By Michael Feinstein
Bulgaria, Chile, Estonia, Israel, Paraguay and Ukraine. What seems like an odd grouping of countries actually reflects the home countries of 12 Jewish leaders who were part of a delegation that participated in the JCC Association of North America’s Biennial conference in Baltimore and then spent four days visiting our JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD. They came to gain an understanding of Jewish life in our community, including our history, institutions and programs. The delegation visited under the auspices of JCC Global, which is the umbrella organization of all continental and regional networks of JCCs representing over 1,200 JCCs worldwide. In addition to meeting with our staff and lay leaders to get an inside view of our Center, they toured with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, visited the Edlavitch JCC of Washington DC, and met with staff from BBYO International and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
It was clear from our wrap-up session that we provided each of these Jewish leaders with a deeper appreciation for Jewish life here, our models of engagement, the challenges we face and how we are seeking to address them. They found the variety of programs and services that we offer unlike anything most of them would have imagined. So, what did our staff and leadership gain from this visit? Two words: connection and perspective.
Time and again I felt and witnessed an almost instantaneous connection when members of our community sat down to speak with someone from the delegation. You would not be surprised to learn that playing “Jewish geography” quickly identified that the JCC Director from Paraguay, who is originally from Argentina, is very close friends with the new associate rabbi at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, who is also originally from Argentina. Meaningful conversations came naturally and became deeper as we spent more time together.
The JCC Global delegates (excluding those from Israel) generally represented small Jewish communities (as small as 220 families in Paraguay) compared with our community. When I asked them about their biggest priorities and challenges, I was surprised to hear that dealing with anti-Semitism was not on the top of everyone’s list. Their biggest challenge across the board was the lack of involvement by the majority of the Jews in these communities. They see their goals in a similar way to how our JCC sees its goals – sustaining Jewish life by building community and strengthening Jewish identity.
As I reflect on this visit, I am most struck by the notion that in many ways our Jewish communities are more the same than different. There is clearly a difference in scale (people and resources) and scope (breadth of services) in what these JCCs from different countries do. But it is not a difference in kind, and the challenges of engaging Jews in our respective communities is similar. On a personal level, these Jewish leaders (most under 40 years old) shared the same values and commitment to Jewish community and continuity as our leaders. If ever there was a “Klal Yisrael” (one people) moment, this visit provided it.
Four days with JCC leaders from around the world made it even clearer to me that there is much to be gained by building broader international connections. We have only scratched the surface through our JCC Global Hamsa Teen Leadership program which will conclude this summer with teens from Budapest and Israel visiting the teens participating from our Center and two JCCs in New York (Manhattan and Bensonhurst). The JCC Global delegation visit has the potential to have much greater impact as we consider how our new connections and friendships might lead to new partnership programs that add meaning and enrich lives in our community. Maybe it is time that we consider expanding our mission statement to include this broader concept of Jewish peoplehood by including the following bolded italics: “We create a welcoming and inclusive environment, connecting the people of our Jewish community with each other, Israel, the global Jewish community and the broader community.”
Michael Feinstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.