The Journey of the Jewish People; How to Connect Tomorrow’s Leaders!

[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 Liat Cohen Raviv and Tal Gale

In 1272 BCE the Jewish people were united on the same land for the last time. After a forty year journey through the desert and thirty eight years after standing together at Mt. Sinai, where the national identity of the Jewish people was formed, the Jewish people were facing separation. This was the first division in the young, unified nation. It set the foundation of a dispersed existence.

More than 3200 years ago, the Tribes of Gad and Reuben requested Moses allow them to not cross the Jordan River with the rest of the Tribes of Israel. This contradicted Moses’ mission to bring the entire Jewish nation to live out a shared destiny in the Promised Land. After a short, boisterous debate, Moses acceded to Gad’s and Reuben’s requests. But why would Moses allow this?

“Moses gave to them, even to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuben, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land, according to its cities and borders, even the cities of the surrounding land.” (Numbers 32:33). Not only does Moses agree to the requests but surprises us again by dividing the Tribe of Manasseh.

Numerous Midrashim and other commentaries offer different interpretations of Moses’ decision. Some suggests that Moses wanted to punish the Tribes for separating themselves from their brothers or for having preferred their livestock and acquisitions over their children. Others indicate that he did want anyone who did not harbor a “true” love for Israel to enter the Promised Land.

As part of the Diller Teen Fellows Program, we study this narrative in mixed groups of Israeli and North American teens without revealing Moses’ decision. We ask them to think as of themselves as leaders, to put themselves in Moses’ shoes: how would they respond to this request? After about an hour of study, discussion and internalization of the text, about 95 percent confidently answer that they would not grant the request of the Tribes of Gad and Reuben to stay outside the Promised Land. They argue these tribes had a moral obligation to stay with the Jewish Nation. Through guided discussion, they echo the suggestions noted above, engage in critical thinking and explore the notion of being part of a Jewish people dispersed worldwide.

From our perspective as educators, this conversation serves as an invitation for the Diller teens to engage in and join the journey of the Jewish people that continues today and in which they can take a meaningful and tangible role. Through this dialogue we offer our interpretation of Moses’ decision. This interpretation maintains that Moses, who was a great leader, educator, judge and prophet, knew something that no one else knew. He knew then that the Jewish people were destined to separation and dispersion in the future. Therefore, Moses allows for this separation under his leadership to ensure everlasting longing for Israel and establish the concept of Jewish Peoplehood. Moses secures a connection and sense of belonging to Israel within the Jewish continuum and creates a reality of reciprocal responsibility for Jews residing in and outside Israel.

Through the division of Israel into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles and many more travails, the narrative of the Jewish people carries many dispersions. These repeated exiles are a unique phenomenon of the Jewish people who have lived 3300 years, 98 percent of their existence, as a dispersed people. This is the Jewish experience, an integral part of the Nation’s identity.

In response to this reality, we as educators operating in the reality of the 21st century have a responsibility to generate and reinvigorate relationships between Jewish communities worldwide and create a Jewish identity emphasizing our commonalities (Jewish values, tradition, culture, literature, etc.). Our responsibility is to create fitting platforms for promoting meaningful relationships between individuals and between Jewish communities each of which plays a prominent role in the national Jewish identity with Israel as a strong national home and spiritual center.

But how do we truly engage youth in this narrative? This is not simple. In addition to study and understanding of the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, we choose to have the teens and staff engage in Jewish Peoplehood in practice; to experience it, react to it, reflect on it and ultimately learn from it. Diller Teen Fellows is an international program comprised of 18 communities from America, Canada and Israel. Throughout the 15-month program participants are challenged to engage with Jewish Peoplehood individually and with their peers. The program includes a 10-12 day seminar in North America during which the Israeli teens visit their partner communities and a 21 day seminar in Israel. In Israel, the Peoplehood experience reaches its peak during the “Diller Teen Fellows International Congress,” a 5-day annual seminar for participants from our partnering communities, simulating a general assembly (assefa klalit) of Jewish people worldwide. This makes the context of Peoplehood more tangible and real for the participants. Through this social and educational Jewish Peoplehood experience/ experiment, with 360 teen Fellows and 65 Junior Staff and alumni, we encourage and assist these teens in identifying and solidifying their personal connection to the Jewish Nation. We encourage them to translate this feeling into a conscious choice to take an active role.

This authentic Jewish Peoplehood experience reflects the world in which teens live. It celebrates commonalities and addresses differences and challenges. There are many challenges in connecting American, Canadian and Israeli teens. The meeting of teens from diverse Jewish communities is often marked by clashes of identity and culture. It is at these points of intersection where Jewish Peoplehood is experienced. Through engagement in “real-life” leadership experiences, through true empowerment processes, these young leaders become involved in and aware of their own development and that of their peers. They start to recognize their potential and to envision themselves as leaders.

Challenging teens in this very direct way, allowing them to succeed and fail, while common in Israel, is uncommon in North America. Today’s teens are international; their reality transcends geography and easily provides them with all of the information they might possibly want (or not want). Our challenge is to let them experiment within their reality, to help them navigate their complex world, to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to empower them with knowledge and experience. At Diller we break from the norm of content-centered leadership training to participant-centered leader development. We do not shy away from giving teenagers opportunities to experiment with leadership. They study, discuss and experience leadership with its successes and failures and reflect on lessons that can be applied to their future.

In the Diller Teen Fellows Program exploration of Jewish Peoplehood is intentional and pervasive. As a people of a dispersed existence we must ensure that current and future leaders of the Jewish People choose and have the capability to make decisions and affect change in a global context. Through the acquisition of knowledge and skills, Peoplehood experiences and personal connection to the Jewish narrative, teens become active leaders within and beyond this experiment in Jewish Peoplehood, providing us insight into our collective future, our future identity.

Liat Cohen Raviv and Tal Gale are Co-Directors of Diller Teen Fellows, North America / Israel.

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.