The Modern Jewish World and Me – An Interactive Approach to Examining Jewish Identity Today


Introducing the Rationale

We can make a case that, conceptually, there can be no such thing as a Jew living a Jewish life in isolation: the Jew has always lived within a community. Traditionally, Judaism has been seen largely as a system for relating to God. In Judaism, this is done primarily within the framework of the Jewish community. In order to live a fully Jewish life, we need others around us for prayer, study, keeping kashrut, and all the other aspects of life that have traditionally defined Jewish existence. In essence, a Jew needs this framework because it is only in this context that he/she can live the life that he/she believes God demands. The Jewish concept of life is based on certain individual values that only become meaningful when expressed within a communal framework in a fully three-dimensional way of life.

There are those who say that in the modern world, people in general – and Jews specifically – are losing the capacity for community. They say that the younger generation, in particular, is losing its capacity to relate outwards towards the wider community. It is said that the age of ideologies, of affirming social responsibilities, has passed and that the young are turning inwards towards a new narcissism. If these claims are really true, it is a very serious matter.

We all need to connect to others: we always have and always will. The human is a communal being always in need of others. Judaism has always recognized this. From the very beginning, in our traditional story of the Creation, we hear the words (Beraishit 2:18) – it is not good for man to be alone. Togetherness and community have always been part of the human story and, indeed, of the entire Jewish story. The latter is based on a series of evolutionary and revolutionary relationships, among the Jews, and between them and their understanding of God. The Jews have moved and evolved from a family community to a tribal one, and from a tribal community to a national one. We suggest that a crucial aspect of being Jewish has always concerned relationships.

Judaism and the evolving Jewish culture has always had at its center the idea of real, three-dimensional people with real emotions and needs. Other peoples developed concepts of gods that were only remotely concerned with humanity. In those value systems, the people’s role was usually to fill the gods’ needs and answer their demands. The Jewish concept of God is different. This can be seen clearly in the books of the prophets, who speak for a God concerned with people.

However, Judaism has never countenanced narcissism, the individual’s sole absorption with him- or herself. Judaism has always been about people in relation to something else, something larger than themselves. Some would suggest that the Jew is most truly a Jew when he/she is relating to things larger than her- or himself. Ultimately, a Jew may be truly called a Jew when he/she is part of circles of belonging - to family, community, the nation and the world of humanity. It is when the Jew consciously realizes his/her place in the midst of these concentric circles of responsibility uniting the individual with the world, that the inner nature of the Jewish story can be fulfilled properly. A feeling of connection with people is not a true relationship without an accompanying feeling of responsibility for them. Relating to the world and the cosmos in a responsible manner is a vital aspect of Judaism.

Introducing the Program

This premise underlies the present program. Step by step, we will examine slowly the way in which we - as Jews specifically and as human beings generally - relate to the larger circles of belonging to and responsibility toward the community. Our starting point will always be the individual, and our inquiry will always be focused on an examination of the relationships that the individual Jew constructs with the outside world. To this end, the program will have two brief sections which will serve as “bookends” to the entire project. The opening bookend, Introducing Relationships, will examine the question of the individual alone and the need for human relationships. The closing bookend, Relating to a Wider World, will examine the relationship of the individual Jew to the immediate world around, the wider outside world and those who people it. Between these two bookends there will be a series of four consecutive sections in which we will examine questions relating to the larger Jewish context.

The first of the four sections, The Jewish Community and Me, will examine the issues of relating to the world of the participant within his/her own Jewish community. This will include an examination of relationships with other Jews, with family and family stories, and with community and community stories. We will attempt to introduce the student to the world of the surrounding community and to examine the connections felt with that world. There is a famous Rabbinic idea, encapsulated in the words, – all Jews are responsible for each other. We will examine this phrase and its relevance to the lives of the participants.

The second of the four sections, From community to Nation - Another Jewish Community and Me, will examine questions of relating to other Jewish communities around the world. We will examine issues of connection, belonging and responsibility in relation to the other national Jewish community after we have learned something of that community’s story and compared it with the community story of the student. We will seek signs of similarity and examine reasons for any differences. Above all, however, we will examine the student’s reactions when faced with another Jewish community. Is this really something foreign to him/her, or does it in some way belong to him/her?

