Between “I” and “My People”:
The Case of the Jewish Community
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Iris Posklinsky
Only when the personal identity is touched and impacted, the collective identity that binds people together can be owned.
Communal innovation is a challenging concept. Often when yearning for something that is lost, we search for it in the past. In this era, we are bombarded with “innovations,” which are valuable in certain areas of life. Nevertheless, in areas involving human relations, the old fashion way for connecting people might in fact be a preferred answer.
As simple as it may be these days to “be in touch” using the many channels of social media, it is difficult to truly belong. Communities are all about connecting between those who share a common component in their identity, one that is referred to as the “Critical Shared Trait” (Sadan & Peri, 1990). It is that trait, which defines a group of people differently from others, creates solidarity among them, and enables the building of a community. Whether in a geographical, ethnic, or functional community, it responds to a human need to be together (Sadan, 1997). When connections have meaning, it affects happiness and contentment, as importantly recognized since early Adlerian and Humanistic psychologies, to Logotherapy and modern approaches today (Abrami, 2016; Adler, 1930; Rogers, 1951).
It is not accidental that “community” and “communication” come from the same verb (Handler, 1990). A community cannot be built without having engaging communication among its members, which nurtures a unique togetherness. The many and varied Jewish communities that operate as satellites in our global Jewish community have all gone through changes in the quality of the relationships within and between them. With changing needs and the nature of the times, such processes are inevitable. However, what does it take to preserve an attachment to our local and global Jewish communities?
The answer may simply be in a determined leadership that consistently and intentionally connects people to one another and to the core values of our nation. We have respected and endured these values for thousands of years. They served as a bond throughout our history, and were put into practice routinely by inspiring people and engaging them in social deeds and traditions. Our values have an emotional meaning that takes us back to our childhood homes, to our families, and neighborhoods. Sometimes it only takes a symbol, a scent, or a phrase to revive what they mean to us.
What if our children would be indifferent to such symbols? What if shared values and traditions would become meaningless to generations to come? How can we expect them to feel as if they belong without understanding and relating to these values? When assessing the climate in our communities and the measures taken to strengthen them, what do we learn about the attempts to preserve and celebrate Jewish values, symbols, and traditions that remind us of who we are, and of our collective belonging? Furthermore, what has been lost while we are changing?
Naturally, the moral transformation that occurred in our communities reflects the transformation we have undergone as individuals. We stretch ourselves thin with unrealistic expectations to be involved with too many actions, rather than focusing our attention on select commitments. While striving for meaning and profound experiences, more can be less. If we look at communities such as pre-military academies in Israel, leadership or educational programs around the world that require members to devote themselves to the program, the participants gain a genuinely transformative experience with effects that resonate for life. The magic that occurs in those communities begins with the emotional, intellectual, and moral impact on the individual. From one person to the next, powerful community experience is evolving.
Since we cannot all devote ourselves to long-term immersive programs, what does this mean, realistically? For leadership, it means providing focused opportunities for reflective connections, dialogue that stimulates thinking and helps individuals find their narrative within the collective one. For individuals to truly connect, they first need to connect to themselves. Only when the personal identity is touched and impacted, the collective identity that binds people together can be owned.
A connecting process takes intentional, diligent, and ongoing work, starting with community leadership. It is beyond inviting to events or expanding social networks. It involves an appreciation of the content and not compromising on the experience alone, whether in small or large gatherings. Leadership should take every opportunity to inspire and touch, as people long for meaning, and communities are desperate for persistent, genuine, and inspiring leadership to follow.
What we call a “Jewish Community” should acknowledge adaptive structures, for the sake of preserving traditional ethical qualities. A group of students on Hillel Campuses for example, can make a Jewish community. So can a cohort of young adults on a leadership journey, with or without their families. What those communal structures can offer is often what is lost in dissolving communities: opportunities to physically come together, converse, argue in a safe and trusted environment, care about shared concerns, dream together, celebrate traditions, and deepen the connection and the commitment to the community, as they become conscious of their deepest igniting values. We should not be concerned or threatened with new perceptions of Jewish communities, but use them as a case study to redefine what is lost in conventional ones, and restore it once more.
Finally, on the widening gap between “I” and “My people,” this article cannot ignore the prevalence of individualism that overcomes idealism, and which reflects the gradual distancing from social and mutual responsibility. We live in times where commitment to collective values must look good on our CV in order for it to compete with other priorities, particularly among the younger generation (The Jewish Education Project, 2016). Engaging in volunteerism and social action is weighted against promoting personal goals and pursuing a career or academic aspirations. Sometimes more than the service to the cause, the cause itself has to serve personal interests, ousting idealism and values as primary motivators for action. Nevertheless, as our ancient wisdom says, “mitoch she’lo lishma, ba Lishma”; meaning, good intentions may follow good deeds… as long as we harness those “interest-driven-engagements” to connect members personally, and in the meaningful ways described above.
How naïve was my writing prior to the pandemic outbreak… What a paradox it was to imply that “innovation” and “community” were contradicting concepts; to suggest that in human relations the old fashion way for connection is the preferred approach, as if innovation would necessarily compromise depth and meaning.
Then came the pandemic… face-to-face meetings and gathering have evaporated at once, forcing us all into social distancing. If communal leaders and members were not blown away with creativity and innovative thinking, we would not have had the alternative virtual Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaShoah ceremonies, Passover Seder, and countless mifgashim to continue our work, studies, and socialization via many virtual methods we discovered. It is thanks to innovation and people’s resourcefulness that we have found meaningful ways to touch hearts and be moved, to learn and be inspired, and to preserve our close connections despite the distance.
Iris Posklinsky is a PhD student at the University of Haifa, researching Israel Diaspora Relations and Jewish philanthropy as reflected through the transition from Project Renewal to Partnership. She is the Northern District Partnership Director at the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Abrami, L. M. (2016). The Importance of Meaning in Positive Psychology and Logotherapy. In Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (pp. 303-310). Springer, Cham.
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Rogers, CR., (1951), Client-Centered Therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory, Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston
The Jewish Education Project, (2016), Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today, Retrieved from http://jewishedproject.org/GenerationNow
eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.