Build Jewish Resilience by Getting Beyond “Us vs. Them”

Josh in Israel where he spent his RIG Fellowship year working with various JDC departments whose work spans worldwide (pre-COVID photo); courtesy.

By Josh Yudkin

Be it David and Goliath or the Jewish State’s creation and development against all odds, the Jewish collective memory recounts how, as underdogs, we have prevailed throughout millennia. The latest chapter, cultivating Jewish community resilience amidst a global pandemic, is now being written.  

COVID-19 changed the rhythms of everyday life, cultivated partnerships for good, and created a space to explore our narrative. As a community of communities, the shared, yet simultaneously unique experiences of each community and individual were magnified.  

The classic binary narrative of “us” and “other” evolved into a complex terrain with many parties and players – what Argentine anthropologist Nestor Canclini labeled cultural hybridization. Over the past century, epidemiology, my field, underwent a similar transformation by developing the language and frameworks to describe such nuanced and complex relationships. 

Simple causal models showing one risk factor (smoking) leading to one outcome (lung cancer) have been transformed by leadership emphasizing numerous causes of disease and determinants resulting in multiple outcomes. As epidemiology assessed COVID-19, learnings emerged reinforcing Canclini’s theory: many factors in our society, communities, and personal lives lead to many coronavirus-related outcomes.  

Similarly, COVID-19 catalyzed an urgent need for Jewish community leadership, lay and professionals, to better understand the diversity of our global community. Jewish peoplehood can be stratified and segmented using a myriad of factors – religiosity, geography, and ethnicity to name a few. Therefore, we needed highly customized community support and robust, diversified efforts to foster resilience. 

Storytelling, inherent to Jewish tradition, has been integral to this goal. As a global Jewish people, our stories have expanded in recent years to include previously unheard voices. This was primarily a result of increased access to, and the penetration of,digital platforms amplifying emergent narratives. 

Our collective narrative needs to continue this expansion and include the experience of the most vulnerable – the underserved, the poor, the elderly, children and families at risk, people with disabilities, and others marginalized within our community. They are people whose perceived differences, be they socioeconomic or physical, have distanced us from them. Successful scenario planning for our future means determining whose story is missing to make our collective complete.   

How do we identify the full constellation of factors that make us, us? My experiences as a JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, serving with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) this year, offers some insights: 

First, make a place at the table for these populations and give agency to every voice.  We need this for the necessary data to make evidence-based and responsible choices. As the pandemic began to spread worldwide, I had the opportunity to learn from and serve on a task force developing a response in the former Soviet Union where the world’s poorest Jews, mostly elderly, live. Understanding their plight, in their voices, as well as local community leaders and global health experts was critical. We then crafted a response meeting their needs and maintaining human connection at a time of isolation and fear. 

Second, be curious and intentional. Based in Israel, I was interested in the country’s vulnerable groups, and, nourished that curiosity by immersing myself in Israeli-Arab and Haredi communities as much as possible given COVID-19. In addition to Hebrew and Arabic language study, I have spent time talking with individuals from these communities in their spaces and participating in their culture and customs. By experiencing a glimpse of their reality, I cultivated compassion for the deeply-rooted communal nature of their lives and quantified how it is a catalyst for their communities’ more severe impact by the pandemic.  

Third, we must advocate for the fullest definition of Jewish peoplehood and follow the insight of renowned Jewish leader Ralph Goldman who advocated for the promotion of the numerous components comprising the Jewish people. By engaging with ancient and nascent Jewish communities worldwide, I’ve developed a deeper and richer sense of this. On recent personal travel in Dubai, I was inspired by the fortitude of local Jews who’ve built vibrant Jewish life on the Arabian Peninsula. They serve as a reminder that large, established Jewish centers have much to learn from these communities. We risk diminishing the potential of our people if their voices are not included.  

The Mishna instructs that we are not free to desist from the task. Now is the time to cultivate a robust, resilient, and healthy Jewish collective without the absolutes – local or global, us or them – to underscore how interconnected we all are.  

To do that, let’s employ an approach ensuring all persons agency, care, and dignity. When all of us have a voice in the communities that we comprise and serve, we give new meaning to the enduring truth that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim.  

Josh Yudkin, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellow for 2020 with JDC Entwine, is a Fulbright research awardee who previously served as a Jewish communal professional and volunteer leader.