31 October 2014
7 Marchesvan 5775
Last week I was witness to the power of Jewish Peoplehood and the strength of our next generation from several different perspectives.
The first, which I wrote briefly about last week, was the mifgash (encounter) between our Gann Academy juniors and 29 of their peers from the Ironi Hey High School in Haifa, Israel. During a text study and discussion about Jewish pluralism that I led for the Ironi Hey students, one of their comments captured in a clear and simple way what it means to belong to one people, one family made up of different people, different cultures, different languages. In response to my question, “Have you been surprised by anything you have encountered here in America or at Gann?,” this student responded, “I am surprised by how much we have in common, by how similar we are, and I am surprised by how different we are.”
Her comment hung in the air for a few moments, and, as I contemplated it, I realized that it was both simple and profound. One of the fundamental goals of bringing together Jewish teenagers from two different places and two different cultures is to help them see how much they have in common, how much they share. These teenagers are all coming of age as global citizens of a 21st century world, and they are all grappling in one way or another with their Jewish identities, with what it means to be part of our 3000-year old tradition and heritage, and with their responsibility for their shared future. The work of a mifgash and of any serious pluralistic education is to help people who feel so different from one another, and in some cases alienated from each other, to see and feel a sense of “kol Yisrael arevim ze lazeh – All of Israel is bound up one with another.” I am surprised by how much we have in common.
However, a great mifgash and great pluralistic education do not just emphasize what we have in common. By studying texts together, taking the time to listen to and really observe one another, and developing a sense of genuine curiosity about one another, our students and their Israeli peers learned that their experiences and perspectives on Judaism, Jewish identity, society, and the world are also quite different from one another. The Ironi Hey students were amazed by the range of ways American Jews find meaning and spirituality in Judaism and the range of possibilities for expressing one’s Jewish identity beyond just “religious” and “secular.” Our Gann students learned that the incredible ethnic and cultural diversity of Haifa and Israel bears witness to the beauty and complexity of world Jewry and the state of Israel. While our Jewish pluralism focuses a great deal on religious practices and beliefs, Israel is an extraordinary laboratory for building a just, Jewish, democratic state out of ethnic, cultural, and intra- and inter-religious diversity that most American Jews can barely imagine.
In addition to learning about the Jewish differences between our two countries, our students also explored from both a psychological and existential perspective how different it is to be a teenager whose next step in life is college or a teenager whose next step in life is two, three, or more years of military service to their country. The impact of that gap on teenage culture and society as a whole can be enormous. I am surprised how different we are.
Seeing these young adults engage with one another, discussing and wrestling with fundamental questions about Judaism, values, society, and the world with openness and curiosity, is inspiring. Even in the face of modernity’s emphasis on the individual and the narcissism of adolescence, we can develop in our children a covenantal consciousness—a profound sense of connectedness to and concern and responsibility for their people and our shared future. We can also develop in them both an appreciation for difference and otherness, empathy and compassion for those who experience and see the world differently from themselves, and the belief that our diversity can and should actually strengthen, rather than weaken or threaten, our community and the Jewish people.
When we raise up a generation of Jews with these habits of mind and heart, I am confident that they will proudly respond to CJP president Barry Shrage’s closing charge to them and “take our future in their hands.”
Rabbi Marc Baker