Reaching out to one another

Global Jewish Pen Pal Program matches hundreds of participants

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Growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio, Madison Jackson did not give much thought to what Jewish life might be like in other countries. That changed six years ago when she participated in an international Jewish summer youth camp in Hungary.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2020 (705 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio, Madison Jackson did not give much thought to what Jewish life might be like in other countries. That changed six years ago when she participated in an international Jewish summer youth camp in Hungary.

“It was during my time at that summer camp that I first met Jews my own age from 25 countries around the world,” recalls the 23-year-old. “Upon returning to the United States I became devoted to learning about European Jewry.”

Jackson’s new-found devotion led her to major in Judaic Studies in college, with a focus on Jewish life in Europe. Those studies, in turn, led her to an internship with the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, and the opportunity to spend a summer working for the American Jewish Committee in Warsaw, Poland.

Jackson launched her pen pal program in April, just as COVID-19 restrictions imposed self-isolation on millions.

In the course of her studies and her work, Jackson began to appreciate just how few Jews there are in the world — about 14 and a half million to 18 million worldwide — and began considering a way that she could help those individuals — just 0.2 per cent of the world population — become better united, better acquainted, and better informed about one another and their shared history, faith and identity.

So she created the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program.

“Many people don’t understand what it means to be Jewish in other parts of the world,” Jackson says, “and (sometimes) negative, false impressions are created.”

Many of her peers, for example, only associated Poland with the Holocaust, and were unaware that Jewish life there had been revitalized.

Jackson launched her pen pal program last April, just as COVID-19 restrictions went into place, severely limiting social outings and social gatherings, and imposing self-isolation on millions of people around the globe.

“The outbreak of the coronavirus served as a catalyst for starting this program,” Jackson explains. “I had seen a need for this type of program for a while, and with everyone stuck at home in social isolation, this was the perfect time to begin it.”

Within a few months of launching the program, Jackson had matched 400 pen pals, ranging in age from seven to 83, and representing 53 different countries, among them Luxembourg, Belarus, Italy, Australia and Canada.

Sydnee Goodrich from Montreal is one of the Canadian pen pals. She was matched with Justyna Michniuk from Brandenburg, Germany, who like Goodrich, is in her early 30s.

“My aim was to get know more about daily life of Jewish communities in other countries firsthand, not from Wikipedia or some books,” Michniuk explains. “I’m a very curious person and wanted to meet new Jewish friends from all over the world.”

Supplied PHOTOS Madison Jackson (top, centre) records the radio show she hosts — Pen Pal Perspective.

Through their regular exchange of emails, Michniuk and Goodrich have discovered they are both liberal and tolerant people and have many similar thoughts about Jewish identity, even though they do not necessarily live the same lifestyle. Goodrich is much more religiously observant than Michniuk, keeps a kosher home and observes most holidays.

“However,” Goodrich emphasizes, “we both seem to share an understanding that Judaism is like a family, and neither of us have rigid ideas about who should or shouldn’t be considered a Jew.”

Like Goodrich and Michniuk, many of the pen pals choose to correspond with one another via email, text messages and other forms of social media. Some, however, still prefer to hand-write letters to one another, and eagerly wait, sometimes for weeks, for a response to arrive in the mail.

In addition to matching each of the pen pals, Jackson also distributes a monthly newsletter about the program and hosts a radio show called the Pen Pal Perspective. She is confident the Global Jewish Pen Pal program will continue to grow, and looks forward to helping forge more international friendships within the global Jewish community.

“There was no better time to start the program than during a global pandemic where people were feeling socially isolated and yearning for connections,” she says. “But this program will go way beyond the pandemic. People have formed very strong friendships and bonds with their pen pals, and those friendships won’t just disappear the moment the pandemic ends.”

— Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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