By Aliza Kline and Rabbi Avi Orlow
The Roman philosopher Seneca (and the 1990s band Semisonic) said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
The start of something new means that something else ends and eventually, the very thing you are starting, will end with something else’s beginning. We are thinking about this as we prepare to read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion:
The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
It might seem straightforward, but of course, Avram’s journey is circuitous. When he arrived in the Promised Land there was a famine, so he moved on to Egypt. Egypt proved to be threatening to Avram’s wife Sarai, so they went back to Canaan. What kind of faith, gumption, grit, and stamina did it take for him to start over (and over) again? What needed to end in Avram’s life for this new project of Jewish life to get started? Was Avram exceptional in his ability to keep moving – even to start his journey in the first place – or is this something we can access today?
As a country, we are on the move. We have started to see a huge population shift in light of the ecological crises burning and flooding where people live. And a recent Pew study reports that in response to COVID-19, 52% of Americans between 18 and 29 years of age are now living with their parents – just when most young adults in this country would be setting off from their parents’ homes on their own journey. The last time we saw numbers like this was during the Great Depression.
Like Avram, we are searching for a home that feels safe and secure. And this project is only getting more challenging. An astounding 50 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. This doesn’t include the millions who have finished collecting benefits, given up looking for a job, or have reluctantly taken a position far below their prior compensation level just to make ends meet. When it is safe to travel again, where will they move in search of work? When they are able to leave their parents’ homes, where will they journey?
As individuals we might connect to Avram’s story from Lech Lecha, but as a society, this large-scale domestic migration is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, this classic story focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The Joads set out for California seeking jobs, land, dignity, security, and a future. There Steinbeck writes, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it‘s us without our past?”
As Jews, this question drives us to craft practices that serve as regular reminders of where we come from and to whom or what we are responsible. Like a mobile hotspot, rituals allow us to connect our past to our future while on the move. Rituals like Shabbat, or reciting a blessing before eating, or tucking our kids in at night, are designed to help us be conscious of timely and timeless moments. Critically, most of these rituals pack light and are shared – deepening our connection to others. When Avram was encamped – even temporarily – he and Sarai opened their tent welcoming others to join them on their journey. They literally put stakes in the ground in order to open the door to others. Even when we are on the go, we can ground ourselves and others by welcoming them into our ritual space.
It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in Jewish engagement during the pandemic. For the majority of people still working, their homes have become their offices and even their sanctuaries. Through our screens we have discovered new ways of connecting to a larger world-wide Jewish community. We’ve heard countless stories of people streaming multiple services throughout the High Holidays – journeying across time zones to find the right fit. Rather than being part of a singular, geographically-bound community, we are discovering that we can connect on a different level. While we might be sheltering in place in one location, we have been able to join Jewish life almost everywhere. With a growth in home-based ritual – like Shabbat dinner, Sukkah building, as well as celebrations like b’nai mitzvah and weddings happening in backyards and living rooms – American Jews have empowered themselves by inviting others to join them as never before.
We do not know what the future holds, but eventually we may find a vaccine and this period of social distancing will come to an end. Many of these 18 to 29 year olds will again leave their parents’ homes. But with that end, what will begin for them? It is hard to imagine that things will return to “normal,” and even if they could, do they want to? Can we intentionally end long-held assumptions about what it means to be a part of “the community” in order to liberate our institutions?
How do we support those who find themselves, like Avram and the Joads, leaving home, uprooted, dealing with ecological threats, redefining relationships with parents, and reckoning with whom they want to be? What can we do to support them in their journey to find security, happiness, meaning, and purpose?
And how can we factor these questions into our planning and thinking for the Jewish future? How might our organizations – especially those designed for larger community gatherings – anticipate and even encourage multiple forms of community connection? Is it possible that Digital Judaism is here to stay? How do we prioritize the human, psychological, and spiritual needs of the traveler alongside the institution?
It might seem like too many questions to confront as we are wrapped up in our current existential crises, but we need to look ahead during this period of migration. With Lech Lecha, we renew our commitment to continuing the journey Avram started. What will it look like for this generation to leave their parents’ homes? What is the future of Jewish engagement? We cannot afford to ignore these questions.
Please be our guest and join us as we explore these questions in a zoom conversation about Migration and the Future of Jewish Life – Thursday, November 12th from 1:00-2:15pm ET and RSVP here.
Aliza Kline is the Co-Founder and CEO of OneTable. She has devoted her career to re-imagining Jewish ritual open to the full diversity of the community and applying a user-centered design approach to gain empathy, understand and overcome barriers to deep and enduring Jewish practice.
Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He has a deep love of irreverent, relevant, and revealing Torah and blogs religiously at saidtomyself.com.