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The Jewish Haj

Joy SisiskyFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

I would rather go to Siberia than synagogue – not because I hate synagogue, but because it makes me feel more Jewish. What makes me feel like a good Jew is sitting in a mud hut in Ethiopia talking to a farmer about ways to prevent cattle disease. What makes me feel like a good Jew is visiting a lonely, home-bound Holocaust survivor in Latvia who needs company and wants to share her life story over dinner. This talk will challenge our responsibility as global Jewish citizens and encourage a renewed rite of passage for Jews beyond the gates of Jerusalem to both connect with other Jews and do Jewish. Judaism has a rich history of pilgrimage and there are lots of ways we can think about engaging in this ancient ritual to complement our Jewish practice in today's hyper-connected world. You should listen to my talk if you care about people who have a story to tell with no one listening and want to consider one very Jewish way to make the connection between caring and doing something about it.

Joy Sisisky is Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York which works to advance the status of women and girls in the Jewish community in New York, Israel and beyond through social change grant-making and advocacy. JWFNY has granted $3 million to 100 programs in areas of economic security; leadership advancement; social entrepreneurship; and, health and well-being. Joy has more than 15 years of work experience in the Jewish community and previously served as the Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, living and working in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Joy is co-founder of Do Good Ukraine! the first ever organization dedicated to building the civil sector in Ukraine which connects individuals, nonprofits and corporations with volunteer opportunities and training in an effort to build the volunteer infrastructure of the country. It is registered in 14 cities throughout Ukraine. In Ethiopia, Joy worked on a variety of non-sectarian issues including clean water development, increased access education, particularly for girls, and medical development.

Joy is the National Co-Chair of JDC’s national Entwine Steering Committee, a next generation program of the organization. In addition to her work in Ukraine and Ethiopia, she has travelled and volunteered with JDC in Haiti, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and – most recently, the Republic of Georgia. Next on her bucket list is India!

Joy is from Richmond, Virginia and lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

18,000 children die every day. Say it loud. Someone once told me to say it loud, because when you say it out loud it sounds worse and you can’t take it back when you say it out loud.

18,000 children die every day around the world, from poverty and our indifference. They die from disease, neglect and violence and I am haunted by the children I know at risk who will die too soon in life. A 10 year old boy in Ethiopia had a tumour so large that had burst from his skin and was bleeding, he was being treated with the only medicine available at a rural hospital, Tylenol.

A 2 year old baby boy in the Ukraine who had been abused, he had been left abandoned in his crib, lying in his own faeces where a neighbour found him, days later, banging his head against the wall rocking back and forth.

A 5 year old girl in the Republic of Georgia who lived with her mother and brother in an abandoned school house, they slept on a pull out sofa, it was winter and it was cold and they were hungry.

These stories are shocking and they’re upsetting, even more so when the world turns a blind eye, but I can’t do that because I have met these children, I know them, they are real people. I am overwhelmed by their stories and the millions of other stories of neglected and lonely people who live in our world, children and adults, Jews and Non-Jews who have a story to tell with no one listening. It’s what keeps me up at night.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I grew up in a fairly normal American Jewish household. My family belonged to a Conservative Jewish Temple, I went to Hebrew school, I had a Bat Mitzvah, I spent a year living on a kibbutz and I learnt to speak Hebrew, I fasted on Yom Kippur and ate Matzah during Passover, I have a degree in Judaic studies from Brandeis and I have a masters from Hebrew Union college.

From the outside, I seem like a good Jew. But what you don’t know is I don’t fast on Yom Kippur anymore, I eat bread during Passover and I don’t pray. Instead of going to synagogue I would rather go to Siberia, not because I hate synagogue but because it makes me feel more Jewish, more than lighting candles, more than keeping kosher.

In the last ten years alone I have travelled, lived or worked abroad in 27 different countries on 4 continents. At first this was for work, but now it is much more personal. I travel with family, I travel alone and most often I travel with friends. I like to travel with groups of like-minded young Jews who are interested in looking for meaningful and authentic Jewish experiences like I am.

I do it because what makes me feel like a good Jew is visiting a Holocaust survivor in her home; she’s homebound she’s bedridden, she hasn’t left in 7 years, she’s wearing a diaper, there are roaches crawling on her floor and they are crawling up her bedposts, she is happy to have me there because I am the only connection she has to the outside world. I do it because what makes me feel like a good Jew is visiting a man in Tblisi, who has lost everything in the war with Russia, his family and his home and he wants to give me and my friends a bag of apples and a piece of cheese the only food he has left to eat. Or hugging a grandma who lives in a tent on the golf course on Porta Prince. She hasn’t bathed and all she has on is an old pair of shoes and open robe, when I bend over to hug her I can smell her and it makes me feel very Jewish.

This isn’t a dog and pony show about poverty, this also isn’t about my job, though it certainly effects my work, this is about my religious obligation as a Jew. This is about the expression of my Judaism, this is about pilgrimage.

Judaism has a very rich history of Pilgrimage, in Ancient times we were commanded by God to make at least one personal sacrifice in Jerusalem. Entire families with babies in tow would make the difficult and expensive journey during the festivals of Passover, Succot and Shavout.

