Editor’s note: this article first appeared on JLiving Media. As always, I am so grateful to have Rabbi Sam Spector as a writer, both for his thoughtful approach to his adventures and for his unique perspective as a rabbi traveling the globe. For more of Sam’s writing, click here to visit his index page.
I am writing this article while trying to simultaneously entertain my 9-month-old daughter on our transatlantic flight from Salt Lake City, Utah to Amsterdam, where we have a 12-hour layover before continuing on to Israel. In raising my Jewish daughter in Utah, I plan for her to never have a vacation. My idea of a vacation is for us to sit on a beach in Cabo San Lucas and enjoying the amenities of an all-inclusive resort. No, rather, my wife and I are not raising a Jewish girl who vacations, but raising a Jewish girl who will travel, whose adventures will not be a respite from her brain, but rather an experiential learning opportunity for her brain that will enrich her Jewish identity while teaching the world of the small, yet vibrant Jewish community that we have in Utah.
During our 12-hours in Amsterdam, we will be taking Miriam to the phenomenal and historic Portuguese Synagogue, as well as to the Anne Frank House. My 9-month-old daughter will not remember ever going to these places, but one day, she will start to develop her first memories and whenever that may be, if travel can reinforce to her a lifelong Jewish identity and also a knowledge that around the world, there are people like her who celebrate a rich and diverse history, it will be an investment worthwhile. Exploring the world in a Jewish way helps us follow in a rich history of “wandering Jews” that dates back to Abraham receiving his call to leave his home and go to a land that he did not know. We learn from Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” The world has much to teach our family, and yet, reminiscent of the words from Isaiah that we are to be “a light unto the nations (Isaiah 60:3),” we believe that we can go and be ambassadors not just of the Utah Jewish community but for the Jewish people.
In the nearly 60 countries that I have been to, I have met many fascinating people. Many of the people that I have met have never met a Jewish person, and I have met more than a few who due to this lack of exposure have held anti-Semitic views that are based not from hatred, but from pure ignorance; I have even met sympathizers and members of terrorist organizations that are sworn to the annihilation of the Jewish people. In all these situations, I am always honest about being Jewish and also a rabbi. As a result, I have helped dispel some of the anti-Semitic views that I have encountered. I recall in Egypt being in a small village and hearing people stating anti-Semitic views; when I was asked what my religion was, I responded that I was a Jew. The whole group of Egyptian men that I was sitting with all went silent, until one man named Ahmed mustered the courage to say something. The words that came out of his mouth were, “Atah midaber Ivrit?” which is Hebrew for, “Do you speak Hebrew?” When I responded that I did, his face lit up and he excitedly told the whole group that Jews were good people and that he learned Hebrew because he became friends with an Israeli soldier when he was a young boy growing up in the Sinai Peninsula. In Morocco, a couple of young Moroccan women started up a friendship with me and added me on Facebook. During one of the wars between Israel and Hamas, they reached out to me to ask about the “Zionist crimes”. I presented them a different narrative than the one they had been seeing on their own media and they told me that my perspective helped them to see Israelis as fellow people. Finally, I remember a young man from South Africa who I met in a hostel in Thailand asking me about the secret bank accounts that Jews have. When I asked him what he was talking about, he started quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He was surprised and appreciative when I educated him that that was an anti-Semitic forgery. With every interaction I have had in my travels, being mindful that I am an ambassador, the person who I am meeting has walked away with a more informed and positive opinion of Jews and Judaism.
So how do I go about traveling Jewish? There are several ways to do so. First, it depends if you want to go to a particular place for reasons beyond Judaism or for Jewish reasons. In the first case, if I decide I am going to a place for non-Jewish reasons, I begin to research the Jewish history of that region. Jewish encyclopedias, Wikipedia, and virtual libraries are helpful resources in doing so. It is also surprising to me how many books there are about Jewish history of different countries and locations (for example, there are two books that I know of about the Jewish history of Utah alone). When I was going to Serbia a couple of years ago, I did the online research, but also found a book on the history of the Jews of Yugoslavia. As a result, I found beautiful synagogues in the cities of Subotica, Novi Sad, and Belgrade that I visited and also arranged for a Jewish tour of Belgrade. If I am going to a place because I have researched the Jewish history of it and decide that it is a place that I want to go, like when I went to Germany, and the trip is entirely Jewish-centric, I take a different route.
There is an entire industry of Jewish travel to places all over the world that can organize group or individual tours. If you want to have the trip experience where you have an informed guide, transportation arranged, and everything ready to go for you, going with one of these tours is a great investment and you can find them through simple internet searches such as “Jewish tour of Germany”. For me, I like to explore on my own and get lost in the process. There are more frustrations that come with this approach, such as showing up at synagogues that are closed or will not let you in for security purposes, or having to find creative ways to get to hard-to-reach areas; however, for some explorers, the frustrations are part of the journey. In preparing to do so, I often use the suggested itineraries from these professional tour companies on their websites as suggestions for the must-see highlights.
In preparing for my trips, I also look for local Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center websites for their suggested local resources. I, too, have a coffee table book on Jewish Museums Around the World and try to visit those in each place. It is important to me to see living communities and how Judaism continues and builds in these areas, as well as communities that are no more than a silent tribute to let those souls know that their memories have not been forgotten. While nearly everywhere there is a Chabad House, which is a great resource for kosher food and religious activities, as a progressive Jew and rabbi, Chabad is not reflective of my Judaism. For this reason, I often go onto the websites for the World Union of Progressive Judaism (the international wing of the Reform Movement) and the Masorti Olami (the Conservative Movement’s international wing) and see if there are progressive synagogues in the places where I am going. For domestic travel, I visit the Union for Reform Judaism and United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism websites and search for a congregation where I am headed. After doing so, I reach out to the community and let them know ahead of time that I am visiting so that they know to expect me, and I will often get a Shabbat or holiday dinner invitation with a local family as a result. Another website that I was recently turned onto was the Israeli website Jewish Traveler (https://www.jewishtraveler.co.il/), which provides information on local Jewish communities, kosher eating, etc… for Jewish travelers. In many parts of the world, especially Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Joint Distribution Committee, which works to help support underserved communities, many of which were neglected under Communism, can also be a resource for connecting with local fledgling communities.
It is a blessing to live in a time when we are so connected to the rest of the world. While I have had so many adventures, there are places within our own country that I want to Jewish travel to like Charleston and Savannah, whose immaculate early Reform temples shed a light onto American Jewish life in the 19th century, but also international places like the town of Quba, Azerbaijan (Quba has happened so click on the link) the world’s last remaining shtetl. Yet, living in this time is not the only blessing in my life. Every morning, I say the blessing, “Baruch Atah HaShem, She Asani Yisrael”, “Blessed are You, God, who made me a Jew.” Being Jewish has enhanced my life in so many ways, including where I visit and how I experience the world.
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