Jewish professionals: It’s time to focus on homecomings, not journeys 

The philosopher Richard Rorty famously argued that a culture’s moral aspirations can be discerned from the metaphors it favors. A culture that praises being “a faithful cog in the great wheel” is not going to smile on disruptive innovation, and a nation that talks about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” might prefer entrepreneurial grit to social welfare. 

What does it say about Jewish culture that we so ubiquitously use the metaphor of the “Jewish journey” to describe the experience of being Jewish in America today? Perhaps it is time to consider a new metaphor: “Jewish homecoming.” 

A journey is a classic narrative motif that imagines a hero breaking from family, community, and culture to set out on a purposeful search. It can take the form of a quest, pilgrimage, or internal odyssey to self-understanding. In the Jewish community, I think our use of the journey metaphor has three main functions. 

First, it encourages a person to explore and try new things. A person on a journey encounters new experiences; they can visit new places and learn from new teachers. This is a useful tool in developing a kind of Jewish curiosity. 

Second, the journey metaphor affirms that each person is on a unique life path. It lessens the pressure to establish or adhere to a single normative experience. If we are all “on journeys” and are each the heroes in the unique quests of our own lives, that encourages us not to judge ourselves in the course of our own processes and also not to judge others. Instead, we should promote an inclusive, celebratory approach to all the different journeys. 

Finally, a journey focuses on an individual’s choices as the key point of interest. One’s Jewish journey narrows the frame to who I am, what I am doing, and where I am going. This is deeply resonant with the American ethos of hyper-individualism, and especially in our present cultural moment of influencers and the persona economy. 

There are, however, glaring limits to a journey metaphor. For instance, it is hard to speak about “we” when using a language of personal journeys. Collective interest and the demands of history or family fall to the wayside when an individual focuses solely on the next step in their unique, ever-unfolding odyssey. The journey metaphor is powerful — and I have indeed used it a great deal in my years as a Jewish educator and rabbi — but it is also limited, especially at a historic juncture like the one we are living through today. 

After Oct. 7, I met a large number of Jews in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who felt the pang of Jewishness newly awakened in their souls. They sensed correctly that the shocking violence of the attacks that befell Jews in Israel was directed at them as Jews as well; they were also stunned by the obliviousness and silence of those around them. These adults were looking for someone, or some group, to help them understand this feeling and make sense of it. They could not find that person or place easily at work or in social groups, so they turned to Jewish communal organizations. 

They were not looking for a Jewish journey — they were yearning for a homecoming. 

A homecoming is another kind of classical narrative image, one where the individual returns to a group, place or culture to which they once belonged, either in reality or in their imagination. In listening to the stories of Jewish adults over the last six months, I observed that they did not want to embark on a Jewish quest; rather, they wanted to be embraced, rooted and called upon as a member of a Jewish community. They wanted to be asked to come to a march in solidarity with the Israeli hostages. They appreciated it when we encouraged them to recruit their friends. They were glad to give money and time to help the Jews being resettled in Israel as the war heated up. They even appreciated invitations to synagogue services and holiday meals. 

Recruiting peers, giving money, going to synagogue — these were kinds of things that repelled Jewish young adults, or so we had been told. Those of us who work in the Jewish community are very good at encouraging others to journey, but we often shy away from calling on those same people to come home. Homecoming feels parochial and heavy-handed. Who are we to say where a person’s home is? How could we invite someone to belong? 

In response to that, I ask: if not us, then who? And why not? If those who hear our invitation to return to Jewish life do not wish to accept, that is their choice. 

Homecoming challenges us to imagine that being Jewish is not only about making unique life choices and being the hero of our own quest. It is also about being obligated to family and extended family in ways both wonderful and infuriating. It means showing up as part of the collective, sometimes in ways that aren’t what we might have expected or chosen ourselves. It means giving of our time, talent and other resources to something bigger than ourselves, because it is in our collective interest. 

Orientation to “the journey” alone often results in Jewish communal professionals creating series of episodic programs for young people. Come to this, go to that, we tell people, from event to retreat to program and back again. To be sure, some of these are outstanding, transformational experiences, but we must add an orientation toward homecoming as well. Homecoming is embodied in those practices that obligate us to one another, sometimes things as mundane making meals for new parents, celebrating milestone occasions together, visiting the sick and suffering. These are not the stuff of a Jewish search for the self through programs and special trips, but rather the daily practices of someone enmeshed in a network of belonging. 

Deep down, I would argue, that is what that ultimately makes our lives meaningful.

Dan Smokler is chief innovation officer of Assembly (formerly known as Office of Innovation).