Ancient Jewish Haj is well documented, I am not an expert in the field but a Google search confirms the characteristics of Ancient Jewish pilgrimage which are typified by these 5 points; spirituality, community building, sacrifice, travel and sightseeing and a desire to add meaning to life, ours and others.

So what does this mean? First and foremost, families made a pilgrimage because it was their religious obligation and it was an opportunity for them to connect spiritually with God. While they were there they would make the most of their journey by mingling with other pilgrims. They would befriend people who were also on the same kind of journey. While they were there they would make the most of their journey by mingling with other pilgrims, they would befriend people who were also on the same kind of journey, the would spend time with people they had met in Jerusalem during previous festivals. They would stay in hotels and they would spend money in the local economy, all of which has been written about extensively, and they would give animal sacrifices which were so common during these times, were in fact used to host large communal dinners for all the pilgrims where they would socialise and drink wine. They would pray at the Temple then they would spend time sightseeing and giving coins to the poor.

All of these practises fulfilled a religious requirement, pilgrimage was just one way, an important and meaningful one, for Ancient Jews to express their Judaism, and it reassures me that even in Ancient times there are lots of ways to be a good Jew. My modern day Jewish experience, isn’t actually all that different. Pilgrimage is very deep and profound transcendent in many ways, there is something inspirational almost divine in the act. So when I decided to quit my job and spend 6 months living in the Jewish community in the Ukraine, or a week in Haiti after the earthquake I did it with the same intentionality as Ancient Pilgrims to fulfil a religious obligation and here is what my modern day Pilgrimage might look like using these same 5 characteristics. First my sacrifice is saving money and vacation time, giving up spending time with my husband and children to fulfil what I see as personal obligation to God. The only thing I don’t normally sacrifice is an animal because I’m vegetarian, although there were a few goats and chicken roasts in my backyard when I lived in Ethiopia and guests would come and visit.

In Ukraine, I went alone and was adopted by the Jewish community. In Georgia I went with a group for a shared experience but in both cases I was making and building Jewish communities both with peers and locals. When I visit someone in their home I always bring a gift, slippers for elderly women, fresh food for the family, or maybe just something simple like tea and cookies, a friendly gesture like if I was coming to your house for dinner I would bring wine. And in addition not making home visits or working on volunteer projects ,there is always time set aside to get to know the country, to go shopping, to go to site seeing, to visit a museum, maybe go wine tasting or taste the food, most important when I come back I feel good about my self-refreshed and renewed as a Jew, often having had a spiritual experience, that brings me closer to fellow Jews and mankind and also God. So you’re probably thinking what’s the big deal she just went on a trip. No this wasn’t just a trip, I wasn’t just a tourist. Tourism is about recreation and this is about something much deeper, this is about the fact that I am a Jewish pilgrim. Now when you think of a pilgrim 100 images might come to mind, this may be one of them, this is what I think of when I think of a pilgrim. After the destruction of the 2nd Temple Jews were no longer required to make an annual pilgrimage and we started celebrating Jewish festivals in our homes and in Synagogues and it’s why I am here today, wondering about reclaiming the Ancient Jewish right of a Haj. What would happen if we each tried to make a Jewish pilgrimage a rite of passage. I also want to suggest something a little more controversial. First that Israel need not always be the destination and secondly that we not be limited to telling the stories of only Jews. We live in a world today that is global, hyper connected, resource rich and utterly talented and there is no excuse for any person, any Jew to be forgotten, there is simply no better time or place on Earth than to be born a Jew today in the United States a time and feeling that our ancestors can only have imagined. A time of great strength and abundance. Voltaire who was also haunted by the abusive privileged while the poor suffered famously noted that with power comes great responsibility. Jews have always taken the concept of responsibility seriously and we have always expressed responsibility in lots of different ways. What would Judaism look like today if we reclaimed that Ancient responsibility of pilgrimage the original haj. What if we did it not if it was required of us but because it’s meaningful and worthy? What if it were a younger generation of Jews who are both civic and secularly minded and are looking for meaningful ways to engage with their Judaism and their heritage. What if every family complimented their Jewish practise with the pilgrimage? I challenge you to take on this Jewish rite of passage, to spend a Chag festival in a new place, to celebrate your freedom during Passover in Russia, with a poor Jewish mother who still lives in the slavery of poverty. To celebrate spring time at Shavuot in Argentina working on an organic farm, learning about sustainable agriculture, or to recall our wandering through the desert in Succot in Ethiopia. To do it alone, to do it with others in order to build Jewish community. To make new friends, to have fun, to do it with intentionality and with purpose. To lend your time and love to people who need to be surprised, not embarrassed by strangers who are willing to share intimate moments of vulnerability with us. To leverage our privilege because it’s not enough to care that 18,00 children die every day but to do something about it. It’s not enough to keep kosher, it’s not enough to pray, it’s not enough to work in the Jewish community.

We have a Jewish responsibility to protect the unprotected, to help the widow, the orphan and the poor, to repair the injustice that we see in our world because we have access and knowledge to a world that lives beyond the gates of Jerusalem. I wonder what would happen on your Jewish Haj. Where will you go? Who will you meet? How will it change you? The one thing I can promise you is that it’s a spiritual journey of a lifetime and you won’t want to miss it. Bon Voyage

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