Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
Bridging the Gap promotes unity among Jewish students on New York City campuses by bringing students of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds together to build community and craft their own Jewish journeys. The program offers a dynamic spectrum of activities designed to promote leadership and engagement, guided by the activities of 13 Bridging the Gap Fellows (BTG Fellows) on eleven (11) campuses who serve as ambassadors to diverse sectors of their campus Jewish communities. BTG is a project of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College funded by UJA Federation of NY.
According to the sages of the Talmud, ahavat Yisrael, or “loving one’s fellow Jew,” is the foundation of the entire Torah. An interconnected community of Jews who support and care for one another is essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Yet Jews come from a variety of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, not to mention opinions, and do not always know or understand one another. In an incredibly diverse environment like the college campuses of New York City, it can be challenging to meet, get to know, and “love” one’s fellow Jew, especially since many students come to campus unaffiliated with Jewish life, Jewish community, and Israel.
Bridging the Gap (BTG) promotes the wisdom of ahavat Yisrael by working to create a vibrant Jewish community, strong in its diversity, within the New York metropolitan area. Not only does the program introduce students to one another, it also strengthens their commitment to community-building and emphasizes the five core Jewish values that inform all of Tanger Hillel’s work:
• Jewish identity: Strengthening each student’s understanding of his or her personal Jewish identity and overall commitment to Judaism.
• Israel: Sustaining and developing each student’s commitment to our holy land.
• Tzedakah: Creating a culture that promotes philanthropy as part of Jewish life.
• Chesed: Preserving the rich Jewish tradition of proactively helping humanity, and ensuring that each student understands the importance of acts of loving kindness.
• Tikkun Olam: Helping each student realize his/her personal contribution and potential in helping to make the world a better place.
The goals of BTG are:
• To enrich the lives of students on campuses in the New York area, both on campuses that have Hillels and on those that do not, by facilitating communication and cooperation among individuals of diverse backgrounds.
• To offer students opportunities to engage with Jewish life beyond campus.
• To collaborate with various Jewish organizations, leveraging and pooling resources to benefit the community as a whole and educating students about the rich Jewish communal life of the New York area.
• To spark a connection to Israel within students’ Jewish identities. Although students have varying opinions on Israel, they are eager to learn more and participate in discussion. Our programs provide a safe space and an open forum for students of different political inclinations to learn and talk about Israel.
Examples of BTG activities that express our Jewish values have included:
• Jewish Young Leadership Summer Summit: The Jewish Young Leadership Summer Summit brought together 60 student activists from campuses across NY at the Hudson Valley Resort to learn and celebrate Shabbat as a community. Students created meaningful connections between different campuses and their local communities, and exchanged event ideas for the upcoming school year.
• Israel Parade After-Party: 350 Young adults from all over the East Coast marched in solidarity with the Hillels of NY, showing their support for Israel and the Jewish campus community. Building on the energy of the march, 200 gathered at The Jewish Museum for an after-party. For many students it was their first time in a Jewish museum.
• L’chaim Paint Night: Local artist Elke Reva Sudin, founder of Jewish Art Now, guided 60 participants in painting their own interpretation of the chamsa, a Jewish symbol. The event took place at a kosher Persian restaurant where participants tasted delicious Persian treats. Students from diverse cultural backgrounds had a chance to connect through art and learn about Persian Jewish culture.
• Chill in Deal: For the third year in a row, BTG Fellows offered 43 peers the opportunity to join the annual Nesach Yisrael Summer Basketball Tournament in Deal, NJ, organized by the Syrian Jewish community. Syrian students were able to connect with diverse Jewish students while students who came from other communities were exposed to the Syrian community. Aligned with the core value of Tzedakah, all the proceeds from the tournament were donated to Nesach Yisrael Institution, a school for impoverished children with learning disabilities and to the families of IDF soldiers.
• Live Poetry: Unspoken Word at The Bowery: Bridging the Gap presented the Poetry Night; an evening for over 140 Jewish students city-wide that came together to express themselves and share their talent with diverse students from NYC Jewish communities. This event aimed to use poetry as a medium of Jewish expression, using this art to express students’ inner thoughts, emotions and Jewish Journeys. The event received very positive feedback and BTG Fellows are looking to organize another cultural event in the spring since there is a long waiting list of student performers.
• Annual Fashion Show Fundraiser: The Fashion Show has become a signature event for BTG community and especially popular among alumni. Students from schools around NYC and alumni have come together and worked tirelessly every Sunday during the fall semester to organize an evening of glamour and fashion for a good cause. Young adults had an opportunity to utilize their skills in production, design, budgeting, marketing and of course the FIT students has a chance to showcase their designs. The event also sparked conversations about inclusivity (of different sizes, religious observances) and received public recognition through various media outlets and the promotional information was broadcasted pro-bono over the Russian radio, DaNU. 48 participants on weekly basis (production crew, models, designers) 250+ attended
• Light the Night: BTG Fellows lit the menorah in different parts of New York for each night of Chanukah, serving over 180 students. Campuses without Hillels took this opportunity as chance to celebrate and unite their student body. The events educated many new participants about BTG, local Hillels, and the citywide Jewish community.
One of the reasons why Bridging the Gap is so successful at reaching NYC college students is that programs are designed, promoted, and implemented by their peers. The program is driven by the efforts of 13 BTG Fellows active at 11 campuses, five of which have no professional Hillel staff. BTG Fellows are undergraduate students in their sophomore or junior year who are campus leaders, active in student life, connected to the Jewish community, and committed to sharing Jewish experiences with their peers.
Fellows utilize their firsthand understanding of their peers to engage students from different backgrounds, while respecting diverse cultures and embracing the differences and similarities that make the New York Jewish community so rich and dynamic. Fellows participate in regular training, which includes an annual leadership summit; maintain relationships with Jewish students on campus; and plan a variety of campus- and city-wide events designed to engage peers. We continually refine our activities from year to year to make sure they are accessible and relevant to our target audience.
Bridging the Gap aims to make Jewish young adults in New York City feel as though they know and understand each other, are a part of collective, and are members of a strong, united Jewish community. We strive to achieve the following impacts:
• Students among different NY-area schools will collaborate, establishing community beyond their respective campuses.
• We will establish a Jewish presence on campuses without Hillel professionals.
• Students will learn about one another and find ways to connect, overcoming stereotypes about others who are not like them.
• Alumni will stay connected and take advantage of available opportunities in Jewish New York.
The stories of BTG Fellows demonstrate the program’s impact:
When Jeff Kogan came to Pace University, he learned that there had once been a campus Hillel, but it was no longer active. As a Jewish student on a campus with no organized Jewish life, it was difficult for Jeff to meet Jewish peers and get involved in Jewish activities. Jeff, who grew up Reform, missed being part of a Jewish community. In his senior year, Jeff became a BTG fellow with the goal of reestablishing Hillel at Pace. BTG gave him the tools and confidence he needed to become a leader in the Pace Jewish community and achieve his goal. In addition, BTG staff provided professional expertise and financial resources. Jeff worked hard throughout the year to cultivate a board of Jewish student leaders, making sure that Pace Hillel will stay strong even after his graduation. Thanks to the BTG Fellowship, Jeff made a lasting impact on Jewish life at his alma mater.
Anastasia Velkov (CSI) comes from a non-religious, multifaith, Russian-speaking household. Growing up, Judaism and Jewish life never interested or concerned her. However, an impromptu decision to travel to Israel as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel changed everything. The trip gave Anastasia a new understanding of her identity and background, and inspired her to get involved with the Jewish community through Tanger Hillel. Getting involved in the Jewish community felt like coming home, Anastasia says. Anastasia’s Jewish journey motivated her to become a BTG Fellow, and she is now active on campus reaching out to previously unaffiliated Jewish students, encouraging them to discover Jewish identity and community, as she has.
We focus on keeping former BTG Fellows engaged, and encourage them to serve as mentors to the new cohort. Many BTG Fellows from previous cohort remain invested and developed to see their communities involved. One example is David Orphali, who is assisting us with outreach to the Syrian Jewish community after completing a Fellowship in 2013.
BTG Fellows create systematic, long-term change by serving as Jewish community leaders and building careers in the Jewish communal world. Their passion and skills are transforming the Jewish landscape in the New York area and beyond. For example:
• Julie Mayrin, a former BTG participant, became an engagement associate and worked closely with BTG Fellows for the past two years. Today, Julie is the Director of Russian Jewish initiatives at the Hillels of Canada.
• Rozeeta Mavashev, another BTG participant, is now an engagement associate who works closely with the BTG Fellows on engagement strategy and is a resource for their work on their respective campuses and in their communities.
• BTG Fellows have also gone on to participate at the Brandeis Camp Institute (4 Fellows) and Onward Israel (an 8-week professional internship program, 2 Fellows).
The ongoing success of BTG and the continued communal engagement of our alumni demonstrates its effectiveness at changing the culture, and instilling a commitment to diversity within a unified Jewish community
We have learned that ahavat Yisrael is a process – a process of learning, a process of dialogue, and a process of growth. There is a real need among college students and young professionals in the New York City area for an open, accessible platform that facilitates dialogue and collaboration among individuals of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The Jewish landscape in New York City is rich and varied, with enormous potential for enriching encounters among Jewish young adults that can only strengthen the fabric of the society and its long-term success. However, Jewish educators and leaders must develop programs, such as BTG, that facilitate such encounters among young adults and that build bridges between individuals who think they are very different from one another.
We have learned that young adults throughout New York City are eager for community and connection and are ready to embark on their personal Jewish journeys, and that the best way to reach them is through peer-driven, dynamic programming that honors their diversity and inspires Jewish unity. BTG offers just such programming, and cultivates both a strong, unified community, and the young leaders who will ensure its future.
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