Over the last year, I’ve travelled across the Jewish world to work with communities on several continents involved with Limmud, the global volunteer organization committed to Jewish learning, diversity and empowerment that I serve as chief executive.
It is remarkable to see how much connects us as a people despite our cultural differences and geographical distances. So many communal ventures. So many exciting innovations. And, at the same time, so many common challenges.
Reflecting on these encounters, and the desire our young leaders have for a vibrant Jewish future, we can advance peoplehood by championing diversity and creating ways to re-engage with those who wish to explore their Jewish identity and connect to their rich heritage.
Indeed, safeguarding a global sense of peoplehood has always been essential for our collective and individual survival. After all we are known as Am Yisrael – the People of Israel, rather than the Religion of Israel. As we approach the festival of Passover and throughout the year we learn about our vivid history as a people and become acutely aware that not all Jews have been as fortunate as this generation: free to learn and share meaningful memories.
Nevertheless, we are also living in an increasingly polarized world. A time when many Jews feel excluded from existing communal constructs.
So, perhaps it’s time to broaden the lens in how we create community and peoplehood.
Young adults increasingly testify to having multiple layers of identity. We have all witnessed a rise in national identities. Yet, the notion of a global identity and connection is also increasing. And, it is at this layer where we see so much renewal and opportunity as a people. For instance, when considering what is igniting curiosity and inspiring thousands to learn, several good practices can be derived and then applied wherever we reside:
First, foster a culture of volunteerism so the next generation feels ownership over its Jewish destiny. When I own my destiny, I value it, I am willing to invest in it, and I am committed to engaging others. The Limmud experience has taught us that volunteerism is a powerful way to build a future together. With an increase in Jews who define themselves as unaffiliated, this is more crucial than ever. Surveys underscore that volunteers feel they are part of a Jewish future they themselves are creating.
When building volunteer communities, the most successful groups have thought deeply about who should be in the conversation, who was already included, who was missing and, therefore, who needed to be invited to join. They then built core teams reflecting that diversity. They were able to engage and include a wider slice of the Jewish community.
Second, create points of entry into Jewish life that enable people to connect in immersive and personal ways. In the 21st century, Jews are connecting beyond borders and across regions in unprecedented ways. We need to understand these developments better to leverage the connections and strengthen Jewish life. Where once upon a time, Jewish institutions aimed local, today technology enables us to collaborate in creating regional, even international, programs.
At the same time, we must promote meaningful human interaction. Technology is not enough. People are hungry for personal connection. This is essential to building Jewish identity and community. In Latin America, for example, we’ve watched as Jews from Mexico to Chile, have convened at Limmud Buenos Aires, and returned home inspired to establish Limmud groups in Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay. Likewise, we are witnessing a revival of Russian-speaking Jewry engaging through Limmud FSU in Europe, North America, Australia and Israel, as well as across the countries of the Former Soviet Union.
Third, invest in Jewish learning. The correlation between learning and belonging to a people is also essential for identity building. International collaboration between Limmud teams have produced discussion provoking source books for chavruta learning exploring money, war and peace, creativity, responsibility, time, prayer and food, among others, that are used around the world. Igniting curiosity recognizes that Jewish learning encompasses not only studying ancient and modern texts, but engaging in the arts, cooking, humor, all things Israel. This surge in grassroots learning also contributes to and enhances social action initiatives.
Our cities and countries can also be destinations for learning. Israel for example has enabled thousands to engage in learning in so many ways. Yet, have we considered what other countries and communities can offer global Jewry?
The time is ripe for established communities to look inwards and find ways to share excellence with others.
When we collaborate and invest in learning and leadership we not only preserve peoplehood, we nurture it too – enabling many more to be a part this inspirational, unique journey.
Eli Ovits is chief executive of Limmud.