Erica Brown

A Better Jewish Network

We are a global community. This means Jews live virtually everywhere in the world. It also implies something about peoplehood. We may not be one in language, citizenship, ideology, politics or religious commitment, but we all carry a travel gene that tells us a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. There is a certain baseline that ties us powerfully and profoundly together, so that when we discover Jews in New Zealand or Patagonia, we don’t see them as strangers. They are distant cousins we just haven’t met yet.

Globalization is not a new phenomenon for Jews. It’s ancient. We were exiled, banished and tossed out of one country after another. We picked up our lives and settled in other countries. We learned new languages and became absorbed into new cultures within a generation. In this process, we developed an incredible network across the globe. This network made us excellent peddlers, and disseminators of information, gossip and scholarship. Networking like this is outstanding for innovation and the development of ideas. When you stand on the outside of any culture long enough, you become an excellent participant/observer. In the medieval period, books and ideas traveled with unprecedented speed from Salonika to Padua to Crete to Worms or Morocco, while many of our non-Jewish neighbors had rarely left their villages.

The jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said that, “Globalization means we have to re-examine some of our ideas, and look at ideas from other countries, from other cultures, and open ourselves to them.” This all sounds great, until he continues: “And that’s not comfortable for the average person.” From Hancock’s perspective, we Jews are above average. Globalization is not comfortable — it challenges long-held assumptions and can be humbling and even humiliating. For us, it’s a historical default position. And we have learned over time to leverage the discomfort of globalization.

Discomfort creates intellectual capital, the unintended benefit of being denied citizenship, professional access and property ownership for centuries. Property is not portable. Brains move, and they did. Serendipitous discoveries, great literature and scientific advancement are nourished from this global well, and in this sense, we have contributed immeasurably to the growth of science and culture.

Today we move more than we ever did. A Pew study conducted in 2008 found that many people today stay put longer today because we are an older nation with a lower birth rate. It’s also harder to move double-income families. Nevertheless, most Americans will still move at least once, multiple times if they are younger or more affluent. Interestingly, among American-born adults who have lived in more than one community, 38 percent claim the place they call home is not where they are currently living.

All of this dislocation presents challenges and opportunities. It also creates a new reality. Movement is the new norm in society. It’s an old norm for Jewish society, however. Given this fact of our history, it’s mystifying that in our American Jewish organizational culture, we have a huge web of information, but we have not successfully networked, tracked and sequenced our people enough. Jews connect to other Jews by accident when we have enough information to help make it intentional and strategic. 

We have important organizations nationally and locally that work with populations from baby to bubbe, yet we still manage to drop people in the liminal spaces. Whenever a Jewish teen makes the transition from a youth movement to a university Hillel to a young professional cohort to becoming a young parent, to moving from mid-life to retirement, we should be able to track and sequence. Where were they? Where are they now? How can we move them as seamlessly as possible? This requires that we lower organizational walls and view ourselves as one community with a big “C.” Coordinating transition and passing on information is not just best practice and collegial; it needs to become an expected norm.

If this needs to happen better locally, it also needs to happen more nationally. When people move from one city to another, a JCC, federation or synagogue should be able to track, welcome and help them transition. We have information. We have to do a better job of sharing it.

But organizations are not omniscient. We need to know if you’re leaving and where you’re going. Stronger networking also means that we as individuals pass on our relocation information to the Jewish community and not only to the U.S. Postal Service. The post office has a way to do this but we don’t yet — at least not uniformly. It’s time to create a way to track and sequence and help Jews move from place to place and from life stage to life stage without losing them in the in-between spaces.

Let’s stay in touch.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).