A Framework for Strategic Thinking About Jewish Peoplehood

by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Ari Engelberg
(Excerpt from paper commissioned by the NADAV Fund)


Since 2000, a small but growing number of Jewish organizations and foundations have started using the concept of “Jewish Peoplehood” in their work. What is the significance of this new concept? What is the added value of the “Jewish Peoplehood” concept for the world of Jewish organizations? Why use the concept as a basis for organizational development, whether for strategic planning, program development or fund raising? Is there a difference between an organization or program run under the banner of Jewish Peoplehood and one which is not?

We don’t aspire to answer all of these questions in this paper, but we do hope to make a first contribution towards organizing existing knowledge about the subject. The paper will be divided into the following four sections: 

A Historical Overview

We begin with a short historical overview that focuses on the innovative nature of the Jewish Peoplehood concept. While “the Jewish People” is an ancient idea, the term “Jewish Peoplehood” as it is currently used, is very new. Whereas before 2000 the term was hardly used by Jewish organizations, today it is a central concept in the strategic planning of a growing number of leading Jewish organizations. As we will detail below, conferences are being held about the concept, books are being written, funders are giving increasing amounts of money to programs that use the Jewish Peoplehood concept and leading Jewish organizations are using Peoplehood as a central organizing concept. What is the historical significance of the sudden interest in the concept of Jewish Peoplehood?

A Guide to Current Intellectual Thought about Jewish Peoplehood

Alongside the use of the Peoplehood concept by Jewish organizations, there is a parallel growth of intellectual interest in the topic since 2000. The intellectual discussion asks: What is “Jewish Peoplehood?” What are the key characteristics that distinguish Jewish Peoplehood from other concepts? We will provide an overview of the main schools of intellectual thought about Jewish Peoplehood and provide summaries of the positions taken by leading Jewish thinkers on the topic. We will also sketch the intellectual boundaries of the Peoplehood concept, by asking “what is not Peoplehood?”

Translating Theory to Action

An applied theory of Peoplehood is needed if an organization is to create coherent answers to questions of “how” to develop programs and “what” are the appropriate standards for measuring accomplishment and success. Unfortunately, little is currently being done to use intellectual discourse on Jewish Peoplehood as a basis for organizational planning.

Intellectual discussion about Jewish Peoplehood and the Jewish organizations which use the concept as an organizing banner currently exist on two different planes that rarely connect. On one hand, most organizations use the concept, out of a gut feeling that it will help them raise money and develop programs. On the other hand, most intellectuals are discussing the concept without reference to the world of Jewish organizations. The result are growing amounts of financial and personnel resources devoted to the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, without the level of planning and discussion needed to evaluate if there is any added value for the Jewish People.

We will provide an initial overview of foundations and organizations doing work in the field, and highlight the work of those that are making a serious attempt to bring the theory and practice of Jewish Peoplehood under one umbrella. We will also look at existing social science research that can serve as a resource for those who wish to learn about work being done in the field. 

Doing Peoplehood

While the paper focuses on intellectuals and organizations that are consciously promoting the “Jewish Peoplehood” concept, we end the paper by taking note of an obvious ambiguity. There are many organizations that by their very nature enable Jews from across the ideological spectrum of Jewish life to interact with one another or expose their constituents to the wider Jewish world. Most of these organizations are not using the term “Jewish Peoplehood” to categorize their work, but are in fact “building Jewish Peoplehood”. These organizations include community oriented organizations, educational institutions, organizations that promote partnerships between Jewish organizations and encounters between Jews from different backgrounds and research/policy organizations.

Although a discussion of this sort requires a separate paper, we will outline elements that are common to organizations that “build Jewish peoplehood in practice.”1 These elements should be considered in a policy discussion aimed at strengthening and shaping the infrastructure needed by organizations who are now organizing their work under the banner of Jewish Peoplehood.

Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz is CEO of Research Success Technologies, Jerusalem and a member of the Platforma Consulting Group.

Ari Engelberg is a doctoral candidate at the Sociology and Anthropology dept. of the Hebrew University and is the editor of the Paths to Peoplehood newsletter.

(1) Note we capitalize the word Peoplehood, when using the concept as a proper noun – i.e, specifically referring to the concept of “JewishPeoplehood”. Otherwise, when referring to organizations that build Jewish peoplehood, or the like, it is left as lowercase.