Belonging in America

By Etta Heisler

I was delighted to dive back into Jewish education at this year’s Shavuot celebration. For five years I worked at the Jewish Women’s Archive writing curricula and supporting Jewish educators as they incorporated contemporary Jewish texts and women’s voices into their work. Upon returning to my roots here in Ann Arbor (and quite literally as a program director at a nature center), I had no idea how much I was missing getting to dissect, share, and explore Jewish texts in this setting.

A quick note: this Shavuot, it was particularly meaningful for me to do some teaching as I continue to mourn the recent death of my Savta, my grandmother Dr. Diane Averbach King. My Savta was a passionate educator and respected scholar, in addition to being a doting and committed grandparent. While much of her work focused on Hebrew and Israel education, she is one of the few people I could always call to talk through ideas, struggles, or interesting new sources. I greatly appreciate the AARC community for inviting me to participate in this way–I cannot say enough how meaningful it was to connect with her memory at this time.

In my session, we explored our own experiences belonging–or not–in Jewish community before diving into four non-traditional “Jewish texts” that depict Jewish life in America: a photograph, a page from a newsletter, an excerpt of letter from a daughter to her parents, and a screen shot of a social media post. I have included the text study packet via Google Drive–feel free to use it or share it, just make sure you give credit where credit is due!

Thinking about the current political state of our country, and of the Jewish community both in the US and globally, there were several ideas that rose to the front of my mind as I looked through sources on jwa.org for this session:

  1. What is the relationship between personal identity and community identity?
  2. What makes, or who defines, a community?
  3. How does one know if one is “in” or “out” of a given community? In other words, how does one know if one belongs in a community or not?
  4. What is the relationship between inclusion (saying who is in) and exclusion (saying who is out) in creating community?

As we looked at each source, we started first with observation (I do, after all, work in science education, so we followed the scientific method). I like to use some standard questions adapted from the method of Visual Thinking Strategies: “What is going on in this source? What do we see/read that makes us say that? What information is missing or confusing?” After we explored, looked for evidence, and hypothesized, I provided some additional historical context and we asked “What more can we see or understand? What more do we want to know?”

In the end, our conversation barely got started before time was up (perhaps next year, we’ll have an all-night session?!). However, our wide-ranging discussion did leave me with a few observations that I think we might be able to use to draw some generalities around the idea of “Belonging,” our theme for the night:

  1. There are many forces that create belonging, some are experienced internally in individuals, and some are experienced externally in groups.
  2. One does not have to feel that one belongs in order for others to see them as part of a community.
  3. Search for belonging can sometimes lead to cohesion and sometimes to separation, or even bigotry.

I encourage you to take one, some, or all of these sources and explore them on your own, with friends at a Shabbat dinner or lunch, or a chevruta learning partner either face-to-face or virtually. What questions do these sources raise for you? What lessons can they teach us, or what insight can they provide about our contemporary communities? How do they help us understand our own sense of belonging–or exclusion?

Thank you again for this tremendous opportunity. Looking forward to learning more!