Nir Geva
Community is the solution

Let’s talk about Judaism and Community

Ladies and gentlemen, dear community leaders,

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – a subject so complex and sensitive, most of us prefer not to deal with it, and certainly not to mention it in conversations with members of our communities. We’re afraid it might cause discomfort or provoke unnecessary dispute. This subject is called Judaism.

What is Judaism?

What is Judaism if not an ever-evolving discussion on what is Judaism or, in other words, what is the way to be Jewish? This question has always been sparking debates and controversies. In fact, Judaism is characterized by its tendency to divide into groups and to develop in different, sometimes opposing, streams and movements, each having its own answers.

The Jewish religion, in the sense of practicing religious rituals and observing mitzvot (commandments), has increasingly been abandoned over the past couple of centuries. Most Jews in the world these days are not religious. Yet many of those who are no longer religious, or have never been, define themselves as Jews. Alongside religion, other channels of Jewish identity have been created.

Judaism is therefore not only a religion. It is also a nation, and every Jew is part of the Jewish people. Judaism is a culture, with unique traditions and customs, with its languages and literature, with thinking and creativity, songs and tunes. Judaism is a variety of faces and voices; it’s a multicolour mosaic of opinions and lifestyles. Judaism is a story of over three thousand years. We tell this story and live within it – we are our story. There are many ways to be Jewish, and all of them combined are what is called Judaism.

What is the connection between Judaism and community?

Community is the space where Judaism comes to life and thrives, where it departs from the texts and musical notes and appears in a tangible form, at the place where people meet and interact.

In difficult times of oppression and persecution, diseases and poverty, communities enabled Jews to survive, to make a living, and to support those in need. And what made the members of those communities connect? The glue that bonded them comprised of two common purposes: To nurture Judaism, each community in its own way; and to transmit Jewish identity to succeeding generations. Consequently, thanks to communities, Judaism has endured for so many years.

Jewish communities across the Diaspora in the third decade of the 21st century have, of course, other important functions. Communities satisfy the need for social connection – they are the solution to loneliness, to feelings of alienation, and to lack of integration. Communities give their members a sense of belonging and a sense of meaning, allowing them to cherish Judaism’s cultural treasures which can only be enjoyed together. Moreover, when community members are in trouble or despair, others will be there for them.

So these are indeed the foundations of our communities: Social connection, senses of belonging and meaning, and mutual responsibility. But beyond these core elements, the most important purposes of our communities today are the very the same purposes that engaged Jewish communities over thousands of years: To nurture Judaism, keeping the flame burning; and to instill Jewish identity in the community’s children.

How can Jewish identity be instilled? This is not a simple question, but the Jewish people have known, throughout history, to develop ideas and methods for the design of an up-to-date Jewish identity, adapted to the spirit of the times. And thereby Judaism remained relevant and ensured its continuity. Now this challenge lies before us, and we too must invent and create, conceive and share, ideas for instilling Jewish identity in interesting and attractive ways.

The primary condition for our children to maintain their Jewish identity in their adulthood is that they will choose it. And realistically, in the free market of identities and belonging groups, their choice is not obvious. To increase the chance that our children will hold on to their Jewish roots, it’s imperative for them to love Judaism. Only if they love Judaism and feel comfortable with their Jewish identity, will they preserve this identity and, when the time comes, pass it on to future generations.

This is our duty as community leaders and it’s our shlichut (mission): To build a community where Judaism will flourish, in a way suitable to its members; and to empower the community’s children on their journey of identity formation, so when they grow up, they will not only define themselves as Jews, but also become active participants in Jewish communities, wherever they will live.

Walking with us along this way are community founders and activists, educators and social entrepreneurs, each carrying out this common mission from a different perspective: In Jewish community centers, at schools and youth movements, through holiday celebrations and Shabbat meals, social gatherings and stage performances, learning sessions and various other events and activities. We are privileged to share the vision of communities with a large group of committed leaders who are our partners on this mission.

Our conference for leaders of Israeli communities in Europe is about to end, but our mission goes on and much work is ahead of us. From Amsterdam, where Jewish communities prospered over hundreds of years, we are sending an important message: Judaism is alive and will continue to thrive in our communities across Europe! Am Israel Chai!

About the Author
Nir Geva is a social enterpreneur of Jewish community initiatives, alongside his career as a senior executive at a multinational company. Nir serves as chairperson of Machon Kehilot and of Home for Israeli Culture in Amsterdam, and leads Jewish ceremonies and events, as well as gatherings and workshops dealing with Jewish identity and Israeli culture.
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