[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Ezra Kopelowitz
How do we make sure that Jewish teens embrace both a passion for the Jewish collective enterprise as well as a responsibility for its future? Based on four years of evaluation research for the Diller Teen Fellowship, we have isolated a single dominant factor, which distinguishes the teen who is most likely to be a leader for his or her generation from others. That factor is an intellectual engagement with the challenges facing the Jewish people today and a commitment to translate his or her ideas into action. In other words, a Jewish leader has an opinion about what is good for the Jews and is willing to act on it, the combination of which we label as “Peoplehood Consciousness.”
Peoplehood Consciousness feeds and shapes a number of other key characteristics, at least some of which are present for any Diller alumni whom we categorize as showing Peoplehood Consciousness. These are:
1. A pro-active Jewish identity that is not dependent on an existing Jewish framework
These young people seek out Jewish meaning and engagement wherever they find themselves.
2. Jewish journey – continued Jewish learning and on-going experimentation
The Diller alumni with Peoplehood Consciousness imbue their lives with Jewish relevance, continually experimenting and adapting as they move from high school to college, to travel, to a career, and eventually to raising a family.
3. Awareness of the Jewish other and an embrace of Jewish pluralism
A common virtue of Diller alumni with Peoplehood Consciousness is a strong awareness of the Jewish other and an embrace of Jewish pluralism. While other Jewish organizations produce teen leaders with the other characteristics described here, Diller is among the few programs that focus on the encounter between Jews who are different from one another. For a year these Jewish teens interact intensively with Jews who are different than themselves, in terms of religious and cultural outlook and in terms of national origin. They also receive an intensive exposure to Israeli and Diaspora Jewish society. The result is a sense of mission to nurturing Peoplehood that goes beyond the good of any particular Jewish group. The following are representative excerpts from two alumni.
Question: Since Diller, have you given much thought to the challenges facing the Jewish people? What are the challenges that you have given thought to?
“The ways in which our community is oppressed and closed off to different groups of people; the ways in which the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has not been fully figured out; the ways in which we need to integrate into non-Jewish societies and the ways we should hold back. North-American Jews don’t speak good Jewish language, and I find that scary for our community. Language has always been essential to the Jewish identity. I worry what will happen for the long term if we lose that.”
Question: Are there actions that you are currently taking or plan to take in the future to address the challenges you just described?
“The elections on my campus didn’t go well for the Jewish Groups. We lost representation on the student government board and became a true minority unable to stop more BDS resolutions against Israel from passing. … Rather than attending the student government meeting when I knew the Jews would lose the vote on another anti-Israel resolution, we organized an event at Chabad promoting Jewish bonding in the community. I felt that even though the Jews were losing politically they could at least find strength in connecting with each other and having pride in our faith.”
4. A strong sense of Jewish culture, history and civilization
A person with Peoplehood consciousness sees his or her world on a larger historical stage. For example one alum reflects on what is important to him, in terms of his Jewish identity: “For me it is important to pass on a culture that has lived for thousands of years and to continue to practice aspects of that culture. Living in Israel is a big part of that as well. Practicing the religion, continuing the culture, and working to make Israel the best place it can be. I see the rise in anti-Semitism in the world at the moment. A lot of it is a facade of anti-Semitism being hidden as anti-Zionism. If our State is going to be the center of some people’s bigotry, we need to fight to make the State as perfect as it can be in order to remove the facade of blaming Israel’s actions for their anti-Semitism.”
5. Attaching importance to particularly Jewish volunteering
Almost all Diller Teen Fellowship alumni are active volunteers. The alumni with Peoplehood Consciousness channel at least some of their volunteer energy towards the Jewish world or on behalf of the Jewish world. They view their volunteering as an expression of their commitment to further Jewish values and address challenges, which are central to the good of the Jewish People (broadly defined).
6. The centrality of Israel in their Jewish lives
Almost all the alumni express a very strong connection to Israel, most of whom credit that connection to their Diller experience. The difference between those with Peoplehood Consciousness and the others is in the intensity and depth of the connection. Israel is a central aspect of their Jewish identity. They engage others on issues relating to Israel and devote a lot of thought regarding the relationship between Jews living inside and outside of Israel.
Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz is a sociologist specializing in Jewish education and is the CEO of Research Success Technologies.