Reciprocity will strengthen Jewish education and peoplehood in fraught times

One of the most challenging aspects of social distancing is the lack of reciprocity. At the root of every relationship is a give and take. When one person is sick and the other is well, it is difficult to have a reciprocal relationship. When individuals and communities are physically apart, that obstacle is amplified.

In the work of connecting Jews worldwide — often called Jewish peoplehood education — this distance and disconnect is a constant. Jews can think of each other as family, but they are hard-pressed to explain what that actually means. There isn’t one agreed-upon definition, perhaps because it’s hard to know what a Jew in Buenos Aires has to give to a Jew in Berlin, or vice versa.

Long-distance relationships carry potential to help their participants learn from one another. Yet it’s still challenging to wrap our heads around this give and take. If one side believes it has much more to give than the other, the interaction is lopsided, making a mutually beneficial relationship nearly impossible. Without reciprocity, real relationships don’t exist.

In my recent work with Israeli educators, I’ve begun to understand the nature of this reciprocity even more deeply. Reciprocity isn’t necessarily about common notions of giving and taking. Rather, it may be about learning — a learning experience that fundamentally changes the way one sees his or her own life.

Last December, in my role with The Jewish Agency for Israel, I traveled with 30 Israeli school principals to New York. Our goal was ostensibly to learn about the Jewish community there, to instill within the principals a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood. The principals, at least in some way, thought they were going to learn about “the other” and gain a greater sense of compassion for Jews worldwide.

But they came out with much more. They came out understanding themselves differently, understanding their own Jewishness and Jewish practice differently. They went in looking to become more caring for the other, but emerged caring more for themselves, which in turn helps them care more for the other.

Last month, the Israeli principals revisited these sentiments in a letter to the Jewish communal leaders they’d met with in New York.

“We came to get to know you and to strengthen our relationships,” they wrote. “We met a variety of synagogues, different schools, community leaders and intellectuals. You welcomed us with love and openness, warmth and beautiful hospitality. We learned from your openness to receiving the other, your belief in Jewish pluralism, human dignity and tolerance.

They continued, “We marveled and were thrilled — literally — to tears at your ability to sit together as Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, and to respect each other. We saw that each way of life has its own unique opinions, different points of view, and varied ways to practice Judaism. We realized that if we could sustain this vitality of Jewish beliefs and practice in the Land of Israel, we would achieve a more full cultural, social and economic prosperity.”

The beauty of truly reciprocal relationships is that they’re circular. One good action – or even intention — leads to another and another and another. In the case of these Israeli educators, their interest in the other led to interest in themselves, which consequently led to greater interest in and care for the other.

This experience was such a strong one that in the midst of a worldwide crisis — in which the principals were scrambling to figure out how they were going to educate their own students back home — they began to worry about those they met in New York. They were able to think beyond themselves.

The principals’ letter shows a small first step in this reciprocal relationship. It shows an ability to think of the other even when — and especially when — we are also hurting. Broadening and strengthening this reciprocity can play a major role in healing today’s fractured world.

About the Author
Abi Dauber Sterne is the director of Makom: The Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
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