Of Peoplehood and Purpose

Articulating the purpose of Jewish engagement is the gateway to tomorrow. Just as there is no technical “fix,” so will Jewish engagement opportunities not rooted in a compelling (to the participant) vision and purpose likely fall short of the mark.

by Dr. Gil Graff

Recently, I attended a conference that featured many of the leading lights of Jewish engagement. Whether relating to teens or adults, to Friday evening happenings or outdoor events, and whether incubating new projects or helping to re-imagine longstanding portals of Jewish engagement, presenters were of one voice on two notions: first, the desirability of an experiential approach; second, the need to frame the experience in other than religious terms. Leading a more fulfilled life, self-improvement, and community/peoplehood were among the underlying rationales proposed for “doing Jewish.”

The conversation was both encouraging and discouraging. The encouragement came from hearing thoughtful, capable people share the creative work in which they are engaged. No one supposes that what is needed, today, is a technical “fix.” Gone are the days of imagining that use of the latest technology or curriculum will draw the sustained interest of teens or young adults. The discouragement springs from a sense that we, collectively, have yet to articulate a compelling rationale for Jewish engagement. Resume building opportunities, travel abroad and social networks might serve as immediate inducements to “Jewish engagement,” but such draws are unlikely to translate to enduring interest in let alone commitment to action informed by Jewish wisdom.

If Jewishness is about self-actualization or peoplehood, why ought an individual – born Jewish or otherwise – take a particular interest in Jewish experiences as a means of satisfying such human needs? There are many paths to self-help, and a sense of American peoplehood – in an era beyond the heyday of ethnic pride – is surely sufficient. Is it any surprise that a declining percentage (relative to earlier generations) of Jews born in the United States feels strong kinship toward or responsibility for other Jews?

We stand “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” (the title of a book by the twentieth century theologian Eliezer Berkovits). Yesterday’s answers do not speak to most of today’s Jews. If peoplehood is – as some suggest – a meaningful platform on which to build Jewish engagement efforts, it begs the question: peoplehood – for what purpose? Mere tribalism is surely unappealing to most American Jews.

Peoplehood emerges from a sense of shared past, common experiences and a vision of the future. Historical ties alone – real or imagined – cannot sustain peoplehood. Jews who engage religiously with traditional Jewish liturgy express the aspiration/vision of repairing the world ‘neath God’s sovereignty. This vision – animating the study and behavior of the religionist – engagement experts agree, no longer speaks to most American Jews.

Articulating the purpose of Jewish engagement is the gateway to tomorrow. Just as there is no technical “fix,” so will Jewish engagement opportunities not rooted in a compelling (to the participant) vision and purpose likely fall short of the mark. As to constructivism – the creation of Jewish meaning constructed by participants from episodic Jewish engagement experiences (one expert presenter for whom I have the highest regard defined “serious” engagement of teens as eight encounters during the course of a year) – as key to a revitalized Jewishness, belief in episodic engagement as a springboard to developing enduring, shared Jewish meaning requires a greater leap of faith than that made by the religionist. Jewish purpose is today’s challenge; all the rest is commentary.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

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  1. Joel Schindler says

    Yashar koach! Really well stated. As I was reading the article, the idea of “all the rest is commentary” crossed my mind; and then I came to your last sentence. Until we can explain the purpose behind Jewish engagement and why and how it offers value, we’ll fail at addressing the challenge and spend all our time on the commentary. And by the way, there isn’t a single answer!! It needs to be individualized in a way we’re not used to operating.

  2. Eliezer Sneiderman says

    This presents the beginning of a very important conversation. In a post ethnic world, much of the support for American Jewish identity has been removed. Theologically, the denominations and moderns expressions of Judaism grew out of the enlightenment were reacting to Positivism. While funders fiddle with marketing and logic models, the larger intellectual issue of a compelling narrative is being ignored.

  3. says

    I agree…excellent article…but one comment: why limit the relevance of your analysis to young people? The landscape you describe and the challenge of episodic engagement affect more than twenty-somethings or next gen. How about Gen X-ers or Boomers? For the latter, this is a time of figuring out how to adapt to a new life stage, changes in one’s career, feelings about who to spend your life with, and how you feel about life’s ultimate questions (including connecting to Jewish life and activities)…sound familiar? Let’s hope that awareness of the challenges to relevance and engagement is not limited to next gen but to “inter-gen”…and maybe we can all make progress…

  4. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Gil and All,

    Bingo, bingo v’od bingo!!!!

    There can be no measurable forward movement in North America toward Jewish engagement (I guess that’s the current version of Jewish continuity) across all age demographics without there first existing a relevant practical application oriented non Orthodox Judaism. This would be a Judaism that has the power to reach the minds and enter the hearts of the majority demographic of Jews who have with their feet and with their $’s said “no” to the status quo.

    The journey begins with relevant compelling answers to the questions “Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish? and Why Judaism?” Without answers all discussions of strategy with the latest organizational catch phrases are useless exercises in futility.

    Indeed the rest is commentary and to continue with Hillel’s teaching who wants to join with me in studying and discerning these necessary answers. And to add
    to Hillel, who among us will be willing to actually implement the findings of this studying. For with out a pledge of implementation all the studying in the world is once again an exercise in futility.

    If you’re interested in pursuing this further my email is: eashov@aol.com .

    Kol tuv,

  5. Bob Hyfler says

    I take my cue from Levinas, the notion that the essence of morality is our confrontation with the face of the ” other ” and the practical mythological and historical observation that Jewish activists, from Moses to Esther to our modern day heroes and roles models, stepped up because they were asked in one way or another to make a difference in the lives of others. Be Jewish because our Jewish mission on this earth, universal and particular, needs you. Compelling Jewish institutions and structures, who stand with and for any of us in times of need, can make that ask. And as it was for me and so many of my compatriots that was the “hineini” moment.

  6. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Bob,

    Above you wrote, “Be Jewish because our Jewish mission on this earth, universal and particular need you.”

    Please help me understand what you mean by “Jewish mission?” Universal I understand, as one doesn’t have to be Jewish to be good and do good. But what do you mean when you modify “Jewish mission” with the word “particular?”

    Bob continues, “Compelling Jewish institutions and structures who stand with and for any of us in times of need, can make that ask.”

    What is/are examples of “compelling Jewish institutions and structures?” My guess would be that their “ask” would fall on the already deaf ears of the majority
    Jewish demographic who have definitively rejected the status quo.


  7. bob hyfler says

    Jordan – thanks for your question.

    I am by professional and Jewish temperment A believer in community and the structures which define it – be they synagogues, schools, human service agencies, camps, chavurot, neighborhoods,families and collectives etc. As I have written elsewhere we, every single one of us, flourish as human beings in the nurturing and supportive environment of community. As we have yet to perfect community the task remains both exciting and unfinished. In how many movies and how many novels and TV shows do we see the character of the reluctant hero charged to make things right and better? There is a Jewish Humphrey Bogart in all of us. I believe we, as humans and Jews, fit that archetypal mode and coupled with the concept of “ohr lagoyim”, we can make a difference by the nurturing and perfection of our own little communal space. The marketplace (or size thereof) does not define the task – the nobility (and if you wish kdushah) of the task must permeate the marketplace. We just have to know how to ask.

    kol tuv,