Taking Peoplehood to the Next Level
Lisa Lisser is an alumna of the JWI-MetroWest Wexner Heritage Program. Lisa lives in Short Hills, New Jersey where she has been actively involved in the MetroWest Federation for the last 10 years. She currently chairs her community’s Partnership 2000 program with the Israeli communities of Ofakim and Merchavim in the Negev. Lisa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Jewish Peoplehood. I chair our MetroWest New Jersey Partnership 2000 Steering Committee which oversees our relationship with the Negev communities of Ofakim and Merchavim. With the support of the Jewish Agency, we’ve been partnered with these communities for the past 13 or 14 years. In the last three years, we have been engaged in developing something radically different. Instead of the traditional paradigm of a strong American Jewish community funding a weak and needy Israeli Jewish community, we have committed to developing a more balanced partnership. With equal numbers of Jews in North America and in Israel, we recognize that we now have responsibilities to one another that supersede older models.
Our new vision requires us to infuse every project we fund with a living bridge component so that not only are the American participants giving to the Israeli communities, but also the Israeli communities are giving to the American side. This was not an easy shift. The Americans were very wary of moving away from the support only model. And the Israelis were afraid of losing needed financial support for programs on the ground in order to fund what some call “touchy feely” projects. Jointly, with the full support of both the Israeli and American teams, we revised the status quo. Many of our projects already contained living bridge components, but many other very successful projects did not. The new model would require us to either add the component to working projects or phase them out.
This transformative moment didn’t happen by chance. We noticed that organically our community was developing living bridge projects person by person. Whether through exchange programs between high school students, mutual visits of professionals (including teachers, police officers, and yoga instructors), as well as synagogue trips and, of course, Birthright Israel, Otzma and Masa, our two communities were building personal relationships because we needed them. Our Federation’s role was to use our resources on the ground to facilitate connections between Jews in Israel and Jews in MetroWest.
To meet this need, we mutually agreed to invest a significant percentage of our community dollars in a two-year flagship project that we called, “The Peoplehood Project.” It was a risk. With the Peoplehood Project, we focused on adult leaders in their 30s and 40s who were, and are, committed to strengthening their own communities by developing relationships with their American and Israeli counterparts. The team consists of nine Americans and eight Israelis. Each team studied issues of Jewish identity and the newer concept of peoplehood in their local communities. And then the fun began. We had two exchanges. In the first, the Americans traveled to Israel and lived with the Israelis.
They saw the Israelis’ lives firsthand, traveled through the local communities and saw Israel, while addressing issues of Jewish identity as they impacted both the Americans and the Israelis. Four months later the Israelis traveled to America and did the same thing. It was eye-opening for both groups and, when it was over, they were connected to each other and to their communities in a stronger and more committed way.
The end goal of the project was to design a program in the second year that impacted both communities. It didn’t need to have the same impact in each community, but it needed to touch both. After much discussion and several video conferences, the groups came up with two concepts to bring their experience to their communities.
On the American side, the team decided to become ambassadors for Jewish peoplehood within their own circles of Jewish engagement. They developed an interactive program they could take on the road, to address the concept of peoplehood head-on. In Part One of the program, the participants will share personal experiences drawn from their year of engagement and educate their local community on the lives of their partners in the periphery, teaching that Israel is more than just Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Part Two of the program, they will open round-table discussions about how Israel and the concept of peoplehood impacts them. This program will have a broad reach beginning with their synagogues and moving beyond to secular arenas.
On the Israeli side, they are doing something even more unique. The Israelis were changed after spending Shabbat in New Jersey in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities. As a result, they decided to bring religious pluralism to Ofakim and Merchavim. They have committed to holding pluralistic B’tei Midrash in different venues throughout the region. This is groundbreaking for this Israeli community, which, like many Israeli communities, is either traditionally Orthodox or totally secular.
However, the project doesn’t stop on the shores of America and Israel. The group recognized that they needed to touch a third Jewish community in order to complete the circle. To that end, they plan to travel to Odessa to get to know the community and work with the Tikva educational and welfare organization there. This is Jewish peoplehood in action.
When I think of where we started and where we are headed, I see the wealth of Jewish history standing behind us and smiling. We are renewing the Jewish people, not limited by the borders of where we live. I am convinced that this proves that connecting Jew-to-Jew is not simply a question of whether we can be relevant to each other, but rather a foundational recognition that we are essential to each other.