Establishing, Building and Strengthening Jewish Communities around the World

Hachnasat sefer Torah (Torah receiving ceremony) in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoive summer 2014; photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman.
Hachnasat sefer Torah (Torah receiving ceremony) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoive summer 2014; photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman.

By Bonita Nathan Sussman

Returning, emerging and isolated Jewish populations around the world are clamoring to be touched by the established world Jewish community. Returning are those that claim Jewish descent, emerging are those that come from different religious tradition and isolated and small established Jewish communities that have limited access to Jewish resources. Kulanu, which means “all of us,” an organization of volunteers, was founded twenty-one years ago tries to address their needs.

I know, I have traveled and met them. I have been to Nicaragua, Cameroon, India, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and Papua New Guinea and I have personal correspondences with emerging and isolated Jewish communities in Brazil, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Suriname, Fiji and the Dominican Republic among others.

I am often shocked and surprised at what I find. I find communities that celebrate shabbat and chaggim, often self taught from the Internet. I saw hundreds sing Hatikva waving Israeli flags; I saw people dedicated to Shabbat observance at the cost of their parnasa (livelihood). I saw children who can read Hebrew and recite the Hebrew months in order by heart. I heard perfect shofar blowing of tekia, t’ruah and shevarim. I heard new molodies sung to L’cha dodi and tehillim, and met grown men who became circumcised with the hope that one day they will have the opportunity of giyyur (to convert). I heard the most frequently asked question, how to deal with non-Jewish members of their families, sometimes who are hostile and rejecting at worst and marginally accepting at best.

The communities that I deal with think of themselves as having a desire to  join the Jewish people. For most, they are seeking a spiritual connection in the religious sense of the word. They usually are leaving some strong Christian tradition that they have become disillusioned with for some reason. Either it stopped making logical sense to them or they had a revelatory moment that came from outside of themselves that revealed to them that Judaism is the true path and true faith. For some, they believe that  the desire was implanted in them by G-d who may have revealed to them that in some way Christianity was not their path. Some say they were never fully happy in their born faith and always were looking for something else. They found it in Judaism. For some it is a connection to the Jews of the Bible, for others it is the history of the Jewish people, for others a connection to the land of Israel, often times a biblical connection which they know well from the Christian traditions that they are leaving.

For everyone they want to be part of the world wide Jewish community. Some want to make their contributions to it whether it be liturgical or cultural. For most theirs is  a desire to become part of the Jewish story, myth if you will and I use it in the deepest sense of the word. Myth meaning what shapes their lives and beliefs. They want to live in the Jewish myth or story. They want to live in the Jewish calender year and celebrate for themselves and their families and communities Jewish life cycle events. They often see their own personal histories and stories of their communities as a Jewish story of the weak overcoming oppression and becoming the victors. Some from strong Evangelical backgrounds see the resurrection of the Jewish people after the Holocaust as the fulfillment of the prophesies of return and collection of the exiles and  they see their own circumstance in it.

Unfortunately, many in the Jewish community do not believe them or accept their sincerity as real. Countless times I am told that these communities just want a passport to Israel to get out of their poor conditions. In fact most of the communities that I deal with are not interested in making aliya. They want to build Jewish communities where they live. Some are not poor.

People also think of the historical Jewish community basically consisting of Ashkenazim and Sepharadim and some others, for which these groups do not share a common history. Because they do not share this history they are viewed as non authentic. Addressing the authenticity question is the next stage to  incorporating the emerging communities.

Closed door policy is no longer acceptable.

For most of the past hundred years the dream of the Jewish people was focused on the Zionist movement. The spirit imagination pathos and creativity of much of the Jewish people was dedicated to Jews becoming “a free people in our land.”

Much of this dream has been realized. We Jews have to a significant extent become just that “a free people in our land.” We are now faced with the question of what we do when we have fulfilled our dream and accomplished most of our goals. It is just this issue that has lead to a feeling of malaise and aimlessness that affects much of the Jewish world both here and abroad.

It is time for us lift our eyes and create a new vision for the future now that the dream of a homeland has been fulfilled. The next step is to rebuild the Jewish people itself. It is time after the Shoah to not only continue to develop the state but to also simultaneously develop new communities to expand the diaspora. In the long run, it will have positive political, social and economic implications for Israel and will strengthen the world-wide network of Jewish communities and invigorate them.

Please visit Kulanu for more information.

Bonita Nathan Sussman is Vice President of Kulanu in charge of developing new communities. She travels to newly developing and isolated communities around the world. Her photographs and writings document her travels and can be seen in publications and online. She holds a Masters in Religion from Columbia University and a Master in Jewish Education from JTS.