Our Untapped Potential: Nurturing and Leveraging “Living Bridges” – Wherever They Are

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Netaly Ophir Flint

From time to time I get invited to participate in panel discussions or conferences about Jewish peoplehood and the future of the Jewish people. One of my most interesting observations from these encounters is the generational difference in answers to the often posed question: “when was the first time you felt a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective, a sense of Jewish peoplehood?”

I can roughly divide the answers given between those who are below the age of 40 and those who are above the age of 40, though obviously exceptions exist. Those among the younger participants, who actually did feel that sense of greater belonging (many did not), usually answer the question with a detailed story. They trace back their Jewish journey, recalling transformative moments that caused them to feel part of something bigger – to feel a sense of the Jewish collective. I belong to that group. But interestingly, the older participants give a much simpler answer. They say, “I don’t remember the first time, because I have always felt part of the Jewish people, it was just always there.”

Why is this so significant? Because it shows the difference in our Jewish evolution over time. What was a trivial sense of collectiveness, or arvut hadadit, that existed for my grandparent’s and even my parent’s generation is not trivial for my generation and even less so for my children’s generation. Historical and sociological changes in modern times have eroded for many, the foundation of being part of one people. Thus, feeling part of the Jewish collective – that we are connected and bound to each other regardless of the physical place where we may choose to live – is something that today we must intentionally work to achieve.

To do so, we must first understand that a central piece of Peoplehood is a feeling – a level of consciousness that includes an emotional as well as an intellectual connection to the history, the culture, the heritage, and the values of the Jewish people. In order to foster that sense of belonging, each individual, as well as all of us as a collective, need to go through a process that connects us first to our own Jewish community and then to other Jewish communities around the globe. There is no one recipe for how to achieve this goal, but what is clear, is that there is no more powerful of a tool than the mifgash in order to do this.

The mifgash – literally translated as “encounter” – is usually defined as an authentic, personal, face-to-face meeting between Jews from different cultures or communities. The mifgash allows us to experience shared values and interests, as well as differing customs, beliefs and behaviors between different Jewish communities.

Over the years, we have spent tremendous resources moving people between communities in order to create these mifgashim – American Jews filling up Birthright busses in Israel or young Israeli shinshinim being exported to Jewish summer camps and college campuses, to name a few examples. But in our excessive search to create the cross-border mifgash, we have, for a large part, missed one of the biggest resources that we have right under our noses: those individuals who, by virtue of their life circumstances, can serve as “living bridges”, and can create authentic mifgashim, right in their local communities.

This is one of the biggest untapped potentials in the Jewish world and our goal should be to cultivate and nurture those individuals who can serve as “living bridges”, and to do so wherever they are in their local communities. In other words, we should be better utilizing the best resource we have out there for fostering global Jewish peoplehood – those members who naturally embody the global-ness of the Jewish people.

There are certain populations that naturally fit this category more than others – however, for decades, for a number of cultural and historical reasons, they have often been ignored. One of these populations is the Israeli Diaspora – those Israelis who have chosen to emigrate and to live their lives outside of Israel. Another are Olim in Israel.

What is so special about these populations? First, they embody the cultural nuances of living in multiple Jewish communities simultaneously. These are individuals who usually hold a tri-dentity. In other words, their identity is made up of Israeli, Jewish, and Local (for example, American or British or Australian) cultural components all at the same time. That gives them an ability to instinctually understand some of the cultural differences that are so hard for others to grasp. Thus, these individuals – and especially their children – are distinctly positioned to serve as living bridges, as they possess a unique set of qualities that no native Israeli or Diaspora Jew has by themselves. These individuals stand out as a distinct type of Jew within our global tapestry, with a unique ability to foster Jewish Peoplehood, strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora, and to bring value to local Jewish communities in countless ways.

For example, they can enrich Jewish life in local communities outside of Israel by helping bridge cultural gaps with Israeli society, by providing a live example of modern Hebrew language usage, by bringing unique Israeli social dynamics to the wider Jewish community, by contributing the Israeli creative energy and spirit of innovation, and by providing a deeper connection to Israel through national holidays like Yom Ha’zikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.

They can also serve as bridges for Jews living in Israel by showcasing a wide array of diverse methods for practicing Judaism, by demonstrating the value of a rich community life, by embodying pluralism, and by communicating the nuances of living a Jewish life outside of Israel.

As such, these individuals can be some of the most powerful local role models, peer counselors, and educators we have out there today. The problem is that they are not on our communal radar, and there is little effort being made to support, nurture, and enhance these individuals and to create these localized mifgashim, right in our back yards.

This is not to say that cross-border physical mifgashim are not important. Naturally, there is no substitute for a young Australian Jew spending a six-week internship in Israel or for an Israeli to spend a semester studying at an American university and going to Shabbat dinner at a local Hillel. But those encounters are difficult and expensive and don’t happen often enough. Imagine that in addition to the above, we created Shabbat dinner mifgashim with local Israeli-American families in their own communities. Imagine that instead of merely sending Israel Fellows to campuses we had a local Israeli-American or Israeli-British student who can speak both ‘languages’ doing some of the engagement. Or imagine that part of the Tzofim youth movement’s curriculum in Israel is intentionally administered by an Ole who recently moved to Israel.

The opportunities are endless, and coupled with the traditional trans-border mifgashim, they can be a game changer in the process of cultivating a feeling of global Jewish peoplehood among the younger generation. This is one of our biggest untapped resources, and our goal should be to look for, embrace, and nurture our Jewish living bridges, wherever they are.

Netaly Ophir Flint is the incoming CEO of the Reut Institute.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.