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Global Jewish Service Corps Expands Reach to Scandinavia

View this story in eJewish Philanthropy

Since 1987, hundreds of volunteers have traveled to dozens of countries around the world as part of the Global Jewish Service Corps.

Now, in a global partnership between JDC and BBYO, two participants are stationed in a corner of the world where JDC Entwine has not worked before: Scandinavia. The $4 million partnership plan enables young adults, mostly BBYO alumni, to serve around the world to significantly grow teen programming in Jewish communities. The partnership is supported by the Schusterman Foundation, The William Davidson Foundation and the Myers Foundation.

Brittany Ritell of Ridgefield, Conn., will spend the next year in Copenhagen, while Basya Gartenstein of Far Rockaway, N.Y., is posted in Helsinki.

Ritell is joined in Denmark by Noa Kuznitsov of Jerusalem.

Over the next year, the three young adults will be embedded with local Jewish communities, taking part in social activities, teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies, and organizing holiday events.

“After college, I really wanted to be abroad and do something Jewish,” Ritell said. “After a lot of research, I heard about this through BBYO. It was just right for me.”

Kuznitsov said she was looking for a way to see the world after completing her service in the Israel Defense Forces while also doing something purposeful. She saw an advertisement for the position, and after several interviews with Rabbi Jair Melchior of Denmark, she got the job.

Before departing, Ritell learned about the history of the Jewish community in Denmark and the miraculous effort to save Jews during the Nazi occupation when most of the community was ferried to safety in Sweden overnight.

“They really tried to resist the Germans and what they were doing and they have consistently stood by the Jewish community,” she said. “I think that’s really incredible.”

Despite the history of tolerance towards Jews in Denmark, last year a gunman attacked a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing a Jewish security guard.

For Kuznitsov, such events are sadly familiar and they’re part of her motivation to serve the community.

“I’m from Israel so I can relate to the Jewish community and they can to me,” she said. “They are still in shock and trying to recover and I feel like I can embrace them and be there for them.”

Ritell also said she was not too concerned about security.

“I live 20 minutes from Newtown, Conn., which you’d think was the safest place in America but was the site of a mass shooting at an elementary school, and I also lived 10 minutes away from where the Boston bombing occurred,” she explained. “It’s not that much safer in America and from what I hear from members of the community, what happened in Denmark is really a one-off thing.”

While Kuznitsov and Ritell will share an apartment, Gartenstein will be living on her own in Helsinki.

“I’m looking forward to teaching Hebrew to the children,’ she said.

There are about 1,500 Jews in Finland, a small yet dynamic and diverse community with a history that dates back to the 19th century. Winters can be harsh in Finland where the sun sets at 3:18 p.m. in December and temperatures rarely rise above the 30s. Gartenstein said she hopes to draw on her previous experience living alone and her passion for Jewish activism to get her through the season. “I really want to create programming with teens that reflects their connection to Jewish identity,’ she said.

The three will communicate with members of the community in Hebrew and English. Still, a year from now, they hope they might be able to converse a little in the local language.

“I’m learning Danish vocab on an app that I downloaded and I understand some of the words,’ Ritell said. “My accent’s not there yet, but I hope to improve.”

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