Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Community and Peasch

As I go through my year in Yahel, one thing constantly on my mind is community. In the US, I felt connected to a number of communities at different times since leaving high school - the queer community, the feminist community, and the "young Jews" community. There were times when I didn't feel part of a community, when I couldn't find the community, or when the community wasn't giving me what I needed, and there were other times when there was no real community for me to tap into. Then there were times when I found a great community, and it was just a matter of me showing up to find people to connect with.

This year, I have recognized the real importance of community, especially when I'm 6000 miles away from my own families/communities. Passover is the time when you join with family and tell the story of our community, the Jewish people. However you define the Jewish community, I truly feel as part of a community at Passover. I was graciously invited to spend the חג (holiday) with my program director's family in Zichron Yaakov in the north. We attended the Seder at the house of their friends, and we used the ArtScroll Haggadah. I don't recall ever doing the Seder with the ArtScroll Haggadah, although I once did a Seder in Baltimore with my uncle's family and we did all the parts of the Seder.

At first, I was a little intimidated by the Haggadah, but it actually turned out to be a great Seder. I realized I don't know (almost) any of traditional Seder songs and I learned about halakhic portions of matzah that we are supposed to eat. Who knew that the rabbis discussed the exact amount of matzah you are supposed to eat at the Seder? It's great to think that Jews all over the world, from Los Angeles to NYC to Berlin to Jerusalem to Moscow to Shanghai all spend the evening doing the same thing - telling the story of our shared memory (and also the modern day struggles Jews and non-Jews alike have gone through). I feel part of the Jewish community, even when I feel I don't know much.

I feel like it's easy to feel a part of the Jewish community here in Israel, though I know it was not as easy in the States. Even so, I feel like there is a lot of knowledge that I don't have. I'm looking forward to learning at Pardes, the co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem I will be studying at in the fall!

At the same time, I feel like I've lost the knowledge I had when I was deeply involved in the queer and feminist communities, communities I still feel a part of because of my identities, but which I don't have much connection to at the moment. Is it possible to feel connected to a community in isolation? Is that what the Jewish narrative is all about?

While I don't necessarily feel as part of the Gedera community, I do feel very close with people in the community, and I'm looking forward to moving to Jerusalem and finding a new community that I can immerse myself in. I'm hoping that there will be more communities in Jerusalem that I can tap into and that I will feel a part of.

I think being part of a community is more than just your identity and knowledge. It's also about shared memory, real connections, and a feeling of belonging. I may not always have all of those at every time, but I know I will still feel my identities and know that there will always be a community for me to find. I just need to know where to look.

חג פסח כשר ושמח!

Monday, March 18, 2013

MASA Leadership Summit

I had the amazing opportunity to attend the MASA Leadership Summit a few weeks ago. This 5 day conference was open to all MASA participants interested in strengthening their leadership skills for use in the Jewish community. Nearly 400 participants currently on a MASA program came together in Jerusalem to learn about leadership and discuss opportunities and challenges in the Jewish community today. While we were able to mingle with participants from other places throguhout the world, we primarily learned with a regional group. My group of 25 came from the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions in the US. This gave us an opportunity to network with people in our region, as the assumption is that we are all going to return to work in our Jewish communities where we grew up. While I don't know if I'm returning to Atlanta when I settle back in the States, it was helpful to hear about the DC area, as well.
One of the first things we did was talk about our own experiences and relationship to Judaism and Israel. Some people mentioned free food or camel rides on college campuses as a way to get them involved in Jewish life on campus. Most of us said that Birthright had a big effect. While I was not involved in Jewish life on my college campus, it was studying abroad in New Zealand, where there were no Jews that really made a difference in me. It was the first time that I didn't take my Jewish identity for granted. Returning to campus in the fall of 2008, I took a Jewish studies course and then went on Birthright in January of 2009. While going on Birthright made me want to get more involved Jewishly and religiously, I actually thought I was finished with Israel and didn't plan on returning. It wasn't until I had finished graduate school and spent a year in St. Louis immersed in the Jewish world, both professionally and religiously, that I became interested in working in the Jewish nonprofit world. I am passionate about social justice, and it was because of that passion (and a MASA scholarship) that helped me return to Israel as a Yahel Social Change Participant. My story is obviously different from many others on this program and others who are on a MASA program. However, because this program blended my interests of Judaism and social change, I knew that I was going to get a lot out of it. My engagement with Judaism and Israel has only grown as an effect of participating in this program.

Some of the main themes we discussed during the week were the opportunities and challenges in American Jewry today, specifically in terms of engagement and change. We focused on engagement of young Jews and their connection to Judaism and Israel. These are things I have talked about with my peers over the last two years, as I was involved with Next Dor STL and here in Israel. Why is it important to encourage young Jews to affiliate with Judaism? How can we change the current state of Jewish funding models in the US to be more innovative and more centered around the goals of the next generation? How do we see the Jewish community in the United States in 20 years? How do we see ourselves as a part of that change/process? I don’t think any of these have specific answers, or if they do, the answers will vary by person, but I don’t think that means that we should sky away from the issues. This is exactly the reason why there are so many Jewish start-ups founded by young Jews, and I think it’s great. We have plenty of people who care and have great ideas for the future. Social entrepreneurship was definitely highlighted and encouraged throughout the seminar. While I don't think I have any great ideas, it was nice to see that others did, and we all have our parts to play. I am skilled at planning and organizing, implementation and follow through. If someone else has an idea, I know how to make it work. AND THAT IS OKAY. It's important to me to figure out how my skills will work for me when I do eventually continue my career back in the States.

This week I was also reminded of what the American Jewish community is like and "the feel" of it. I think it was good to remind me of who I am, where I'm coming from, where I'm going, and how I relate to American Jewish life. I loved meeting new people from all over, and it was great to see a little diversity in Jewish practice and affiliation with Judaism among American Jews and among Jews from all over the world.