By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
In less than a decade digitization has opened up the world. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have connected us to more people in more places. But, while we may be more plugged in electronically than ever before, “people are looking for a sense of belonging,” says Rabbi Talia Avnon Benveniste, director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People. “Individuals are looking to find meaning in their lives.”
Benveniste says Judaism offers that sense of belonging.
“Those who identify as being Jewish are collectively a community, a group we call the Jewish people,” says Michael Diamond of Toronto. Diamond has been part of two explorative missions at Beit Hatfutsot.
“We are linked by our background and history, by the present, and by the future,” he said, describing a Jewish people that has both depth and breadth.
According to Benveniste, Judaism happens everywhere – sometimes we just need a reminder.
Benveniste said gatherings like Limmud or other mega-gatherings offer such an opportunity. The most recent UK Limmud conference brought together around 3,000 people of all ages and from across the globe.
“Limmud helps us reenact the community experience of coming together – that Sinai experience – and seeing yourself as part of a great collective that reflects who you are as a Jew,” says Benveniste.
Yvonne Feiger, a community activist raised in Austria, expresses similar sentiments. She says that humans are naturally involved in solving problems affecting their everyday lives – those events happening on their doorstep. Participating in global events, “helps me to re-orient myself, to find my place and to ground me,” she says. “Being in a room with people from all over the world is a personal invitation to look beyond my plate.”
Benveniste says it is not that people don’t care about others. Rather, they don’t know much about them. At Limmud, Benveniste saw a genuine curiosity among participants about other Jews. In the halls, she witnessed many conversations between Jews from Mexico, Uruguay, Luxemburg and the United States, for example, trying to understand what it feels like to be Jewish in this or that place.
“There was a general curiosity as to how they go about their Jewish lives,” she says.
What’s fascinating, according to Dyonna Ginsburg, executive director of OLAM, is that this Jewish awakening and desire to connect to community not only happens when diverse groups of Jews come together – at gatherings like Limmud – but also when Jewish people spend time among another collective community – through global volunteerism or study.
“People are often looking for experiences that expand their horizons, and what we find is that when they are in those experiences, they ground them in their own set of values, enable them to do their own self-exploration into their identity and culture,” Ginsburg says.
She notes she has seen many individuals who have gone on long-term professional or volunteer placements seek our places for the High Holidays or a Passover Seder or Shabbat – people who would not necessarily have done this at home.
“There are those who actively seek out experiences within a Jewish framework, but there are others who stumble upon their Judaism in those experiences and it can be very powerful,” she says. “Being far away from home brings up a sense of nostalgia and a desire for connection. An encounter with something so different produces a discomfort that actually forces us to take a fresh look at our own backgrounds.”
The Gabriel Project Mumbai, which cares for vulnerable children living in slums and poor rural areas of India, takes Jewish volunteers from North America through the Joint Distribution Committee. Those volunteers are paired with Jewish volunteers from Mumbai.
“These volunteers are working with non-Jews children in Mumbai, but at the same time they are deepening their understanding of what it means to be Jewish,” says Ginsburg. “A kid who grew up in Northeast America has a perception of Jewish life that is different than a peer who grew up in the Mumbai Jewish community with a different sense of what Jewish communal life can look like.”
Dr. Shlomi Ravid says he agrees, but believes one can embrace the concepts of Jewish peoplehood and collective impact without ever leaving their hometown. He says collective messaging is inherent in the Jewish religion.
“Questions such as, ‘What do we owe each other?’ ‘What is our Jewish sense of responsibility?’ ’What collective efforts should be made in the context of tikkun olam?’ are a part of our collective conversation and ethos,” says Ravid.
He explains that Jewish peoplehood is about nurturing and developing Jewish civilization throughout the world – one person and one community at a time.
Says Ravid: “It is a global concept you can implement in a very rich and diverse way in every community throughout the world.”