Taking an active role in shaping our global Jewish community
By Josh Yudkin
Whether it is paying synagogue dues so that you have seats for the High Holidays, Hebrew school tuition so that your child can have a bar or bat mitzvah or donations to the local Federation to support the home for the elderly and the food pantry, much of American Jewish communal involvement is based around money. Hillel holds phone-a-thons to support Shabbat meals on Friday nights; the Jewish Agency fundraises to send shlichim, or Israeli emissaries, to campuses and communities alike; Birthright solicits donations to provide a 10-day educational trip to Israel. “It takes a village” to sustain a village. It takes am Yisrael to sustain am Yisrael.
In general, we do a pretty great job at building strong and sustainable Jewish communities: Our peoplehood is resilient. In our American Jewish community, youth group conferences are welcomed by the local community, which often provides accommodations with local families. Synagogues welcome new families and community members with invitations to programming and connecting them with local families to celebrate Shabbat and other holidays. Federations have both educational and social programming that allows community members to connect, learn and contribute together. Our Jewish community comes together — across religiosity, age, ethnicity and customs — to celebrate, commemorate and enrich both our immediate Jewish community and beyond. Individuals invest in institutions, and institutions invest in individuals. The inherent bond of our fellowship between people and institutions is reciprocal.
Through the important education and work of our community’s leadership, am Yisrael feels a similar bond and commitment to care for the state of Israel and its citizens as well. From individual actions to community partnerships, there has been significant investment in making the state of Israel, the Jewish homeland, a safe and successful nation-state. In fact, through our collective efforts, Israel has become so successful that diaspora Jewish communities and other nation-states alike benefit from both Israeli investment and leadership abroad. Natan Sharansky, during his tenure as the chairman of the executive for the Jewish Agency, once reflected that people always think that shlichim are Israel’s gifts to the Jewish communities of the diaspora (which they are), but the truth is that their greatest gifts are the experiences, insights and lessons that they bring back to Israel. As evidenced, the bond between am Yisrael and the State of Israel is reciprocal, and the investments are mutually beneficial. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and am Yisrael is stronger.
Similar trends can be found in many Jewish communities throughout the world. I had the opportunity to attend Shabbat services in Berlin, a growing and diverse Jewish community that is still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust. In both Tokyo and Dubai, the Jewish communities are small but mighty communities comprised largely of expats who welcomed me and Jews of all backgrounds with open arms. Even amidst significant antisemitism and tension in Paris, I was able to celebrate Shabbat alongside Muslims in an interreligious conference.
When looking at the 20th century, Jewish communities, often from the West, invested in less affluent and struggling Jewish communities. A dependency model developed in which some Jews and Jewish communities served as the benefactors for others. Importantly, the recipients of such chesed, or loving-kindness, never settled for this dynamic. Whether we look at Hanna Senesh, who literally jumped out of a plane behind enemy lines to help Jews in even more dire conditions than her own, how communities who once received resources now contribute resources to other vulnerable communities or the way philanthropists from such communities are now investing in their once-benefactors, it is evident that kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, or that all Jews are responsible for one another and our shared destiny. Generational wealth and generational needs change. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing constant is change.” Yet, amidst this change, the Jewish constant has been kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh.
But I am concerned for our global peoplehood. I worry that this same fervor and belief is not shared by all members of our imagined Jewish community. Echoing the proverb that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, now is the time to ask what expectations we have of one another as individuals and as communities that identify as part of am Yisrael. Knowing that our imagined community of global Jewry is heterogeneous and dispersed, what does our reciprocal bond entail globally?
As a Fulbright Scholar, I spent the past six months living in Bogotá. Similar to the story of Jewish immigrants in America, I watched the way families who were once refugees escaping the Holocaust from Europe or expulsion from Arab lands now practice their Judaism freely in their way. As a collective, I observed how the Jewish community has thrived and built strong relationships with the government so that a 20-foot hanukkiah burns in the middle of the boulevard in one of the most chic neighborhoods of Latin America.
Prior to my arrival in Bogotá, I had executives at three major international Jewish organizations make introductions to the local Jewish community leadership. I personally reached out and met with community leadership multiple times asking to get involved in the community. When I asked how to learn more and get involved in the community, I was told it is pretty insular and inactive right now, but that I could join their country club. I suggested that I could join a synagogue (so that I could attend services), and, to date, I am still waiting to receive an application. I mustered permission to attend services for Yom Kippur, and, while many noticed me, they never once said chag sameach (happy holidays) or tzom kal (have an easy fast) in any language. I was never once invited to a Shabbat dinner.
As donors, stakeholders and participants in our global Jewish community, we are change agents. We shape and support what am Yisrael should feel like. We advocate and articulate what we need and expect from our global Jewish community.
Whether we look back at Abraham in the Torah, or we look at the innovative work being done by organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee or Moishe House, hachnasat orchim, or hospitality, is a timeless Jewish value that has been present across the globe. After financial support, it may be the most visible manifestation of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. Our tradition is based on living together as a community, and, candidly, we cannot afford to be insular. It is against our nature.
Tactically, our investment in am Yisrael enriches this community through tangible programs like shlichim, enhanced security and educational programming. In turn, this community enriches our global Jewish community. Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In this case, it is important to remember that every physical community is part of our greater imagined am Yisrael. It takes all of am Yisrael to sustain all of am Yisrael.
As the world becomes flatter and more intertwined and interconnected, global Jewish peoplehood becomes less imagined and more tangible. Our ability to interact with and learn from one another is enhanced, and relationships that were largely financial become experiential. Shared experiences and deep meaningful relationships that enrich am Yisrael and the world are new currencies that may be more lucrative investments in our wellbeing and future than mere dollars.
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh is our timeless Jewish constant. Our wellbeing and future depend on it. How do you want to support others? What are your needs from our global Jewish community? What does it mean to be part of our global Jewish peoplehood that we call am Yisrael?
Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.