A Journey of Jewish Community Explored and Expanded

A shabbat gathering lead by Jewish young adults in Riga, Latvia, one of the many locations where Jewish life is being reimagined by the rising generation.

By Jessica Katz

When I packed my suitcase for this year, I didn’t know where I would end up, who I would meet, or what I would learn. 

I knew that I came from a strong, mid-size Jewish community in Detroit; a community that offers opportunities to connect with Jewish life in a variety of ways. I also knew, or thought I knew, that I had a strong Jewish identity, and that exploring identity and community were two things I was interested in on a global scale. In reality, however, I didn’t really know what any of that meant. 

Since January, I’ve danced with seniors in Odessa, shared pizza with Latvian teens, spent Passover in Kiev, and Purim in Budapest. I attended a gathering of more than 100 Russian-speaking Jewish young adults, while being one of three English speakers present. I’ve visited countless synagogues, and attended a Shabbaton in Mallorca – yes Mallorca – the fabled Spanish island in the Mediterranean. I’ve had the chance to be curious, to ask questions, and to consider the past, the present, and the future of Jewish communities around the world. 

These experiences have allowed me to grapple with core questions and issues facing Jewish communities today, and I continue to explore these questions during my time as the 2019 Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in Global Jewish Leadership. The Fellowship is an initiative of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is named in honor of one of the heroes of Jewish life of the past century, and is offered to one rising leader annually. The experience enriches the Fellow through direct exposure to local communities around the world that JDC works with and key challenges confronting the Jewish people. 

Spending time with people in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, especially the elderly, it was impossible to not think about my own grandparents, who came from this part of the world. In some moments, I reflected on the differences between the people that I met and my own family. I so clearly saw how profoundly my own journey was impacted by the fact that my grandparents (or their parents) left, and the parents of these people did not or could not. 

I absorbed the gravity of the impact of WWII and communism on each community and its people. In each place, many seniors would share their stories of growing up, surviving, and living their lives. Each time I sat down to listen, someone would say, “We’ll tell you our stories, but this is not what we want you to remember. Remember our smiles today, not just our stories of the past.” This point was so very important, and so real for me. It showed me how resilient people are, and can be, even when enduring the horrors of the Holocaust or struggling to hold onto one’s Jewish identity when the Soviet regime made it impossible. 

In Riga, Latvia I was privileged to spend time with some local teens who were involved in their community youth group. These teens, who each spoke at least three languages – Latvian, Russian, and English – showed up only knowing they would be meeting a woman from America who wanted to chat. Yet, they stayed for more than three hours, opening up and talking about everything from Jewish life in Riga, my own community in Detroit, summer camp, anti-Semitism, who they want to marry, and where they feel like they belong. 

The Latvian Jewish community is home to about 14,000. It was overwhelming for the teens to hear that in my home community we have 70,000 Jews, and hundreds or even thousands of teens involved in Jewish life. The idea of so much diversity in how to be Jewish, in having so much choice between Jewish schools, synagogues, youth groups, and such an abundance of fellow Jewish peers to connect with, was also exciting to them. 

In speaking with these teens, I learned about their options for Jewish life in Riga, which would feel limited by our standards. Indeed, they gushed about the fact that when some teens in their community have opportunities to attend international conferences or camps, they feel privileged to do so and have their lives changed because of these experiences, but these opportunities are not always plentiful. 

Coming from a large, established community, it becomes easy for us to leave it to others to build and carry the community. After all, we can access a variety of Jewish programs and not worry that there will be plenty of people around to carry them forward. We can show up late, or not at all, and Jewish life will still continue. 

That these Latvian teens are so interested in Jewish life is all the more powerful because unlike in much of the U.S., their parents are not pushing them to show up. They do it on their own. In fact, often their parents are not able to teach them because many only recently learned of their Jewish roots themselves or grew up before the fall of communism. So the future of Jewish life in these communities rests with these teens. In response, they are enthusiastically accepting the challenge – participating in leadership programs, innovative startups, and more. 

I came into the year thinking I might have an impact on these communities, and instead I find myself wondering what we can learn from them. Can we look to the communities of Eastern Europe where young Jews are thinking creatively and sharing a vigor for Jewish life that is not always as common in North America? How does their history impact their identity? How does our own ancestry impact our identities and Jewish communities? 

This year I’ve realized just how big the world truly is, and I’ve discovered the joy in how small it can become as we connect and engage with one another. It will still take time and commitment to continue these connections for the next generations, but these young Jews are bright and excited to “do Jewish.” They proudly carry the torch of Judaism where it was once almost extinguished. 

The opportunity before us then is to learn our history, connect with our present, and look to build the future together. Sometimes, the most powerful lessons we can learn about how to be Jewish, about how to build Jewish community, is by kindling our own torch with sparks from places we never dreamed of. 

Jessica Katz’s professional background is in Human Resources. She has served in various capacities with numerous Jewish organizations, both locally in Detroit and nationally. She is the JDC Ralph I Goldman Fellow in Global Jewish Leadership for 2019. To apply to be considered for the 2020 fellowship, apply by July 16th at https://www.jdcentwine.org/lead/ralph-i-goldman-fellowship/. You can read more about Jessica’s experiences at www.jkatzconsulting.com/blog