By Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste
It’s unusual for the same two-word phrase to be both unknown and a cliché. In a sense however, Jewish Peoplehood fits this description.
While the whole notion of peoplehood has become so central to professional Jewish circles in recent years, it simply doesn’t resonate with the overwhelming majority of Jews from around the world. Taken alone, this isn’t necessarily an issue. The term itself is incidental – a piece of useful signage to express a complex idea succinctly.
The worry, however, is that the essential message that the term carries – the search for a substantive, impassioned and shared vision of Jewish life – is so badly neglected.
Three vast groups in particular – ‘secular’ Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox and the infamous “Jews of no religion” of the 2013 Pew report – often struggle to relate meaningfully to forms of Jewishness other than their own.
The first great challenge of Jewish Peoplehood today then, is to expand the circles who recognize and act on its importance.
As things stand, many Jews around the world worry about a great many things. From the threat of a nuclear Iran, to assimilation, antisemitism and gender inequality, there are countless touchpoints that regularly prompt mass concern across the Jewish world.
Given this, and given the conviction with which these challenges are raised, it’s remarkable how little attention is invested in the clear, over-arching mega-question: how the Jewish People maintains any form of collective identity in an era in which both concepts – “collective” and “identity” – have been emphatically shattered.
For the modern Jew, neither Judaism (in any form) nor the State of Israel can be solely relied upon to inspire any automatic sense of pride or association. Sadly, each of these two pillars appears divisive and separatist in its own way. Instead, the modern world presents Jews with a broad set of options. Almost without exception, Jews today are free to make whatever decisions they see fit as to how they wish to live and define themselves.
This reality is deeply challenging to any sense of global Jewish commonality. Unmoved by Zionist or religious feelings, and without any additional levers on which to base a meaningful identity, many young Jews are simply opting out. For those who do opt in, for whatever reason – God, Israel, culture, family – the terms of maintaining these identities often leave different groups ill-equipped to relate to one another.
In this reality, neither the continuity nor the oneness of the Jewish people is assured.
So what’s the solution? What binds together a sustainable Jewish People in a diversified, pluralistic, globalized world? And what tools do we need to get to this point?
As we enter our anniversary tenth year, the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies (ISJPS) at Beit Hatfutsot has a critical role to play. As the sole educational center anywhere in the world focused centrally on the “simple”experience of being a part of the Jewish people, our role is not just to put these questions front and center, but to equip mass numbers around the world with both the tools and the impulse to go searching for difficult answers.
Having framed the problem, here’s how the ISJPS will work over its second decade towards implementing a solution.
A new nerve center
Bolstered by the upcoming opening of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, the new museum’s sixty-six thousand square feet of core exhibition space offers vast educational opportunities. Using this state-of-the-art resource as our home turf, the ISJPS will ensure a meaningful learning experience for upwards of 400,000 visitors per year.
As things stand today, 90,000 people participate annually in ISJPS’ range of programs, which educate towards a sense of belonging and commitment to the Jewish people, emphasizing the unifying elements and common denominators shared by Jews from all corners of the world. In the coming decade, we plan to double the number of participants, locations and projects where we operate.
Training the Trainers
The Jewish world is blessed today with unprecedented numbers of talented educators, sitting across day schools, community centers, synagogues, academic Jewish studies departments, yeshivot, seminaries and rabbinical colleges. What’s sorely lacking however, is educational content that teaches students not just how to be a Jew, but how to be a member of the Jewish people.
The ISJPS, which already develops educational curricula for countless partners around the world, will fill this role. Through training educators and producing and distributing innovative educational content, the ISJPS will motivate and equip Jewish educators globally to impel on their students a love, respect and lifelong commitment for the entire Jewish people.
For the first time in its history, the ISJPS will build a permanent international footprint, hiring full-time representatives to implement Beit Hatfutsot’s vision and projects in the heart of Jewish communities around the globe. Unlike the conventional model of shlichut, in which Israelis are dispatched around the world primarily to ‘sell’ Israel and encourage aliyah, our team will take a wider focus, looking to connect Jews not just with Israel, but with the global Jewish family and a personal sense of Jewish belonging.
A New Jewish Energy in Israel
Sadly, for a variety of historical reasons – some of which made perfect sense decades ago – Israeli Jewry often continues to function with a lack of understanding about Jewish life outside of Israel, including its realities, achievements and challenges. Through underexposure to the vibrancy and creativity of Jewish life across all corners of the globe, we in Israel lose out.
At ISJPS, we’re excited to serve as the epicenter of global Jewish life within Israel, and a platform through which to re-engage Israelis – 40% of the global Jewish population – with the fullness of Jewish life globally.
Exciting times lay ahead at the ISJPS. Jewish tradition teaches that a child wouldn’t begin studying rabbinic law – the Mishnah – before age ten. At that point, so said the rabbis, a young and innovative mind became fully-formed, and was now considered both ready and obliged to tackle the tough questions at the heart of the Jewish people. As we too begin our second decade, that ancient scholarly message seems as resonant as ever.
Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste is Director of the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at The Museum of Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.