Jewish Peoplehood and Human Beings

January 18, 2012 by

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‘Jewish Peoplehood’ – the notion of collective Jewish belonging – has been criticized as an abstract term with little practical grounding. In order to overcome this challenge, various resources including curricula and seminars have been developed to teach students what Jewish Peoplehood means.

The problem with this approach lies in the assumption that students will simply get it if educators teach them the value of and the textual basis for the ties that bind the Jewish people. However, engendering an organic ‘group connection’ is not a didactic exercise but rather a highly internalized understanding built out of layered relationships and experiences.

As biblical commentator Aviva Zornberg puts it,”our sense of person is registered in wordless and diffuse ways, in body knowledge, in relationship. In other words, we develop who we are before we think about it.” So, if teaching about Jewish Peoplehood can only serve to provide a knowledge base, how can local educators enable young people to build this connection?

This article aims to highlight a program that offers a new paradigm for Jewish Peoplehood engagement locally in North America. Over the past five years I have been involved with and observed a small program grow in Toronto. The program, funded by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Agency for Israel, began as a capacity building exercise to strengthen synagogues by providing them with pre-army Israeli youth to run informal Jewish and Israel programming on a shared cost basis.

The UJA MAKOM Young Emissary Program in Toronto grew from two young emissaries reaching three participating institutions, to fourteen reaching twenty-five institutions: day schools, synagogues, youth groups and summer camps, creating some of the strongest and most vibrant relationships between Federation and its agencies – and agencies with each other – that exist today.

Structurally, each pair of young emissaries that come for a year at a time works in a day school and synagogue, as informal Israel educators, with the year culminating in their taking on counsellor positions at one of several Jewish summer camps. The young emissaries are hosted by families associated with their host institutions and each live with three families throughout the year.

This program, seemingly a simple Federation-JAFI shaliach endeavour, offers a model for a new kind of Jewish Peoplehood education.

Two anecdotes by way of illustration: Carol is a high profile genetic researcher in a downtown Toronto hospital. She has been a strong supporter of Federation and particularly the program. When I asked her to tell me a powerful story about its impact she was caught off guard having never reflected formally on the question. Later she remarked to me casually, “Before I knew the young emissaries I had never shared my religion with people at work. Only after experiencing the constant Jewish pride of these remarkable young Israelis did I begin to tell my colleagues at work I was Jewish.”

Joanne has long been a supporter of Israel but offered to host a young emissary primarily because of her love of hosting (the year before she had housed a Korean overseas student). Her husband, Mike, has been less engaged with Israel and generally inactive in the community. While hosting a Young Emissary, Operation Cast Lead happens and Joanne and Mike discover together, up close and personal in their own home, that this is no regular hosting experience as their houseguest’s older brother is called up for reserve duty. It is out of the interconnectedness with Israel and its collective destiny, forged through an ongoing relationship with a young Israeli, that Joanne and her husband are moved to action: to visit Israel and join Gadna for a short period, volunteering in the IDF.

Upon reflection she remarked, “I had to do it, I couldn’t sit by; Dan’s family is our family; we could not stand by and let them do it alone.”

An average young emissary engages with over 250 students around Israel and Jewish identity matters on a weekly basis. This involvement includes creative programming which is integrated into the teacher’s lesson plans, recess activities, student council projects and class or school ceremonies and celebrations. Beyond these organized encounters, each young emissary touches informally another 200 young people weekly.

One Young Emissary remarked to me recently that on the day Gilad Schalit was released he was unable to walk down the school corridor, as he was veritably bombarded with students who wanted to share their joy, ask their questions and touch the real Israel in their lives.

From Fantasy to Reality In Essays in Love, Alain De Botton observes that moving from the fantasy of a relationship to its reality

is comparable to composing a symphony in one’s head and then hearing it played in a concert hall by a full orchestra. Though we are impressed to find so many of our impressions confirmed in performance we cannot help but notice details that are not quite as we intended them to be. Is one of the violinists not a little off key? Is the flute not a little late coming in? … As the fantasy is played out, the angelic beings who floated through consciousness reveal themselves as material beings, laden with their own mental and physical history.

 

On many levels the young emissaries help young people transform their fantasy relationships with Israel to real ones. This cross-cultural encounter is layered and complex. Young Emissaries are in some ways similar to young Jewish Canadians, but they are also profoundly different.

For the child in a host family, this is evident when she discovers that her host sister turns the tap off during the time she brushes her teeth – thereby sharing through behaviour how much water means in a little Middle Eastern country called Israel.

For the teens this difference is driven home by the compelling discovery that Hebrew lives beyond the Jewish text but also in Hebrew slang or good Israeli music, or more painfully, that graduation from high school in Toronto is contrasted in Israel with mandatory conscription to the IDF.

Young adults outside of Israel today are growing up aware of and increasingly uncomfortable about Israel’s complexity. One of the reasons for this is because, as students, they were rarely exposed to the real Israel, in all its vivid multi-dimensionality. When the live orchestra ends up not sounding like the one you dreamed of or were taught to imagine for so long, disappointment and frustration are inevitable.

Young emissaries, who embody Israel in their DNA, allow that complexity to be honest but at the same time, positive and compelling; they are true human resources.  

This encounter, as with any genuine inter-personal meeting, is two sided. Two anecdotes for illustration: Danielle, a Young Emissary, never had a bat mitzvah. As a secular Israeli, growing up in the centre of Israel, organized religion never really bore that much meaning for her. One evening, she heard a sheepish knock on her bedroom door. Her host sister popped her head into her room and asked, “it is my bat-mitzvah in two months, you’re my sister, will you read part of the parsha?”

Danielle learnt her section religiously on her i-pod nightly and, engaged through the process, discovered the will to, not only partake in her sister’s celebration, but have her own bat mitzvah as well.

Yuval recently completed his army service, and as with many Israeli soldiers, the release itself was anti-climactic. He shared that, on the day when he walked out of his base to hitch a ride home, which took a while, he felt uniquely alone. He thought to himself, in Israel I am just a regular soldier who has completed the army, but I know that there is a whole community outside of Israel for whom I was on the front line – for whom I am Israel – and who are proud of who I am.

There is an unexpected reciprocity that develops out of this program. Young Emissaries come to give but end up receiving a whole lot too and, as a result, so does the State of Israel. By the summer of 2012 there will be 44 Toronto-based young emissary alumni in Israel with new and unique understandings about the Jewish People, about Judaism and about human potential markedly different from their Israeli peers.

CEO and President of UJA Federation, Ted Sokolsky has observed this dual impact, noting that Federation is on the cutting edge of participating in the evolution of a new kind of Israeli; one who has had a powerful self-realizing experience outside of Israel, recognizes the Jewish potential of communities there and is committed to the Jewish People in the future, having internalized the notion of peoplehood through experience.

A formalized track for these returning emissaries to leverage this experience for the good of Israeli society has yet to be created but we may not be far off: recognition of the potential is already a big step. Indeed if, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav wrote, the whole world is a very narrow bridge, then we should find the most profound ways to traverse it together.

Sarah Mali is the Director of Israel Engagement at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

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