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Jewish tribalism leaves some Jews out

In my decade doing interfaith work as a representative of the Jewish community, I often explained to my interlocutors that many (if not most) American Jews are concerned more with belonging than believing. For most of us, I said, the experience of being a member of the community — belonging to the Jewish people — is the dominant through-line of a Jewish life.

I remember a poignant moment during a Christian-Jewish text study about peoplehood and Israel. “Who are your people?” we asked the participants. As one woman listed characteristics of her like-minded friends, it struck me: “Who are my people? My people are all the Jewish people, including the right and the left, the young and the old, the friendly and the disagreeable, the affiliated and the rebels — all the four children that we include in our Passover seder. “I don’t even like all my people,” I said out loud, “but they are mine nevertheless.”

Jewish life, of course, is built on our shared story of revelation, the text, and oral wisdom. But one needn’t believe in any part of that to be solidly Jewish. Pew’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans offered data for what many of us already knew: Jews are less religious than the general public, with only 26% saying that religion is very important in their lives. However, seven in 10 Jews say that during the previous year, 2012, they participated in a Passover seder and more than half say they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur.

Why would someone who doesn’t believe participate in a religious ritual? Understanding our community, the question seems almost ridiculous; regardless of our religious experience, we participate because of our commitment to each other and to community. Being Jewish means being connected to each other.

And being Jewish means caring for each other, regardless of what we believe or how we affiliate; it is baked into our texts. Perhaps the best-known text is from the Talmud (Shevuot 39a): Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “All of Israel are responsible for each other.” The word arevim is literally translated as “guarantors,” which implies more of a legal contract more than a gauzy feeling of connection.

For me, the weight that the word arevim lends to that value has driven my life as a Jew and a Jewish communal professional.

With that in mind, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of Jewish Geography Zoom Racing, a pandemic-borne online game that challenges two contestants to tap their Jewish network in search of a “Chosen One,” an actual person who is described by simple identifiers – name, age, etc. It usually doesn’t take long for one of the players to find someone who knows someone who knows the right someone.

As a regular player of actual Jewish geography, I love the game’s playfulness. When the Facebook notification shows up on my phone, I invariably click and watch. But I also notice that, when I close the Facebook box, I feel less — not more — connected to my beloved Jewish community. The game is built on the high value we place on being insiders. Watching it, I feel my sense of who is part of “all of Israel” narrow and tighten.

I do not intend to poke at Jewish Geography Zoom Racing. First, it doesn’t purport to hold up a wide tent; it unapologetically emerges from a very particular Jewish summer camp experience. Secondly and more importantly, the same dynamic is at play in most of our Jewish spaces. In creating a strong sense of “We,” most of our Jewish community promulgates a false picture of homogeneity of the real Jewy Jews, invariably leaving out a significant number of Jews.

It begs the question: When we talk about Jewish community, who are we talking about? Who are the insiders? Understanding that being a people requires boundaries, how do we decide where to place those boundaries? When we talk about “we,” who are we talking about?

Do we expect that people belong to synagogues, marry other Jews, send their children to Jewish camps or Jewish day schools, visit Israel, donate to Jewish organizations? Do we need them to live in neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations? What happens when our fellow Jews don’t do those things?

Even I — certainly an insider, with a strong CV of affiliation and participation, an Israeli passport and two decades of Jewish professional service — have felt like an outsider in our community. One unforgettable experience took place in a synagogue, when my family sat through a Purim Megillah reading as the rabbi cracked insider jokes from the bima with people to our left and then people to our right, without giving us even a moment’s attention. Capping a couple years of feeling invisible and excluded in that shul, we walked out, looked at each other, and decided immediately to quit; we no longer wanted to feel as alien as we did in that building.

I’m sticking with the Jewish people, but there are many among us who feel marginalized and choose not to return. For being the wrong color or not knowing the vernacular or having different stamps on your passport. And why would they? Feeling excluded within your own community is particularly painful and traumatic, like being rejected by your own parents.

To be clear: Tribalism, exclusivity, and insularity are understandable results of the generations of trauma that our people have endured. American Jews have become expert at calling out antisemitism, reading a room for danger, and advocating for ourselves. Those skills applied in the right moments have spelled the difference between life and death. Applied too broadly and without reflection, however, they leave us with a too-narrow sense of community, excluding those who solidly belong inside.

The community I envision, the one we must work harder to become, is rich in diversity of age, race, ideology, and practice. The boundaries around our community are stretched open and wide, porous enough to allow our non-Jewish loved ones to study and celebrate with us, flexible enough to withstand the wrestling and tussling that is part of our covenant with God and each other.

We American Jews must operationalize what it means to be truly inclusive. We must question our assumptions, practices, and policies to ensure that our communal life and our spaces are truly inclusive. We need to develop tools to welcome feedback and create opportunities for loving disagreement.

We must make sure that our physical spaces, our language, and culture offer safety, welcome, and dignity for Jews of all colors, physical abilities, genders and sexual orientations; for those who are in-married, intermarried, and not married; for summer camp lifers and also for those who didn’t go to Jewish summer camp; for Israelis, Zionists, and non-Zionists; for those who know our various languages and those who do not; and for the types of diversity that I cannot yet identify.

Change is inevitable. Our community, like the rest of the world, is undergoing dramatic transformation that will either leave us with a wider tent, a narrower walled city, or fractioned set of communities that betray our promise to be guarantors for each other.

Elana G. Kahn, a longtime Jewish communal professional, is Associate Dean for Outreach at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

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