From JDC program participant to JDC professional

‘I grew up knowing all these songs, and all of a sudden 1,000 people that I couldn’t even communicate with were singing them too!’

Rozi Levi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rozi Levi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rozi Levi decided to make aliya in 1998, but thought it best to hold off until after college. She was, after all, only eight years old.
“My brother was going to be a camp counselor overseas in the States so my mom said, ‘Let’s go,’” recalls Levi of her first visit to Israel.
Connecting with relatives and friends of her parents who had made aliya in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the young Levi discovered a special connection with the land – a place where she heard people speaking in the language of the Hebrew songs she was singing back home in Izmir, Turkey. She participated in educational tours, met new people and asked a lot of questions. By the end of the trip, she told her mother she would like to move to Israel after college, and that’s just what she did – but not before filling the gap between her childhood and young adulthood with plenty of Jewish living and exploration.
Her involvement with global Jewry began with her participation in a Jewish camp located in Szarvas, Hungary, and sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. Headquartered in New York, the JDC is a global Jewish relief agency that works in 70 countries around the world, including Israel. The teenager didn’t know it then, but the experience would set her on a path to becoming a JDC professional in the Joint’s Jerusalem office, where daily she shares her own awareness of the greater Jewish world in order to actualize the organization’s belief – and her belief – that “all Jews are responsible for each other.”
Growing up, Levi was surrounded by a close kehilla in the Alsancak neighborhood of Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city and currently the second-largest Jewish community after Istanbul. With nearly 4,000 years of history reflecting Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other influences, Izmir became a diverse and multicultural metropolis while still preserving its tight-knit community feel.
Like Levi, the neighborhood has matured and now is the city center, complete with shopping, bars, restaurants and cafes. “Like King George and Ben Yehuda,” she says, referring to the bustling intersection in Jerusalem, her home since 2014.
“There is something special about generation after generation growing up and living together,” the 26-year-old says of the neighborhood that helped to shape her.
Judaism also shaped Levi, who was raised in a household where traditions, Shabbat and holidays were celebrated with uniquely local flavors, such as distinct tunes for “Yigdal” and “Lecha Dodi,” or with songs honoring the anniversary of a family member’s death – called a midrash in Izmir.
“Like every Jewish event, there was food,” notes Levi. Those flavors of home include fritadas eaten on Shabbat and burekas, including one called boyoz, a contribution to Izmir’s cultural landscape by Sephardi Jews evicted from Spain in 1492.
Being Jewish was an ever-present part of her life, yet she was firmly rooted in Izmir’s multicultural milieu, where she routinely celebrated the end of Ramadan with her friends from her public high school. Even though she had family from around the world, including the US, South America, France and Israel, and news from faraway places was part of the daily dinner conversation, Levi says it was the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas that made the difference between “knowing” about the Jewish world and learning about the different “realities” of the Jewish world.
The then-14-year-old met other teens from more than a dozen countries including Estonia, Russia, Latvia and India. It was here that she heard Jews chanting camp and spiritual songs in multiple languages, and where campers united over common lyrics and harmonies of “Hine Ma Tov,” “Oseh Shalom” and “Hava Nagila.”
Levi describes her amazement at this first-time experience among Jews from around the globe.
“I grew up knowing all of these songs and all of a sudden, 1,000 people that I couldn’t even communicate with were singing them too!” So moved by being introduced to other slices of Jewish life, the teen returned to Szarvas as a counselor a few years later. With her newfound understanding of global Jewry, she went back home to Izmir and embarked on exploring her own Jewish identity more deeply. She continued volunteering in her community, and at 16 she attended a Jewish summer program, “Genesis at Brandeis,” near Boston, where she found “a new Jewish world in front of me.”
Brandeis’ pluralistic environment helped reveal to Levi what North American Jewry was about as well as different Jewish movements. Americans, Canadians and Israelis made up the bulk of the nearly 70 participants, along with, as she laughingly remembers, “Rozi from Turkey.”
“The program opened me up to thinking about learning new cultures, traditions and communities, and understanding and learning from peers,” Levi says. “I was already curious, but now it was reflected in my day-to-day life.”
Soon after, the Brandeis camper became a Brandeis college student, where the rigorous scholastic environment pushed her to understand what she wanted to be, what drove her and what she wanted to explore – and Levi certainly explored. So academically stimulated, she changed her mind about her major five times, finally deciding on an interdisciplinary focus with two majors: in psychology and health – science, society and policy, a curriculum that provided a comprehensive perspective about her multiple interests in the social sciences, public policy, and health.
Following graduation, Levi once again packed her bags and went knocking on JDC’s door. This time it opened to Ethiopia via an insider trip of JDC Entwine, the young adult engagement platform of the JDC. It was in this African country that she had the opportunity to work with Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director for Ethiopia of the JDC, who has worked in the country for more than two decades.
A post-college semester program in Israel helped Levi hone her grant writing skills, learn about public health initiatives and social entrepreneurship, and the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It also allowed her to add mentoring at-risk middle schoolers as part of JVP-Bakehila, as well as working at Bishvilaych, a non-profit health clinic for women, to her volunteer resumé.
A self-described “action-oriented” person, Levi defines her work with NGOs as an “interesting turning point,” and one that led to her aliya decision.
Identifying with JDC’s international reach and mission, and with the organization an integral part of her life, it was only natural for her to become part of its Global Resource Development Team, where she works with JDC’s North America partners.
“We bring stories about the needs of communities to life in order to make sure we have the resources available to help,” she explains, emphasizing that JDC’s ultimate goal is to “aid needy Jews and build Jewish life” wherever they go as they empower local leaders to sustain new services and programs.
She is reminded daily of her JDC roots, even preparing proposals for Szarvas Camp, where it all started more than a decade ago.
“It is special to be part of the story,” she says of her involvement with JDC, as both a participant in one of its flagships programs and as a professional, “but we are all part of the story, the story of global Jewry. I like saying I work at the Joint, but the truth is, I have been at the Joint for most of my life.”