Jewish Peoplehood from Abstract to Action: We Did It

Global Jewish Connections Fellows in Budapest; photo courtesy Shlomi Amsallem.

by Smadar Bar-Akiva

It is not an easy task to translate the abstract notion of Jewish Peoplehood into action. And even more so, to develop a positive sense of belonging that is not anchored in sorrow and grief; a connection that celebrates cross cultural differences while striving to find common ground. At the World Confederation of JCCs we have just deciphered this secret. How?

Several months ago, together with our trusting partners (see below) we launched the Global Jewish Connections Fellows program. We recruited 13 lay leaders ages 25-45 from 11 JCCs in 7 countries – Argentina, Bulgaria, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine and USA – in order to train them as global Jewish leaders and social entrepreneurs.

These incredibly talented fellows are as diverse as can be. What do they have in common? They all come from institutions where they breathe the Peoplehood oxygen, where the different ways of living Jewishly are respected. They all come from JCCs. Within a few hours they merged into a colorful and rich tapestry of voices; contributing their own unique perspectives while curious to listen and learn from others, turning differences into assets.

What was the effect of the intensive cross cultural program that they experienced?

For Alan Jaschkowitz from CDI Mexico City it was a life changing experience. Appreciating his own community which he often takes for granted while being inspired by what he heard from others. For Shira Kaiserman from the JCC in Manhattan it was the first visit to Israel when she felt that her life in the USA was respected not only by overseas participants but also by the Israelis. For Jenny Spektor from Migdal JCC in Odessa the program widened her scope of Judaism to include attributes she absorbed from other members of the group. For Ezekiel Hajnel from Lamroth Hakol Buenos Aires, finding his own family roots in Hungary made him realize that it is by chance that he lives in Argentina. In addition, he felt that the global resources will be of benefit to his JCC. For Wayne Greenberg from the JCC of Staten Island, New York, it was the recognition that it is fine to disagree as long as we continue to talk to each other and respect each other. Tamar Brody from French Hill, Jerusalem, was at first overwhelmed. So many talented people and so many interesting experiences and speakers to absorb. It was hard to make sense out of it and find a personal voice. Gradually a strong feeling of belonging emerged and a realization that the cross cultural encounter significantly enriched her life.

These are only but few glimpses from a unique experience where the participants were the prime text and context. But it did not end there: a strong sense of commitment to action emerged. A wish to find ways of transmitting the richness of the Jewish networking which they have experienced. Initial ideas for projects include a documentary film series which explores the cross cultural Jewish identity in various contexts screened simultaneously in several communities, developing a joint holiday curriculum to be celebrated in various JCCs and a website and new Hagadda that recounts personal family histories of the group members.

During the next few months, as they continue to interact and develop their projects, it will be interesting to examine how the strong sense of a Jewish family – which was an expression so often used during the seminar – blossoms.

Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers, an umbrella organization of more than 1,100 JCCs. The program is in partnership with WCJCC affiliate organizations and supported by the UJA Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel New York Connections office. It is implemented in partnership with PresenTense. For the /program website and blog click: