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From Baltimore to Bulgaria

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Last month, JDC Europe sponsored Gesher, a gathering in Bulgaria for young Jews from the region and their global peers to come together and share perspectives and experiences. In partnership with JDC Europe, Schusterman is supporting a series of European gatherings aimed at strengthening young Jewish leaders throughout Europe. Kate Thomas of Baltimore and a participant at Gesher, shares her thoughts below.

Kate Thomas is a Repair the World: Baltimore fellow working in the area of education justice. She graduated from Rutgers in 2014 with a Bachelors of Social Work degree, and will be pursing an MSW in the fall of this year at NYU. She hopes to continue social justice work, particularly around gender and race. 

I can easily admit that I never thought about Bulgaria before I heard about Gesher. I never thought about the Jewish community there; never thought about the culture, customs, similarities and differences; and I never thought, in a million years, that I would experience traveling there. This May, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of traveling across the world to meet young Jews from across Eastern Europe at Gesher, a festival of Jewish life in the Balkans. It was an experience I couldn’t have dreamed of and one that I’ll never forget.

From the moment I learned of the opportunity, I was eager and excited to explore a new culture and country. The experience employed the same exploratory approach to learning as Repair the World. As a Repair the World Fellow in Baltimore, I get to learn about social justice issues through living in the city, getting involved in the local neighborhood, and building relationships across Jewish and secular communities. Traveling to Bulgaria felt similarly like learning and growing from the people and places around me. 

At Gesher, I met Jews from across the Balkan region, including countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Serbia, just to name a few. I also met other Jews from the United States who share similar passions for social justice. These diverse groups joined together to talk about our unique Jewish communities, traditions, and what connects us to our Jewish identity.

We exchanged Jewish communal programmatic successes and challenges, enjoyed Shabbat and experienced a beautiful havdallah ceremony. (Just imagine a lively congregation of young Jews coming together in song and dance below the Pirin mountains.)

After the festival, the other Repair the World Fellows and I traveled to Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s two largest cities.  We went on cultural and historic walking tours, tried an assortment of traditional food, made new friends, listened to traditional Bulgarian music and learned traditional dances, which coincidentally reminded us of the hora!

As an American Jew, I realized my interactions with the Jewish community have been mostly with Ashkenazi Jews. I learned that in Bulgaria, most of the Jewish community is Sephardic. With a population of just over 1,000 Jews in Bulgaria, I was shocked to find in the center of Sofia one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Adjoined to the synagogue was a very small Jewish museum, outlining a near-hidden history of Bulgarian Jews.

For me, the Gesher trip confirmed the importance of constantly diversifying my perspective on the world. Already, my experience as the Repair the World Fellow has honed my vision for social justice, particularly when it comes to racial awareness and the role for Jewish community in racial justice work. In the wake of recent events, Repair the World: Baltimore has partnered with the new chapter of Jews United for Justice in Baltimore, garnering a strong group of Jews in solidarity with local racial justice organizations at protests and in intentional conversations about structural racism, white privilege and Jewish accountability in racial justice work.

I know that I’ve already been deeply affected by a newfound awareness of my identity and privilege as a white Jew and know that I will carry this into my studies next year as a student at NYU and furthermore, into my work in the Social Work field. I’ll be sad to leave Baltimore, but certainly know I can always return. I am confident in the social justice work happening in Baltimore, work that has been years in the making, and feel fortunate to have been a part of it, even for a short time.

I am grateful to the Balkans for helping me to reflect on my path and renewing me for what lies ahead!

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.