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JDC Volunteer Discovers the Intricacies of Europe

November 2, 2006 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Yael Levin

While most Jews celebrated last Passover sitting at a familiar spot at their family tables, Yael Levin spent the holiday in a far more exotic locale -- with a group of Jews in Ahmedabad, India. She visited the area for three weeks as a volunteer from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that sponsors relief programs for Jews in need.

"It was so different from anything I'd grown up with," said Levin, 24, of the 150-person community seder. "You look around, and there are people who look Indian but are Jewish."

Levin grew up in an observant Conservative home in Merion and spent a year in Israel before enrolling at Oberlin College, where she was an active member of the Jewish community. That background seemed appreciated by the Jews in Ahmedabad; Levin said they welcomed her input on the seder, and she also helped teach the children Passover songs.

"They were so happy to have American Jews there," said Levin of her three-week journey.

In total, she was overseas volunteering with the JDC from August 2005 through August 2006. Levin was based in Vienna, Austria, during the bulk of her service, where she worked in the organization's transmigrant program. She helped Jews from various populations relocate to other countries; however, in a recent interview, she noted that she was not allowed to discuss which countries the Jews came from, or which countries she helped them relocate to. The stated mission of the JDC, according to its Web site, is to "serve the needs of Jews throughout the world, particularly where their lives as Jews are threatened or made more difficult," and Levin did not wish to put her charges into any further jeopardy.

"It was satisfying work," she remarked. "When you see a smile in their eyes and they appreciate what you're doing, that's what made me happy to be there."

Levin lived in the Jewish section of Vienna, walked to shul and frequented a kosher food store. She even spoke to her landlord and others in the community in Hebrew, due to her admittedly poor German.

Levin used her weekends and off-time to travel, but with an interesting twist -- she made it a point to visit Jewish communities in every city. As such, she observed Judaism in London; Paris; Rome; Venice, Italy; Prague, the Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Krakow; and Warsaw.

'It's Really Surviving'

While exploring the cities, Levin visited synagogues, Jewish museums and made sure to travel to Jewish neighborhoods. What she found helped change her perspective on contemporary European Jewish life.

"You learn up to the Holocaust and World War II, and you think Judaism in Europe is this dying relic, [but] I saw that it's really not at all," she reported. "I saw communities, I saw synagogues, I saw programs, I saw organizations, I saw youth movements. I saw that it's small, but it's really surviving in a new and different way."

Levin now lives in South Philadelphia and works as the assistant director of the Collaborative, a group that runs social events around the city for young Jewish professionals. She helps manage the office and the Web site, as well as helps run various events.

After seeing Jewry all over the world, she's excited to now do some work back at home.

"We have such an amazing community," she said. "When you grow up in a community, you don't appreciate it until you go away."

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