New York City has no shortage of Jewish organizations for young singles and couples. Some catalyze support for Israel, or stress attendee self-improvement, offering lectures on everything from finding love to managing time. Still others go the hedonistic route and throw massive blowout parties on Christmas Eve. Some even cultivate a mystique, purposely keeping secret the locations of their events to all but a select few.
One, however, makes attendees feel like members of one big happy, if somewhat eccentric, family. Last week I was fortunate to attend the yearly gala for Jewish International Connection New York (JICNY). Founded by Gavin and Jodi Samuels and Steve Eisenberg, the organization holds over 200 free and low-cost events a year for young Jewish individuals and couples who have come to New York City from around the world. At JICNY’s events, which include Shabbat dinners in private homes and a regular Upper West Side Torah study and discussion with Eisenberg, attendees who hail from Paris to Perth dine with those of us from Pikesville to Pittsburgh.
The theme of the evening was JICNY Air, and the Prince George ballroom on East 27th Street was festooned with decorations of faraway locales and studded with food stations offering traditional Eastern European Jewish favorites like perogis as well as burritos and sushi. A Gipsy Kings cover band played festive flamenco-style tunes and, in perhaps the most unique part of the evening, faux “flight attendants,” circulated among attendees asking stuff like, “Excuse me, where is gate B20?” — wearing crisp white shirts and blue scarves, 60’s style.
Gavin and Jodi Samuels, whom I was privileged to interview several years ago for the New York Daily News, are a true power couple, as both work, raise three beautiful and sweet children, (one with special needs), and still find the time to man this organization, which has facilitated the meeting of 89 married couples.
In remarks to the attendees, Jodi stressed her experience as a young woman, having immigrated to New York from Johannesburg, South Africa, in shaping her vision for JICNY.
“I know what it’s like to be an immigrant in New York,” she said. “My vision for JICNY was to be a home away from home. To achieve my vision, I needed two things: an amazing, supportive husband, Gavin Samuels, and an amazing partner in Steve Eisenberg.”
The event raised half of JICNY’s yearly budget for its events to host over 10,000 people.
Sivan Hadari, 31, an off-Broadway actress and producer who chaired the event, stressed its warmth. She also spoke of how JICNY is inspiring her efforts to run Isramerica, her recently founded non-profit that supports Israeli and Jewish artists promoting positive images of Israel and Judaism.
“I felt like I was at somebody’s wedding or bar mitzvah—it’s not just, ‘Oh hi hi,’ but like you’re reconnecting with family members,” she said. “For people … to feel part of the community and a true connection to one another -that’s what JICNY has done in the past 11 years.”