We sat down with Mario Izcovich, JDC’s director of pan-European programs, to ask him about his years of working with and empowering Jewish communities large and small across the continent in advance of the first E-Summit of European Jewish Leaders, which will be held virtually Nov. 21-23.
Q: What makes this summit so important?
A: For many years now, we’ve gathered about 200 decision-makers every two years in a different city and in partnership with the European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC). The goal is to empower each other, helping leaders from each Jewish community take ownership of the future. Though it can sometimes be challenging to plan an event with so many stakeholders, I can’t overstate the benefits that come from bringing so many different voices together.
We learn when we are together. That’s the power of the collective.
We learn when we are together. Each of us brings something unique which we can offer, and we all can take that wisdom home with us. That’s the power of the collective, and the role of JDC and our ECJC partners is to convene gatherings like this where we can learn together from both experts and peers.
This year, we planned to hold a November conference in Athens, but when COVID-19 appeared, we decided — in partnership with ECJC — that we would have to switch gears.
Our first thought was to produce the same event as usual, but from home, but as we began planning, we quickly realized we had an opportunity to dream bigger. We could bring together more people than ever before and increase the learning, partnership, and community-building that comes with bringing so many voices into the same (virtual) room.
Q: What’s in store for attendees of the summit?
A: In truth, we’ve been happily overwhelmed by the response. We’re just a few days away from kick-off, and we already have more than 600 participants registered from across Europe, Israel, and the United States, more than 80 speakers, six guided city tours, 18 organizations that are generously serving as co-sponsors, 22 workshops on a diverse and necessary group of topics, and 12 virtual “booths” from organizations showcasing their important work.
And most importantly, we have the most important thing, the key ingredient in our decades of pan-European work: participants ready to meet each other, exchange ideas, and celebrate Jewish life in Europe.
Q: What else has the JDC-Europe team done to partner with European Jewish communities during the pandemic?
A: Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been struck by how quickly and strategically JDC in Europe had reacted. First, we assessed the situation and then we began consulting with communities, helping to guide their response to this new challenge. I’m particularly proud of our decision to launch, in partnership with several foundations, a major humanitarian relief fund to provide financial assistance to poor Jewish families across Europe who never previously relief on community support but were laid low by this unprecedented crisis.
Furthermore, we’ve developed a support network of colleagues that enriches its members at all times but especially in moments like this. In partnership with ECJC, we also launched a biweekly online space for Jewish community social welfare directors across the continent to come together and discuss how they were reacting to COVID-19. We offered trainings on how to deliver care online, how to support staff and colleagues, and of course, a deep dive into what Jewish leadership could and should look like during these turbulent times.
Q: How did you get involved with this community-building work?
I’ve worked to build Jewish community for decades, and over time, all of my experiences have reinforced my belief that learning exists in the plural. It’s something we do in partnership with each other.
For me, learning arises from the spark that occurs when two or more people come together. That’s always been part of my Jewish story, from my earliest days as a madrich (counselor) in an Argentinian Jewish youth movement to my time directing a JCC Hebraica summer camp for more than 200 Jewish teens from Buenos Aires — a tremendously powerful collective and creative experience.
I continued my passion for bringing communities together in Spain, where I immigrated with my wife, Verónica (and where our children Natalia and Gabriel were born). There I worked with JDC to create a program that gathered madrichim from across Spain to meet quarterly for four days. I’m proud to report that some of those young people today hold leadership positions in their Jewish communities — one small example of how when we foster an exchange of ideas between different people facing similar challenges and opportunities, we discover what we each can offer the other.
Q: What makes Jewish Europe unique?
Jewish Europe is diverse, with a long and powerful history, but even as we celebrate the uniqueness of each community, we can respect some shared experiences. For example, many European Jewish communities are still very affected by the Holocaust and decades of communist rule. There’s a tension in many places between past and future.
What I’ve found through my work with JDC is that community leaders are looking for solutions to shared challenges — How can we modernize our organization? How can we reach out to young people? How can we make our community more sustainable and self-sufficient? — but they sometimes need the benefit of a regional view.
Over the years, I’ve worked, along with others at JDC, to help European Jewish communities grow and become even stronger. We also work to build connections and foster dialogue between Jewish communities in Western and Eastern Europe. One of the most important tools we have in this work is in-person meetings — conferences, seminars, and more that bring together Jewish lay leaders, communal professionals, day school principals, welfare directors, and more.
The upcoming e-Summit is a powerful chance for us to come together and learn from one another, even during these strange times.
Mario Izcovich is JDC’s director of pan-European programs. To learn more about the online summit, click here.