A Philosophical History of Kulanu

A Philosophical History of Kulanu

By Ben Lefkowitz

Introduction: What is Kulanu?

That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer through these histories. In the Fall 2020 issue, I wrote about how Kulanu came about. In this issue, I’m writing about why Kulanu came about — what drove Kulanu’s founders back then, and what drives the volunteers today. The hope is that readers can read both of these articles and come to a conclusion about what Kulanu is, exactly. Reflecting on an organization’s history and mission is a blessing in a world that rarely stops for definition or self-reflection. I found a myriad of motivations for Kulanu’s existence, many which seemed contradictory or polar opposites. It seems that the name Kulanu — Hebrew for All of Us — reflects not just the diversity of the Jewish people, but also the diversity of beliefs within the Jewish people. All of us also implies that Jews of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and visions can work together toward common goals and the common good, and I believe that describes this organization exactly. What follows are descriptions of the major value and motivational categories I found in my interviews, although dividing interviewee quotes into these categories was a bit like dividing an atom. The categories represent strands of thought, not distinct camps of belief. Curiosity and

Fascination —
Jews in Places You Never Thought Of

Founding members of Kulanu Karen and Aron Primack in 2010

It’s no secret that, for most American Jews (and many Israelis), the fact that there are Jews in places we often wouldn’t expect is astounding. What I discovered through my interviews is that this aspect was the introduction to Kulanu for many of its founders and volunteers. Karen and Aron Primack, for example, first joined Amishav, Kulanu’s sibling organization, after hearing a talk on lost tribes. Another founding member of Kulanu, Bob Lande, told me about the initial American reaction to a visiting Ethiopian Jew, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. “At the time, nobody knew what an Ethiopian Jew was. It was just a totally exotic thing,” Bob said. “He blew the minds of everybody in the audience.” Especially for American Jews — who tend to have a very particular image of what a Jew looks like and does (Yiddish, bagels, Mel Brooks) — isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities can act as a shock that expands our ethnic and spiritual imagination of what a Jew can be. The important thing to note here is that curiosity often served as the initial motivation — the poster on the wall — for many Kulanu devotees. The cultural differences involved in Kulanu’s work, and often the shock of first reaching an unknown community, tend to make headlines. There is, however, much more meaning and purpose to Kulanu. For those I interviewed, a core mission quickly emerged from initial excitement. I believe, however, that the initial emotion of meeting a Jew very different from many of us carries a deeper lesson. From the first moment of realization, it takes a cudgel to our pre-conceptions of religion and peoplehood, our assumptions about Ashkenazi normativity and Judaism, and our place within history.

Jewish Solidarity

Founding members of Kulanu Diane and Jack Zeller

One of the driving sentiments behind Kulanu is a sense of Jewish solidarity and peoplehood. Jack Zeller, a Kulanu founder, told me:Kulanu is valid, and Jews helping other Jews is valid, because Jewish parochialism is old, tried, and t rue. And it works. It works for everybody who’s participating. It enhances life. It gives life meaning and it makes your identity stronger.

