By Stephen G. Donshik
A Passion for a People: Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator
Published by Melitz, 2017, Jerusalem
A great deal has been researched, written, and discussed about Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood over the last twenty-five years. Countless professors, rabbis, educators, researchers, and communal professionals have addressed the challenges, problems, and opportunities the Jewish people are confronting in the 21st century. Is there a need for one more book on the subject?
Yes, if it is by Avraham Infeld!
Avrum (the name he is known by) has written an exciting book, with the help of Clare Goldwater, based on his decades of experience working with Jewish communities around the world. I did say exciting. I know it is unusual to think of a book focused on Jewish identity and peoplehood as exciting, but this book fits the bill.
Reading the book, I felt like Avrum was actually speaking to me, and for those of you who have the privilege of knowing him, a strong sense of his presence comes through his words and ideas. He has been thinking and speaking about the key concepts discussed in the book for many years and has had the opportunity to build on his experiences to develop his ideas throughout his rich career.
The book is structured in a very logical and user-friendly way. In the first section, “The Jews as a People,” Avrum makes a very cogent case that Judaism is not just a religion focused on religious beliefs. There is a broader and deeper connection among Jews to goes beyond a shared belief in a supreme being and religious rituals. We, as Jews, are all related to each other through our shared history, our common language (Hebrew), our eternal connection to the Land of Israel, and our more recent shared connection to the State of Israel, the third Jewish commonwealth.
Throughout this section Avrum weaves stories: both his personal ones of his experiences in his family of origin and those from his rich professional career spent working with Jews of all ages in a variety of settings. Building on these stories, he conceptualizes the role that Jewish professionals play in assisting others to understand their own Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. To paraphrase his words, our role is to help those people we engage with to find their personal way of expressing their belonging to the Jewish people. We must come to terms with the reality that there is no single truth about how to be Jewish. We must believe that, by enabling people to have access to the various components of Jewish Peoplehood, they will find a place they feel comfortable with, one that expresses their sense of who they are and enables them to maintain a connection with other members of the extended Jewish family.
Infeld does more than merely describe and analyze the components of Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood: in the second section on the practices of peoplehood, he operationalizes the concepts in the way we work as professionals and as volunteer leaders in the Jewish community. The beauty of the book is that it provides an understanding of the role of each and every person who works with Jews without regard to setting. He does not provide specific guidelines or practices but shows how we can make ourselves available to others to help foster their sense of belonging to the Jewish people. We become mentors and teachers, enabling people to explore the issues discussed in the first section of the book and serving as a guide for the process they must experience as they find their way and place in the future of the Jewish people.
Avrum shares with us who his mentors and teachers were, and from these vignettes we can glean what the important elements might be in helping someone develop an appreciation for and identification with the Jewish people. In addition to his father Zvi and his mother Olga, we are given descriptive snapshots of his teachers, his rabbi, and mentors, such as Morele Bar-On, David Hartman, and Shlomo Bardin. He shares how these people influenced him and enabled him to develop his understanding of Jewish Peoplehood, not through lecturing but through engaging him in an educational process that led him to appreciate the complicated nature of identification with the Jewish people. Understanding the process he went through has enabled him to develop a number of approaches to assist others in their own growth process.
After providing the reader with salient examples of successful programs that enable participants to identify with the Jewish people, in the third section of the book Avrum shares his thinking about the future of the Jewish people. He recognizes the need for strong leaders who have the understanding and ability to develop what he calls the five-legged table of Jewish identity and peoplehood: Memory, Family, Mount Sinai, Israel, and Hebrew. It is through constructing this table that our communities and organizations will be able to confront the challenges of the future: “maintaining unity without requiring uniformity; ensuring that Israel remains the nation-state of the whole Jewish People; reorienting Jewish institutions so that they recognize their shard mission and respect their different tasks; addressing the challenge of intermarriage and assimilation; and fulfilling our unique purpose in the world.”
I strongly recommend this book for volunteer leaders, teachers, and professionals in communal organizations and community centers. It is a tool that will equip us to work with all our constituencies, whether they are colleagues, students, or volunteers – helping them strengthen their Jewish identity and find the place they are looking for in the montage of the Jewish People. The book is refreshing and will encourage its readers to think about how they identify as a Jewish individual within the family of the Jewish People.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.