by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
According to Jewish tradition, the world stands on three pillars: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim. Some would claim that these are the central principles which hold the Jewish people together. My Jewish childhood identity, however, stood on three completely different pillars. Like many others of my generation who grew up in non-religious homes, three of the core experiences which formed my Jewish identity were: the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and the Soviet Jewry movement. My early memories include: watching the series “Holocaust” on television with my family, listening to my parents “discuss” whether my father should answer the call for doctors to go to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and meeting up with thousands of other Jews from around the country to march for Soviet Jewry in Washington DC. Each of these experiences made me feel part of the Jewish people. None of them had an overtly “religious” nature. None of them took place in a synagogue, camp or day school. They were experiential education at its best – not because someone was trying to educate me towards Jewish peoplehood, but because there was a legitimate cause that brought our people together.
The world has changed significantly from the Cold War days of my childhood. Back then, there was moral clarity about good and evil: The Holocaust was bad. The Yom Kippur attack on Israel was bad. Depriving Soviet Jews of their freedom was bad. It was easy for Jewish people of all stripes and flavours to come together and create a “civic Judaism” to fight these evils. The by-product of this battle was Jewish solidarity and a feeling of “peoplehood,” exemplified by the UJA slogan “We Are One.” Today, despite the rhetoric of some politicians, the lines between good and evil are more complex. The global post-nationalistic world in which we live does not lend itself to demonization of others in such simple ways. In addition, we live in a highly individualistic culture, where we all sport multiple and hybrid identities, which only adds to the complexity of constructing a new model for Jewish peoplehood.
How should a Jewish family foundation respond to this new reality? One attempt is the case study of JHub, a project of the London-based Pears Foundation. As the Pears Foundation grew over the last eight years, one of the projects they commissioned was a report to map social action provision within the British Jewish community. The report recommended offering more support for these organisations in order to enhance their presence within the community and allow for greater collaboration between them. This led to the creation of JHub (modelled loosely after Bikkurim, a non-profit Jewish incubator in New York). In 2008, JHub opened its door with three Jewish organisations as its initial residents: Tzedek (international development), JVN (the Jewish Volunteering Network), and Rene Cassin (human rights). Four years on, JHub has established itself in the British Jewish community and is starting to have an impact beyond those boundaries as well. Thus far, seventeen organisations have received support in the form of JHub shared office space, seed grants, networking opportunities, professional development and/or consultancy.
Starting in 2012, JHub is expanding its model to build on its success thus far. We have recognized that Jewish peoplehood will be constructed differently in the next generation. My childhood experience will not necessarily be the model for the future. We at JHub have witnesses how the global Jewish social action movement is growing and we want to help build the organisations, people and projects which can support it and allow it to become the next generation’s “Soviet Jewry Movement.” Therefore, we are growing JHub from being simply a residential incubator for organisations to also becoming a membership organisation which will create an umbrella community of people who share a commitment to Jews making a contribution to society. While JHub will certainly continue to incubate new start-up organisations, we will also create a physical networking space, a microgrants programme, and professional development opportunities for anyone working to promote social justice in the Jewish community. This will create a community of interconnected people who will work together towards a common vision of Jewish social justice. As such, JHub is now taking its place among the emerging global field of Jewish service learning and social action networking organisations such as SIACH, Repair the World, JDC Entwine, Tzedek, AJWS, ROI, Avodah, Tevel b’Tzedek, and many others.
What is going on here? Why the sudden surge in young people’s commitment to social action and service learning? While I don’t know for sure, I’d like to suggest that this is the way the next generation will express their understanding of Jewish mission, and thus Jewish peoplehood. This generation’s commitment to making a difference – through environmental and sustainability issues, responsible business practice, human rights advocacy, international development, and volunteering – is a way of expressing their particularistic Jewish identity while addressing issues of global concern. What is striking is that the issues they are choosing to pursue are not parochial Jewish interests; they are universal problems which will impact the future of the entire human race.
JHub was created by Pears Foundation with a shared belief that building Jewish peoplehood cannot be an end in itself. When there was an external enemy, we did not need to debate how to encourage the Jewish people to come together and share a single fate. We were defined by enemies and held together by oppression. While Antisemitism sadly still exists (which is why Pears Foundation established the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and is also the largest private investor in Holocaust education in the UK), Antisemitism no longer exhibits itself in the forms it did a generation ago. Fighting a common enemy can no longer be the primary commonality that we share as Jews. That approach will not lead to a positive Jewish identity for the next generation, nor will it serve as effective connective tissue for a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Jewish peoplehood, I believe, will be expressed far differently in its next phase. What I see happening at JHub and beyond is a generation who are expressing their Jewish identity in universal terms. They understand the Jewish imperative to “repair the world” and they are taking steps to do so. To be sure, they would likely do this whether or not they were given a Jewish platform to do it from. They have been raised with Jewish values and in Jewish homes, so they understand this imperative in their kishkes.
If we want them to transmit this passion to the generation after them, however, we do need to intervene and provide Jewish language for them to articulate what they are doing and why. They need to understand and express that it is their particularistic Jewish values and tradition which, at least in part, impel them to make a difference in larger society. They need to “do social action” within the context of a non-denominational and inclusive Jewish setting in order to create a rich community of practice where there is diversity held together by a singular commitment to social justice. That is what JHub offers. We bring together Jews and non-Jews who believe that Judaism has a contribution to make to society, and we give them the support, networking, and skills training to do that with Jewish language and within the Jewish community.
In some ways, this is not so different from the way my sense of Jewish peoplehood was formed. Whereas my Jewish loyalties were garnered against a particular external enemy which was another nation-state, this generation’s Jewish energy is being focused against universal external “enemies” such as poverty and injustice. Paradoxically, it may be that the best way to promote Jewish peoplehood might be to stop focusing on it so singularly, as this makes it an insular concern in an age of universal issues. Instead, we should create more spaces and facilitate networks of people to do what is right and to pursue justice while simultaneously expressing their Jewish identity in proud and positive language. In the same way that the Soviet Jewry movement galvanized my generation, the social action movement will galvanize the next. An enhanced sense of Jewish peoplehood will likely be a result of this if we can create Jewish communities engaged in social justice issues, but let’s not jump on the social action bandwagon for that reason. Let’s do it because it is the right thing to do – as Jews and as human beings. In turn, the Jewish People will benefit, but more importantly, so will the world.
Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of JHub: Jewish Social Action and Innovation which is a project of the London-based Pears Foundation, a Jewish family foundation which focuses on positive identity and citizenship.