Founding members of Kulanu Diane and Jack ZellerKulanu arrived at a particular time in Jewish history. In the five decades before its founding, the Jewish world experienced the Holocaust (1941-1945), the elation of the founding of the State of Israel (1948), the Six Day War (1967), the crises of the Yom Kippur War (1973) and the Soviet Refusniks (1970s-80s), the Ethiopian Aliyah operations (1984 and 1991), and the American march against anti-Semitism spearheaded by organizations such as B’nai Brith and Hadassah. This period led to the development of responsive and effective Jewish philanthropic institutions, and the maturity of a generation of dynamic and dedicated Jewish activists. Many of Kulanu’s founders were among that generation of Jewish activists and were particularly involved in the fight for Ethiopian Jewry. They viewed support for other isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities as the logical next step for Jewish action. I speculate that the Refusenik crisis, and perhaps Jewish revivals like the Ba’al Teshuva movement, play a role in Kulanu’s Jewish-activist DNA, although my interviews didn’t quite reach this subject. Many members also grew a strong Jewish identity in Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform summer camps, such as Ramah. Of course, what differentiates Kulanu from the rest of recent Jewish activist history is its insistence on expanding peoplehood, and the solidarity that follows, to communities the mainstream Ashkenazi community refuses to see, disputes, or ignores. “If someone wants to be Jewish, if someone wants to claim their Judaism, or become Jewish, fine,” Aron Primack told me. “We don’t ask the question: Who is a Jew? Once you’ve said you are a Jew, you want education — we’re happy to give you education.” One sub-theme I want to mention is Kulanu in the context of historical Jewish persecution. Many interviewees saw their own history in the persecution that isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities face today. Karen Primack and Harriet Bograd both drew parallels between the horrific persecution that the Abayudaya (Ugandan Jewish) community experienced under Idi Amin, and the Spanish Inquisition. Rabbi Gerald Sussman likened an Indian Jewish community which he and his wife visited in 2007 to the Pale of Settlement: In a way, it didn’t feel alien, because I remember my father growing up in the shtetl. Also, no running water and washing clothes in the river. Some of the things he would talk about, that’s what people were actually doing. So I felt that they’re not so different from us. In a sense, many of Kulanu’s activists, volunteers, and donors are motivated by a sense that the Jewish “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” More directly, by combating modern Jewish persecution and poverty, they are answering the question, “What would you have done?” for the horrors of Jewish history, and writing better endings to the stories of that history. I myself felt a sense of shock, too-close-to-home, upon reading about how Ethiopian Jews were labeled as hyenas and other magical creatures. It felt similar to my mother’s experience in Atlanta, where she was often asked if she had horns. Rabbi Gerald Sussman and Kulanu’s current first vice president Rabbinit Bonita Sussman during their 2007 visit with the Bene Ephraim community in Andhra Pradesh, India

Rabbi Gerald Sussman and Kulanu’s current first vice president Rabbinit Bonita Sussman during their 2007 visit with the Bene Ephraim community in Andhra Pradesh, India

Humanitarianism, Anti-Poverty, and Human Rights

In the history of Jewish philanthropy and activism above, I left out something crucial: Jews were involved not just in Jewish causes, but in the fight for human rights, freedom, antipoverty, and dignity in America and globally. Jews were cornerstones of America’s civil rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights movements. Once America’s philanthropic global presence grew, Jews found themselves on the front lines of humanitarian causes all around the world. Kulanu’s current president, Harriet Bograd, describes herself as a “professional volunteer” with extensive experience in NGOs. The Primacks had worked primarily for global humanitarian organizations such as the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders before coming to Kulanu. One veteran Kulanu volunteer, Sandy Leeder, was right beside Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech, and served in the Peace Corps in  Niger. What I found through my interviews is that many Kulanu members were motivated to help emerging, returning, and isolated Jewish communities, not just out of a sense of Jewish solidarity, but also feminism, disability rights, anti-poverty, and pure human goodwill. Karen Primack shared: My background is in civil rights law. I became interested in Kulanu largely because I thought that people ought to be able to choose their own religion. And so it interested me that there were people in different parts of the world who were having trouble in that respect.

Kulanu’s current president Harriet Bograd on her first ever Kulanu visit which was to Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana in June 2001. Pictured is Ken Klein (Harriet’s husband), Margie Klein (her daughter), Harriet, and community leaders Kofi Kwarteng and David Ahenkora.

