[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Max Rochman and Aliza Caplan
Outside the snow was falling in sheets, the roads were paved with ice and the signs were in French and kilometers; I sat bundled up around a Shabbat dinner table. None of the faces at the table were familiar except for two: Noam and Lara. We met Noam and Lara while working as Junior Counselors on the Diller Teen Fellows program. In total, we had spent less than a month with them over the course of three years – two days here and a week there, separated by months to a year. Even so, the connections and friendships we forged in that time were well worth the five hour drive in the middle of January.
As special as this Shabbat meal was, it was so “normal.” The words that we recited were identical to the words we had chanted the previous summer as we gathered with hundreds of other Jewish teens – American, Canadian and Israeli – for an unbelievable Shabbat in Israel. The words we sang sitting around the table in Montreal were no different than the words I’ve said in my home in New Jersey. During dinner, conversation owed in French, English, German, Hebrew and even a little Yiddish. As I placed my spoon back into an empty bowl of matzoh ball soup, it hit me: this is peoplehood.
Diller understands the concept of Jewish Peoplehood as “the idea of a collective Jewish experience, flourishing now and in the future.” Diller brought peoplehood to life by physically placing me in a room with Jewish teens from all over North America and Israel of different backgrounds, whose identities ranged from “just Jewish” to “Orthodox” to “Humanistic” to name only a few. In doing so, Diller provided a platform for serious personal reflection about what it means to me to be Jewish and encouraged me to explore what Judaism represents for my peers around the globe. Over the course of our own Diller experiences, Max and I engaged with questions of our own identity while forming lasting bonds and friendships. Our paths following Diller are closely tied to the idea of Jewish Peoplehood.
The product of a conservative Jewish family, USY and Ramah, it was not until Diller that I internalized pluralism and peoplehood. Peoplehood motivated my family to host a pre-army Israeli completing her year of service in our community for six months (incidentally, also a Diller alumnus). Peoplehood permeates my life as a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and Vice President of Penn Hillel, a hub for Jewish student life on a campus with 2,500 Jewish undergraduates. Diller introduced me to the idea of peoplehood, and in doing so ignited in me a passion for the broader Jewish community, a love for Israel and the confidence to explore Judaism on my own terms.
After working with Aliza during the summer of 2012, I decided I wanted to continue with my career in the Diller program and applied to be the Junior Counselor Mentor. The job entailed advising the following year’s JC’s through phone calls, personal workshops and traveling with various Diller cohorts in the summer. It was then that my love of the country and the Jewish people grew even stronger. The relationships I developed with people all over North America as well as Israel opened my eyes to what it meant to be part of the greater Jewish community. After leaving Israel at the end of the summer, I felt a void in my ties to the Jewish people. After completing my sophomore year of college, I left school and made aliyah to join the IDF as a lone soldier. Today, I proudly serve in the 202 battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade.
Aliza and Max:
To us, peoplehood means that our individual practices and relationships to Judaism are only two pieces in the larger sphere of collective modern Judaism. We are inspired to explore, learn from, pick up or reject others’ specific practices while still connecting to the underlying values and experiences that unite us all as Jews. As we leave college and the army and enter the next phases of our lives, we have no doubt that we will find ourselves at a Shabbat table – in Montreal, Philadelphia, Israel, New Jersey, or anywhere else for that matter – enjoying the beauty and magic of a tradition that we all share, yet practice in different ways. And for this, we are thankful.
Max Rochman and Aliza Caplan are alumni of the Greater MetroWest, NJ cohort of the Diller Teen Fellows program. Today, Aliza is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and Max is serving as a paratrooper in the IDF.