Being a Global Jew

Synagogue in Cordoba; courtesy Elan Ezrachi.

by Elan Ezrachi

I recently traveled from Israel to Argentina to join my daughter who was trekking in South America. As we were spending Yom Kippur in Cordoba, Argentina’s second largest city, we wanted a meaningful Yom Kippur experience in a real Jewish community. A student from Cordoba who was studying in Jerusalem at the time connected me with the rabbi of the main synagogue (Conservative) and he immediately invited us to be his personal guests.

When we arrived the day before Yom Kippur, we met the rabbi and he gave us an overview of the history of the 10,000-strong Jewish community and about the currents trends affecting the community. He then briefed us on the way the community celebrates Yom Kippur, so we would feel at home.

More than 1,000 local Jews gathered in the synagogue in downtown Cordoba. We were especially moved by the scene of the community coming together for a lively, spirited, and musical Yom Kippur service. We were honored to carry Torah scrolls at the Kol Nidrei service and I was assigned to read the prayer for the State of Israel in Hebrew. Afterwards, the parents of the student who made the connection invited us to break the fast with their extended family. At the meal we shared stories of being Jewish in Argentina and in Israel, speaking Hebrew, English, broken Spanish and lots of ‘Jewish’ hand motions. As we were leaving, my daughter commented that the thousands of Israelis who travel annually to Latin America do not have a chance to meet the local Jewish community as we did.

When people arrive in places like Cordoba around a Jewish holiday or Shabbat, what do they do? Typically, people automatically turn to Chabad. Surely there was a Chabad house in the area that would graciously invite travelers to the Seder. You can substitute Cordoba with Stockholm or Milan as destinations, and instead of tourism, you can insert business or an academic conference as your activity. The common denominator is that you are a Jewish visitor traveling from your home country, exploring an unfamiliar environment, and looking for signs of Jewish life. Turning to Chabad as a default solution is not enough.

Jews today are more likely than ever before to live in the same country where they were born and raised. When asked where we are from, we typically name the place where we reside. A couple of generations ago, people would answer the same question by saying that they are from Poland, Morocco, or Yemen, even if they live in New York, Los Angeles, or Tel Aviv. The era of massive Jewish migration is behind us, at least for now. American Jews are “Americans,” French Jews are “French,” and Israeli Jews are “Israelis.” When Jews from one country travel to another country, they are by definition strangers. But, can we break this sense of estrangement by connecting to Jews of the visited country?

Being Jewish is not only about membership in a congregation, JCC, or citizenship in the State of Israel. Being Jewish is also a sense of connection to Jews around the globe, even when they live in dramatically different Jewish and secular environments. In addition to enriching our Jewish lives, wherever we are, we need to nurture the part of our identities that connect us to the global Jewish experience; we need to be global Jews.

Being global Jews is far more than a good slogan. It requires of us to adopt certain beliefs, commitments, and skills. First, we need to care about the global Jewish scene and the stories of fellow Jews, particularly those who are different from us. Second, there is a level of literacy which is required for the practice of global connections. It is important to have knowledge about the distribution of Jewish life around the world, understand the demographic and cultural shifts that occurred in modern Jewish times, and become familiar with unique Jewish expressions that developed in response to varied realities that Jews faced in their respective countries. Finally, we need to incorporate the Jewish people throughout our yearly Jewish and secular activities. As we build relationships, create business and cultural ties, travel and learn, we should pursue the Jewish perspective. As we become more globally involved, we need to ensure that the collective Jewish dimension is included in our global identities.

Globalization is a great opportunity for an enriching Jewish life, particularly important for Jewish leaders. Leading Jewishly is not only about serving your community of like-minded people. Whether you are a rabbi, communal professional, or a lay leader, caring for your constituency is not enough. Jewish leaders should have broader horizons and readiness to lead challenges that span space and culture. Next time you are involved in a global challenge, make sure to include the Jewish people in your endeavor.

Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based independent consultant to international Jewish organizations in areas of Israel engagement and Jewish Peoplehood, and a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.