The Ancient Jewish Ritual That Addresses Modern Needs

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I recently had the honor of leading a group of post-college students from the Diaspora at the Masa Israel Leadership Summit. An increasing number of Jews from the Diaspora are coming to Israel for year-long, or months-long, programs, supported by Masa, Israeli government and Jewish Agency initiative. One of the summit’s goals was to train the most promising participants to be agents for change back in their home communities; to both be engaged in Jewish and Israel-related activities themselves, and to engage others.

One of the activities we did - as a means of promoting innovative ways of thinking about community - was to envisage the sort of communal projects they might like to lead when they leave Israel. I tasked my participants with coming up with a pitch for a community project, as if I were a prospective funder that they sought to raise money from. As each group presented their proposal, I was struck by the common themes that emerged.

Three of the groups came up with remarkably similar ideas on the notion of stories. One group planned to match Jewish high-school students with an interest in writing with local Jewish old-age home residents and task the students with writing a memoir for their elderly partner. Another group dreamed of sending college students to record interviews of their parents and grandparents to create something of an aural archive: What was it like to be a Jew in Poland? What was it like to be a Jew in Morocco, or in Turkey? The third group focused on the notion that third-generation Holocaust survivors are likely to be the last generation of direct descendants who would have heard survivors’ stories first hand. With this in mind, the group focussed on training third-generation Holocaust survivors the skills necessary for keeping their grandparents’ stories alive.

These groups’ decisions to focus on the theme of stories made me sense that what young Jews are most lacking - or most needing - today is to feel connected to a story. While my conclusion is only based on one group of young Jewish leaders and not some sizeable survey, I was left with anecdotal evidence of something I hadn’t yet thought of: what young Jews – and perhaps all young people – want is to feel part of a meaningful story.

The two other groups didn’t talk about stories, but focused instead on the need to create meaningful online communities for young Jews. Most of the participants in my group came from small communities in North America, some were from Australia, one was from the United Kingdom - but not from a big Jewish community – and one was from Estonia. Many of them weren’t subsumed back at home into some big Jewish infrastructure, and those who were did not feel at home in the old models of Jewish communal engagement. In this task, they expressed that creating a meaningful online community would give them the sorts of social goods that conventional Jewish communities used to provide – volunteering and a sense of belonging – but on a more up-to-date, and global platform. What was the need they were trying to address? In a sense, they were trying to provide a disparate people, spread across the four corners of the globe, with a sense of togetherness; a sense of belonging.

Stories and belonging; two notions that make me think of the Passover seder night.

At the Passover seder, we read that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” One would imagine that most observant Jews believe this story is historically accurate. But, the text continues, “If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Is that true? Would we really still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt? All sorts of things might have happened had we not been freed from Egypt, but surely nobody believes that we'd still be a race of slaves to the Pharaohs in the 21st century. All is explained later, when the Haggadah tells us, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” As if. The historical details of the story are not the key point. It doesn't matter that the Pharaonic period is over. You have to view yourself “as if” you'd still be enslaved to that regime. You have to view yourself “as if” you, personally, were freed. And every other Jew in the world is supposed to read the same story at the same time.

To be a Jew is to be able to place yourself inside the story, and find that in so doing you belong. The need for stories, and the need for a sense of belonging are two contemporary needs squarely addressed by this truly ancient Jewish ritual of Passover.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Participants at the Masa Israel Leadership Summit, 2013.Credit: Courtesy Samuel Lebens

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