By Sarah Mali
autistic and we rarely have the opportunity participate in leadership
trainings of this kind. I want you to know who I am and why I am
here: to give voice to the autistic community.”
“I wanted to serve as a bridge yesterday between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Israel. I felt sidelined and that people didn’t understand me. What you don’t see is that my dad is Muslim and my mom is Jewish. It’s hard but that is what I want and can be: a bridge.”
“You talk about minorities of different faiths but they are not in the room, I am in the room, a member of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Why do you keep taking the conversation out of the room? Have it with me; I am here.”
These are some of the words of participants captured at the Masa Wilf Leadership Summit, a gathering of 120 select Masa Fellows primarily from North America with their peers from around the globe and funded by the Wilf Family Foundations. The Summit aims to build the capacity of early to mid-career professionals and volunteers to mobilize Jewish communities to face their challenges in productive ways that help them thrive.
These paraphrased quotes are not exceptions to the kinds of conversations that were engendered among participants by the Summit’s unique content design, diverse participant group and global faculty. We observed a genuine search to do something different, to engage across unusual boundaries, to partner with us, the teaching team, who were in positions of authority. There was an exploration of self, coupled with a drive to better the state of Israel, Judaism, and its people. There was a sense of profound critique and generosity, humility and tenacity. Serious people taking what is going on around them seriously.
It is easy for the mainstream to speak to its political and philanthropic stakeholders, oftentimes at the expense of engaging the very people for whom much of our community-building aspirations are about: Jews aged 18-35. When we do this, excuse the pun, we throw the baby out with the bathwater because these people are doing things that the Jewish establishment isn’t: they are holding courageous conversations and challenging norms. They aren’t hiding behind the ‘we are all one’ clichés that abound Jewish organizational life, rather they are asking how we can be possibly together when we are so apart. It’s inspiring.
I aspire for our major convening events, our Boards and our clergy to include early to mid-career professionals, activists and volunteers who see themselves as on the margins of Jewish organizational life, I’m convinced our communities would be better off for it. That’s what we are seeing at the Masa Leadership Center, supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Government of Israel, which trains 500 Masa Fellows annually to challenge the status quo and engage in new ways that can build more agile and resilient communities in times of change. What we see is that when we create spaces to hold some of the contention within and between our communities, then we are better able to foster renewed membership by re-drawing the boundaries of organizational and communal life.
Barbara Myerhoff, the Jewish anthropologist, calls this an act of ‘re-membering.’ Myerhoff, uses the term re-membering to describe a ‘special type of recollection’, calling attention to the re-aggregation of members, the figures who belong to one’s life story who may have been lost along the way. She talks about the possibility for us to engage in re-membering practices that provide a context for people to revise or re-organize the ‘membership’ of their ‘club of life’ in a way that alters the potentially downward trajectory of community and gives it new life.
As we enjoy Chanukah and a new calendar year is around the corner I encourage all of us to imagine ways in our own worlds where we can re-member. It isn’t easy – it requires facing tough realities and competing narratives. Doing so however, takes us further to building Jewish communities in which those who are different are a part – not apart.
Sarah Mali is Vice President of the Masa Leadership Center at Masa Israel Journey.
About the Masa Leadership Center:
The Masa Leadership Center builds the capacity of early and mid-career adults, during their extensive time in Israel on Masa Israel Journey programs, to seed change on the tough challenges facing Israel and Jewish communities around the world. At The Masa Leadership Center, we channel a fresh and diverse stream of professionals and volunteers into communal life, equipped to mobilize for change and embrace the opportunities of our time.
The Masa Leadership Center works in partnership with the Kansas Leadership Center in the United States.
For more information, contact: [email protected]