Kulanu’s current president Harriet Bograd on her first ever Kulanu visit which was to Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana in June 2001. Pictured is Ken Klein (Harriet’s husband), Margie Klein (her daughter), Harriet, and community leaders Kofi Kwarteng and David Ahenkora.Kulanu’s current president Harriet Bograd on her first ever Kulanu visit which was to Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana in June 2001. Pictured is Ken Klein (Harriet’s husband), Margie Klein (her daughter), Harriet, and community leaders Kofi Kwarteng and David Ahenkora.While Kulanu was originally founded as an organization to support isolated, emerging, and returning communities in terms of Jewish growth, it quickly expanded to supporting education, skill development, hunger relief, and limited infrastructure and development projects. The results speak for themselves. Today the Abayudaya, the Jewish Ugandan community that Kulanu has supported since Kulanu’s inception, is a growing beacon of light. Unlike many historical Ashkenazi communities, the Abayudaya are not isolated; they are intertwined in a neighborhood that contains Christians, Muslims, and traditional Ugandans as well as Jews. For the Abayudaya, an elementary school, for example, is most effective if it benefits their non-Jewish neighbors, spreading the benefit and increasing the Abayudaya’s standing with neighbors. Similarly, providing only Torahs, prayer books, and synagogue funding to a community in the midst of a severe famine is ineffective, and many Kulanu board members support direct relief in some situations. Ideally, community development and extreme poverty relief extend Jewish  solidarity and provide necessary prerequisites to communities’ Jewish growth. However, there are numerous challenges and obstacles that hinder the success of such development and relief work. The decision to provide support beyond Jewish education, recognition, and spiritual/ethnic growth, is one ultimately made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the community in question. Harriet phrases it like this: “We decided that we were not a [purely] religious organization in selective cases.” Boni provided a similar definition:

Kulanu founding member Bob Lande and his wife Jeri in Israel in 2004 with a member of the Shinlung (aka Bnei Menashe) community in northeastern India. This woman and members of her community were among the earliest of the Shinlung to make aliyah to Israel.

Kulanu is an organization primarily interested in supporting isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities in their spiritual and ethnic Jewish journeys, but occasionally makes exceptions and delivers more broad support, when appropriate, to a specific community’s circumstance.

Kulanu is undeniably an organization focused on Jewish growth. The fact, however, that many of its founders and members have backgrounds in global human rights and development and come to Kulanu out of a sense of shared humanity, implies that humanitarian relief is a part of its DNA, though not its primary mission. As Kulanu evolves, whether its mission will broaden or focus remains to be seen, and likely depends on the next generation of Kulanu leadership.

Jewish Revival and Preservation

A member of our Costa Rica partner community receiving food relief package during the COVID-19 food shortage

Kulanu’s support for its partner Jewish communities is directed primarily by the needs and interests of the communities themselves. The communities Kulanu connects with and supports are already Jewish or arrive at the decision to become Jewish before contacting Kulanu. Kulanu itself takes pains not to push or promote a particular Jewish agenda, tradition, or denomination.  Many of Kulanu’s founders and volunteers, however, believe that Kulanu’s work serves not just its partner communities, but the Jewish religion and people in general. On this topic, I’ve heard two major arguments. The first: that the return of disparate and new communities is necessary or helpful to rebuild the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust and decimation of Jewish communities in Arab lands. Kulanu First Vice President Boni Sussman explained to me that Kulanu “will provide the future leadership of the Jewish people, the talmidei chachamim, communal leaders and thinkers,” claiming that she first heard the idea from her husband, Rabbi Gerald Sussman. Boni continued: After the destruction of Jewish communities in the Holocaust and in North Africa, we need to create new Jewish communities. We’ve established the State of Israel. So we have a homeland. We’re working on that. And now we have to grow the people.

