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A Break Dancing Chief Rabbi

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In May, 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. Dona Raz-Levy of Israel and a participant and presenter at Gesher, shares her thoughts below.

Dona Raz-Levy, who made Aliyah in 1994 from her native Paris, currently works at Google’s Public Policy & Government Relations department where she is responsible for Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Israel. Previously, she was Spokesperson and Adviser to Knesset Member Dr. Ruth Calderon. Fluent in French, Spanish, English and Hebrew, Dona holds an M.A. in Government as well as a B.A. in Communications and Management. She is also a Lieutenant (reserve) in the IDF where she served as weapons instructor for combat units. 

During my trip to the Balkans, I was struck by the tremendous respect and lack of judgment people have for one another. It was truly refreshing and beautiful, and hopefully serves as inspiration to Jewish communities around the world.

One of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish community in the Balkans is that anyone who identifies as Jewish can be part of the community. They may feel a connection because their grandpa is Jewish or their mother married a Jewish man who has since had a lot of impact on the family’s values.

The bottom line is that the Jewish community in the Balkans is an inclusive community, diverse, open and warm, and being exposed to it was a very special and memorable experience for me. Finding yourself in new and different environments is always the best learning experience. I believe that if we surround ourselves with people just like us for too long, stagnation occurs.

Another thing I found truly important at Gesher was the opportunity it provided to participants to connect with their Jewish roots.

I learned that for some participants, coming to Gesher was actually an opportunity to have their only Kabalat Shabbat for the year. Even so, they sang all of the Shabbat songs so well, most of which they learned at summer camps. Many of the girls danced Hora and Israeli folk dances (with complex steps!) better than any average Israeli.

If I were to pick one highlight in particular, it was seeing the Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria surprise everyone with his professional break dance skills at the party on the last night.

Yet, I wasn’t only there to socialize; during the conference I facilitated two sessions. One was about women in the IDF, during which I shared my experience working in the military as a weapons instructor for combat units and then as an officer. I was asked a variety of questions. It was a pleasure to share the answers particularly because people were truly curious, interested and thirsty to understand. Others also shared stories about mandatory military services in their home countries. What was really special about those sessions is that the learning experience was mutual. 

During my second session, I gave a presentation about a few exceptional projects initiated at Google's offices in Israel. As an employee at Google, I am exposed to a variety of incredible initiatives, and I am especially proud of those from Israel. What I have come to realize about the most inspiring ideas is that they are all born out of passion. When someone truly cares about their work, it shows. I wanted to present on this topic in order to showcase how the Israeli and Jewish cultures reflected in the projects are creating global impact and making a positive contribution to so many around the world. This session’s goal was to inspire participants to bring their values and passions into their work life and their communities.

I am tremendously grateful to have had this opportunity to take part in the Gesher gathering. It was truly a unique experience, and I hope I managed to contribute at least as much as I benefited.

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.