Siach: Lessons from a Lived Experiment in Jewish Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Dyonna Ginsburg

For the past few years, I have been privileged to be part of an exciting experiment in lived Jewish Peoplehood. Along with colleagues in Israel, Europe and North America, I co-founded Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environment professionals.

Launched at a conference in the United States in May 2011, Siach emerged out of a growing recognition that even though the world is getting smaller through the forces of globalization and the internet, the miles – geographical, religious, cultural, political, and otherwise – separating Jewish social justice and environment activists from different places around the world aren’t getting shorter. With rare exception, Jewish activists from Jerusalem aren’t speaking to their counterparts in New York and London, at least not in an ongoing and meaningful way – this, despite the fact that they share many common values, passions and commitments.

Siach was created to foster 3 “C”s: 1) Conversation, 2) Connection and 3) Collaboration. “Conversation” refers to open and honest dialogue about points of similarity and difference among Jewish activists from around the world. “Connection”is the creation of meaningful, long-term, one-on-one relationships among Jewish activists. Finally, “cooperation” is the development of year-long, transnational partnerships among Jewish social justice and environment organizations.

In the two years prior to the first Siach conference and in the year since, we learned a tremendous amount about the “ins and outs” of lived Jewish Peoplehood, such as:

  • Jewish Peoplehood may not always be an effective marketing hook; nonetheless, a profound experience of Jewish Peoplehood has people coming back for more.

Siach’s founding partners had several, overlapping motivations for launching a network of Jewish social justice and environment activists. Our funder, the UJA Federation of NY, was interested primarily in fostering a sense of Jewish Peoplehood and Israel engagement among people for whom the pursuit of social and environmental justice is a defining characteristic of their identities. Our primary organizational partners – Bema’aglei Tzedek and the Heschel Center in Israel, the Jewish Social Action Forum in Europe and Hazon in North America – were motivated both by a desire to promote Jewish Peoplehood and Israel engagement, as well as to create a more just and sustainable planet.

Before the first conference, we quickly learned that, for many potential participants, the promise of a Jewish Peoplehood experience was not enticing enough to get them in the door. They weren’t particularly interested in having theoretical discussions about the meaning of Jewish Peoplehood or even about the meta-issues facing the Jewish People today. They wanted to know: Would they learn new skills? Would they see old friends and colleagues? Would they learn best practices that would help them become better professionals?

Wanting to go beyond the “usual suspects” and attract participants who had never before sat around a shared table with Jewish colleagues from other parts of the world, we adjusted our marketing pitch, and some parts of the conference content, to better align with the interests of our target audience. Our strategy was successful. Over 120 leading activists – approximately 40% from North America, 40% from Israel and 20% from Europe – attended the first conference, the overwhelming majority of whom did not know a lot of participants from geographic regions other than their own.

Yet, in the weeks and months after the conference, it wasn’t the skills-building sessions that left the most lasting impression. By and large, participants found the experience of meeting and interacting with Jews from other parts of the world to be the most meaningful and enduring aspect of the conference. In fact, in anticipation of the second conference, which is scheduled to take place in Israel in June 2012, participants urged us to once again shift our marketing pitch – this time, giving Jewish Peoplehood far more prominence – to better reflect what they now see as Siach’s added value vis-a-vis other professional development opportunities.

  • Jewish Peoplehood and Israel engagement are intricately linked; to be most effective, Jewish Peoplehood initiatives should make sure that participants can engage with Israel head-on.

In attempting to understand why many European and North American Jewish activists have few connections with Israeli colleagues, we discovered that Israel is a “third rail” in many Jewish social justice and environment organizations, which are afraid of broaching the subject of Israel for fear of alienating constituents and/or suffering serious financial repercussions for voicing an opinion on Israel, one way the other. Because Israel is taboo, there are few opportunities to learn about, from or with Israeli social justice activists. In turn, because there are few opportunities to meet inspirational Israeli colleagues, Israel’s taboo status is heightened.

Cognizant of this vicious cycle, we dedicated 4 full hours at the first Siach conference to the topic, “Israel in the Jewish Social Justice Community outside Israel.”Initially, some participants didn’t understand why this topic deserved such a prominent position at a conference, which they perceived as being primarily about professional development. By the plenary itself, however, many of the initial skeptics clamored for the opportunity to discuss their feelings about Israel, having drawn the conclusion that it isn’t mere happenstance that Jewish activists from around the world rarely interact, rather there are deep-seated reasons why this is the case.

In retrospect, we found that the timing of the “Israel” session – 3/4 of the way through the conference – was key to its success. Participants needed a day or two to get to know each other and explore common interests before grappling directly with “hot-button” issues. Had we scheduled this session earlier, many participants would have found it to be premature. Only after gaining a certain degree of comfort with and respect for one another could participants enter an intense and emotionally-charged conversation with honesty and an open-mind.

  • More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat; Shabbat has kept the Jewish People.

Initially, we debated whether or not the conference should include a Shabbat. On the one hand, if the conference was to have a professional feel, it should be during the week, so that participants could take notes, use PowerPoint presentations, etc. On the other hand, we knew that Shabbat presents a unique opportunity to reflect and it embodies many social justice and environmental values.

The Israeli and European organizers – myself included – expressed concern; our communities simply didn’t “do” Jewish pluralism as well as the North Americans did. We feared it would be difficult to get certain Israeli and European Orthodox organizations to send representatives to a conference with Jewish organizations from other denominations. Why rock the boat by having Shabbat as part of the deal?

In the end, we decided to run the conference over Shabbat, primarily because Hazon – the North American organizer – was confident in its ability to model a meaningful, inclusive Shabbat, especially on its “home turf” in the United States.

At the time, some of us assumed that, when the second conference would take place in Israel, we would opt for a weekday. Otherwise, things would just get too complicated. Were we wrong!

Shabbat proved to be an amazing opportunity for participants to showcase their own rich and diverse Jewish traditions, with Americans and Europeans hearing Israeli-accented, Sephardi kiddush and Israelis attending an American-style, havurah minyan – many for the very first time. After the havdallah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat, one European remarked that he had never before seen Reform and Orthodox Jews from his own community participate in a Jewish ritual together.

Several months later, when it came time to plan the second conference, it was obvious to us that the conference would include Shabbat, which had succeeded in bringing together our participants, who span the religious and geographic spectrum, around shared celebration and practice.

These are but a few of the examples of things we have learned about Jewish Peoplehood in the process of building and implementing Siach. As the Siach network expands through our global conferences, regional gatherings, and webinars, we hope to continue to benefit from the literature about Jewish Peoplehood and, in turn, to contribute to this growing body of knowledge by drawing upon our own, lived experience.

Dyonna Ginsburg is the Director of Jewish Service Learning at the Jewish Agency for Israel and is one of the co-founders of Siach.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.