Putting the Jerusalem into JICNY

Via Australia and New York City, a welcome newcomer on the Holy City social scene.

The Samuels, in New York City (from left): Caila, Gavin, Jodi, Temira and Meron. The children are a star presence at JICNY events, laying tables and delivering ‘divrei Torah.’ (photo credit: SAM ULRICH)
The Samuels, in New York City (from left): Caila, Gavin, Jodi, Temira and Meron. The children are a star presence at JICNY events, laying tables and delivering ‘divrei Torah.’
(photo credit: SAM ULRICH)
In recent years, the Jerusalem social scene has become increasingly vibrant, with a range of activities to cater for every taste and back - ground. One relative newcomer is Jewish International Connec- tion New York (JICNY), a non-profit founded by South African hus- band-and-wife team Gavin and Jodi Samuels.
JICNY has been operating in New York since December 2000 and has been responsible for at least 108 matches made through people meeting at its events.
One of the key attributes of JICNY that makes it so successful is its personal touch, as well as the fact that all of the events have an inti- mate feeling, often being held in the Samuels family home. The events are not too large and always have copious amounts of good food and wine, of particular importance at a Jewish event! Their children, Meron (14), Temira (11) and Caila (eight), have been involved with JICNY from birth and can frequently be seen at the events laying tables, pouring wine or giving divrei Torah . It is unusual and refreshing to see children, particularly teenagers, so willing to be involved in hosting regular events and meals at their home, and not objecting to 40 to 50 strangers sharing their Shabbat table. ALTHOUGH JICNY was created in New York in 2000, the seeds were planted many years before.
Gavin, a doctor by profession, and Jodi, an entrepreneur with an online marketing business that focuses on the Jewish community, met in Israel when she was 18 and he was 21. Moving to Israel was always a dream of theirs, but Gavin had loans for his medical studies to pay off, and his work took them to small communities in a number of coun- tries. Those communities often had very little Jewish life, such as one on the Gold Coast of Australia, which hadn’t had a Jewish wedding for 20 years prior to their arrival.
This was their introduction to playing an active role in Jewish com- munal life, as they met Jewish people who had very little knowledge of Judaism but felt connected to Gavin when they saw his kippa and would volunteer the information that their parents were Jewish with- out knowing that they were as well. Jodi and Gavin started hosting meals in their home every Shabbat, which led to the 14 Jewish stu- dents on campus marrying other Jews.
As the couple became more involved in running Jewish events, they were instrumental in setting up Aish HaTorah, a yeshiva and outreach organization for Jews in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast, and would travel frequently to other communities to run programs. When the option arose for them to move to New York, they were hesitant at first about leaving behind the community that they had been so involved in, especially as New York seemed to have such an active Jewish community. However, after speaking to the head of Aish HaTorah, who assured them that there was still plenty of work to be done in New York, they decided to make the move.
Jodi originally decided to take a six-month sabbatical from planning Jewish events once she moved, but life had a different plan for her.
After being in New York for three weeks, a student friend contacted her, saying there were a lot of Jewish students from overseas who had nowhere to eat a festive meal on Rosh Hashana. The friend asked if she would be willing to help. Jodi agreed, which resulted in her hosting a meal for 36 Columbia MBA students from 15 countries, and led her to the realization that there was a need for foreign students to have a home-away-from-home and a sense of community.
This led Jodi and Gavin to found JICNY, with the idea of establishing an organization that would create a real connection to Judaism through quality events and high-caliber speakers for people of all reli- gious levels.
They started off by holding Shabbat dinners, and then teamed up with dynamic educator Steve Eisenberg to offer Torah classes at various levels of knowledge every Monday night, which regularly attracted 70 to 100 people from as many as 40 countries. These events proved so popular that JICNY expanded to hosting classes on topics such as rela- tionships, Israel advocacy, Jewish history and even cooking workshops.
While a large proportion of the organization’s events cater to singles, they also feature couples classes, parenting classes and social events, such as Shabbat meals for couples. They offer events for people in their 20s and 30s, but also in their 40s and 50s, as the Samuelses recognized that there was a dire lack of events for this age group.
IN OCTOBER 2014, after having spent two months in Israel during each of the previous eight summers, Jodi, Gavin and the family real- ized their longstanding dream and moved to Jerusalem. While most people would allow themselves some time to settle in and acclimatize to a new country and language, the Samuelses did the exact opposite. They made aliya on a Thursday, and on their first Shab- bat, shocked at discovering that there were no activities planned in Jerusalem for the International Shabbat Project the following week, Jodi decided to try and organize a meal.
After seeing her children off on their first day of school, she emailed everyone she could think of, asking them if they would be interested in attending such an event. By the end of the day, she had received only one email, from a friend, and realized that if they were going to make this happen, the two of them would have to do it themselves.
They found a location and a speaker, and on the Thursday, 300 peo- ple showed up for a halla bake. They held the first JICNY-Jerusalem dinner the following night, just a week after moving here, with 80 people having signing up for the meal.
Jodi asked a friend where she could buy chairs, as the Samuels apart- ment had only four. The friend offered the use of her own apartment and chairs. The successful Shabbat concluded with a Havdala concert attracting 250 participants in Hurva Square in the Old City.
JICNY’S JERUSALEM events have become increasingly popular and well-known, and often attract people from Tel Aviv and Ra’anana, and from a multitude of countries. In addition to Shabbat dinners, it has offered events such as halla bakes and art evenings, where people have the opportunity to draw, paint and take part in other artistic activities. It will be offering a cooking class next week, where people can learn to prepare a Shabbat meal. While the majority of events require a registration fee, it covers only a fraction of the costs of running and advertising them.
Although the Samuels family is now based in Jerusalem, the New York branch still holds events, with Jodi traveling there every six weeks to oversee them. She relies on help from a part-time staff, but also from volunteers who make up an integral part of what the organization does. While I must confess to not always being a fan of Jewish events, which are often cliquey and attract the same crowds, I have attended several of JICNY’s events along with friends, and greatly enjoy the small, intimate, laid-back atmosphere, particularly at the Shabbat meals. Plenty of wine flows, and people are encouraged to stand up and introduce themselves and make a brief toast.
I highly recommend attending one. Even if you are shy, a few glasses of wine can always help in overcoming it! •
If you are looking to meet more people or would like to volunteer to help, either in arranging an event or offering a venue, contact JICNY at jicny.com/contact.