On the impact of travel and relationship building on her Jewish identity
At the age of four, Alyssa's parents took her and her two brothers to Israel. “I think it was very important to my parents that we all experienced Israel for ourselves from an early age,” says Alyssa. “They didn’t want Israel to be an abstraction that we talked about at home or at synagogue or in Hebrew school, but a real place that we could visualize. So for example, when we learned about Masada in religious school, we better understood its significance because we’d been there.”
That was the first of many trips Alyssa made, some with her parents, others with her grandparents. Wherever she traveled, she sought to understand and experience the local Jewish life.
Her first experience working in the Jewish community was in Warsaw one summer while she was in college.
""I have a very vivid memory of taking a train from Warsaw to Gdansk, which is a city bordering the Baltic Sea in Poland, and reading my great-grandmother’s memoirs while overlooking essentially the same landscape that was her home before she had emigrated,” remembers Alyssa. “That was a very powerful experience, bringing together family, Judaism, and travel in a single moment. It connected me to my family's history and to the history of the Jewish people.”
“I was in Warsaw to gain professional experience in preparation for my future work in the Jewish world,” she says. Alyssa’s internship was with Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a “non-profit Polish organization whose mission is to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue, eradicate anti-Semitism and teach tolerance through education,” where Alyssa learned the importance of relationship-building as a strategic tool.
“The revelation that relationship building can be an important and impactful tool within the Jewish community made me want to do this professionally,” says Alyssa. At the American Jewish Committee’s D.C. office, where she worked as a Goldman Bridge Fellow prior to attending the Hornstein Program, Alyssa was involved, among other things, in building relationships with young members of the diplomat and interfaith communities.
“These are not just relationships for relationships' sake,” she says. “We are always thinking about our common ground and how we can work together on issues of mutual concern. How can we focus on our similarities? How can we work together to improve the world?”
Alyssa is eager to be entering the Jewish professional community at this time in history, which she views with optimism and hope. In July, she joins the Jacobson Family Foundation as a portfolio associate.
In Her Own Words: An Interview with Alyssa Bogdanow
I was raised in a family that places tremendous value on the importance of both travel and Judaism. This has impacted me in profound ways. I was taught from a young age to seek out opportunities to experience and try to understand Jewish life in different corners of the world.
There’s a popular song (at least, popular in the Jewish camp/youth group circles) called “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish.” Obviously that’s not exactly true… But the underlying point is that even though Jews in different parts of the world may wear different clothes, or eat different food or sleep in different kinds of houses, there’s something in our shared practice and tradition that connects us all. I like that sentiment and I’ve been privileged to experience it, at least a little bit.
The first experience I had internationally was going to Israel with my family when I was four years old. My oldest brother was ten and the other one was eight. I think it was very important to my parents that we all experienced Israel for ourselves, even at an early age. They didn’t want Israel to be an abstraction that we talked about at home or at synagogue or in Hebrew school, but a real place that we could visualize. So for example, when we learned about Masada in religious school, we better understood its significance because we’d been there.
One of my most powerful experiences occurred when I lived in Warsaw one summer. My great-grandmother had emigrated from Belarus to the United States and late in her life she wrote a set of essays about her life, both prior to emigrating and once she came to the U.S. My cousin took those essays and made a book out of them, which I got to read for the first time the summer I lived in Warsaw.
I have a very vivid memory of taking a train from Warsaw to Gdansk, which is a city bordering the Baltic Sea in Poland, and reading my great-grandmother’s memoirs overlooking essentially the same landscape that was her home before she had emigrated.
That was a very powerful experience, bringing together family, Judaism, and travel in one moment in time. It connected me to my family's history and to the history of the Jewish people.
In addition, I was in Warsaw to gain work experience in preparation for my future work in the Jewish world.
That particular experience was unforgettable. It connected past to present and future.
I worked in AJC’s Washington Regional Office prior to coming to Hornstein. I served as a Goldman Bridge Fellow, which is a year-long fellowship specifically designed to enhance ACCESS, AJC’s next generation initiative. I was responsible for overseeing ACCESS DC, which entailed envisioning and executing programming, building relationships with young members of the diplomat and interfaith communities, and expanding our membership networks.
