Melissa boosts links with all of Europe's Jewish communities

Doreen Wachmann meets a dedicated woman who considers her job 'a dream come true'

Melissa Sonnino describes her life as "a bit of a mess" as she flies fortnightly to meet up with her Italian Jewish boyfriend who works in Turin.

But the Rome-born 27-year-old still wouldn't give up her "dream job" with the Brussels-based CEJI.

For the ideals of CEJI, A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, is one of the EU's leading providers of diversity education and training.

Its ideals exactly match those which Melissa formulated growing up in Rome.

She says: "I grew up in the huge Jewish community of Rome, which is one of the oldest in the Diaspora. My life from the very beginning was a great example of inter-religious co-existence.

"I went to a Jewish school and also to Catholic schools. In Italy Catholic education is very good for historical reasons.

"So although I came from a very Orthodox, traditional family, I was able to meet all kinds of people and be open-minded.

"Growing up in a non-Jewish environment, schoolgirls would ask me questions about Judaism, about why we did not celebrate Xmas. This made me more responsible than the other girls.

"A commitment to the Jewish world has always been with me. I felt an obligation. Jewish issues have always been a priority in my life."

So much so that before and after graduating in political science and international relations in Rome, Melissa dedicated herself to working for Italian Jewish organisations.

She began as an editorial assistant and journalist for the Jewish Italian magazine Shalom and volunteered as a press officer for the Union of Italian Young Jews, organising events to help Iranian Jewish groups in Italy to fight for their rights.

From 2009-10, she co-ordinated a research project about young Jewish identity in Italy for the Italian Jewish Cultural Association. The report, funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, is due to be published by the end of September. She also ran a young leadership training course for the IJCA.

When Melissa saw a CEJI advert for a community affairs co-ordinator at the end of last year, she thought this could be the way she could realise all her ideals.

She said: "The organisation is committed to fighting all kinds of discrimination. I always felt Judaism means also being open-minded.

"There was a kind of continuity between what I did in Italy and what I'm doing right now. I love the work. This Jewish organisation really embodies the way I've always thought about Judaism."

Melissa's role as community affairs co-ordinator is to increase links with all the Jewish communities and organisations in Europe. She also manages two projects - CEJI's Diversity Tour and Facing Facts!.

The Diversity Tour, which is partly financed by the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, brings one-day diversity workshops into Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

The workshops, which began in Poland in May, "make people more conscious of their own prejudices, more aware of other diversities and facilitate them to find new ideas and work proactively with other diversities".

Melissa reckons we all have prejudices - even someone as open-minded as herself.

She said: "In Italy I always considered myself very open-minded and was always engaged in Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

"But when I arrived in Belgium in January I started to deal with the real issues."

Compared with Rome, where Melissa had met few visible Muslims, Brussels hosted a huge immigration from Arabic countries.

She says: "I met Muslims with beards and typical clothes going to mosques, listening to the muezzin. This was really new to me. There are no muezzins in Rome. I found myself asking myself why they had weird beards."

Melissa took a diversity workshop to Manchester Limmud recently.

Describing Limmud as "an incredibly, exciting event", she asked workshop participants to put themselves in other people's shoes for an hour. Participants were given life cards with identities like Orthodox, single parent and disabled.

One participant, she said, had thanked her for raising the issue of disability. The woman, who came from an Orthodox family, was dyspraxic and dyslexic, which prevented her from reading and writing Hebrew. This made her feel discriminated against by the Orthodox and more comfortable with the Liberals.

In contrast, Melissa said, Krakow with its small Jewish population of 300, of whom only 100 participated in Jewish life, was a great example of co-existence between the Orthodox and the Liberals.

She said she was very impressed by the new generation of Polish Jews who, following the downfall of Communism, discovered their Jewish heritage only 10-20 years ago.

She added: "They are working hard to find again their Jewish roots. They are really focused on creating new sexier Jewish activities. The new generation of Jews is so energetic and pro-active."

Melissa said that this community was "proud to be the only one in Europe without its own security network".

And she went on: "That is a sign that they don't feel the threat of antisemitism. They don't know the new antisemitism."

Melissa's other project, Facing Facts!, which is financed by the European Commission in co-ordination with the British CST, aims to standardise European criteria for monitoring hate crimes.

Melissa praised the British CST and the police's thoroughness in monitoring hate crimes, but said: "European governments have differing criteria.

"Jewish communities have great experience of antisemitism and other hate crimes. We want to enlarge this knowhow to other communities, like the gypsies, and want to involve all 27 European countries.

"We are going to submit a questionnaire to all the organisations that collect data on hate crimes in Europe, meetings with experts, create standards, guidelines and a new manual for other NGOs."

She planned to be training representatives of different communities, like Jews, Muslims, gays, gypsies and the disabled communities who were victims of hate crime, on a shared monitoring programme by the end of 2012.

Naturally, Melissa's work entails much travel besides her frequent trips back to Italy.

Just returned from a Summer of Change programme in collaboration with Sweden's Jewish community, she sighed: "My life right now is a kind of mess.

"Although I work hard, I have time for a social life. It is not a kind of a jail.

"But my Jewish boy friend from Livorno works in Turin. We try to see each other every two weeks. I am always on a plane, as I also travel a lot for work. I have a very traditional Jewish mum who would love to see me married.

"That would be great but I don't know how and when, if we don't at least live in the same city."

Nevertheless she said: "I am really enthusiastic about my job. It is a dream come true."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph