TARRYTOWN, New York — Pulling into the parking lot of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Tarrytown, one can’t help but notice the work in progress that is the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
It’s an almost too-perfect, real life metaphor for the events taking place just inside the hotel’s Grand Ballroom: four days of bridge building between Jewish Community Centers from Mumbai to Memphis and all points in between.
Fifty-three Jewish Community Centers from 15 countries came together for the JCC Global World Conference in New York from November 5-9. They listened to panel discussions on Jewish identity and how to learn from failure, they shopped at a local mall and visited a Harlem JCC. But for the 110 Amitim 2.0 Fellows the most valuable part of the event — aside from the dinner-cruise on the Hudson River — might have been the “speed dating” sessions.
During the timed sessions the fellows moved from table to table in search of partners with whom to work on a project for the next two or three years. While the types of projects varied from teen engagement to conservation, each one aimed to break through cultural barriers and strengthen the global Jewish community.
“On a certain level finding a project is like finding a partner or spouse, it’s like making a shidduch [arranged match],” said Jane Gellman, who is on the steering committee of JCC Global USA. “The truth is, for me, the projects are about building cultural ties. The project is important, but it also gives you a reason to call each other. And if you are going to spend a lot of time together you may as well have a good project — it’s like the menorah you put the candles in.”
The guidelines were simple. Each global project must have at least three JCCs from three different countries, one from North America, one from Israel, and one from one other country. Aside from Israel and North America, there were JCCs from the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Europe and the Far East.
JCC Global supervises the projects, checking in with respective JCCs throughout the year. The next time they meet as a whole will be November 2019 in Jerusalem when they present their accomplishments.
What to choose
One popular program is Family Tree, an initiative Dan Bernstein, executive director of the Merage JCC of Orange County, California looks forward to repeating.
Last time the JCC paired with its sister JCC in Kfar Yona along with Centro Deportivo Israelita (CDI) in Mexico City. The three partners spent two years engaging over 120 Jewish teens, families and volunteers. The teens met monthly at their respective centers to work on family heritage, genealogy, and when appropriate, interviewing Holocaust survivors in family.
Then each summer, the three communities gathered for a week-long encounter. In 2015 they traveled to Mexico City, in 2016 it was Orange County, and last summer they went to Kfar Yona. Each time they did group community service projects, had a family tree expo night, celebrated Shabbat, and, through leisure activities, got to know each other better.
“We wanted to engage teens — that’s the big, hot topic. The hook for the project is the kids want to go on the trip. The underlying thing they learn is what Jewish peoplehood looks like. They make connections. The kids and their families get to know each other. They see how different Jewish communities look around the world,” said Bernstein.
This year they will again pair with Kfar Yona Community Center as well as a JCC in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bernstein said.
Now back home in Buenos Aires, Ariela Lijavetzky reflected on her time spent in Tarrytown. She said she looks forward to presenting the project Found You to the more than 5,000 members of her JCC, OHA Macabi. The project helps volunteers of all ages from different areas and with different backgrounds to connect and find ways to explore their Jewish identity through volunteering.
“It was great to meet people from so many different communities around the world, and it was funny to try meeting everyone to see who was the best match for us; it was like a ‘shidduch.’ But I think we all have a big challenge in how to maintain a strong Jewish identity,” Lijavetzky said.
For Lijavetzky, it was interesting to hear how some JCCs grapple with how much religion to inject into their activities. Some, she said, are debating whether to open programs to non-Jews, and many have economic difficulties.
Ilan Koma, representing Hamesh: Municipal Company for Culture, Youth and Sports, located in Shoham, Israel, agreed. Koma said he was considering participating in Adam-Adamah, a combined Jewish learning and environmental conservation project.
“Usually, in Israel we don’t think about was defines us as Jewish. Here you see new Jewish communities — this is something new for me, how different every community is,” Koma said.
“What is interesting to find out is that we have a lot of the same problems, the same issues and then we find we need different solutions. What works in Memphis might not work for me,” said Koma.
Lost (and found) in translation
With so many nations and personalities working together, cultural differences arise. During the two years the JCCs work together, participants learn how things can get lost in translation when communicating via text or email. They learn how to recognize when what one says might be interpreted as meaning something else.
“The whole concept of time for instance. Americans need a year and Israelis do it yesterday. That’s why face-to-face connection is so important. JCC Global helps strengthen Jewish identity as a whole and by doing that you strengthen your own identity,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, the executive director of JCC Global, sitting at one of the dozens of round tables scattered around the room.
All kidding aside, there are stark differences in the scale, staff, budgets and resources for each JCC, Gellman said.
“I like to joke that American JCCS complain they are broke. Then you meet people from Moldova or JCC Ukraine and you see how they really created something out of nothing. The Jews from the former Soviet Union are so inspiring to us — the passion and enthusiasm and commitment to it all,” Gellman said.
Americans need a year and Israelis do it yesterday
Vyatcheslav Nahnybida of JCC “Thiya” in Kmelnitsky, Ukraine, was enthusiasm personified.
During a coffee break, Nahnybida spoke about the success of the last project, which was teen centered, and where he wants to take his JCC going forward.
“This time we want Jewish families. The family is the base of all. We realized many Argentinians are children and grandchildren of immigrants, and that people are looking for their family roots and so they come to Ukraine. Everyone seems to have had family in Ukraine,” he said, setting aside his scone for a moment.
“While I’m here I keep hearing from back home, ‘Slava, what are you bringing us? What are you finding out?’ While I’m here they know I will bring something fresh, something new,” said Nahnybida.