AJC believes strongly that the most important tool one can use is relationship building. AJC finds commonalities between different groups of people, collaborates on issues of mutual concern and utilizes thoughtful communication to build bridges. It does this both between Jews and non-Jews, as well as within the Jewish community. (For instance, I met many Jews in Lithuania and Belarus who had deep and meaningful relationships with AJC.) I’m extraordinarily impressed by this philosophy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ and the extent to which it truly permeates through all of AJC’s activities.
I was blown away by what I experienced on the FSU Seminar. We started our trip in Vilnius, Lithuania and then traveled to Minsk, Belarus. The sharp juxtaposition between the Jewish life in these two cities was extremely striking. Both cities have rich Jewish histories and experienced tremendous loss in the Holocaust.
While Jewish life in Vilnius is dwindling to almost nothing, Jewish life in Minsk is experiencing a tremendous revitalization. While in Minsk, we had the opportunity to visit the JCC, share stories with Hillel students, meet with the Chabad rabbi at his beautiful new synagogue, and be called up for an aliyah at a Reform synagogue during Shabbat services.
There is a richness to Jewish life in Minsk that I would have never anticipated, all of it rebuilt over the last 25 years. It is clear that people quietly retained aspects of their Jewish identity and observance during the Soviet period. This is extremely powerful to me. It gives me hope to think about how Jewish life can persist even under the most challenging of circumstances.
One of the interesting things I’ve observed over my travels has been the tension that can exist between wanting to commemorate and celebrate the past, versus focusing on expanding Jewish life today. I think many of us felt this tension when we were in Vilnius. Many of the people we heard from spoke at length about the past, about Vilnius’s role as a center of Jewish life for many centuries and about the destruction of that community during the Holocaust. At times, we were frustrated by this (although, of course, it is critically important that we know this history). We wanted to understand the Jewish community now, but it felt impossible at times to even have that conversation.
One of the questions I’m left with is: How do we celebrate the past while still focusing on the future? I’m not sure I have an answer yet. But I know it’s something that pertains to many Jewish communities around the world, particularly in Europe.
We’ll have to see how this continues to play out, especially in Minsk. I think a lot depends on the economy in Belarus. Perhaps young people will move to Israel if they believe they have chances there of a better life. But if they stay, Jewish life in Belarus will certainly grow.
Right, and that leads to questions about intermarriage and who gets counted as Jewish. I probably have a more expansive definition than some of the demographers do. I care much more about someone's identification or engagement than whether their mother was born Jewish. Maybe I’m on one end of that spectrum.
I couldn't agree more.
In terms of the Pew report and the shrinking American Jewish middle, we can view that either with pessimism or optimism. If people don't identify as Reform or Conservative, then let's think of ways that they do get excited about Judaism. Maybe we can raise interest and enthusiasm through initiatives around the environment, like Hazon is doing, or around food justice, culture, the arts, dance or creative avenues, whatever they may be.
I don't think that just because people don't want to identify with a denomination or don't want to join a synagogue that it means that Judaism isn't important or meaningful for them. It just means that my generation has to be creative with the initiatives that we put forth.
It's easy to look at the Pew report data pessimistically. It's harder to create a positive vision from it. But that's the perspective I take. I loved David Manchester's argument for optimism.
There are so many different lenses through which I could answer this question. Of course, I immediately think to the horrific anti-Semitism happening in Europe and elsewhere, to the recent uptick in violence in Israel, to what I understand is happening surrounding Israel on college campuses here in the United States. These are all critically important and deserve our attention.
From another perspective though, I want to be clear that I think it would be a mistake for me to list a handful of challenges that are the most pressing for all of World Jewry. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through traveling is the importance of understanding activities and sentiments at a local level. For example, when thinking through our FSU trip, the most urgent challenge facing the Jews in Vilnius looks almost nothing like the most urgent challenge facing the Jews in Minsk. What matters in Tokyo probably doesn’t matter in Tel Aviv. I think it’s our responsibility as Jewish leaders to seek out opportunities to visit these communities, to ask questions and to understand the perspectives of people on the ground. Only then can we start to understand what really concerns World Jewry.
