A Jewish American in Budapest

Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum with his son at Me2We
Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum with his son at Me2We

By David Katz

Ever since attending the 2009 ROI conference in Tel Aviv I have been intrigued with the concept of Jewish young adult communities in Eastern Europe. Upon seeing the opportunity to be able to attend the From Me 2 We conference this summer in Budapest, I was excited to be able to network with, learn first hand from, and share my own experiences with colleagues working within the global young adult Jewish community.

The conference was an inspiring experience from which two specific themes resonated with the work I am doing here in Pittsburgh. The first theme is that of particularism v. universalism. As Jude Williams described in her opening plenary, “religion has changed from the idea of Pilgrims on a voyage, to window shoppers in a mall.” With the changing landscape of our global Jewish community, it is important for us as Jewish communal leaders and professionals to grapple with this new model. Using this analogy, do we focus on our own store which shoppers (young Jews) can come in and out of, or do we focus on building a mall with multiple options for our consumers to explore. The challenge both of these options create is how do we provide a breadth, while at the same time providing depth for potential participants to meaningfully engage with their Jewish identities. I don’t have an answer to this question, but believe that it is something all organizations need to be asking and addressing based on the capacity of their respective staffs.

The second theme that emerged from this conference was the Holocaust narrative and its impact on young Jewish adults around the globe. It was fascinating for me to think about the difference this narrative plays in the lives of American young adults compared to those from Eastern Europe. For myself, my Jewish friends, and the young adults that I work with, the vast majority grew up with grandparents who served in World War II fighting the Nazis. Stories of liberating concentration camps and fighting in both Europe and the Philippines abound. For American young adults, there is a minority whose grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. When we look at young adults in Eastern Europe, this narrative is vastly different. The majority of their grandparents were directly affected by the Holocaust, their parents – and they themselves – grew up in communities where there is a real probability that their neighbors played a role in the atrocities which took place. In addition to this, the impact which communism, and living behind the iron curtain, had on the ability for these families to continue celebrating their Judaism is significant. For this reason, it was truly inspiring to meet so many young innovators who are creating a new vibrancy for Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Too often in our American Jewish establishments, we think about global Jewish peoplehood as a binary between the US and Israel. My time in Budapest only furthered my thoughts on how this is not the case. It is important that as we continue the conversation on peoplehood, we go beyond just the US and Israel by including our communities that exist in Europe and Latin America. Even within the complexity of our super connected world, it is important to realize that our landscape is not flat. There exist communities that may be hidden behind hills and valleys and can only be found through exploration. For me, the From Me 2 We conference provided the opportunity to take a short pilgrimage to Budapest to explore and build relationships with a community I otherwise would not have been able to meet. Through Facebook, the internet, and our connected world, I am now excited to add this community of innovators to my personal network, while sharing and continuing to explore this experience through the work I do here at home.

David Katz, works at the Hillel JUC in Pittsburgh where he was one of the original Directors of the J’Burgh program, a Slingshot recognized organization which engages with 900 unique young Jewish adults each year.

cross-posted on ROI Community Blog