Understanding Challenges, Opportunities Of Global Jewish Communities

Last month, along with 40 other community members, I traveled to Budapest and Israel. But that wasn’t the beginning of the journey — an application process, a year of monthly lessons, and a group of new friends is what led us to the other side of the world.

Over two years, the Harry Kay Leadership Institute – which sponsored the trip – deepens the leadership skill set of active community members from both sides of the river by helping us understand the challenges and opportunities facing the local and global Jewish Communities and exploring our leadership goals and potential within these contexts.

How do I describe the happenings and impact of the trip? Our days were full of sightseeing and tours, meetings with community leaders and organizers and lots and lots of food! In pairs and small groups, on and off the bus, we contrasted our preconceived notions with the realities we explored, questioned how we could/would engage in these situations and were quickly reminded of the multi-faceted nature of decision-making and problem-solving. With 40-odd Jews together, it’s not surprising there were hundreds of opinions and perspectives! As an educator, I see teachable moments everywhere – that perfect fusion of experience, connection, and understanding when a person grows and is changed. Travelling as part of this HKLI mission can only be described as a twelve-day-long teachable moment. Here are some highlights and insights through the lens of experience, connection and understanding:

Jewish Experience

Remarkably, Budapest’s lack of experience with Judaism (a legacy from the Holocaust and decades of communism) has left this community in the unique position of moving forward as they harvest backward. They’ve created a JCC without walls through dozens of grassroots initiatives incubated at the JDC’s Mosaik Hub. Szarvas Camp is helping thousands of Jewish youth discover and connect with their Judaism, some for the first time. All this means that young people are bringing their parents along with their Jewish journey of discovery, quite opposite from the generational-inheritance model we experience in North America.

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The Harry Kay Leadership Institute (HKLI), the flagship program for developing and training leaders in the Twin Cities Jewish community. Alumni of HKLI, which is a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, have gone on to serve on the boards of many local Jewish agencies.

Experiencing Judaism in Israel can be blissful and complicated at the same time. The kavanah of a Kabbalat Shabbat service by the Kotel, stores that are open 24/6 and the frenzy of Machane Yehuda on Friday afternoons are implicit reminders that Judaism is everywhere. Yet, in our conversations with Dov Lipman (a former Member of Knesset) and Yasmin Barhum (an Arab-Israeli from Ein Rafa), it was very clear that Judaism in Israel is far from the great equalizer and navigating the meaning and implications of a Jewish State is complex and nuanced. As Gil Troy beseeched us – we each need to define our Zionism in an honest and adult way; much like that family member, you love with all your heart, though you may not agree with their every belief or action.

Jewish Connection

We met camp directors, young leaders and Holocaust survivors in Budapest. We dialogued with community leaders in Rehovot, hospital staff in Tiberias, start-up CEOs in Tel-Aviv and tour guides in Jerusalem. The members of this group are newly-minted hubs for Jewish Geography. Who needs Kevin Bacon?!

Amongst ourselves, we became a kehila kedosha (a sacred community) achieving the intricacy of a tapestry while never congealing into a melting pot of like-mindedness. A sense of family developed where probing questions and deep conversations were balanced with laughter and camaraderie.

If this world is about who you know, we are all much richer and more advantaged.

Jewish Understanding

The biggest questions have no clear answers and identifying each element of this journey on its own would not be possible. As Rabbi Rob Kahn, quoting Pirkei Avot, was fond of reminding us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” An investment has been made in each of us as involved Jewish community members and leaders. The first half of this journey was about experiencing local and global Jewish realities and connecting with community organizers here and abroad. In this next phase, it is incumbent upon us to share and discuss, process and reflect and take action on the themes and realizations that have resonated deeply and individually. This is how understanding develops and transformation can occur for ourselves and our communities.