OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

How do we cultivate connection to the Jewish people?

The unpacking of the complexities and angst surrounding the Diaspora Jewish relationship with Israel is robust and prolific.

The Israeli-American Council’s “Celebrate Israel” festival in Los Angeles in 2017. Source: Facebook.
The Israeli-American Council’s “Celebrate Israel” festival in Los Angeles in 2017. Source: Facebook.
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath. Credit: Courtesy.
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the senior director of knowledge, ideas and learning at The Jewish Education Project.

What does it mean to belong to something greater than oneself? When I began working on this article, I started at the blinking icon next to the word belonging for longer than I can quantify, homing in on the word and allowing it to take on any number of interpretative meetings.

On the surface, belonging is easily defined: an affinity for a place or situation. In that case, I know exactly where I belong: I belong with my family, I belong in my home, I belong to a Thursday-night knitting circle, I belong in the ice-cream aisle of the grocery store. And, of course, wholeheartedly, I belong to the Jewish people. I have given the collective of the Jewish people my affinity and my allegiance, blurring any understanding of work-life balance and instead devoting my professional career, my leisure reading, my socialization and my vocabulary to this entity that is neither place nor situation. In short, one might call being Jewish not just my identity, but the centerpiece of my personality.

And after more than a decade of defining myself as a Jewish educator—with others bestowing that title on me long before I took it on for myself—I still do not know how exactly to impart this to my learners.

For a long time, for many in the Jewish community who could not quite figure out how to pinpoint the “how” of cultivating a sense of connection and affinity to the Jewish people as a whole, Israel was the solution. Before the burgeoning field of Jewish peoplehood education gave us a vocabulary and goals and a curriculum, if you wanted to inspire a feeling of being part of something greater than oneself as part of the Jewish experience, Israel and Zionism stood out as ready and relevant arenas.

After all, Israel is the modern project of the Jewish people. It is the return to our ancient homeland, together with the modern challenges and dilemmas of what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state. It’s a place where Jew is not synonymous with minority, and learners from the Diaspora can explore what it means to make that mindset shift. It’s the convergence of past, present and future, where the steps that are taken on too-smooth Jerusalem stones are welcome in how slippery they are—once you remember that the reason they’re so worn as to be devoid of traction is because of the millennia of people you “belong” to walking the same steps.

Of course, Israel was never easy because it was never meant to be easy. The unpacking of the complexities and angst surrounding the Diaspora Jewish relationship with Israel is robust and prolific. And with Israel at 75, the modern Zionist movement marking 135 years since the First Zionist Congress, the global Jewish community diversifying in its relationships with an orientation towards Israel and Israel itself polarized in an unprecedented way, the role of Jewish education in terms of cultivating Jewish peoplehood and relationships with Israel continues to evolve. American Jewish educators are faced with numerous dilemmas in this space, largely centered around the core question of how we cultivate belonging—and is that even our communal goal anymore?

Belonging, if you look at the word long enough while procrastinating, easily divides into two words: “Be Longing.” At this moment in time, when it can be so easy to check out of anything overwhelming and demoralizing—and news of protests and rockets and corruption certainly fit that bill—the role of Jewish educators cannot always be to jump towards invoking a sense of belonging to entities as complex as Israel or the Jewish people. But what we can work towards is that our learners Be Longing. Jews have longed for Israel throughout time and space. What that means and how that manifests has understandably changed with the creation of the modern State of Israel—a real, accessible place just a plane ride (or a Zoom call) away. Jewish tradition around longing is deeply ingrained. We long for the future and for the past, and for the reality we strive to live within. We long for the place that we can be proud of and feel seen in, as well as contribute to. And as an educator, I aspire to inspire learners who long.

The learner who longs for an Israel that makes them proud and who embodies the notion that all the people of Israel are responsible for each other by taking on the responsibility of co-creating the Jewish state into the best version of itself.

The learner who longs for common cause with the Jewish people around the world and who doesn’t settle for anything less.

The learner who longs to learn and to delve into the depths of Israel as the living text of Jewish tradition, Jewish contemporary dilemmas and Jewish innovation.

The learner who longs to teach and to lead, and to bring all that we instill in them as the embodiment of their own ultimate sense of belonging.

I belong to the Jewish people, to Israel and to our collective past, present and future. And I am longing for the space to build that future with my colleagues and my learners. This year, we mark Israel @ 75. Educators and learners will celebrate, study, debate and contemplate the past 75 years; the challenges and opportunities of this moment; and the unknown future that stretches ahead.

Israel is not one size fits all. Israel is at once at the center and in the margins. Israel is the focal point of the Jewish people and one of its many moving pieces. Educating for every iteration of Israel and every relationship that one can have with it is overwhelming, though we strive to do so. Instead of a new outcome or a flashy methodology, perhaps Israel @ 75 is when we go back—back to longing, so that we can inspire belonging.

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the senior director of knowledge, ideas and learning at The Jewish Education Project.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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