By Clare Goldwater
The recent policy piece “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” offers a credible roadmap for the next decade, at least, for the American Jewish community. And its signatories offer much food for thought for those of us engaged in Jewish education and leadership.
As I read the piece I was disappointed in its parochial tone, in the concern expressed only for American Jews, in the narrow way that American Jewry appears to see and care only for itself. I understand the intention written as a response to the Pew Study, which focuses on American Jews, and yes, the writers are understandably primarily concerned with the American Jewish community. I too am personally invested in the future of American Jewry, and equally invested in the future of Jews in Europe, Russia and Israel. But nevertheless, it seems to miss something that would fundamentally enrich each and every policy recommendation suggested in the document. I want to argue for broadening the scope and expanding the perspective to take into account the fact that Jewish civilization is (and always has been) global and that being part of the Jewish People is a powerful educational tool in achieving all the goals outlined by the signatories of the document.
I make two assumptions. The first is purely practical. The challenges and issues facing American Jews are just a few years ahead (if that) of Jewish communities in other parts of the world. All Jewish communities are addressing these issues, albeit in slightly different ways, but the questions are the same. In fact, in a recent evaluation I conducted, I spoke to young Israeli Reform rabbinical students who had spent some time learning from their sister communities in the United States. Despite the obvious differences the students were struck by just how similar their issues and underlying questions are. So, let’s expand the conversation to include Jews in other communities outside the United States. What can we all learn when everyone joins the conversation? The richness of American Jewry is substantial, but it cannot be a one-way street. What innovations and successes come from smaller Jewish communities? (Limmud springs to mind, as do powerful Jewish youth movements) What approaches to Jewish life, especially diverse and pluralistic Jewish life, can be imported and improved on, when all of us are in the conversation together?
Beyond the purely instrumental, though, I am arguing for a perspective through which all of Jewish life is seen as constitutive of the broader Jewish collective, of Jewish Peoplehood. If we hold onto a Jewish Peoplehood consciousness, we won’t consider any of these issues without bearing in mind that the Jewish People is a global collective, with a multi-faceted civilization that provide sources of inspiration and resources for the future, for all Jews wherever they are. If we look at the three core prescriptions for vital Jewish life mentioned in the policy piece; the power of social networks; the centrality of Jewish content; and the necessity to target Jews at key life stages, we see straight away how a Peoplehood consciousness can be relevant, on both a conceptual and very practical level.
For example, as we know, social networks, and community-building of various kinds, are key to successful Jewish educational interventions. So let’s expand those networks as broadly as possible, exploiting both contemporary technology and the ancient Jewish sense of global family and responsibility. Summer camps, Israel experiences and synagogue life – they can all be made even more powerful when Jews from multiple backgrounds and geographies experience things together, build ties and create more elastic networks.
Additionally, if we take seriously the centrality of Jewish content, and the necessity for providing Jews with meaningful, relevant Jewish learning opportunities, let’s approach that varied content through a Jewish Peoplehood lens. Our texts are the inheritance of all Jews; our traditions, folklore and customs are the products of diverse and adaptable Jewish communities that can both teach and inspire us about how to respond to today’s challenges. And when we target Jews of particular ages and life stages in order to offer them meaningful Jewish opportunities, let’s do it within diverse groups, purposefully including Jews from different backgrounds in order to enrich the encounters.
If we can exploit the power of the global Jewish collective in order to address the issues we face in the next decade I believe we will be more effective in achieving our goals and we will strengthen the People as a whole in the process.
Clare Goldwater is an educational consultant and leadership coach, based in Jerusalem. She can be reached at [email protected]