[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Alan Hoffman and Ilan Wagner
John Dewey, the preeminent American philosopher of education, based his educational approach on the premise that “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education… all genuine education comes about through experience.” As we think about nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century, I believe that our efforts must essentially be guided by the need to create real Jewish Peoplehood connections for young people through experiences.
Whereas the 20th Century, marked by sweeping ideological prisms and the advent of the electronic mass media, allowed for the shaping of identity and consciousness through the articulation and manipulation of collective symbols. Young people coming to age in the 21st Century are infused with a deep seated suspicion of mediated values and propositions. We know from recent sociological literature, that this is not a generation of joiners, nor one of participants in structures created by others. Relevance is rather defined by what emerges out of authentic connections and relationships that are created by young people with each other. With so much information readily available, and constantly being marketed and sold, young people place a premium only on what they can directly experience and sense to be authentic. Peer responses and attitudes, especially of those with whom young people share a personal connection, are seen as reliable guides to authenticity and value. Connecting has replaced belonging as the guiding motivation in social behavior.
The Jewish Peoplehood project for the 21st Century would best be served therefore by focusing on the fostering of connections rather than on the cultivation of a sense of belonging. Jewish education has traditionally used history, ritual and canonical texts to cultivate a sense of membership in a valued and esteemed collective identity. Today’s Jewish education needs to place a premium on facilitating experiential platforms through which young Jews can widen their horizons of relevance and authenticity beyond their immediate and local nexus.
Jewish identity today is increasingly private, internal and local. The diversification of Jewish life – a result of the movement among young people to create their own immediate circles of reference and meaning – leads to the proliferation of specifically demarcated expressions of identity. Fueled by the determination not to belong to what someone else has defined and built, young Jews around the world are creating their own concrete yet narrow patterns of community. As our world moves from broadband to narrowband, as computer algorithms excel at zooming in on each of our personal composition of interests and passions, the Jewish world follows a similar pattern. In these clearly defined and immediate surroundings, young people generate those connections which give them a sense of identity and meaning. We know that these connections are not mutually exclusive; individuals move seamlessly between these identities, creating their own unique mosaics. Yet as a people, we face the danger that while multiple identities co-exist within individuals, they do not join together in wider patterns. The collective glue, which has held the Jewish people together for centuries, the glue which is at the heart of the very concept of Jewish Peoplehood, threatens to dissipate in this individualized and privatized post-modern reality.
In order to foster a sense of Jewish Peoplehood under these conditions, our strategies need to begin with the understanding that identity and meaning emerge from personal and direct involvement and connection. Rather than try to superimpose artificial collective concepts, our task should be to expand the boundaries of the personal and direct so that connections are made with others, who while sharing some similar characteristics also introduce into the interaction identifiable differences as well. The ensuing interaction and interplay between similar and different, between familiar and exotic, between what is comfortable and what is challenging will act to widen personal definitions of meaning and identity and create shared and collective understandings.
The Jewish Agency, under its new strategic plan, sees the interpersonal interaction of young Jews around the world as the key driver of Jewish identity and meaning. The locus of these experiences in Israel, itself a Jewish space linking myriad local and diverse interpretations, is of special importance. The identity formation and strengthening processes that occur during and after an experiential program in Israel play themselves out in that very interaction between personal and collective, between familiar and foreign, which is so conducive to the development of a sense of collective connection which lies at the heart of Jewish Peoplehood. For this reason, we place particular importance on immersive experiences, such as Masa Israel for long-term experiences and our new Onward Israel initiative for mid-length experiences, especially when such experiences are built on ongoing and direct connections with Israeli peers. Our goal is to further develop the experiential frameworks in which increasingly large numbers of young people have immersive experiences in Israel and build meaningful interpersonal connections with Israelis.
And yet such experiences are not limited to Israel. Young Israelis serving as educational emissaries throughout the Jewish world, creating and then sustaining direct relationships and connections with Jewish youth and young adults, expand their own personal and pre-existing boundaries and cultivate a sense of collective Jewish ties and engagement. Israeli and world Jewish young adults, addressing together real and pressing social and economic challenges in the new Jewish agency TEN initiative, forge unique connections as they pursue their shared commitment to bettering the world. All of these initiatives share a common DNA- the creation of a dynamic interaction between young Jews, an interaction through which the myriad personal commitments and passions that each young person brings to the experience generate authentic, real and sustainable connections.
This is Jewish Peoplehood for the 21st Century.
Alan Hoffmann is the Director General of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Ilan Wagner is the Director of Onward Israel at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Unit for Educational Experiences in Israel.