Gesher: The Best Part was the People

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This story comes to us from Junction, an initiative of the JDCYESOD and the Schusterman Foundation. Junction helps to support young European Jews in taking an active role in strengthening European and global Jewry.

Benji Lovitt is a standup comedian, educator, and writer who made aliyah in 2006. He is an ROI Community member and performs for groups in Israel and around the world.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend the Gesher conference in Greece, sponsored by the JDC’s Junction initiative and the Schusterman Foundation. The conference brought together around two hundred Jews between the ages of 18-35, primarily from the Balkans, for the purpose of creating community and giving participants options to explore their Jewish identity.

The gathering took place at a beachside hotel from Thursday to Sunday in a city called Halkidiki. You might think the highlights of the weekend would be activities on the beach or Friday night t’filot by the pool overlooking the water. Believe it or not, they weren’t (though they were fantastic). Any graduate of summer camp, an Israel program or any kind of Jewish communal experience can tell you that when you bring together a group of like-minded people who are willing to let down their guard, open their hearts and minds and share themselves with others, the amazing can happen.

There is something about leaving our cities, our jobs, and our normal lives that helps these group experiences remind us of the meaningful things in life. And of course, when you’re in close quarters for full days, you find yourself creating relationships that, even if they only last for that short time, are powerful.

What made this experience meaningful for me was the population. What can I say, even after the last nine-plus years in Israel, I’m still an American. You could offer me every dollar in Lynn Schusterman’s bank account to successfully label a map of Eastern Europe from memory and I’d have no chance. I wish I could tell you that I could find Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia on the map, or even tell you a fun fact or two about them, but I can’t. But after striking up conversation with people from each, I was reminded that people are people, whatever their nationality.

When I asked how long ago their families had settled there, I was told “1492”. Wow. Yes, THE 1492. While it’s easy to think that the world and Diaspora revolve around America and its Jewish community, it put things in perspective to remember that many of our Jewish brothers and sisters have been keeping the traditions at least a couple hundred years longer than we have.

And when I did standup comedy for a largely East European crowd for the first time, they loved it. Let me tell you: laughs are never not a rush. But when you wonder beforehand if they’re going to come and you have to work a bit harder to get them, they’re that much sweeter. One British friend told me he found it interesting that they didn’t always laugh at the exact same points that he did, but that’s what these conferences are about, right? Celebrating our similarities and our differences.

Thanks to Gesher for this wonderful opportunity and I can’t wait to cross paths again. Shalom!

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.