Looking Beyond the Looking Glass

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Smadar Bar-Akiva

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle”
Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

It is Sunday morning or evening (depending on geographic location,) several dozen teens from the Merage JCC in Orange County, California, Kfar Yona, Israel and CDI Mexico City are gathering in their respective Jewish Community Centers. They are studying their family roots and constructing family trees as part of the JCC Global Family Tree program.* In a few months, they will all meet together in Israel, California or Mexico and explore their own Jewish identity and that of their fellow peers. They will be able to ask each other some poignant questions:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish?
  • What are the narratives of my community’s identity?
  • What makes me feel committed to a group or community?
  • What is the meaning of belonging to the Jewish People?
  • Does the notion of Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Lazeh – all the people of Israel are responsible for each other- resonate with me and my peers? Why?

The answers may surprise them. They may find close similarities and great differences. They may debate forcefully or embrace kindred spirits. For certain, these conversations will open their minds to new forms of defining Jewish identity and living Jewish lives. Many of them will later testify that they came back from these encounters transformed. The exposure, first hand, to different forms of Jewish life often initiates questions and observations about their own identity and their belonging to the local Jewish community.

“I began to see the JCC as a center of Jewish Peoplehood” says David Black, Executive Director of the Sid Jacobson JCC in New York, who led the L’Alliance Teen Project together with JCCs in France, Ukraine and Israel. “Even when looking at our own Jewish community, there are different Jews. We began reaching out to the Persian and Israeli communities. There are a lot of things that we already do regarding Jewish values, culture, food, films and more. This project helped us connect the dots.”

Programs such as the one described above (and additional ones involving various age cohorts and exploring different themes) enable an encounter and dialogue with what the French Philosopher Emmanual Le?vinas calls: “the Other.” And thus, he writes: “To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant overflows the idea, a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed, this conversation is a teaching. It comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain. In its non-violent transitivity, the very epiphany of the face is produced.” (Emmanuel Le?vinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority)

In today’s world, where fear and mistrust often segregate and isolate, the Jewish Community Centers are the big tent under which a wide range of people congregate. JCCs, often at the heart of the Jewish community, provide services and programs that build and strengthen Jewish communal life and provide Jewish educational experiences to and for Jews and non-Jews of all ages and orientations. Therefore, JCCs are the ideal venue to educate for Jewish Peoplehood.

From my vantage point, weaving the connections between Jewish communities the world over, this meaningful encounter with “the other” is a source of hope. The possibility of seeing life through the lenses of different people in different countries helps defy stereotypes and builds bridges of understanding and support.

These encounters not only widen the prism of Jewish possibilities, but also empowers the local communities: “In our special situation in Ukraine life is not easy” says Inessa Nosenko, Executive Director, Mazal Tov JCC, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. “Participating in the JCC Global Amitim-Fellows program I had the feeling that I’m not alone. That I’m part of a big Jewish people. I take all the experiences that we shared and I’m bringing it back to my community. You all gave me an opportunity to learn useful things that will help the future of my community. The future is in our hands. We will make things happen.”

Perhaps it is now time to revive the writings of a Jewish thinker long forgotten, Simon Dubnov, who believed in spiritual Zionism and in the value of each and every Jewish community anywhere in the world: “Every generation in Israel carries within itself the remnants of worlds created and destroyed during the course of the previous history of the Jewish people. The generation, in turn, builds and destroys worlds in its form and image, but in the long run continues to weave the thread that binds all the links of the nation into the chain of generations (The Survival of the Jewish People” in Heatid IV.)

Looking beyond the looking glass enables us to integrate a multitude of voices into the
fascinating tapestry called: humanity.

Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of JCC Global.

*Funding for the Amitim-Fellows – A Global Leadership Network program that connects JCCs in global long-term projects comes from JCC Global and from a generous grant allocated by UJA Federation of New York. In addition, JDC and participating JCCs are also supporting the program.

JCC Global will convene in New York, November 5-9, 2017,  110 JCC leaders from 52 Jewish communities in 15 countries for the Amitim 2.0-Fellows-  A Global Leadership Network three year program.