From “Aha” to Action: Creating Agents of Jewish Peoplehood

From "Visions of Tikkun Olam," Voices & Visions, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation
From “Visions of Tikkun Olam.” Courtesy Voices & Visions, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Keren Dicastro and Leah Maas

Keren: Many people have a hard time defining the term “Jewish Peoplehood.” While exploring for a definition was always a large part of my own personal journey, I have recently come to realize that the first time I felt ‘Jewish Peoplehood’ was more than 10 years ago, long before I ever heard the term.

In 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada, I came across a letter published in a national Israeli newspaper entitled “To the People of Israel.” This letter was written by a Jew living in the United States and was addressed to all the Jewish People in the State of Israel. The writer shared his Jewish Journey: starting as an unaffiliated Jew, through his first visit to Israel and through his religious transformation to a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jew. He wrote to all the Israeli soldiers, the mothers and fathers who send their children to war, the police officers and emergency personnel, and to all of Israel’s citizens, sharing his strong support and blessings for their safety during times of insecurity. As a teenager living in Israel, reading this letter was the first time I felt I had a larger support system than my immediate day-to-day relationships and encounters with Israelis. I realized that a broader community existed, of which I am part of because of the common denominator of our being Jewish.

Leah: We had just returned from Shul, as we did every Shabbat. I remember what dress I was wearing and what tie my father had around his neck. The phone rang which felt strange on a Shabbat afternoon in our household but as the answering machine picked up and I heard my uncle’s voice, I knew something was wrong. My uncle exclaimed to my father, “Jeff, you have to turn on the TV. Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated by another Jew.” For the next few hours, the TV remained on as my parents sat in silence and utter shock, grappling with what felt like the Jewish People falling apart. It was in that moment that I realized and felt deep within my soul that I was not only a part of my familiar Jewish Community in NJ, but part of an unfamiliar global Jewish People; a part of something much larger than anything I had known.

Both: So, how did two adolescent girls living on two sides of the world, who never met before, end up with these same feelings, and eventually, the same sense of responsibility for the Jewish People? What was it about each of our individual experiences that were so life changing? What exactly did we experience during these moments, which we desire to replicate for our teen fellows? In retrospect, while that initial feeling we got in the pit of our stomachs was definitely the first step, it was not enough. What made these experiences so life changing was that both of us were given the space to take these feelings, to question and wrestle with them, and were then empowered to do something with them! Each of us, in our own homes, in our own time, were given the platforms to explore how these feelings affected us and were inspired to make a change and become leaders. Both of us were encouraged by our families to continue participating in Jewish programming and youth movements. Each experience, building on top of the previous one, and the peers, mentors and leaders we met along the way, fostered us to become agents of Jewish Peoplehood. This is why today, both of us have dedicated our lives to working with teens in order to expand and strengthen the fabric of Jewish Peoplehood. Through conversations, through identity & existential examination, through mifgashim/cultural exchanges, and through opportunities to succeed and to fail, our learners can and will become the next leaders of the Global Jewish People that we so desperately need them to be.

Peoplehood education is not only an “Aha Moment”; it is not enough to just feel “Peoplehood.” Peoplehood education is moments followed by other moments followed by intentional opportunities to explore/meet/engage/discover/learn/question, followed by platforms to actually step up and do something. It is our duty as educators to create these platforms for our learners that will allow them to translate these experiences into actions. Our hope is to create experiences that touch something deep within our fellows, and allow them to internalize the sense that they are a part of something much greater, and inspire them to actively be a part of the Jewish People.

Keren Dicastro & Leah Maas served as Rishon LeZion and Greater MetroWest, NJ Diller coordinators and are currently National Coordinator Mentors for International Diller Teen Fellows, training, guiding, and supporting Diller educators across North American & Israel.