The second and less obvious reason: that Kulanu offers a revival in the context of waning (or perhaps changing) Jewish identity in America, in particular the threat that America’s liberal denominations, such as Reform and Conservative Judaism, now face. There are now Reform and Reconstructionist communities in Guatemala and Italy, and Conservative communities in Kenya and Uganda. Kulanu is non-denominational, and never emphasizes a specific denomination when working with communities seeking Jewish growth unless asked by that community to do so. That being said, most communities Kulanu works with seek to become Orthodox, or retain their own traditional practices. It is heartwarming, however, for many liberal denomination rabbis to see eagerness to practice their brand of traditions, and Judaism in general, in the wake of fast-emptying synagogues. Additionally, although I haven’t seen this particularly in Kulanu, I speculate that some Sephardic Jewish leaders view fringe Jewish communities, such as those of returning Spanish conversos, as a potential demographic for Sephardi traditions to flower. Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef advocated strongly for Ethiopian Jews, I believe in part because he saw value in the recognition and return of communities with strong non-Ashkenazi traditions.

Since its inception, Kulanu has supported the Abayudayan Jewish community in Uganda, to which these three children belong. Photo by Chaya Weinstein

Kulanu’s founders and leaders tend to view Kulanu’s mission of Jewish growth in the context of widening assimilation in America. This sentiment is not just intellectual, but often emotional; Kulanu members are often touched by the deep yearning for Jewish culture and learning they find in partner communities. Boni Sussman remarked, “We’re used to having people run away from the Jewish community. We did all these little trickeluch to keep them hooked in. The established Jewish world is not used to having groups banging on their doors for acceptance.” On her first visit to a partner community in Ghana, Kulanu’s president Harriet Bograd attended a Jewish class her daughter was teaching. She was struck by the children’s enthusiasm. Harriet shared: You just never see a group of kids in Hebrew school in the United States quite as excited and intensely involved as these kids were. And I was just so proud of my daughter, and so proud of them, and so glad to be there. Karen Primack told me the story of Matt Meyers, the first Ashkenazi Jew to discover (and be discovered by) the Abayudaya: When Matt Meyers first connected with the Abayudaya, he said that he was sort of not observing Judaism — he had lost interest. And when he heard the Abayudaya on their Shabbat, he was just totally enthralled and turned around. Bob Lande described Kulanu as an inspiration to the American Jewish world: One of the reasons why I helped form Kulanu was the idea that there are these people all over the world who want to join the Jewish people, and so many people in the United States are throwing their Judaism away, they don’t see anything of value . . . My hope is not just to strengthen the Jewish people, by whoever, whatever individuals or groups want to join, but to be an inspiration to people everywhere. There’s all these people all over the world who want to join us, be part of us. Let’s re-examine what we have. And hopefully, some of those assimilating Jews in the United States will find out that this is something worth having, worth strengthening their bonds to.

Rabbi Scott Glass, a member of the 2002 Ugandan beit din that converted many Abayudaya, offered a deeply felt reflection: We rabbis work all our lives to instill Jewish values and practices. We minister to people who are generally secure, educated, and comfortable, and we are so often thwarted by just that comfort, safety, and enlightenment. Our people are often hard-pressed to see their tradition as something to be treasured and appreciated. And here, in the poorest corner of the world, under the worst conditions, were people who expressed, with simplicity yet with eloquence, their great devotion to God, Torah, Israel, and Shabbat. Nothing I have read, nothing I had heard, could have prepared me for this heartfelt, unquestioning, unwavering faith.

Shabbat Service in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe, during Pesach 2012. As in many places, the local culture has influence, so some Jewish prayers here are sung with Zimbabwean rhythms.

