Relationships define and strengthen Jewish Peoplehood. Relationships such as those between God and Israel, parent and child, and rabbi and student are all central to our tradition. For Judaism to thrive in the future, however, Jews must focus on building relationships with other Jews. We must transcend traditional boundaries such as background, education, or level of observance, and come to deeply know one another. Forming these strong, meaningful relationships can transform individuals and communities.
For the past seven years, I have worked with young Jewish adults on college campuses across the country. Through this work, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of relationships. Many young Jews arrive on campus with little or no Jewish background. Some students, even those from more traditional backgrounds, have negative attitudes towards Jewish involvement. To connect more students to Jewish life, Hillel has trained hundreds of students and professionals in relationship-based engagement. These studentsand professionals act as engagers. They are taught to deepen their connections with Jewish friends with whom they have not yet had substantive Jewish experiences and also to connect with Jewish peers outside their existing networks. The engagers then ask genuine questions about their peers’ Jewish experiences and listen deeply to their answers. These answers not only form strong Jewish relationships, but also help the engager connect their peers to future Jewish opportunities. When relationship-based engagement is done properly, it transforms both participants.
This model of engagement can be applied more broadly in the Jewish world. Every Jew should see him or herself as an engager and develop the skills to do this work. Most importantly, Jews must think about those who are not being reached or who are not meaningfully engaged in Jewish life. To accomplish this, existing communities must provide the infrastructure and training so that their members can become effective engagers.
Unfortunately, relationship-based engagement is sometimes viewed as lacking Jewish substance. To some, the word “engagement“ has become synonymous with “lack of Jewish content“ or “diluted“, or even worse, “anything goes.“ I have not found this to be the case. True engagement reweaves social connections between Jews and enables deeper Jewish experiences and learning. Jews who have felt intimidated or marginalized are empowered when another Jew genuinely asks them – Ayeka – Where are you? And when they respond, Heneini – Here I am – their bond with the engager is deepened.
There is kedusha, holiness, in these conversations, that enables these Jews to advance together in their Jewish journeys. Ultimately, the future of Jewish Peoplehood rests on our ability to cultivate and sustain new relationships. As we increasingly become a community of communities, where Jews have many options and Jewish life takes many different forms, Jews must be able to reach across boundaries and connect with one another in meaningful ways. This is what Jewish Peoplehood must be. This is what intentional engagement can achieve.
Rachel Gildiner directs Gather the Jews, a platform for Jewish young adult engagement in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, Rachel advanced Hillel Internationals’ efforts to integrate Jewish engagement and education in her roles as Director of Learning and former Director of Student Engagement.
This piece was originally published in the Peoplehood Papers #13.