Aug. 28, 2020 –
By SUSAN MINUK
By early April, the coronavirus pandemic had the world hunkered down in self-quarantine. As people were isolating, Pennsylvania-born Madison Jackson knew the timing was right to launch her passion project: The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program.
“The best way to dispel myths about what it means to be Jewish in other countries is to create one-on-one friendships and international Jewish connections where you actually get the chance to learn about Jewish life from someone who lives in a different country than yourself,” Jackson, 22, told the CJR.
To date, 450 people have signed up for the program and 400 matches have been made. Thirty Canadians from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Saskatoon have been paired with Jewish pen pals in Ukraine, Poland, Australia, Mexico, Switzerland, England, Hong Kong, Georgia, the Netherlands, India, and the United States. The youngest pen pal is seven, the oldest, 83.
The idea for the initiative came about in the summer of 2018, when Jackson worked as an intern at the American Jewish Committee’s Central Europe office in Warsaw, after receiving a Goldman Fellowship.
She researched and wrote reports aboutJewish communities in seven Central European countries, and researched and edited content for a book about Polish-Jewish dialogue. After that, she traveled in the region.
“I realized there are Jews living all over the world with so much in common,” she said.
There’s a vetting process in which applicants must state how they learned about the program – whether through their synagogue or a Facebook group.It’s all free and open to Jews of any age who can speak, read and write in English.
The criteria for a match require that people come from two different countries and be no more than two years apart in age, Jackson explained.They also have to sign up for the same form of communication, whether handwritten letters, emails, or video calls.
“We just had our first person sign up from Croatia!” Jackson exclaimed.
The program has garnered attention from synagogues and Jewish youth groups, such as B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) International and Hillel International.
Jackson was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent summers at Camp Ramah inMuskoka, Ont. as a camper and later, as staff.
In the summer of 2014, she travelled to Hungary to attend Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp, where she met Jewish peers from countries outsideNorth America and Israel. She quickly grew passionate about Jewish life in Europe and India, especially about individuals who were “ecstatic to learn about Jewish traditions and customs they learned from camp…and bring it back to their parents and their local communities.”
This experience led her to pursue her education in contemporary studies in Jewish life. She graduated from Binghamton University in May 2019 with a double BA in Judaic Studies and English.
The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program engages its participants by sending out monthly conversation starters. It highlights a pen pal “Pair of the Month,”and shares Jewish recipes and fun facts from other countries via Facebook and Instagram.
Jackson is also hosting pen pals as guests on her own show, “The Pen Pal Perspective,” aired on Radio Melitz, an online operation that aims to connect Jewish communities, schools, institutions, and projects around the world.
“In addition to matching individuals, I am now matching school classes with Jewish pen pals in another country,” she said.
Jackson is devoting all her time to theprogram, as she was laid off from her job as a program associate at the Cleveland JCC amid COVID.
To learn more, visit the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program on Facebook or @global_jewish_pen_pals on Instagram.