Peoplehood is a Greater MetroWest flagship Living Bridge program in its sixth cycle. It’s a life changing two-year adult exchange program for Greater MetroWest Jewish leaders interested in exploring the importance of Jewish Community with like-minded members from our Partner communities in Arad, Ofakim-Merchavim, and Kibbutz Erez. The two cohorts spend time learning, sharing ideas, and creating meaningful connections with one another with the goal of using what they take from these experiences to strengthen our communities.
Last month we hosted the Israeli cohort of Peoplehood – friends we’ve been getting to know over the past year who hosted us in Israel in January. Just as we experienced what life is like in our Israeli partner communities when we were there, our goal was to give our visitors a firsthand look at American Jewish life.
The moment our Israeli friends arrived we took them back in time to help them better understand the experience of Eastern European Jews immigrating to America in the early 1900s, first to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and then to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
They each went home with their New Jersey counterpart for Shabbat as home hospitability is a flagship aspect of this program. Their experiences were as diverse as our community is. Some relaxed and took in the sights while others visited both conservative and reform synagogues for the first time, sitting in mixed pews of the sanctuary and being honored with their first Aliyah. Some noted that driving to services at a Modern Orthodox synagogue felt ironic but that it opened their eyes to all the different ways one can choose to be a Jew in America.
On Sunday, we started the day off with bagels before our Jewish Historical Society of NJ colleagues took us on an historic tour of Newark. From Temple B’nai Abraham and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to Beth Israel Hospital to Weequahic High School, we explored where the Jewish community developed from the early 1900s through the 60s, before migrating west to become the Jewish Community of Greater MetroWest.
Of course, no introduction to American Jewish culture would be complete without a shared cooking experience, hosted in an American home. The fun really began when the Israelis highjacked the kitchen – the balabustas rolled up their sleeves and jumped right in to teach us about the flavors of an Israeli barbeque.
Over the next several days, we experienced the diversity of our community and visited a number of our partner agencies to learn about the services they provide. We explored the beautiful Jewish Service for Developmentally Disabled (JSDD) Center and the Heidi Gallery – met with the JSDD clients, created art with them, and were moved by the humanism and love our community fosters for those with unique challenges. We visited our Jewish Day Schools and met with several Federation professionals and volunteer leaders who impressed upon us their passion for Jewish community here and worldwide.
We celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut across the community American style, and we took part in a beautiful and moving community Yom Hazikaron commemoration planned and presented by our rishonim at the West Orange JCC. We were on an emotional rollercoaster, going from the highs of being together, learning about so many uplifting projects, and celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, to the sadness of Yom Hazikaron and visiting the 911 memorial, and then back up again with the exhilaration of visiting Times Square and taking in a Broadway musical!
We brought Israeli ruach (spirit) everywhere we went. We danced with preschoolers celebrating Israel, we met with Rutgers Hillel college students, and we schmoozed and sang with seniors at the Scotch Plains JCC.
Before, during, and after each of these experiences, we exchanged thoughts and ideas about the boundaries of our compromises and our choices as Jews and what it means to be Jewish. Most importantly, we felt the critical importance of the bond we must continue to maintain to stay safe and strong as a People. This is at the heart of the Peoplehood Program and why it’s so worthwhile. What better way to do this than to really get to know one another, live in each other’s homes, and share meaningful, life expanding experiences.
All in all, I’d say that if our mission was to build strong bonds and a commitment to mutual responsibility all while conveying the depth and breadth of American Jewish life in one frantic, emotion-filled, incredible week, mission accomplished!
To view photos of our adventures, click here.