The third of the four sections, From Nation to World - The Jewish World and Me, will examine questions of belonging to a truly international Jewish community. Why should Jews be responsible for each other throughout the Jewish world? What does it mean to be part of a Jewish world? What is the nature of this Jewish world? What issues does it raise? Once again, we will deal with issues of connection, belonging and responsibility. In what way is the individual student part of a wider world? To what extent is this a necessary part of Jewish consciousness? What are the implications of this wider connection? What is the nature of the responsibility that Jews are meant to have for each other? Are there limits to this responsibility?

The last of the four sections, From Jewish World to Jewish State - Israel and Me, deals with the relationship between the individual Jew and the Jews in the State of Israel. This section will open with an attempt to assess the place of Israel in the Jewish world, within both its historical and contemporary contexts. In addition, it will examine the part that Israel plays in the life of the student and the student’s community. In addition, we will attempt to present to the student some of the complex issues with which the State of Israel is contending. We will examine the student’s reactions, inviting him/her to take a stand on many of the troubling issues that are part and parcel of the reality of the Jewish State.

Introducing the Educational Approach

The program is thus about two things: learning and feeling. It concerns examining new realities and analyzing your attitudes and responses to the new knowledge gained. The students will be asked constantly to evaluate the new information that they are learning and take a stand on the issues that this raises. From a pedagogical point of view, this involves both a clarification of values and new knowledge. The idea behind the program is that the student must not only learn about the surrounding Jewish world but also be invited - indeed pushed - to take a stand. It is our hope that the student - and indeed the teacher - will come out of the program having examined a number of basic issues that are essential in the development of a value-driven Jewish world-view.

In this program, then, the student, the individual, will always be at the center as he/she examines and learns about the different circles of community that surround him/her and ultimately takes a stand. This program is about the circles of the modern Jewish world and, indeed, the world as a whole. In a world in which individual youth seem increasingly to be shrugging off wider social responsibilities and retreating into the world of the self, we hope that this program will be able to challenge the student to open up to the surrounding world.


Introducing the Educational Bias

One thing should be clear: the author and those responsible for the program come to their task with ‘unclean’ hands. We are not truly objective and make no claims to be so. We believe in wider Jewish responsibilities and wider social responsibilities. We believe that a world in which we care about each other is a better place than one in which we do not. We believe that a world of communal connections is infinitely preferable to a world without them. We believe, with the second chapter of Beraishit, that people need relationships, and that isolation and alienation from the community are potentially harmful for the individual. However, although we will present the student with a series of challenges that we hope will result in an affirmation of Jewish identity based on a connection with the wider circles of Jewish responsibility, there is a need to respect the student’s right to take an opposing stand. Such a stand will have to be defended against ideas and concepts that seek to challenge it; ultimately, however, if a program such as this is to have real value for the student, our belief is that each one must develop his/her own opinion.

Introducing Ways of Using the Program

We have deliberately included a large amount of material. We do not expect everyone to complete the entire program; however, with its four circles, preceded by introductory activities and followed by concluding activities, we believe that this is the right way to proceed. We strongly suggest that some materials and activities should be used from each section. Individual schools may prefer to emphasize a particular section; in this case, they are likely to take more activities from that part. Some of the activities are linked to preceding ones. If you decide to take later activities but not the earlier ones, you should make sure to fill in the gaps. We have tried to use a full range of creative techniques for the various activities. Many of the exercises are complex, involving several stages. These can all be reduced, however. You may want to use only part of an activity; alternatively, you may find an idea that you wish to change or adapt in order to suit your classroom. All of these methods are legitimate, of course. You, and you alone, will decide finally how to use this material. The only thing we ask is that you read the booklet thoroughly before deciding how to tailor the material to your own needs.

This is enough of an introduction: it is time to start connecting to the community.




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13 Nov 2014 / 20 Heshvan 5775 0