“I had a pretty typical Jewish upbringing. I grew up in a typical Jewish home, went to a typical day school and prayed at a typical shul.” I’ve heard this sentiment expressed countless times and for a long time I found it deeply resonant.
My experience was the typical Jewish experience. Though it may seem innocuous, this misconception actively erodes the fabric of Jewish identity. For the Jewish people, our diversity is our identity; our typical is definitionally atypical.
I remember when I first truly internalized this message. I was 18 years old and I was traveling the globe on a program called Semester at Sea. With stops in Asia, Africa and South America, I was exposed to a wide range of cultures and peoples. I was overwhelmed not only by the breadth of humanity, but specifically by the breadth of Jewish peoplehood. Suddenly my home was anything but typical; suddenly my shul was no longer ordinary.
Now, as a teacher and a rabbi, I am determined to imbue within my students a deep sense of belonging. I seek out opportunities that promote an awareness of global Jewry, and sensitivity to our oneness. In October, Carmel Academy students were afforded one such experience.
Sonja Vilicic, of Serbia, and Peter Neumann, of Hungary, are friends and colleagues of mine. We met during the pilot cohort of the Adaptive Leadership Lab (ALL), a program run by The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Global Leadership Institute. The cohort consisted of 19 young Jewish leaders from across North America, Europe and Israel. During our time together we focused on acts of leadership and the process of change, while simultaneously nurturing a diverse, international community. When Peter and Sonja informed me that they would be in New York, I was thrilled at the prospect of them speaking with Carmel Academy’s middle school students.
Sonja and Peter began their lesson by drawing an imaginary map on the floor of our school’s chapel. They asked students to stand where they were born and a crowd amassed in the northeastern United States. Next they asked the students to migrate to where their parents were born, and the crowd slowly began to disperse. Finally, when prompted to move to where their grandparents were born, Europe had surpassed America, and pods formed throughout the rest of the globe. Suddenly the students realized that they, themselves, are truly citizens of global Jewry.
Sonja and Peter discussed their Jewish journey. Sonja shared her experience of finding out she was Jewish at 9 years old; she spoke of the single rabbi and the exclusive kosher restaurant in her entire country. Peter spoke to the students about Judaism being something he had to actively choose.
Throughout the rest of the day I heard whispers in the hallway. “Can you imagine finding out you were Jewish when you were 9?” “Hungary has only three Jewish schools in the whole country? We have that many in my town alone!” “Can you believe the second biggest shul in the world is in Budapest? That’s crazy.”
Perhaps the most important moment came when the students asked our presenters why they do what they do: “If it’s so hard to be Jewish, why don’t you just move or quit or something like that?” Sonja and Peter exchanged glances, smiled and in near unison proclaimed: “I could never, this is simply who I am.” Our students began to realize that this indeed is who we are: one people.
By Rabbi Jordan Soffer
Rabbi Jordan Soffer is the rabbi-in-residence at Carmel Academy. He was one of 19 young Jewish professionals from around the world selected for the Adaptive Leadership Lab (ALL) Fellowship, a global adaptive leadership program that utilizes a methodology developed at Harvard University to tackle local and global challenges within the Jewish world.