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Uniting the Jewish People, One Masa Israel Conference at a Time

by Molly Cram |May 14, 2015|Comments

Molly_Cram.From April 30 - May 2, Masa Israel gap year participants from around the world gathered at a hotel outside Jerusalem for the Masa Israel Mind the Gap Israel Engagement Seminar. This three day weekend focused on Israel and Jewish engagement on college campuses, involvement in the Jewish community at home, and the importance of peoplehood.

Molly is a member of the second cohort of Masa-Hillel Fellows. The fifteen fellows have been learning together in a six-month professional development seminar during their time in Israel through a partnership between Hilllel and Masa Israel. Learn more about the 2015 cohort here.

A few weekends ago, Masa Israel gap year participants from North America, Australia, and Europe gathered in Neve Ilan outside of Jerusalem to discuss the transition into college life and connect with young Jews from around the world. Once a day, there were “Peoplehood Sessions” that included a mix of participants from around the world. The first session, everyone was asked to write the top five issues facing the Jewish people today. Participants were then divided into small groups and asked to come to a consensus as to the top five issues. One group that I observed included two Australians, a woman from Sweden, and an American. The American and Swede had listed anti-Semitism as the number one issue while the Australians had it as number five, the least threatening issue. The cost of Jewish day schools, instead, was a major issue for the Australians. It was a chance for participants, and staff, to see how diverse the issues are facing the global Jewish community and how dependent it is on the home country. Participants talked about the effects of assimilation, the divisions within Jewish communities, and the role of Israel.

Molly_Cram_and_Group.Molly Cram (second from right) leads group session at the Masa Israel Mind the Gap Conference. Photos courtesy Masa Israel Journey.

Masa_Mind_the_Gap_Conference_Group_Photo.Participants at Masa Israel's Mind the Gap Conference.

In the next session, participants were asked to choose the top five components of Jewish identity from a list of about ten including religion, Israel, values/ethics, family ties, and culture. Culture was the highest regardless of home country. We then asked what their grandparents would respond with. Many felt that their grandparents were much more integrated into a Jewish community and isolated from the broader community. The discussion brought up questions of how fluid Jewish identity is and how different it is for not just different communities but also generations.

With so much variation, how can we continue to build a global Jewish community, which is, after all, one of the main goals of the conference, and for Masa Israel? For the answer, we turned to Avraham Infeld’s five legged table approach. The idea is that there are five main components that make up Jewish identity: Jewish Memory, Family, Jewish Law, Land of Israel, and Hebrew. Not everyone identifies with all five but everyone can relate to at least three “legs” meaning there will always be overlap; and, besides, a table only needs three legs to stand.  Infeld’s vision is for the Jewish people to be “unified without being uniform.”

Mas_Mind_the_Gap_Leaders.Mind the Gap Conference Staff: Molly Cram (center) joined by fellow Masa-Hillel Fellows Stephanie Grossman and Ashley Barrett, as well as Hillel International's Hinenu: Israel Education and Engagement Chief of Staff Josh Yudkin (second from left) and Hofstra Hillel's Director of Jewish Life and Learning Rabbi Lyle Rothman (second from right).

Infeld came to speak to participants of the Masa-Hillel Fellowship in Jerusalem a week before the conference. The Fellowship is a six-month professional development seminar for current Masa Israel postgraduate participants to prepare them for future Hillel work. Infeld has been involved with Masa Israel and Hillel for many years, serving as the first Director of Taglit-Birthright Israel and as President of Hillel International. Infeld told the group that he had traveled around the world speaking to Jewish students and he presented almost all of them with a board like this:













Infeld would ask students to complete the board. When he posed this to the group, I proudly raised my hand after a period of silence and said, "Jew, Muslim, Christian" to which Infeld replied in screaming form, "JUDAISM. IS NOT. A. RELIGION!" Infeld said that is the response of most American Jews, and it is most certainly and completely incorrect, while Israelis respond with, "Jew, Arab, Other." This implies, according to Infeld, that Israelis view Judaism as a national identity whereas American Jews see Judaism as a religion. What are the takeaways? That the Jewish people have no consensus on what "Jew" means. Infeld said, "I hear organizations making statements like 'We are one.' We are one what? We are one hell of a mess, that's what we are!" Infeld believes "the time is ripe to remind the Jews that we are first and foremost a People" and Masa Israel and Hillel present opportunities, such as the recent conference, to do just that.

For more on Avraham Infeld’s vision, view his lecture, The Five Legged Table, at JDOVTalks 2013. 

Molly Cram is an Oregon native currently living and working in an Ethiopian community in Israel with the Yahel Social Change Program, a Masa Israel postgraduate program. Molly is also a Masa-Hillel Fellow and will be working as the Director of Engagement for American University Hillel starting in July. 

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  • Masa Israel
  • Masa Israel Journey
  • gap year
  • Masa-Hillel Fellowship
  • Avraham Infeld
  • Masa
  • Israel
  • Mind the Gap Conference
  • Molly Cram

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