For Cenk Bonfil, training to become a better leader is not merely something to do to pass the time. Coming from the tiny Jewish community of Istanbul, he knows that if he does not act, there will be few others to do the job for him.
“My community needs leaders, so why not me?” he asks. The soft-spoken teenager is explaining why he wants to hone his leadership skills during a visit to the Houses of Parliament. “There are challenges coming from a small community like in Istanbul.”
He is one of 25 participants, aged between 16 and 18, on The Future Leaders programme run by World Ort, the largest Jewish education training organisation in the world, and supported by the Israeli government and the European Jewish Fund. Over the next nine months, the teenagers will work with mentors, take part in a series of seminars, blog about what they have learnt, and run a project to benefit their local communities .
Their week in London, includes a fun-filled Shabbat, visits to tourist sites and tickets to a West End show. More importantly, it is a chance for them to glimpse how Jewish life is organised over here.
The programme, now in its second year, is the latest stage in Ort’s 132-year mission to “work for the advancement of Jewish and other people through training and education”. Ort started life in Tsarist Russsia and it has come full circle. Although some of the participants come from western Europe, most are from countries such as the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia.
The attraction of the programme is not merely educational. When I meet them at the House of Lords, for a panel discussion on Jewish identity and values chaired by Lord Sterling, with Baroness Deech and Conservative MPs Michael Ellis and Zac Goldsmith, they have been in London for a few days. Already, friendships are forming.
In Britain, we can take for granted our network of Jewish youth movements. They are hungry for ideas they can apply to their communities.
The hour-long session brings in everything from the separation of church and state to the nature of British political culture and how Jews have built a successful life in Britain. They listen eagerly as the panellists offer their thoughts, with Goldsmith discussing how his environmentalism fits with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and Baroness Deech explaining the importance of giving women the same opportunities as men. Lord Sterling urges them to look outward as Jewish leaders, to study other religions and communities.
Several ask advice on how to motivate people and how to convince them to fight for change. Goldsmith offers: “You have to, if necessary, be the only one in the room to hold a view. You have to be prepared to stand up and be counted. I’m an agitator behind the scenes We can all do things.”
“Doing things,” of course, is why these teenagers are on the programme. Some have signed up to learn how to engage their peers in Jewish life. “We want more young people to join our community,” explain Eden Alexandrova and Simon Leviev, both from Sofia.
“My home, Duisburg in Germany, is not a big Jewish community — there are just 2,000 people,” adds Amanda, who said she relished seeing first-hand how programmes like Mitzvah Day are run.
Perhaps Misha Ilchenko, a teenager from Cherkassy, in Ukraine, sums it up best. Occupied by the Nazis, then under Soviet rule for decades, Jewish life in Cherkassy is gradually being restored.
“I want to be able to lead the next generation,” he says. Cherkassy, and so many other towns and cities in Europe, need more young Jews like Misha.