May 10, 2018

JCC Global Amitim: The Power of Uncommon Connections

An ambitious initiative among JCCs around the world is creating unique connections and partnerships, tearing down silos, and seeding innovative international projects to strengthen Jewish community.  

Although relatively new, Amitim, a program of JCC Global, is racking up successes and gaining attention and momentum.

For example, the David Posnack JCC in South Florida is partnering with equivalent agencies in Bogota, Colombia and Even Yehuda, Israel to fuel women’s empowerment through mother-daughter social justice projects in all three regions.  

At the Merage JCC in California’s Orange County, teens are joining their contemporaries in Buenos Aires and Kfar Yona, Israel in a long-term leadership development program.

And the Sid Jacobson JCC on Long Island is collaborating with community agencies in Mumbai, India and Zaporozhye, Ukraine, as well as Jerusalem, to connect young adults with varying abilities and give them their rightful place as participating Jews.

JCC Global Amitim: The Power of Uncommon Connections
Teens participate in the Hamsa progam in Israel

Amitim aims to leverage a worldwide network of Jewish community centers and similar institutions to incubate collaboration, design joint programming, and advance the concept of Jewish Peoplehood – so often cited as a priority within Jewish communal circles – as a concrete and achievable goal.

Driving the initiative is an appreciation of the richness of Jewish communal and educational life across the widest of spectrums, and recognition that joining best practices with grand and creative thinking can lead Jewish outreach and engagement to new heights.

“All Jewish communities are equal,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, Executive Director of JCC Global, which is based in Jerusalem.

“It doesn’t matter if it is in New York or Bulgaria or Moldova or Israel. Each is sharing the language and framework of informal Jewish education, yet each has a unique perspective and experience based on community and cultural history and norms. Each has something to give and each has something to receive. When they come together, it is both transformational and inspirational.”

Amitim – the Hebrew word for “friends” or “colleagues” – was launched in 2014, underwritten by JCC Global and UJA-Federation of New York, as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and some participating JCCs.

The first three-year cohort of participating agencies included 25 JCCs representing 11 countries. Seven joint projects were designed and implemented, reaching and engaging an estimated 5,000 community members, according to JCC Global.

Participation in, and impact of the program has grown dramatically. The second group – known as Amitim 2.0 Fellows – includes 50 JCCs or similar organizations in 15 countries. This cohort, which formed last year, is designing and executing 17 community engagement projects, impacting an estimated 10,000 Jews.

JCC Global Amitim: The Power of Uncommon Connections
JCC leaders from around the world meet and work together at the JCC Global World Conference

The Marlene Meyerson JCC, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a member of that first Amitim collective, and worked with four other Jewish centers in the United States and abroad to create a leadership development program for a cohort of teens from each community. Participants gathered at Szarvas, a Jewish summer camp near Budapest, Romania, and also in Israel.

The relationships created among the teens themselves will influence their engagement and contribution to Jewish community for life. But also more broadly, the growing connections among Jewish community centers through Amitim-driven collaborations are invaluable, said Joy Levitt, the JCC’s Executive Director.

“We are a well-resourced JCC,” she said. “Nearly 100,000 Jews live in our neighborhood. That’s not true in every community around the world, certainly not in the FSU and Eastern Europe. JCC Global and Amitim give us the opportunity to be helpful to them. It’s part of our responsibility.  

“They have their own stresses – less resources, smaller communities, anti-Semitism – yet they are very resilient and creative and in many ways are at the forefront of shaping 21st century Jewish community life. They are in a position to inspire and teach us all.”

The Sid Jacobson JCC, the largest on Long Island with about 3,000 member units, was in the inaugural Amitim Fellows group as well, and is also a participating agency in Amitim 2.0. In partnership with its cluster of Amitim Fellows, it is devising ways to address some of the most imperative and universal communal issues: engagement of youth and inclusion of marginalized populations.

Their first project, L’Alliance Teen Project, was a collaboration with Beit HaKerem Community Center in Jerusalem, the Khmelnitsky Welfare Fund in Ukraine, and the Centre Culturel et Communautaire Jerome Cahen in Paris.   Via social media and visits to each other’s countries, dozens of teens took part in leadership development and studied each other’s family and Jewish community histories and challenges.

The current project, Better Together, a collaborative project with the Evelyn Peters JCC in Mumbai, Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem, and JCC Mazal Tov in Ukraine, is using social media and travel to join hundreds of young adults with varying physical or developmental abilities in cultural and social exchanges through a Jewish lens, and to sensitize the neurotypical community to their challenges and empowerment.

“The connections and transformations and education taking place as a result of the Amitim program are extraordinary,” said David Black, Executive Director of the Sid Jacobson JCC, citing the inclusion initiative.

“These teens are getting international connections and exposures and support, and making friendships and forming alliances they never would have had. And the ripple effects are enormous, with other populations – families, professionals and lay leaders – being connected in a significant, meaningful and global way.”

In fact, in an evaluation of the first Amitim cohort, released last May by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz of Research Success Technologies, the initiative is described as “providing a path for active community members to further their connection to the JCC and for connecting community members to global Jewry.”

In downtown Manhattan, at the 14th Street Y, an early stage of the Amitim model played out at the beginning of this month. Gal Maymon and Leener Ivry, two schlichim from Israel working now to engage teens in the Athens Jewish community, were there to learn about and observe LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture – an initiative marrying classic texts, original art, and thought – and the Kaleidoscope program – a monologue showcase – to determine which elements might work within the framework of Jewish-Greek culture and tradition.

Centers in Athens, London, Buenos Aires and Israel are collaborating with the 14th Street Y to create a Jewish text-based program for Jewish teens to explore their Jewish identities and journeys, and express it through monologues shared and discussed on online digital platforms and possibly face-to-face meet-ups.

“This is an amazing opportunity to see and work with people from different places with different perspectives and traditions,” Maymon said. “We are all here doing what we do for the same reasons. We know how powerful these partnerships can be for an individual, for a community, and for the entire Jewish world.”

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation