A prestigious fellowship sent a Royal Oak resident to Jewish communities around the world.
When Jessica Katz was in Mumbai, India, about halfway through her yearlong fellowship, she broke down crying in a Starbucks.
Katz had arrived in the city early in the morning after a layover in Uzbekistan, and the streets of Mumbai were already hot, humid and crowded when she stepped out of the airport. She was there as part of her extended jet-setting with the Jewish humanitarian organization Joint Distribution Committee, which provides aid in more than 70 countries and has a focus on building the next generation of Jewish leaders. JDC’s Entwine initiative for young adults had chosen Katz as their annual Ralph I. Goldman Fellow to help strengthen Judaism around the globe.
Katz called Mumbai “sensory overload” — it was unlike any place she’d ever been. After a stressful cab ride with her suitcase thrown — untethered — onto the roof of the car, she arrived at the hostel with broken air conditioning and realized she couldn’t check in yet.
That’s when she started spiraling. Just find a Starbucks, she told herself. There’s always WiFi and air conditioning at Starbucks.
She was able to find a location just a few blocks away, but when she got there, she couldn’t get onto the internet.
“I couldn’t even help the tears,” Katz said.
She’d been traveling by herself for so long and she was exhausted — tired of all the decisions she had to make each day and tired of having to look up directions every time she went to a new building and tired of not being able to communicate easily. But in that Starbucks in Mumbai, she took a deep breath. It was Friday, and she decided she still wanted to go to services that evening.
Mumbai’s Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue, Katz said, was beautiful. The historic Orthodox Sephardic congregation’s building dates back to the 1800s, and it was sandwiched between stores and restaurants, making it even more majestic. But the real magic of the place came when Katz walked inside. Outside, the city was as busy as ever. Inside the synagogue, it was quiet. It was Shabbat.
“All I heard was the rabbi singing,” Katz said.
She stayed for services, enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with the small congregation, and then a community leader walked her back to her hostel.
“I had those moments that were really hard,” she said. “But … look at what I’m doing and learning. And look at how we’re all really connected around the world.”
Before embarking on her Jewish journey around the world, Katz devoted her energy to leading Metro Detroit’s Jewish community.
Katz, a Royal Oak resident, grew up in West Bloomfield and attended Michigan State University. After college, she worked for Hillel and Birthright Israel before getting a master’s degree in higher education from Loyola University Chicago. She worked in human resources for the Michigan-based outdoor gear retailer Moosejaw and then for a series of local start-ups, and served on the boards of Kadima, NEXTGen Detroit and The Well.
Katz found out about the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship from an email newsletter — her advice to everyone is to read the newsletters they sign up for. She decided to apply on a whim.
The fellowship is a competitive, self-designed program that allows one Jewish young adult from anywhere in the world each year to travel to many different worldwide Jewish communities on the JDC’s dime, helping Jewish organizations around the globe while building leadership skills they can bring back to their own communities.
“We live in an intertwined and interconnected Jewish world,” Shaun Hoffman, deputy director of JDC Entwine, told the JN. “The more young leaders who … see Jewish identity in global terms and appreciate the richness and diversity of Jewish life around the world, the stronger our Jewish communities are going to be.”
When Katz got the call saying she’d been selected, “I sort of had this moment like, ‘Oh, what just happened?”’ she said.
Looking back on her selection, she said, “I always think anyone could do this. But I also recognize there is an element of my ability to be resilient and kind of just go with the flow.”
Less than three months later, in January 2019, she found herself setting off on a year-long journey.
Because the fellowship is self-designed and based on which world events and JDC projects are in motion, no two years look the same. Typically, fellows will spend their year divided between placements in two or three different countries working on community-building projects that use their professional backgrounds.
Katz’s year looked a little different — because of her background in human resources, she spent much of the first half of the fellowship conducting internal HR interviews with JDC staff all around Eastern Europe. She also did research for the organization on their leadership programs across Europe.
After a few weeks in New York and a month in Israel for orientation, Katz spent every Shabbat from March through July in a different place. She explored Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw and Riga, Latvia, before heading back to Israel to regroup. Then she returned to Eastern Europe to visit three different cities in Ukraine, as well as Istanbul, Turkey.
While in Eastern Europe, Katz came along on home visits to JDC beneficiaries, often elderly Jews who couldn’t leave their homes. She also visited Camp Szarvas, a summer camp run by the JDC in Hungary that welcomes 1,500 Jewish campers annually from 20 different countries. (Two other Jewish Metro Detroiters were also at Szarvas that summer, one as a camper and one as a counselor.)
Spending time in Eastern Europe was important for Katz. A large portion of the JDC’s work today involves providing assistance to vulnerable Jews across the world, including in the countries that make up the former Soviet Union. Beyond that, though, Katz’s time in Eastern Europe helped bring Jewish history to life for her. She remembers sitting on a train from Krakow to Warsaw, looking out the window at the land on which her ancestors may have once lived.
“I was looking out into the countryside of Poland where a huge population of Jews once lived. And it was just this moment of realizing … this is where those stories came from,” she said.
One of the year’s most meaningful moments for Katz came during a Passover seder in Ukraine. There was a group of elderly women at her table and, when Katz looked into their faces, she saw her own grandmothers, who’d passed away when she was a teenager.
Katz said she looked at the women and told them, “‘You look like what I remember my grandmother to look like,’ Because we come from here — this is where I come from.”
After her time in Eastern Europe, Katz went to Majorca, Spain, for a young adult shabbaton and a conference run by international Jewish-learning charity Limmud. The picturesque island of Majorca, nestled in the Mediterranean Sea and known for its coves and resorts, has a long Jewish history, dating back to the before the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews on the island publicly converted to Catholicism in the 1400s while continuing to operate as a tight-knit Jewish community. Today, there are several dozen people on the island who have reclaimed their Jewish faith.
Next, Katz returned to New York to present her findings on leadership programs in Europe to JDC’s board, and went back to Europe for some time in Portugal with her family. Her travels then took her to Florence, Italy, where she attended a conference for small Jewish communities.
“What are these communities, in Venice, Italy, or in Amsterdam or Helsinki — what are the challenges that they go through?” Katz said. “As much as we’re all very different, some of their challenges are no different than larger communities or things we think about all the time in Detroit. And then they have unique challenges as well.”
The following weeks found Katz in India, where she staffed a JDC program that brought young adults to volunteer and teach children in the slums of Kalwa and the village of Ashte. Katz had wanted to visit India since learning about the country’s Jewish history years ago — it has a small but historic Jewish population, divided between three historic communities, the oldest of which has been in India for over 2,000 years.
Following India, Katz got to participate in a JDC trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the latter country, she and a friend stayed in an old winery in a tiny town where they came across an abandoned synagogue. Katz and her friend stood out in the rain, trying to communicate with their Georgian taxi driver that they wanted to find whoever had the key to the place.
Today she cites Georgia as one of her favorite travel stops.
After another trip back to Israel, Katz settled in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, from September to November. The UAE doesn’t officially recognize Israel as a state, although relations between the two countries seem to have been warming in recent years; the first publicly acknowledged direct commercial flight between the two countries (a cargo flight carrying COVID-19 supplies for Palestinians) took place in May. Still, Katz said some of the Jews she met in Dubai didn’t tell their coworkers about their Jewish faith.
This was the first time JDC had worked with Dubai’s Jewish community, which is small, private and comprised of expats, business travelers, families and some long-term residents. There is no official synagogue, but the community worships and holds programs in a space called “The Villa,” which is where Katz lived in Dubai as she helped the community create more programming.
“I think [Dubai is] a place where a lot of the people are able to find camaraderie through their Judaism. They come together because that’s the thing that holds them together,” Katz said.
In September, the country unveiled plans to build the Abrahamic Family House, which will house a mosque, a church and a synagogue on one campus. The designers of the campus held a joint meeting to make sure they designed each house of worship correctly; Katz sat in as one of the Jewish representatives.
In a large, disc-like building in the middle of the desert, she listened in on discussions of where and how people might sit and pray. Katz said it felt like witnessing history.
“This type of thing feels unique not only because there is really nothing like it elsewhere, but specifically because of where in the world it is being built,” Katz said.
The JDC plans to continue its relationship with the Dubai Jewish community — it’s hoping to place a Jewish Service Corps fellow there in the future, Hoffman said.
“Jessica was actually the beginning of a very successful first step in what’s been a growing relationship with the community,” he said.
After leaving Dubai in November, Katz made one last stop in Israel to lead an Entwine trip for members of The Well, and then headed back to New York in mid-December. Before she knew it, the fellowship year had ended, and she was back in Detroit.
Coming back was, in some ways, strange for Katz. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in the area after returning home from her fellowship, but after a few weeks of catching up with old friends and re-immersing herself in the community, she knew this was where she was supposed to be.
“There’s something about leaving and coming back,” she said. “Coming back, I really felt that community uplift… It really made me even more excited about staying in Detroit and continuing to build what exists here.”
Fellows are chosen for the program in part because of their status as leaders in their own communities. They’re expected to take what they learn during their year of travel and bring it home to their own families, friends and coworkers. But that’s been a challenge this year. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March, mere months after Katz’s return, everything changed.
Katz said the pandemic has made it more challenging to impart the lessons she learned from the fellowship. She would have loved to encourage people back home to travel and see Jewish life in other places around the world. Still, Katz said she tried to soak up as much as she could during the fellowship and is now focused on starting conversations within organizations she’s already involved in.
“Right now, it’s more of consider these questions, consider where you’re from, or do you know where you’re from?” Katz said.
COVID-19 threw a wrench in Katz’s personal life, too. She now serves as a consultant for local organizations, including Jewish programming group Partners Detroit. But the year of travel had left her craving in-person events with friends and family, which aren’t possible right now.
Still, she said, “that resilience and that experience [of the fellowship] kind of set me up to be perfectly fine with sitting inside on my own many days kind of figuring it out. It’s a balance. It’s not necessarily what I wanted to be doing, but at the same time I feel pretty well-equipped for quarantine.”
Although the ongoing pandemic means we’ll likely need to stay at home for a while longer, Katz said she’s feeling more grateful than ever for this worldwide Jewish community. She encourages people to keep one eye on the Jewish people’s past and one eye toward our community’s future.
“It’s probably even more so important to remember that there are Jews around the world, and that we’re all really connected.”