 Jewish Diversity and Jews of Color

Kulanu is a global organization and works with communities in places as disparate as Western Europe, Indonesia, and Peru. In all of Kulanu’s communities — both the isolated and returning, and the emerging — unique Jewish traditions survive, or emerge. Enter the synagogue in Zimbabwe’s Lemba Jewish community and you can catch Jewish prayers sung to Zimbabwean rhythms. Visit the isolated converso communities in Latin America, and you can find traditions that existed in Spain 500 years ago. Many of Kulanu’s community members are Jews of color in countries often overlooked by the mainstream Jewish community, such as Zimbabwe, the Philippines, or India. Kulanu’s work to help these communities develop their Jewish identity, and to legitimize them in the mainstream, adds incredible diversity and options to the Jewish people and religion, and challenges racist and “Ashkenormative” concepts of Jewishness and Judaism. Harriet Bograd gave me a glimpse of what these communities offer the Jewish community: I think that we contribute to the Jewish people by bringing all kinds of talents and resources and leadership and vision . . . and passionate music that we didn’t have before. And, as Boni likes to say . . . after the Holocaust and the decimation of Jewish communities in Arab lands, the idea [is] that we’re establishing Jewish communities that have their own richness and variety. I think it’s a big contribution to the Jewish world.  Harriet also added, “I think acknowledging that we’re not all white is important.” Boni specified that in her opinion, Jewish diversity includes cultural diversity as well. She told me:  Jewish diversity means to me not so much people of color, but people from many different backgrounds and cultures. Few think of Jewish Italians, or Jews from Iceland or Madagascar. 

Bob Lande, an activist involved in the Ethiopian aliyah before co-founding Kulanu, told me about the early attitudes towards Ethiopian Jews and Kulanu’s partner community in Peru: . . .The Orthodox were not [always] as friendly and welcoming . . . And the Reform, too — there were just any number of people who just looked at Ethiopian Jews and said, “I don’t care about this halacha business. You don’t look Jewish to me.” Ethiopian Jews used to be a real issue within the Jewish community. “These people are Black and do we really want them?” The community I worked with the most was a group of converts in Peru, and the mainstream Jewish community in Peru wanted nothing to do with them. They were poor and they were brown and they were suspect. [Established Peruvian Jews] were often not friendly, [and] they would not let [Peruvians] come to their synagogue. Now most of them ended up making aliyah . . . People who were brown and who were Black — a lot of American Jews did not welcome. It sounds incredible today — but believe me — that was true 30 years ago.  Bob put this in the context of Kulanu: one way of understanding its mission is “putting the issue of these communities onto the Jewish agenda. And then making them a higher priority. Convincing the Jewish establishment to help them.” In recent years, the mainstream Jewish community has belatedly begun to recognize the existence and legitimacy of Jewish communities of color. In this respect, Kulanu’s leaders and visionaries are two decades ahead of the curve. Today, Kulanu is even more of a model of Jewish diversity; partner community members sit on its board, as does the esteemed African American Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., Chief Rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. Kulanu has generally led by example rather than politics, promoting Jewish diversity and dignity for Jews of color by its support for those communities, and by publicizing their existence.

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. has worked with Kulanu to promote Jewish diversity and dignity for Jews of color.

Simple Human Connection

Many of my interviewees came to Kulanu out of a sense of curiosity, or sought to benefit the Jewish people and religion, or humanity as a whole. One of the major reasons these activists have stayed with Kulanu so long, and one of the most common themes I’ve heard mentioned, is the friendships made, and the pure joy of Kulanu activities. When the Abayudaya community had its first mass conversion, Kulanu members present had the chance to attend five weddings in the span of a few days! Other Kulanu volunteers love hosting members of partner communities in their houses — a few have guest rooms that are constantly occupied. Harriet described it as: Just a joy . . . Jack [Zeller] talked about this being about kinship; it’s like we find relatives all over the world. We’re in a time when people are lonely from COVID-19. I’m never alone, because I just have a sense of this whole network, of being a worldwide caring community. She went on to tell me an incredible story about a “Kulanu Across the Globe” celebration when a young woman from Nigeria read a poem by Schulamith Chava Halevy, a descendant of the Inquisition. You can read the poem, Your Reflection in my Mirror, here: bit.ly/HalevyPoem. The Nigerian woman thought at first that the poem was about her community and Jewish experience:  Eventually, she realized they had so much in common with all these other communities in Latin America, and all these different places [that] had the same dream and were working together. It just meant so much to her. Not just that she was connected to mainstream Jewish communities, but she was getting access to other communities that had this similar yearning. It was just a very powerful moment for me to see her so moved . . . She said she thought what was so beautiful about our work was that people are discovering their Judaism. And when you’re with people when they discover something so important about themselves, it’s wonderful to be there with them.  Kulanu members have built incredible connections with Jews in far-away places. They have not only witnessed history on a national and community scale, but a personal one as well.

