I was first introduced to the European Union of Jewish Students at Summer U, the raucous week of beach parties the organization holds annually. This year, EUJS based the event in Chaniotis, a small resort town on the Aegean Sea in northern Greece.
But as event organizers were quick to assure me during my week in Chaniotis, there’s a lot more to EUJS than 500 young Jews dancing up a storm to top 40 hits.
This morning, I sat down with EUJS’s newly elected president Andrea Gergely and Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students President Victoria Godik, a member of the EUJS presidium — the organization’s governing body.
I met with the two women at the European Youth Centre‘s Budapest branch, where Godik, who serves on the center’s international planning committee, was helping to coordinate a December study weekend to be titled, "Secularism and Religions: Working Together for a Common Europe."
EUJS was the only Jewish organization invited to collaborate on the project, which will also bring together young Muslim and Christian leaders.
Both Gergely and Godik rarely strayed from talking points, but that didn’t bother me because those talking points — the work EUJS does — were so interesting and so varied.
Gergely said the responsibility of being the group’s first Hungarian leader is not one she takes lightly.
"There’s a really big community and a very active community but they are not connected to EUJS yet. Most people haven’t heard of it," Gergely said of the approximately 100,000-strong Hungarian Jewish community, most of whom live in Budapest. "Me being the president, I really hope … and it’s already starting, to engage the youth here and give them the opportunity to participate."
Budapest is a haven for young Jews, with its collection of hipster "ruin pubs" in the city’s Jewish Quarter, but many Hungarians are not affiliated with either the country’s official Jewish community or any explicitly Jewish organization.
A major priority for EUJS will be to reach out to struggling Jewish student unions, like those in Spain and Portugal, and work to expand the network of union in regions like Scandinavia and the Balkans.
Gergely said she also wants to establish "very mobile and very flexible" partnerships and connections between neighboring countries.
"We want to create an online platform where the communication is very strong," she said.
Godik, one of just two Eastern European members of the EUJS presidium, said reaching out to young Jews in the former Soviet Union has to be a major focus as well.
"For Eastern Europe, we should work harder, because for us it’s not so easy to participate in the events like people from Western Europe," said Godik, who has been affiliated with EUJS since 2005.
Godik said she was especially proud to hear that a Jewish student union had recently been established in Moldova.
And of course, the conversation turned to Summer U — a sharp departure from the usual policy and interfaith focuses of EUJS, but an undeniably major infusion of energy and fundraising each summer as well.
Gergely said next summer’s edition, which she hopes will be held in Hungary, will place a greater emphasis on seminars and education.
"EUJS is much more involved, much more active" than Summer U would make it seem, she said.
Godik agreed, but said the event’s current iteration has value, too.
"We want there to be a balance … but it’s also very important and needed," she said.
As our meeting wound down, Gergely and Godik began comparing schedules with each other, discussing the upcoming events planned by an alphabet soup of European Jewish organizations.
A relative newcover to this continent’s stew of abbreviations, I must have looked puzzled because Gergely turned to me and said, "If you just engage with Jewish programs, they’re all over."
You’re telling me.