Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

ATID Graduation Speech

Speech delivered at the ATID Graduation Ceremony, Monday, May 16, 2011. Shareey Zedek Synagogue, Southfield, MI.

Sitting in a yurt in the Karokum Dessert in Turkmenistan, I had absolutely no expectation of having a conversation about Judaism. Following two years in the Peace Corps, I spent four months of traveling around Central Asia and the Caucuses. Thanks to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, I was able to connect to Jewish communities in each country. Yet, Turkmenistan – a country where the former President built golden monuments of himself in every city and small town and where reality is more absurd than popular rumors – I was warned off from the Jewish community. In Uzbekistan, I had been told that the head of the Turkmenistan Jewish community would be out of the country when I was traveling through – so, I stopped thinking about it. In a country of only a hundred or so Jews remaining and where practicing Judaism is not open and fully legal, the challenges outweighed the potential of connecting with what I thought would be a mainly older community.

So, there I was sitting in the yurt with my friend Jennie, our tour guide – Oleg, a large, boisterous Russian man, and the driver of our second Jeep. While traveling, I was relatively open with my Jewish identity. Even in the primarily Muslim countries of this region, I found people to be overall interested and respectful of Judaism. Through a conversation about “Levi” jeans – which, by this point, I had forgotten how to pronounce due to a long time without speaking about them in English – Oleg asked what my background was.

In America when we’re asked our “background”, it generally means country of origin or present ethnic identity. In the Former Soviet Union, the question goes deeper. The question is meant to illicit a response that explains your long family history – what is your historic bloodline and historic ethnic group; and, in the Former Soviet Union, ‘Jewish” is an ethnicity.

“Jewish”, I said.

From here, the conversation just got stranger. Oleg exclaimed that his best friend is Jewish. As he’s saying this, I pull out my phone and ask if his friend’s name is “Zinovi” – the head of the Jewish community. Oleg looks shocked. How did I know Zinovi? We connect the dots and a week later I’m sitting at my 25th birthday dinner with Zinovi and his girlfriend. Zinovi, by the way, is in his mid-30s.

What is it about being Jewish that creates this bond so far away from familiarity? Clearly we were interesting to each other due to me being the rare American in Turkmenistan and Zinovi being the rare Jew in the country, but it went deeper than that. The connection was quickly familial. I want to propose that this sense of global Jewish peoplehood starts with how we learn about Judaism and deepens with how we integrate Jewish values into our life.

Today, you graduate from ATID, the Monday Night religious school program. Over the last four years in particular, what did you learn? What will you remember four years from now when most of you graduate college? Presumably, you studied Jewish texts, you discussed how present day challenges can be analyzed through Rabbinic sources, you debated ethical issues and cultural relativism, you celebrated the holidays, and you engaged in service activities that brought many of these lessons to life.

Without even thinking about it, we tend to integrate our Jewish identity into a great deal of what we do. When I applied for Peace Corps, I noted to my recruiter that it’s clear I’m Jewish from my resume. As many of you will find out, large government and other types of bureaucracies often do not play telephone well. A few months later, I receive a call from Peace Corps’ Washington office. The staff person asks if I realize that Peace Corps is a non-proselytizing organization. I’m honestly really confused and say as much – because I have no idea what he is talking about. He explains that I noted in my interview that my Jewish identity is important to me and he wanted to be sure I wouldn’t try to convert people overseas. Apparently, he had a pretty flimsy background on Judaism. A month later, I’m in Kazakhstan and am able to connect with the 30,000 person Jewish community. Ironically, around a year later, one of the students in our volunteer club started coming to Friday night services that the one religious man in the city – 43 hours by train from the bulk of the 30,000 Jews in the economic center of the country – and I held. She came to America on an exchange program, and is now converting to Judaism. Her attraction to Judaism and her struggles to learn basic Jewish concepts that we take for granted also reflects on the opportunity that you have had over the last four years.

Take a moment to reflect back on what you studied. How valuable do you consider your education in this program? What would you change? How do you want to apply what you learned to the next steps in your life? Do you think that what you learned was worthwhile? Olya, my friend in Kazakhstan, would have jumped at an opportunity to be immersed in Jewish study – to have a chance to debate and analyze Jewish concepts – something that is rarely provided in the rote memorization of Kazakhstani schools.

These are questions to take with you and apply to everything you do. Not too long ago, I sat in a similar position to where you are today. My future options seemed pretty clear – college, a job, graduate school, and another job. But, there are so many ways to achieve fulfillment in life and a linear path does not work for everyone.

Your parents may hate me if you take my suggestion, but consider taking time off. Think about what you want – recognizing that what you want will likely change – and explore. Explore yearlong service programs in America and around the world, such as a variety of Israel-based service trips, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, the JDC’s Global Service Corps, AVODAH, AJWS, and City Year, create your own business, and travel to countries that aren’t “tourist-friendly” destinations. There are an infinite number of ways to make a difference, to be creative, and to explore – take advantage of the opportunity.

While thinking about your next steps, also consider how your Jewish identity is a part of your actions. As we’re in a synagogue, there are many questions that are appropriate to ask in this space that would not be relevant in a public school setting. Do you feel comfortable discussing Judaism with non-Jewish (and other Jewish) friends? When you think about yourself, is Judaism an underlying factor in self-awareness or is it an aspect of your identity that you separate from a more secular side? When you volunteer, do you view this as an expression of your Jewish identity or as something more intrinsic and simply as what a “good person” does?

Judaism, of course, does not have a monopoly on helping others. All religions, faith-traditions, and moral structures have lessons that lend justification to helping others – whether in direct service, helping others become self-sufficient, or in providing direct support. Yet, you are Jewish and Judaism has lessons throughout its tradition that challenge us to embrace actions and create a world that is more morally just than that which we entered.

The organization I currently work for, “Repair the World”, is named after the concept of “tikkun olam” – repairing the world. I want to reflect for a moment on this phrase. To repair something seems to imply that there was a point where everything was all stitched up nicely. There was never a point where the world was perfect. As we all go about our own paths and strategies to make the world a better place, keep in mind what that “better place” could look like. We all know the story that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish everyday. But – the other side of the story is that there has to be water and fish for him to catch. The water, the ground level of what is necessary, speaks to deeper issues of social justice. In the next steps of your life, how will you help create an environment where we don’t just empower others, but also explore and help improve deeper social inequalities that make the lessons necessary in the first place?

As you have or will be told more times than you can count over the next few months, you’re entering a new and incredibly exciting part of your life.  Already, you have had the opportunity to do amazing things. Over the next many years, you have the opportunity to grow, to learn, and to challenge yourself in ways that make a positive difference on individuals and the world. Remember what you learned up to this point, continue to challenge yourself, have fun, and explore.



May 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment