How can we be unified without being uniform? asks Avraham Infeld

by | Nov 5, 2018 | Other News

During Avraham Infeld’s recent threeday visit to Tidewater, he made many statements that caught my attention. While here, Infeld spoke with various groups—from BBYO teens to rising young adult leaders, to senior Federation leaders.

Infeld is president emeritus of Hillel International. An author and pioneer of Jewish education, he has spent a lifetime building Jewish identity around the world and strengthening our ties to the State
of Israel. His recent book, A Passion for a People explores Jewish Peoplehood, connecting Jews together, regardless where they live or how they practice.

I had the opportunity to hear him in three different settings during his visit last month. The first was when he spoke with the professional staff of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and Tidewater
Jewish Foundation. Next, I was with my daughter as he addressed a group of BBYO’ers. And, the third time was when he addressed a group of emerging Federation leaders—all of them alumni of the Tom Hofheimer Mission to Israel (the culminating activity of a two-year leadership development program).

As a Jewish communal professional, Infeld inspired me with his passion and dedication to the Jewish people. In his recently published book, he talks about the model of the five-legged table to address
the building blocks encompassing Jewish identity and Jewish life. The five “legs” of the table represent: Memory, Family, Mount Sinai, Israel, and Hebrew language.

Infeld spoke with deep passion about the importance of building a Jewish life and identity. He shared his analogy that each of us needs at least three of the five legs of the table in order to survive as a people. A table can stand with as few as three legs (on two legs it falls). If each of us has any three of the five legs of that table, we are bound to share something in common.

Infeld related a story about his father’s shock and dismay on learning that Infeld was to study Jewish History at Hebrew University in Israel. “Jews don’t have history!” his father shouted. “Jews Have
Memory!” History is about the past, whereas memory is understanding how past events impact us today and tomorrow. “We must know where we came from, in order to understand and appreciate
where we are going,” Infeld said.

Infeld spoke about the Jews being part of a big family. Infeld referred to our relationship with God dating back to the covenant made at Mount Sinai. He spoke about the Jewish people’s unique connection with both the land and the State of Israel. Finally, Infeld talked about the importance
of Hebrew language, not only as a means of communication, but also as a way of transferring culture across generations.

As he addressed the Jewish communal professionals, Infeld talked about the challenges and directions of the Jewish people. He referred to the importance of Jewish identity and that fact that we are a people. We must be able to articulate who we are. Infeld continually emphasized our need as a people to be “Unified without having to be Uniform.”

“Our mission,” he said, repeatedly, “is to ensure the continued, significant, renaissance of the Jewish people.” [As Jewish communal professionals] we have a shared mission among different  organizations, each of us with different tasks. We must recognize and understand the difference between the commonality of our MISSION and the different TASKS we take to achieve that mission.

And, we must all understand why Israel is an essential part of Jewish life. Israel was created to support the Jewish people. Apathy is our greatest danger, Infeld noted.

Infeld challenged each adult group that he spoke with to think about how we can collectively ensure that intermarriage is not—and does not become—assimilation. “Intermarriage is here to stay,” he
said. “We must figure out how to address and engage these couples to bring up Jewish children.” Infeld is involved in a new project offered by federations in various communities called Honeymoon
Israel. A birthright-type program for intermarried couples, the program is gaining popularity and showing promising early results across North America.

Finally, Infeld spoke about the importance of Tikkun Olum and our responsibility not only to ourselves, but also to make the world a better place.

The Tidewater Jewish Foundation is here to embrace and understand our past and to help chart a course for our future. We remember where we’ve come from. We remember our ancestors and the community that was here before we arrived. And we plan for our future as a community and as a people. We embody much of Infeld’s definition of “Jewish memory.” I loved his challenge about finding a way for the Jewish people to be unified, without having to be uniform. We are too small to divide and splinter, but at the same time, we should be able to celebrate and appreciate our differences as Jews. We are fortunate to live in a society where we are accepted (for the most part), but we cannot forget from whence we came.

Infeld, in his late 70s, is still full of passion and drive. He recharged my battery by lighting a new spark of my Jewish identity to the interconnectedness of our Jewish people.

Scott Kaplan is president & CEO, Tidewater Jewish Foundation. He may be reached at