Jewish geography - and roots

An innovative program spearheaded by the JCC connects Mexican, Israeli and US communities while exploring their family trees.

Participants in the JCC Global Family Tree Project in Mexico City earlier this year (photo credit: COURTESY OF CDI MEXICO CITY)
Participants in the JCC Global Family Tree Project in Mexico City earlier this year
Whether it’s terrorist attacks in Israel, anti-Semitism in Europe or other dramatic events affecting Jewish communities around the world, today’s reality of nonstop media coverage with social media at the forefront allows Jews to monitor the various global crises affecting their brethren.
But how can the Jewish people learn about the beauties of the routine daily lives of their coreligionists in their communities near and far, communities with their own unique expressions of Jewish heritage and customs, and be able to connect with them? That was the question asked rhetorically by Smadar Bar-Akiva, the executive director of JCC Global, the Israel-based organization that is the umbrella for more than 1,000 JCCs worldwide, making it the largest global Jewish network.
Bar-Akiva and her staff thus decided that they were going to explore ways in which global Jewish communities could connect with one another. To assist in their quest, last year JCC Global formed the Amitim Fellows Global Leadership Network, an initiative that brought together over 50 JCC staffers from 11 countries for a weeklong conference in Budapest to brainstorm on what projects could be implemented to fulfill their goal.
By the end of the week, the representatives had formed a total of seven viable collaborative project ideas with the other JCCs aimed at helping Jewish communities connect.
One of the project ideas that took off with a bang was developed by the representatives of the JCCs in Orange County, California; Mexico City; and Kfar Yona, with all three communities expressing interest in focusing on building an initiative revolving around Jewish teens.
The project created was dubbed the JCC Global Family Tree Project for teens and their families, and was launched this past June when 75 teenagers aged 14 to 17 from each of the participating Jewish communities gathered in Mexico City for a week to explore their Jewish identity, heritage and connection to Israel, perform in sports and cultural activities, and participate in a community service project.
Participants, with assistance from their parents and other family members, built their own Jewish family trees to examine answers to the question of how they see themselves and their families as part of both the local and the global Jewish community.
During the research and completion of the trees, 646 individuals were represented from 38 countries. The individual trees were then shared during the Mexico City event as one of the highlights of the gathering. “By studying your roots,” says Bar-Akiva, “this is a great way to strengthen your own Jewish identity.
Secondly, by seeing how Jewish identity is played out in other communities [by seeing other teens’ trees] it broadens your horizons of what Jewish identity is, and broadens the definition of what it means to be a Jew. For example, now they [the teenagers from Orange County and from Israel] know what the Jewish community in Mexico City is all about [through the visit], a community that takes their Judaism seriously. It gives them an understanding of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.”
In addition to showcasing their family trees, highlights from the Mexico City encounter included a gala festival featuring Jewish folklore from around the world, a community service activity at Eishel, the city’s Jewish senior home, a visit to the city’s first Ashkenazi synagogue and to other famous sites in town.
MONICA KIBRIT de Snaiderman is the secretary of the executive committee of the JCC in Mexico City, officially known as Centro Deportivo Israelita. A lay leader in her own right, she says that with the help of other community leaders and professionals, she was charged with programming logistics for the entire event. Her family also personally hosted three of the teens who arrived from Kfar Yona. Kibrit de Snaiderman says that the event was a success, allowing the teens to interact with their peers from the other countries. She adds that through the family tree project, the teens had the chance “to study the roots of their ancestors and their customs.” But most importantly, “while some live in Mexico, some in the US and others in Israel, they learned how their three cultures merge, and that [in reality] they have so much in common, and already are speaking the same language [so to speak].”
Kibrit de Snaiderman says that the project was destined for success from the beginning when the Amitim group gathered in Budapest a year prior and the various communities were given the liberty to choose which communities they wanted to work with.
“This was a natural joint venture,” she says. “We found JCCs in common to work with and only then built the program, based on common interests.”
Samantha Cohen, the program director for the Merage JCC of Orange County, based in Irvine, stresses that for the teens and their families, the family-tree project began long before the trip to Mexico. For eight months leading up to the trip, preparatory parallel sessions were held at the JCC “as the teens and their families went through an in-depth process exploring their heritage, identity, and connection to Israel.”
In reference to the teens, she says that witnessing the trees being constructed, “it was clear the kids went on a journey that transformed their Jewish identity.”
She says that at the same time, the parents made use of the MyHeritage family tree building computer software, and discussions were held “about their family histories and the work they were doing to support their kids in their research.”
As the children were exploring their roots, Cohen decided to look into her own family history. She, along with Adrienne Matros, an executive board member of the JCC and a co-chairwoman of the project, also voluntarily constructed family trees.
Matros was raised in a half white, half Native American family, and converted to Judaism. Thanks to the project, she made discoveries that led her to trace unknown Jewish roots within her family.
“For me, this was a personal experience to explore family roots that I had never known about,” she says. “In addition, I believe that this was an opportunity to look further than the US and Israel and see that Jews are united globally and not just in the US and Israel, which I believe tends to be the focus.”
Wendy Stark, Matros’s co-chairwoman, says that the family tree building experience provided the teens with the opportunity to spend time interviewing members within the Orange County community, particularly seniors, which “allowed them to explore farther than their own personal heritage.”
TRAVELING THE furthest to Mexico City was the Kfar Yona delegation, represented by 18 teens and led by Dudy Lifshitz, the former executive director of the Kfar Yona Community Centers, who has since taken over as the director of the community center in Rehovot.
He says that his group learned a tremendous amount from the trip, being exposed to other types of Jews while being hosted by local families.
“The Israeli kids aren’t as used to meeting other kids who come from families with only one Jewish parent or kids from converted families. This was a true learning experience.”
That the Israeli delegation members were still engaged on their own, without any prompting, talking about what was discussed during the sessions, shows it was a true learning experience for them, Lifshitz says.
Seventeen-year-old Elian Wigisser is a Mexico City native, who was part of the teen program. Her family hosted three Kfar Yona girls, whose common bond was their involvement in dance at their respective JCCs. Wigisser says that the girls from the three locations combined to perform a joint dance routine at the closing event.
She says that the overall program was an “amazing learning experience.” She believes that “while everyone is different in that each group has their own unique culture, we have a lot in common within our religion of Judaism, which is our uniting factor.”
She says that she is still in touch with the friends she made, and “now I know if I’m in California or in Israel, I have connections there.”
Wigisser might have the opportunity to use those connections in the near future, as Bar-Akiva explains that while the Mexico City experience is in the past, the program is far from over. She says that the plan is for the groups to gather twice more – in Orange County in the summer of 2016, and then in Kfar Yona in the summer of 2017.
She says that the heads from the three cities are already scheduled to meet when the 9th World Conference of JCC Global takes place in Jerusalem this week (November 3-6) to begin organizing next summer’s gathering.