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Scaling Service Learning and Creating Global Jewish Community

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This article is featured in the September 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry speaks with Perry Teicher, co-chair of the steering committee for JDC Entwine, a Jewish service experience initiative. Perry is also the Impact Finance Fellow at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, a global law firm. He is a Peace Corps alumnus and a member of the ROI Community.

Perry Teicher’s commitment to social change and the global Jewish community has been years in the making. As a high school student in West Bloomfield, Michigan, he traveled to Bulgaria on a week-long trip with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). Though brief, it left a lasting mark.

“It was really my first exposure to this idea and reality that there were Jewish communities that were living and dynamic and exciting in Europe, and outside of Israel and the United States,” said the 31-year-old New York City resident. What he found in those communities was far different from what he’d grown up with in his suburban, Conservative Jewish household: overseas, he was caught off-guard by his peers’ stories of not knowing they were Jewish until a grandparent disclosed the information. He realized that, unlike himself, many Jews around the world don’t take their identity and all that goes with it—Shabbat dinners, a sense of collective history, a familiarity with cultural traditions—as a given.

Moreover, the trip imprinted upon him the concept of and commitment to communal responsibility. When you share a heritage, it’s the responsibility of Jews to look after one another.

In college, he and friends put together a Jewish alternative spring break program with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a century-old humanitarian aid organization. One year they went to Ukraine. Another to Uruguay.

Then, after graduating from college in 2007, Teicher joined the Peace Corps and headed to Kazakhstan, where he worked at an organization that helped the disabled. He lived 43 hours, by train, from Almaty, the country’s largest city and home to a Jewish community that had survived through the dark years of Communist rule. That great distance was no deterrent to Teicher when it came to forging connections. For Yom Kippur, he made the long trek so he could worship in the company of likeminded peers.

In spite of his foreign surroundings and the fact that the service was conducted in Russian and Hebrew, neither his native tongues, there was a familiarity to the proceedings. At the breakfast, Teicher recalled, “We were celebrating together. It didn’t matter where I was and that I didn’t know anyone ahead of time. It was just so natural to be there and to be celebrating with the Jewish community.”

Those intertwined threads—of responsibility and community—have propelled him in his work. At the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, he helps companies, investors and institutions make social and environmental outcomes a core part of their agenda.

Then there are his volunteer commitments. Teicher, a member of the ROI Community who has also served as a volunteer with Repair the World, sits on the board of the JDC and is co-chair of Entwine, the branch of the organization focused on getting young people involved with issues of global Jewish responsibility. It operates the Jewish Service Corps, which facilitates year-long placements in locations abroad for people in their early to mid-20s, as well as shorter oversees service trips that embed participants in local communities.

Working with such a storied organization like the JDC, Teicher said, is meaningful and exciting. It enables him to be an activist, not only an observer, and to do so in a way that supports communities he cares about.

“That interchanging of experiences, ideas—that’s really key in building up the concept and the action of global Jewish responsibility,” he said. He is compelled by “this sense that, as Jews, we have a shared responsibility for each other, and we all have things that we can learn from other communities,” he said. “There’s so much depth of Jewish identity across the world.”

Some of the Jews he has met overseas are quite old—and some quite young—but, he said, “in each of these communities there are Jews who are choosing to stay there and I think it’s important that if people want to have a community wherever they live, there should be support for them being able to live as Jews….Communities change and shift, and what was there one day may not be there the next, but that doesn’t mean that a community is dead.”

For his part, his travels and engagement overseas have taught him a fair amount about his own identity. Seeing the many ways people worship helped him put Judaism into a broader, deeper historical context. It also underscored the fact that in spite of linguistic or cultural differences, there is much that unites the Jewish people.

“It’s so easy to connect with someone on Facebook or whatever platform,” he said. “We create shared identities in multiple ways, and there’s something compelling to me about the idea that you don’t need to share an Insta-story with someone in Uzbekistan to have something in common with them. You travel to Europe or South America and you go to a Shabbat service and you feel some type of connection, even if you don’t know the language. There’s a deep comfort there.”

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 program participants.