Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

Redefining Global Jewish Peoplehood

Given that I’ve spent at least the last ten years strongly passionate about the idea of global Jewish peoplehood and equality amongst how the Jewish community globally relates to itself, it feels very strange to say that ROI was the first situation where I felt a sense of global Jewish equality.

My first trip to Bulgaria in 2001 with BBYO introduced me to emerging Jewish life in another part of the world outside of Israel. Yet, on this trip and consequent travel (including to Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucuses, Germany, Turkey, and much of Europe), I’ve seen a clear divide between talk of “global Jewish peoplehood” and practice of the idea. Clearly, there are demographic, financial, organizational, and historical challenges that the non-American diaspora Jewish community faces, but even so – since I can remember, from what seems to be the mainstream U.S.-perspective, these communities have been treated as places needing help rather than communities that have a vibrant future.

As it is constantly banged over our collective head, the North American and Israeli communities are the two anchors of the Jewish community – Europe, South and Central America, Asia, Australia, Africa – they may have deep history and active communities, but the main arbiters of global Jewish policy, meaning, and opportunity are with the U.S. and Israel. Since that first trip to Bulgaria – I felt how false that perspective was and continues to be.

Growing-up in the 1990s, never having experienced war that engulfed any sense of the collective diaspora Jewish people, my perspective is clearly different from older generations. I can be optimistic and a little idealistic; even with today’s challenges, I see so much opportunity. Rather than dividing communities, today’s world gives us the chance to redefine how “we” is defined.

By the time I went to Bulgaria, e-mail was widespread; even on dial-up, I could get in keep in touch with new friends from around the world relatively easily. By my freshman year of college, it felt as if everyone was always available. Now – I have more “friend requests” from overseas than Americans. These new systems, new technology, and quicker information sharing radically change how the Jewish community and people connect and retain relationships.

Yet, even with the seemingly shrinking world, why is the Jewish community so divided globally? Many organizations, which do a superb job at building connections between American Jews and specific overseas Jewish communities, that do a great job of finding meaning in Jewish identity, still find it difficult to comfortably break down national barriers. If, as we are often told, the Jewish community is “one people”, why does it often feel as if the American Jewish community looks at Jews outside of Israel and North America as curiosities?

Traveling through Central Asia and the Caucuses, I saw how the American Jewish community provides lifesaving support for older generations of Jews. I participated in Jewish identity programs that would not exist but for the value that American Jews put on supporting Jews around the world. But, I think it’s about time to properly recognize – as a number of organizations have begun to see – that even with shrinking communities in many countries, Jewish life can exist and can flourish in what we consider the unlikely places – and especially in more traditional homes of Jews, such as a whole range of European countries.

ROI 2011 brought together 150 Jews from around the world – participants weren’t representatives of their countries, they were individuals that each brought their unique experience; country of origin was one of those characteristics, but not the defining one. A number of organizations – including JDC, Hillel, AJWS, Moishe House, Limmud, and the Schusterman Foundation – have embarked on trying to build these relationships, but so much more could be done. American Jewish life and global Jewish life are intertwined – we should stop isolating our communities and act more honestly on our belief of global Jewish peoplehood – we can learn and challenge each other, realizing the idea of a global Jewish people.


June 27, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment