Fostering International Jewish Connections Through Travel
by Sarah Bunin Benor
I just returned from a month of volunteering and touring with my husband and three children in Peru. We had a wonderful experience – ogling at beautiful nature, tasting local foods, and learning about local history and contemporary society. There was just one thing missing: Jews.
Sure, we visited synagogues and Chabad houses. And we met our share of Jewish tourists from the US, Canada, England, and Israel. We even chatted with the rabbi and a few locals at a Masorti morning minyan in Lima. But that didn’t feel like enough. We wanted to learn about the local Jewish communities and foster relationships with other young families. This experience made me realize what the Jewish world needs: infrastructure that enables Jewish travelers to connect with Jewish locals.
Here’s my vision: with funding and the help of an existing or new organization, synagogues, schools, and other community organizations around the world would publicize and coordinate encounters between travelers and locals. When Josh and Lauren from New York visit Rome, they might meet Maoro and Sara and exchange stories about their recent weddings and sheva brachot. When 19-year-old Viviane from Sao Paolo visits San Francisco, she might meet college freshman Alexa, and they might compare their experiences attending Hebrew School and visiting Israel. After their Safari experience in South Africa, Alice and Norman can take a break from their elder hostel trip to meet with some local Jewish retirees. Next time I travel with my kids, we’ll meet a local family at their favorite playground and join them for an afternoon at their Jewish Day School.
Currently Jewish travelers have many resources at their fingertips: Jewish tours and travel agencies; websites and articles in Jewish periodicals that list sites of historical Jewish interest, demographic information, Jewish institutions, and kosher restaurants; and Chabad houses in the most unexpected places that offer kosher meals, services, and hospitality with a welcome dose of Yiddishkeit. What’s harder to arrange is personal connections with local Jews outside of an institutional context.
This idea addresses an issue that Jewish leaders in the U.S. and Israel have recently discussed with great anxiety: a changing understanding of Jewish peoplehood. As a scholar of contemporary Jewish communities and culture, I have been invited to participate in think tanks and panel discussions on the issue. Organizers are concerned that many young Jewish adults show less interest than their parents in helping Jews around the world; they give more to charities that benefit mostly non-Jews (including Jewish organizations like Mazon and the American Jewish World Service) than to the Federation or the United Jewish Appeal. Although the travel idea would likely not reverse these trends, it has the potential to foster a sense of collectivity by giving Jews of all ages personal connections with Jews abroad.
The travel idea is very much in line with the thinking my colleagues and I did this summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Along with seventeen other American professors of Jewish Studies, I participated in Hartman’s North American Scholars Circle. We studied biblical, rabbinic, and modern texts surrounding the theme “Jewish Peoplehood: The Meaning of the Collective in Modern Jewish Life,” and we considered what a rigorous theory of Jewish peoplehood might look like. One of the ideas we came up with was fostering interaction among Jews around the Diaspora.
As the historians among us pointed out, transnational Jewish encounters are certainly not a new phenomenon. Jewish travelers have been connecting with Jewish locals as long as there has been a Diaspora, as we know from historical travelogues. But web-based technologies have significantly reduced the time and effort involved in setting up transnational encounters. When I was eight and joined my grandparents on a business trip to Australia in the 1980s, it took months of research and letters back and forth to set up a visit to a Jewish day school there. A generation later, it could take minutes, especially with the help of a well-designed online infrastructure.
This travel encounters idea is surely not the first to connect Jews internationally. Hundreds of thousands of young Jews around the world have participated in mifgashim (encounters) with Israelis around their age through Birthright Israel. And several trips run by American youth groups, Hillel, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and other organizations introduce students to Jews in other countries. These and other programs foster transnational Jewish connections and offer individuals insights about the Jewish lives of others around their age. The program I’m suggesting would do similar work in more intimate settings and with a broader age range. Although the participants would initially be limited to those with the financial means to travel internationally, perhaps communal funders could eventually subsidize travel for other interested Jews, making Diaspora Jewish travel encounters almost as common as Birthright.
Communal organizations and funders should seize the moment and encourage Jewish travelers to create relationships with people in similar life circumstances abroad. Not only would this benefit the individual Jews involved; it would foster transnational Jewish social capital and contribute positively to a collective sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.