Jewish geography.” We all do it. Two Jews meet in line at the airport, and a few minutes later they’re discussing 20 people they know in common, from places and times as distinct as camp in 1972 to Aunt Rachel’s Seder last spring.
One could say we have been playing Jewish geography ever since we all stood at Sinai and became a people.
However, for the past week, I have been experiencing a deeper, more meaningful version of Jewish geography – one that has touched me down to my very soul. I have traveled with over two dozen Federation leaders who jumped on planes at a moment’s notice to be here to show the people of Israel that they are not alone.
Together, we traveled through the south of the country, the region most battered by rockets fired at Israel. We witnessed the resilience of the Israeli people as we’ve gone from town to town, kibbutz to kibbutz, home to home.
And we have seen the part that we – the global Jewish community, from many organizations and walks of life – have played in every corner of Israel.
Wherever we visited, we found that we are not separated by miles and hours; we are connected by inches and seconds.
I am very proud of, and could spend more time crediting, Jewish Federations and our partner agencies for each and every program they have made possible in Israel. But it’s not just about us, or any other individual organization. It’s about the confluence of the work, resources and support by the full complement of Jewish organizations across North America, and indeed from around the globe. In every nook and cranny of the country, there is the mark of Klal Yisrael, evidence that all Jews are responsible for one another. Israel belongs to every Jew in the world.
Consider Sderot, a city constantly bombarded by hundreds of rockets, where every single house has a safe room now.
Consider the plight of seniors, or those with special needs, who can’t make it to a shelter within the 15 second interval of safety after a siren sounds. Many end up actually having to live in the shelter; their only protection from fear and loneliness is the caseworker who comes with food and companionship.
Consider our children in southern Israel. Every Bar and Bat Mitzvah-aged youth has spent a life under rocket fire. A day of fun and frivolity – at a waterpark, a museum, or a day camp – is more than a mere distraction. It is a vital psychological respite from the trauma of living on the front lines of the conflict.
No one institution could do this alone.
It takes all of us working together, each one bringing expertise to the challenge.
One organization may make the Iron Dome – a system that has prevented most of the missiles fired from striking Israeli population centers – possible through its advocacy.
Another brings mobile shelters to areas where they there aren’t enough safe spaces.
Even during a week when more than 1,100 rockets rained on Israel, many of us came from around the world to bring comfort and show solidarity with the Israeli people. Our youth still came on summer programs. They still climbed Masada, still studied Torah, volunteered and bonded with their Israeli peers.
Through all of this we are reminded that the sum of our parts, the aggregate of every Jewish organization’s purpose and mission, is greater than the whole.
This week has redefined Jewish geography for me. It is no longer just a game of mapping who knows whom. It is the geography of our peoplehood.
Many have tried to define that word – peoplehood – some say there is no such thing, but I have seen them proven wrong time and again. For me, this week has been a reaffirmation of this ideal.
Each hand that reaches out to help is an expression of peoplehood. Every letter written, every shelter built, every trip taken is another manifestation of peoplehood.
We do this, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is part of our communal DNA. It is the basis of our existence. It may not be an exclusively Jewish principle, but it is an intrinsically Jewish principle.
We are still standing at Sinai today – and every day. We may have been remiss in remembering that, but times like these have a way of bringing us back.
We must continue to work together after this crisis subsides. “Life as usual” needs to include fealty to our peoplehood. If we can maintain it – and I personally vow to do so – we will have come out of this experience with something more than mere survival. We will have transformed forever the way we, and the world, understand what it means to be Am Echad – One People.
Now, that’s my kind of Jewish geography.
Jerry Silverman is President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America