“It’s an investment in the future of our Jewish community,” Lewis explained.
Eastern Europe was chosen for this year’s leadership mission instead of Israel because the Jewish Federation is deeply invested in these communities as well as Israel. The change in venue would also give students a different perspective on global Jewry.
“We think this was an opportunity to prepare these emerging leaders in our Jewish community and help them better understand Jewish global peoplehood and Jewish life outside the United States and Israel,” he continued.
“Our tradition teaches, ‘kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh/ all of Israel (the Jewish people) are responsible for one another.’ The KU Hillel leadership seminar in Bulgaria and Romania, and in the past to Israel, operationalizes this important dictum by offering a service learning opportunity for these emerging Jewish adults who want to make an impact in overseas Jewish communities. By providing the funds to support the students participating in this program, the Jewish Federation shows its commitment to our overseas partners as well as to these students, who will become tomorrow’s Jewish communal leaders. An important aspect of being a ‘total’ Jewish leader is an awareness of world Jewry and taking action on their behalf,” Edelman said.
“They absolutely got a good understanding about the Jewish community and what Jewish life is like in Romania and Bulgaria,” Lewis said.
Everyone, Lewis said, was inspired to see how hard people are working in Romania and Bulgaria to make sure Jewish life thrives there. Pearl Sonnenschein, a sophomore from Overland Park, said the third day of the trip while they were in Bulgaria had the greatest impact on her.
“This trip had an incredibly humbling impact on me. It opened my eyes to the connection Jewish people have with each other, near and far. Our visit to the Rosen Home in Bucharest, Romania, showed me just that. An elderly woman, Silvian, held my hand and cried when I told her I was Jewish traveling with a group of Jewish students my age. Her love for Judaism was almost as strong as mine, regardless of her age or geographical location. Now and in the future, I will be able to relate to a complete stranger across the world. Using the mitzvot of ‘loving a stranger,’ as the people in Romania and Bulgaria did for us,” she said.
“There is not one normative. It’s a short-term expectation, but it’s the long-term expectation that we put very clearly to the students. The reason why the Federation subsidized their trip and why KU Hillel is doing this and investing in them is that we are anticipating that they are going to be leaders in the Jewish community for the next 30, 40, 50 years. They need to bring this experience to their leadership roles and we are expecting them to be engaged and invested in the Jewish community,” Lewis said.
“They are definitely engaged in Jewish life wherever they are. Many of them tell us that out of all the things they did Jewishly at KU, this was the most impactful,” Lewis said.
Pollack, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, said this experience will spur her to provide more for her Jewish community.
Sonnenschein hopes to share the information she learned on the trip with others in the Jewish community.
She also learned that help doesn’t come solely in the form of money.
“Spending time with the communities there is another form of service, and a very important form of service. I learned that there are Jewish communities all over there world — some that are as prosperous as ours in the United States, and others that are on their way to being prosperous, like in Eastern Europe. But, as the saying goes: wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish. And you have a special connection with that person, even if you live a million miles away from them.” Sonnenschein said.
“Even though we have a fantastic Jewish community in the Greater Kansas City area, there is always room for improvement, and I want to be able to help with those areas,” she said.
The participants kept a blog during their trip. You can read more of their impressions while they were in Eastern Europe here. Lindsey Havens, a sophomore from Chicago, also wrote a commentary about the trip in the University Daily Kansan, published Jan. 20. You can read it here.