Maimonides was influenced greatly by the fields of science and philosophy that surrounded him. He possessed a core belief in the importance of learning from those outside of the Jewish community, and immersing himself in the world at-large. His intellectually rigorous interpretations of Jewish text and philosophy have influenced great thinkers in the Jewish and non-Jewish world for centuries.
Similarly, the Jewish community today is strengthened through meaningful experiences of learning outside of it. While understanding our Jewish history and values is fundamental to Jewish identification, the ways in which we engage outside of the Jewish world matters prominently as well. How we volunteer, collaborate, teach and learn reflects importantly upon the Jewish community, and serves to enhance our understanding not just of the broader world, but also of our role in it.
In recent years, there have been a growing number of organizations in the Jewish community providing opportunities for immersion in the non-Jewish world, both locally and abroad. Despite distinct approaches and differing goals, the impact of these experiences on the participants and the communities where they live and participate favorably benefits the Jewish community and has the potential to grow exponentially if efforts are sustained and developed.
One leader in this endeavor is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which operates non-sectarian programs that assist global communities in distress, including a residential youth village for Rwandan orphans established during the Rwandan genocide. Another is the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which reaches throughout the world to assist those in developing nations in a number of ways, including volunteer opportunities for Jews, extending Jewish values such as tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Jewish Funds for Justice has helped to strengthen the local community in the Gulf Coast Region after Hurricane Katrina, through volunteer-based programs. AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps recruits young people across the country to spend a year working on urban poverty issues in U.S. cities. They live and study together, forming an intense, diverse community of people making a connection between social activism and Jewish life.
Recently, Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies conducted a study of the Break New Ground program (funded by UJA-Federation of New York). Break New Ground consists of seven organizations that provide alternative break trips outside of the Jewish community for Jewish high school and college-aged youth. The goal of the program is to strengthen the connection of participants to Jewish life within an age cohort that places a high value on social justice and community service. The study was encouraging as it concluded that close to 70 percent of the participants felt a strong connection between their volunteer service and Judaism. It also found that over two-thirds of the participants have taken on significant leadership roles in community service work. The belief is that the individual participants, and the multiple Jewish communities in which they interact, will be enriched by what they have gained from their experiences.
As we learn about other peoples, witness human suffering, and hear stories different from our own, we consciously or subconsciously become more self-aware as people, and as Jews. Some may consider how important they want their particular Jewish identity to be. The natural inclination is to then develop closer bonds and relationships with others in the community and have deeper discussions on important Jewish issues, doing so in ways that may be quite distinct from our more typical Jewish childhood experiences.
How we can be sure, or at least reasonably certain, that there are results of such social investment? We don’t always know the direct cause and effect of social change. There are often a myriad of tangible and intangible factors that conspire to create an eventual transformation, whether we’re studying Jewish communal trends or demographic shifts in large cities. We can’t know precisely how experiences outside of the Jewish community aggregates to something greater.
Yet we can understand that when a number of individuals have been significantly enriched by a transcendent experience, in this case in a Jewish context, that there are real Jewish communal implications. There are countless moving stories of such engaged individuals and communities; most important is the evidence of increased number of Jews actively participating in traditional and non-traditional Jewish experiences in cities and towns across the country.
For me, a highly significant personal experience was being a Big Brother in the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) Big Brother-Little Brother program. I maintained the relationship with Chris for a number of years. It opened up a world to me that was previously unknown, and with it came a level of understanding of how people from poorer and radically different backgrounds live day to day. I know that we were both affected greatly, as it provided him with an opportunity to experience life outside of his community in a trusting relationship, and offered me an ability to reach beyond my world and impact someone in a meaningful way.
Certainly, our individual relationship did not transform the local African-American community in Flatbush, or my own community. However, in many programs, such relationships can multiply, enriching individual lives and transforming communities. And as Jews, reaching beyond our communities in substantive and meaningful ways provides for a stronger and more enlightened Jewish community. n
Jed Snerson is executive director of the Commission Management and Budget office for UJA-Federation of New York.