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A life-changing trip to Poland inspired Madison Jackson to adapt old-time pen pal concepts to modern times - and help strengthen Jewish bonds across borders

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Madi Jackson, a former intern at Cleveland Jewish News, is the creator of the Global Jewish Pen Pals program and hosts “The Pen Pal Perspective” online radio show. (Facebook)

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Did you know that Hong Kong and Switzerland both have very active Jewish communities? I sure didn’t! The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is opening up doors for Jews all around the world to learn about Jewish communities in other countries and what it means to be Jewish there. For example, Hong Kong and Switzerland have classes signed up waiting to be matched after the High Holidays, to get the chance to make genuine connections to share their own experiences.

Madison Jackson, a 23 year old from Cleveland, Ohio, USA, founded the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program during the stressful COVID times. She thought it was important to teach people about Jewish life around the world and other countries through one-on-one interactions while in social isolation, but this program will go well beyond the time of COVID-19.

Although these numbers are constantly changing, there are now about 460 members, or 230 Pen Pal pairs, in almost 50 countries, including around 30 participants in the program from Canada. The group now also comes to life through her new online radio show, “The Pen Pal Perspective.” There is no cost to participate in the program, and all ages are welcome.

Jackson has always been hungry to taste global Jewish life. In 2014 she was a North American Fellow at the Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp and met peers from around the world. A graduate of Binghampton University, she double majored in Judaic studies and English and minored in history, so she was able to study Jewish life in Europe. The idea for pen pals was sparked by her time living in Warsaw, Poland after an internship at the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office.

Her friends were shocked that she would want to travel to Warsaw, thinking there wouldn’t be anything fun for her to do, let alone any Jewish culture. During our video interview, Madison said that many of her friends made negative comments and were hesitant about her travels (“Poland is a cemetery”, she was told). However, they had not travelled overseas or met anyone Jewish who lived in Poland and made assumptions based on biased media sources that didn’t show a true perspective, by not actually talking to or showing a Jew residing in Europe. 

Madison described a very positive experience being immersed in the revival of Jewish life in Poland. She made new wonderful new connections and engaged in conversations with the locals who loved living there and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Learning what it means to be Jewish in another country through personal interactions and newfound friendships, set the foundation for the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program, which now has participants of all ages from 48 countries, including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Poland, Serbia, Switzerland, USA, and more.

The Canadian participants hail from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Saskatoon, and Yukon, and as Jackson explained, “the Canadians have so far been matched with global Jewish pen pals in Ukraine, Poland, Australia, Mexico, Switzerland, England, Hong Kong, Georgia (the country), the Netherlands, India, and the USA.”

While people can communicate in whatever language they share (such as German or Hebrew), it is a baseline prerequisite they are able to speak English. Recognized as an educational tool, thirteen full classes from Jewish schools are now being matched and are excited for new ties to the Jewish community. Her youngest matched participant is 7 years old, although there is one sweet 4 year old awaiting a match. 

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The criteria to be matched are threefold: living in two different countries, select the same platform to communicate, and a maximum of a two-year age difference. Special exceptions can be made. Jackson mentioned a little girl who recently lost her grandmother, and her father was looking for a senior to fill that grandmotherly hole. Most people prefer to connect with someone close to their own age. Pen pals can choose to speak through video, emails, or handwritten letters, but it always starts with founding a friendship and finding things in common, that leads to more serious conversations about Jewish life.

In early September, a 14 year old Jewish boy from Serbia discovered the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program and wrote to Jackson, “I am unbelievably pleased by this opportunity! I am a Jew but I don’t have the opportunity to practice my faith so I see this like a great opportunity! I need to hide my faith from my parents, so I celebrate quietly. But, this is an amazing way to practice Judaism so I am looking forward to it!”

“THIS is one of the reasons we started the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program,” she commented to the group. “This boy felt isolated from Judaism and now he has a small connection. And this is only one of the many powerful stories of global Jewish connection we have heard over the last 5 months since we first created this program.”

Another example comes from Dina Margelovich of New York City, who is pen pals with Camila Baerwald of Santiago. She told the Facebook group, “I could have never imagined that joining a random Jewish Pen Pal network would result in me forming a true friendship with someone in a foreign country!” 

Camila Baerwald of Santiago, Chile (left) and Dina Margelovich (right) of New York City are now great friends through the Global Pen Pal program. Gina said they "enjoy trying new things, learning, laughing, and cooking. I can't wait until quarantine is over and we can hopefully meet in person!"

She’s noticed that in some communities, like Poland and Hungary, there is a trend to discover that they have Jewish blood later in life and are now trying to rediscover their roots, with many participants likely having discovered the program on social media while searching for their Jewish connection.

The average age range is between 17 – 40 years, including many young professionals looking for new friendships and networking. The Facebook group enjoys fun facts and articles about Jewish culture, especially architecture, music and delicious recipes, keeps members engaged online and gives them another opportunity to learn more about Jewish life from all across the globe, interact and connect with a wider network.

The focus on food has been very popular. “The idea is that people can go into their kitchen and start making the recipes,” said Jackson, “and actually experience firsthand this part of our history, that is not just in the past, but is also in the present.” Foodie selfies abound with the results. “I love it when people post their pictures too,” she said, as Jackson then features with “Pen Pal Pair of the Month” on social media, highlighting favourite foods, why they joined the program, and one place everyone should visit in their hometown! She has also encouraged pen pals to submit their letters to The National Library of Israel archive project detailing the impact of COVID-19 on global Jewish life. 

”The Pen Pal Perspective” radio program features a few pen pal pairs to share about Jewish life in their country, such as a recent interview with a group in Italy. An episode highlight is a game show segment comically testing how little they knew about Jewish life in other countries or had in common. This has resulted in Jackson seeking grants and funding to produce virtual tours of Jewish communities around the world, including Rome, Majorca, Spain, and France.

Here is a link to Episode 2 https://drive.google.com/file/d/1OiVs1WI9vh9lIZm6VWiIJ6rXKOqH16j0/view?fbclid=IwAR1jWwoLTr-sD9S_hl3h4tJp6naTFqPFh_yV2G5d_DrP7mJr3AxzRPju5iY

She has launched a Patreon site to support the future work of the project. Patrons will have access to exclusive content and insight into global Jewish life. Jackson says even a couple dollars a month will help with the continued work of the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program and will be much appreciated. https://www.patreon.com/globaljewishpenpals

With travel disrupted for a long time to come, this program is a growing and viable pathway to learn more about another Jewish culture, meet new people, make new friends, and create deep personal connections. Readers who are interested can visit their Facebook or Instagram accounts to learn more or to sign up, fill out the registration form today to begin your journey into new Jewish connections. 

Lisa Charow-Jay is the founder of Tech Tutoring With Lisa, a training company helping individuals and businesses brush up on their tech skills to increase computer efficiency. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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