Community is at the core of Judaism, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) focuses on creating a worldwide Jewish community. This year, eight American Jewish teens from different cities and diverse Jewish backgrounds came together to fulfill the JDC’s mission of supporting Jews around the world. They formed the JDC Youth Council.
The JDC is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization. With headquarters in New York and Israel, the organization supports Jewish and non-sectarian communities in over seventy different countries. The JDC, founded in 1914, preserves suffering Jewish communities, responds to worldwide crises, and implements innovative solutions to social issues. Its mission is to lift lives and strengthen communities around the world.
In Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, the JDC provides healthcare and financial aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable Jews in far-flung and small communities. It facilitates community building with year-round programming and summer camps. In Israel, the JDC supports the elderly, the disabled, and at-risk youth across Israeli society including ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Bedouins.
The JDC Youth Council follows in the footsteps of the JDC. After spending a summer interacting with Jewish teens from around the world at the JDC-Lauder Camp Szarvas in Hungary, Isaac Ohrenstein wanted to connect American teenagers with global Jewry. Ohrenstein, who grew up in Missouri and is now a junior at the SAR High School in Riverdale, formed the JDC Youth Council with an eye toward gathering Jewish teens from across the country. He explained, “We needed people from different regions of the country and different Jewish affiliations because Jewish identity is so diverse. The experience of a Reform teen in a public school is very different than that of an Orthodox teen in a Jewish private school.”
The JDC Youth Council began meeting monthly on Zoom in September 2019, long before Zoom became the staple of most schools and businesses. Ohrenstein wondered how a group of strangers would develop relationships without meeting in person. He started by breaking members of the council into small groups to allow more intimate interactions. Members responded favorably and were eager to get to know their peers. According to Izzy Jacobson, a junior at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, “This program definitely changed my perspective on Judaism. Through the council and the JDC in general, I have realized how fortunate I am to be part of a Jewish community in my hometown.” Naava Simckes from Missouri said that she attends a public high school and has faced anti-Semitism. “This council really fostered my Jewish identity by adding to my Jewish community,” she said.
At most meetings, students hear from inspiring speakers who have had a tremendous impact on global Jewry. Ohrenstein said, “We tried to design the meetings to be as interactive as possible, so we deliberately sought out speakers who we thought would connect with our young leaders.”
Beckie Hamroff, a Research Specialist at the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, spoke about middot (Jewish values) and how they impact her work. After presenting to the council she said, “It was really inspiring to talk to a group of young people who are dedicated to an organization that can be hard to interact with on a personal level. I wanted to teach them that regardless of how religious one is, their Jewish values are the same.” The teens were inspired by Hamroff as well. Sophia Rein, a junior at the Ramaz Upper School, took Hamroff’s message and, together with the author of this article, created a Chizuk (Empowerment) Video Series through the JDC Club they started at Ramaz. In the video, students, faculty, and administrators spoke about individual Jewish values in the context of the current pandemic. The video was shared with global Jewish communities supported by the JDC.
Recently, Dr. Rick Hodes, the JDC’s Medical Director in Ethiopia, spoke to the teens about his thirty-one years of experience saving lives in Ethiopia. He described the extremes required to help his patients. He developed medication when proper resources were unavailable, sent patients abroad to provide them with necessary surgeries, and even adopted Ethiopian orphans so they could be given the proper treatment in America. Dr. Hodes spoke about how he constantly incorporates his Jewish values into his work. His presentation left the teens awestruck by the breadth and depth of his care. Julia Bautz, a junior at the Clayton High School in St. Louis, Missouri, connects to Judaism through the traditions and values her grandfather, who left the Soviet Union to practice his religion freely, passed to her. Bautz remarked, “It is amazing to see the middah of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) in action. Dr. Hodes really taught me how tangible the work of the JDC is.”
“You can’t build a group of leaders overnight. But, the first step is educating ourselves about what needs to be done,” said Ohrenstein. A year after its creation, the JDC Youth Council has successfully engaged its members and the broader community. Jacobson explained that she joined the JDC Youth Council after learning about a Jewish teen’s experience growing up in Moldova during her summer at Camp Szarvas. Over the summer, she had the opportunity to participate in his emotional bar mitzvah. Jacobson joined the council to become a leader. She now speaks about and teaches her community in Michigan about the impact of the JDC. Similarly, Ethan Meisler, a senior at St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said that this year, he “learned how to communicate with people who do not live near him and how to assess problems and try to find solutions to help communities.” He is now equipped with the tools he needs to be a Jewish leader next year in college. He hopes to continue working with the JDC both in America and abroad.
The current pandemic has highlighted the feeling of isolation that members of the JDC’s network of communities often feel. The JDC Youth Council has not only connected its leaders with each other; it also has brought them closer to world communities and leaders. These teens aim to carry out the mission of the JDC and bring it to the next generation.