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Witnessing the Diversity of Jewish Life: A Report from our Fishel Fellow in Bulgaria

Every two years, The Jewish Federation selects a candidate for The Fishel Fellowship, a two-year paid fellowship created specifically for young adults who have a passion for the Jewish community and global service. Named in honor of former Federation President John Fishel, the fellowship provides one exceptional college graduate with leadership training and hands-on community service experiences in countries across the world to affect change within the global Jewish community.

Below is an update from our current Fishel Fellow, Maia Ferdman.

Zdrveite (Hello) from Sofia, Bulgaria! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Maia Ferdman, and I’m the Fishel Fellow of Jewish Federation Los Angeles. The fellowship, named for John Fishel, is designed to take one person through a four-part process: I went on a multi-week volunteer trip to Mumbai, India, last summer. I am now working in Bulgaria for a year as a JDC Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow through August, and will then live and work in Israel for three months. I will then return to L.A. in December and join the Federation for a year! Needless to say, this has been an incredible opportunity and I am both thankful and excited to be part of Jewish Federation Los Angeles.

My placement in Bulgaria is with an initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Europe called Junction. As part of the partnership between the JDC and the Schusterman Foundation, Junction creates meaningful international opportunities for young adults (18-35) to engage with each other and with Judaism in a modern and relevant way. This includes a variety of international seminars and events, micro-grants for Jewish ideas, and volunteering opportunities.

For example, our biggest event of the year was Gesher, which took place in Greece in May. Gesher brought together 200 young adults from about 22 different countries for an identity festival that included workshops (that allowed participants to try new things like Kosher cooking or Krav Maga), discussion sessions (about challenging topics like secularism, diversity, and inclusivity in the Jewish world), and Jewish celebrations (such as a Yom Hashoah commemoration, Shabbat, and Havdalah). We held another event in March in Sofia, Bulgaria called Rescape, which was modeled as a start-up accelerator for Jewish ideas. In July, participants joined together in Berlin for an event called D&A, which is a think tank-style event meant to discuss the power of stories and to reimagine the narrative of European Jewry.

My role in the very small Junction team is dynamic and varied, including everything from building its new website, to communicating with participants, to planning and executing our programming. Beyond the work itself though, my time with Junction has exposed me to unfamiliar and innovative models of Jewish life, and has inspired me to bring these models home to Los Angeles. European Jewish communities are very small compared to what we are used to in the U.S., and yet the individual dedication of young people to maintaining these communities is enormous and humbling. For example, here in Bulgaria, it is young people in their teens, 20s and 30s, who have revived the community and now uphold the Jewish traditions that had been swept under the rug during the Communist period.

Because of the international nature of my placement, I have also been able to witness the diversity of Jewish life and expression throughout Europe. For example, I have been fortunate to attend Rosh Hashanah in Skopje and Yom Kippur in Thessaloniki, Shabbat in Budapest, Limmud in Vienna, one Seder in Sofia and the second in Milan. These varied experiences have revealed how diaspora’s disparate histories have led to a range of traditions, values, and challenges across Europe; and yet, when Jews come together here, we all still share something fundamental that binds us.

I still have some time before I return to California, but I am already looking forward to applying what I have learned about Jewish community-building back home, and to continue learning about and contributing to Jewish life.

Learn more about the Fishel Fellowship or send your questions to FishelFellowship@JewishLA.org.

*Junction photo credit: Phelia Barouh

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