community. The uniqueness of our community lies in our openness to newcomers. Since the Ukraine crisis began, we have welcomed many refugees, and we hope they’ve felt at home in our community. 

Over the past two years, other earth-shattering events have affected our community, too. The attacks of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war in Israel have shown us that we have to turn towards our community, share our thoughts and feelings, and just be vulnerable with each other. We’ve seen antisemitism on the rise around the world, and we know what we need to do to fight it at home. 

Here in my community, and I think for Jews around the globe, we aren’t simply asking for tolerance — we’re asking for respect. There is no place for antisemitism in the world today, and as a Jewish educator, I know that I can help counteract ignorance and represent Jewish Estonia. Without knowledge, there’s fear. 

But with JDC at our side, we don’t have to be afraid. As a longtime partner and supporter of JCC Tallinn and the Estonian Jewish community, JDC doesn’t just support us financially — they help guide us through hard times as we navigate toward a brighter future. Right now, that’s the most valuable gift we could receive. 

I believe with all my heart that education is the most vital Jewish value — it’s how we pass on our values, traditions, and culture. From classical methods to non-formal education, from hevrutah (learning in pairs) to beit midrash (traditional study hall), we need to raise a generation that knows how to stand up and protect our values. 

Education is one of the most important tools for realizing our belonging and pride, and I’m glad that, just like my grandmother and so many others before me, I can fulfill this sacred mission for the future of our people.

Mark Dorfmann is a Jewish educator at theYouth Center Mafkom Mifgash and a team member at the JDC-supported Tallinn Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn, Estonia.

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