Conclusion: What is Kulanu?

Carlito during Sukkot in the Philippines, 2019. Kulanu has helped this community find their Jewish identity and legitimize them to others. Photo by Coalesce Browne

As we have seen, there are many motivations and values behind Kulanu’s origins and presentday activity. As I mentioned above, these values can sometimes even appear contradictory. An American Jew can see in an isolated Jewish community both a fresh and alien take on Jewish identity, and their own grandparents’ shtetl. Kulanu members include those deeply invested in Jewish peoplehood and “parochialism,” and those deeply invested in alleviating global human suffering. In my interviews, I’ve heard desires to both preserve, and to expand or affect, the Jewish people and religion. There are Orthodox and secular members working side-by-side. I suspect, however, that these disparate motivations are not necessarily exclusive (see Rav Kook’s Fourfold Song at bit.ly/fourfoldsong). I also believe that what’s true for Kulanu is true for Jews overall: put three Jews together, you get four opinions. Throughout Jewish history — from the Israeli War of Independence to your local synagogue — Jews are able to cooperate and work cohesively due to trust and shared goals, whatever the underlying reason. “I don’t care why or what you’re davening, as long as you answer amen to kedusha.” That principle of Jewish organizations not only applies to Kulanu — it is Kulanu’s strength. It can attract a wide array of supporters and volunteers and stay dynamic and flexible because it is defined more by its mission and actions than by a strict core philosophy. It helps that Kulanu is a relatively small organization (in terms of administrative structure, not impact) that looks for activist board members, relies on long-term volunteers, and tends to attract dedicated and involved donors and supporters. It’s a bit of a synagogue, and a bit of a family.

In the journal article Moral maps and medical imaginaries (2012), anthropologist  Claire L. Wendland describes doctor swaps between hospitals in Malawi and America as built on “moral maps.” Malawian doctors working in America, she found, viewed American medical practice as “authentic.” In the United States they had access to the highest equipment, the best trained aides, the most scientific know-how, and educated and obedient patients. American doctors working on an exchange program in Malawi, though, also felt that they were experiencing “authentic” practice: in overcrowded and underfunded hospitals, they felt like superheroes, performing constant improvised life-saving procedures instead of plastic surgery operations or other non-dire uses of their skill. Wendland describes the doctors as making “moral maps.” Each group viewed the foreign situation as the “authentic” practice and their efforts there the most “moral” use of their profession. I’d like to apply this moral map concept to Kulanu. We often perceive Kulanu through its benefit to its partner communities — a charity, a philanthropy, a service to Jews around the world. However, as we’ve seen above, Kulanu activists and leaders also gain from  Kulanu’s efforts: the expansion and preservation of Jewishness, the fulfillment of tikkun olam, the historical catharsis of resisting modern pogroms and inquisitions, the experience of a more exigent Jewish life, curiosity, friendship, and meaning. Many members of Kulanu’s partner communities draw a moral map to mainstream Judaism through Kulanu by learning about and adopting some American establishment or Haredi forms of Judaism, or perhaps by gaining official recognition from establishment and global Jews. So too, Kulanu members often draw a moral map to the partner communities. They see a Jewish spirit they rarely find at home, and sometimes a full reincarnation of their ancestors’ Judaism, lives, and even their persecution. Kulanu’s volunteers and its partner community members seek Jewishness in the other. All of this is to suggest another definition of Kulanu’s values and value: Kulanu is not a destination, but a web. It links the mainstream Jewish community with its most disparate diasporas; Kulanu is the communication between these Jewish communities, and the benefits that result from it.