Virtual travel

In the book of life, New Year lessons for enriching and expanding Jewish communities 

The continuing pandemic reveals and reminds us of so much of the world that is broken

Return is a ubiquitous concept in Judaism. Every year I feel its power as the High Holiday season sets in and I’m transported from Brooklyn back to the Miami River in Ohio. 

It was there, as a boy, where our congregation went out into the thick humidity of an early Midwest fall and threw pieces of bread into the river as part of the tashlich service many of us just took part in. This symbolic casting away of sins from the past year is a chance to start fresh as the New Year begins.

It always amused me to see the armadas of ducks parading in to eat up the bread that we tossed. And yet, the ritual moved me. It was cathartic to physically enact the change of the year—to turn away from where we had erred in the past year and focus on the looming sweetness of what was to come.

Last year, when gathering for the Yamim Noraim was impossible, tashlich’s solitary, do-it-yourself nature remained viable. Anyone could take a moment, head out on their own with bread in hand to discard last year’s sins, and experience the ritual solemnity without fear of COVID-19.  

But this ritual is not the sole paradigm of the season. The liturgy also consistently reminds us of various books, notably Sefer HaChaim or the Book of Life, where the names of the upright are inscribed and memorialized for all of time. 

The Book of Life serves as a testament to that which cannot be forgotten and represents the idea that actions, good and bad, are observed and remembered. This concept can seem daunting.  

This existential tug-of-war – between tashlich and the Book of Life –  plays out throughout the next ten days. The tension between the discardable past and the ever-present past: Which will win out? 

I imagine that for the vast majority of us, the need to cast away, to release, to forget the past year would prevail. But I believe we must flip that paradigm and instead hold on to what we learned and discovered during this challenging time. As we move forward, we should consider what we should preserve and what we wish to return to.  

For me, it was the community I created in online spaces I never could have imagined, including the virtual travel I did with a group of rabbinical students to Argentina. We had no passports or boarding passes, no checked bags or hotel reservations. We all sat in our respective homes—from Minneapolis to Jerusalem—and leveraged the  power of the internet to connect globally.  

During our trip, we had a cooking lesson from a young Argentine social influencer who demonstrated the intersection between cooking and leadership lessons when making empanadas. We poured over Borges’ poem “Israel,” with congregants from Lamroth Hakol, a Buenos Aires synagogue whose name commemorates its German Jewish refugee founders who, despite it all, built Jewish life in a new land after escaping Nazism.  

We heard from a colleague from my organization about the toll and our subsequent response to the pandemic throughout Latin America, from aiding newly poor families to the adaptation of Jewish life online. Our group was particularly taken with one innovation: how the Jewish community of Havana had conducted virtual Shabbat services using Whatsapp, sending out messages and recorded prayers to isolated community members.  

While I still believe travel has unique experiential properties that cannot be replicated, in our pandemic isolation, we unearthed new ways of building community and bridges. Now we have the opportunity to lean in and harness those lessons to build richer, more diverse, more connected communities for a better future. In developing innovative and accessible virtual experiences, like virtual travel, we managed to reach new audiences who may not have been able to participate in our pre-COVID global immersive experiences.   

These individuals nevertheless share our commitment to act in service of others based on the value of arevut, or mutual responsibility to one another as Jews. We’re now obligated to ensure that new individuals who have joined our communities thanks to the increased access created during the pandemic continue to feel welcome and seen. We must do this, even as we transition in fits and starts to a new hybrid reality combining the virtual with the in-person. 

One way we are doing this at JDC Entwine, the young adult engagement initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is by creating new immersive experiences providing access to global Jewish issues and do not require global travel. Our recent Day Trips, connecting with and learning about the challenges and opportunities facing the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and the Russian-speaking Jewish community in New York are examples of permanent accessible programming that aligns with our values and desire to inform audiences about the mosaic of Jewish life. 

The continuing pandemic reveals and reminds us of so much of the world that is broken. And yet through the cracks, the light of hope peeked out. We ought to hold on to it, return to it for inspiration, and build based on what we have learned. In that, we’ll all be inscribed for a better year ahead.  

Josh Mikutis is JDC Entwine’s Jewish learning designer.