The key to life’s toughest questions: Ask better questions

How encounters with international communities can help Jewish youth tackle questions of identity in the upcoming decade

As 2019 comes to a close, young people must balance their identities in increasingly challenging circumstances. One major example, relevant for all of us who identify as Jewish: How can we maintain a connection to our faith and strengthen our relationship with the world around us? KIVUNIM Americas, a newly created summer travel experience, empowers Jewish high schoolers to explore this challenge in a hands-on way.

For its inaugural trip in summer 2020, KIVUNIM Americas will take high school travelers to Costa Rica and Mexico. They will visit local Jewish communities, enjoy magnificent natural wonders, and connect with people face to face. No Instagram filters or institutional biases will cloud these meetings. The adventure will provide a platform for outward growth and invaluable introspection. Participants’ life paths will be lined with new puzzles, and entirely new frames of reference from which to solve them.

In essence, students of KIVUNIM Americas will hone their answers to questions of identity, and develop their own questions, tailored to the world marching rapidly forward into the next decade.

As co-founder of KIVUNIM Americas, I am asking my own question, revised and revamped after years of careful consideration: How can I inspire more young people to take the journey that I was lucky enough to take?

In trying to crack that code, I teamed up with two other alumni of the KIVUNIM gap-year program to create KIVUNIM Americas. All of us continue to ponder this conundrum of identity and “belonging” well into our 20s. Because of our shared experiences, we know first-hand that it’s never too early to discover just how many different perspectives the pluralities of Judaism and of humanity have to offer.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was an 18-year-old graduating from a public high school outside Philadelphia, I wasn’t sure how far my Judaism would take me. I believed that at some point I would have to decide between my secular interests and my religion. Compared to the limitless diversity “out there in the world,” Judaism felt monolithic. The stories I knew all revolved around the tragedy of the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel, and the rapidly declining membership in congregational synagogues.

Nonetheless, to the credit of my Jewish upbringing, asking good questions is at the heart of my personality. I am proud that our religion is predicated on questioning, of challenging preconceived notions. Soon I would discover, however, that my version of question-asking was akin to the Passover seder’s simple son: I knew how to ask, but I did not know what to ask.

It never occured to me that beyond my northeastern U.S., middle class, conservative Jewish perspective, there were other ways of being that would honor my Jewishness and connection to all of humanity. I did not understand the extent to which Jewish communities have grappled with these existential dilemmas of identity for centuries and across almost every country on Earth.

The KIVUNIM gap-year program brought me up close with people compelled to confront their own identities in challenging circumstances. These encounters allowed me to realign my line of questioning.

Based in Jerusalem and created by Jewish education powerhouse Peter Geffen, KIVUNIM aims to “foster world consciousness and global citizens.” To accomplish this lofty goal, KIVUNIM participants — recent high school graduates from North America — take classes in Middle East studies, Hebrew, and Arabic, and, notably, take multiple out-of-Israel “field trips” to sometimes little-known diasporic communities. Students travel to a dozen different countries — including India, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Greece — meeting fascinating people and remodeling their understanding of the world along the way.

My consciousness truly did grow more global. I saw and internalized myriad new ways to “be Jewish” and “to be.” Simultaneously, I returned to the United States with more questions than when I left. That’s key.

I have carried this curiosity through college and into my professional life. When I majored in linguistics, it was to investigate how humans communicate across across time and space. When I moved to Brazil with a Fulbright grant to teach English, I pondered how language facilitates social mobility. At the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education as a master’s student in Intercultural Communication, questions take new shape as formal ethnographic research. But they’re still questions. They help me make sense of what I do and who I am in relation to what’s around me.

Meanwhile, the drive to pass along the KIVUNIM torch has kept me grounded in my Jewishness. In creating KIVUNIM Americas, I am continuing my own inquiry. I am strengthening trans-national Jewish networks and enacting the Jewish values I am trying to empart. As a madrich (program counselor), I will encounter communities in our travels, as well as see the encounters through the eyes of my students. Their perspectives will in turn impact mine.

The “answer” to the most difficult questions is to ask better questions. It is to recognize the range of what’s available — the infinite combination of identities that people uphold, defend, and, at times, allow to evolve. KIVUNIM Americas is an invitation to feel this diversity in action. By traveling, by debating, and by comparing notes, new challenges and identities emerge. That’s by design. Jews have thrived for thousands of years on the basis of thoughtful inquiry and mindful change. 2020 is the perfect time to push further and find questions the whole world can ponder together.

About the Author
Daniel Magerman is the co-founder and program director of KIVUNIM Americas and an alumnus of the KIVUNIM gap-year program. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania in his home city of Philadelphia.
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