In 2018 we didn’t yet know we were inaugurating the Institute of Jewish Experience. In June of that year we gathered scholars, singers, dancers, Jews, Muslims, dignitaries to The Yemenite Conference. When we saw that 400 people came to opening night, we realized that there is a void that we were just beginning to fill. People want to learn and know about the greater Jewish heritage. I, for example, want to explore my Hungarian roots, but also find ways to identify with Persian, Indian, Surinamese Jews. We share a heritage with these communities that sometimes consist of varying stories but there is somehow beauty in that diversity. Our new goal was exploring this beauty and, unknowingly, The Yemenite Conference was the inauguration of that goal.
So, we established a yearly academic and cultural conference:
- 2019 – Uncommon Commonalities: Jews and Muslims of Morocco
- 2020 – The Global Nacao: Western Sephardim
and added in some broad conferences like our annual Jewish Africa Conference and Jewish Refugee Conference. Yet the void wasn’t completely filled. We wanted to reach the general public – the Jewish people deserve to know and appreciate the full Jewish experience – and thus the Institute of Jewish Experience had its mission. On-site conferences in parallel with online learning opportunities.
I cannot express the satisfaction, joy and pride in seeing our first 8 educational clips available for schools. Middle and high school students can begin to appreciate the Jewish mosaic – something that was lacking in my education and that of my children. A quick 5-minute clip can have the Persian in a Jewish school beaming as Purim is tied specifically to Persian Jewish history and culture. The RIF (Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi) becomes so much more relatable when a Moroccan in the class appreciates that it’s part of her history, while the others appreciate the rich Jewish scholarship that came out of Morocco and Spain.
And of course, the crowning joy are our full online courses led by international scholars. In reviewing and editing the courses I, myself, learned so much! Take our first-to-be-released course, The Greek Experience. I learned about the interactions of the Greek Orthodox and the Jews of Greece that go back almost two millennia with theological debates and arguments, but also cooperation. As most of Greek Jewry was wiped out in the Holocaust not much is known about that rich culture. Before it is lost and forgotten to the books, we have scholars and community members sharing the Greek experience in two online courses.
The Crypto Experience explores Judaism from a very personal perspective. The course explores people throughout history who had to hide their identity and disguise themselves to the outside. It asks questions of: who are they really? Do they themselves know? What about us – do we play a part outside as opposed to who we feel we “really” are? The course explores this in the context of the Huguenots, Mashadi Persians, Spanish crypto-Jews.
Our heritage, hidden or revealed, feeds into who we are. I am not just Hungarian; I am a Jew of the world. My heritage and experiences are tied to the greater Jewish world. We share a Jewish experience, albeit in different shapes, colors and forms.
I hope you embark with me on this journey of self and communal discovery with the Institute of Jewish Experience.