Yeah. I think one thing that will never change no matter what is that people will always seek meaning in their own lives. That search seems to activate as people get older and they start caring more about their ancestry. For my cousin, I imagine that the painstaking work of going through our great-grandmother's memoirs and turning them into a book was a means of connection not just to family but to Judaism. So much of my great-grandmother’s life story was about Judaism and her Jewish community.
One of the amazing things about the FSU Seminar is how it got all of us to start thinking about our own family histories in a way that we don't have the space to do sitting in classrooms in Waltham, Massachusetts. Even our conversations with each other opened up. I was privileged to hear Naomi's story about her grandmother surviving the Holocaust.
These stories come out when you're there, on location, and you have the space to think about them. I think it brought us all closer together from an ancestral viewpoint, as in “You're from a little shtetl outside of Minsk and so am I!”
We also all share the common thread that we are each here today because someone in our family decided to take the very risky move of leaving the world they knew, the environment and landscape where their family had lived for generations, and move to a new country where they didn't speak the language, and didn't have a job and didn't know the culture.
The fact that those of us in the United States today have that shared connection can tie us together, even if our Jewish lives look totally different.
Relationship building is what catalyzed me to want to be a professional in the Jewish world. My first experience working in the Jewish community was with AJC during a summer while I was in college. As I mentioned, I spent the summer in Warsaw, and that was through a fellowship that AJC has for college and graduate students. I worked at an organization called Forum for Dialogue Among Nations with which AJC is a principal partner.
The Forum’s sole purpose is to build relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Poland and to make sure the Jewish history of Poland is not lost among non-Jews today. When we think about Polish history and Polish Jewish history in particular, our immediate instinct is to think about the Holocaust. But for many centuries, Jewish history in Poland had its own characteristics.
In the 1400s after the Jews were expelled from Spain, they fled to other Eastern European countries, including Poland. Jews were welcomed for the most part, and for many generations and many centuries, despite growing anti-Semitic backlash, Jewish life in Poland thrived. Eighty percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland before World War II.
My experience working at the Forum propelled me to realize that Jewish communal life was not just about being a rabbi or an educator, but that Jewish organizations participate in a plethora of ways that enable Jewish values to permeate life outside of religion, whether that means cultural, or social justice work or interpersonal engagement.
It was this revelation, that there is relationship work we can do within the Jewish community, which made me want to do this professionally.
This was a big component of my position when I worked full-time for AJC with the young professionals group in Washington D.C. We always seek community partners who are dealing with issues of mutual concern. So for instance, when I was in D.C., we started to deepen our relationship with Thursday Network, a young professionals group for African Americans, because we could connect around our shared frustration concerning the Supreme Court decision limiting voting rights protections.
We also did a lot with young members of the diplomatic community. For example, we connected with diplomats from Mediterranean countries around energy security and refugee rights issues. We had one very interesting event about diplomacy in the communication age and how we rethink diplomacy within this new framework.
Always the goal was to find community partners with whom we might not have otherwise partnered, determine the issues that we all cared about and use those as a vehicle through which to build bridges of understanding. The relationships are mutually beneficial both in the short term and in the long term.
These are not just relationships for relationships' sake. We are always thinking about our common ground and how we can work together on issues we care about. How can we focus on our similarities? How can we work together to improve the world?
Right. The Jewish community can be a source of such light for all these other communities. That to me is an extremely effective means of advocacy. The Jewish community can build trust with other communities by being there for them in times of need.
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be entering the Jewish professional community at this particular moment in history. We’re at a time in Jewish communal life where at least parts of the community appear particularly excited about challenging the status quo. This generation doesn’t seem excited about synagogues? Let’s experiment with alternate modes of engagement. Intermarriage is steadily increasing? Let’s reconsider how we reach out to and engage with couples and/or families with young children. I am forward thinking and an optimist. Instead of focusing on what once was, I’m excited to be entering the community at a time when leaders — and funders — are willing to experiment with new ideas and new modes of engagement.
What’s frustrating? Change takes time and can be deeply painful. Change involves loss.
I would love to be doing something in the world of philanthropy that supports really interesting nonprofit organizations that, as I mentioned, take risks, experiment and help people engage with Judaism in whatever way works best for them. That said, I'm happy to announce that I'll be joining the Jacobson Family Foundation as a portfolio associate in July.
This interview with Alyssa was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, March 2016. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.