Breaking the Glass: Jewish Peoplehood and Beyond

by Dr. Alisa Rubin Kurshan

Every Jewish wedding ends with a broken glass. But right before the groom raises his foot, the Rabbi tells those assembled that the tradition symbolizes the brokenness in the history of the Jewish people, especially the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He reminds the congregation that their fate and fortune are forever bound up with the destiny of the Jewish people.

There are very few examples in Judaism of customs or mitzvot that are – peoplehood mitzvot, acts that remind us that we are all tied to each other‘s destiny. This is one that resonates every time a Jewish couple stands under the chuppah.

While the Torah may not offer many specific mitzvot related to peoplehood, the exact moment Jews became a people is well documented. Throughout the first book of the Torah, the Israelites have been described as B’nei Yisrael, – the children of Israel. But as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land for the first time, they are no longer just the children of Israel. For the first time, the children of Israel are a people. The words read in Exodus 9:13: –Shalach et ami – Let my people go.

This line has important implications. The Israelites were about to become something they had not been before. Until now, they had been linked vertically, by biological descent. They had a common ancestor, Jacob, who was also given the name Israel. B’nei Yisrael described his descendants; they were part of the same family tree.

With the subtle shift from B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, to Am Yisrael, the people or nation of Israel, God was preparing the Israelites for a new mode of existence. Now they would be linked horizontally to one another. They are no longer defined as children of the same parent. They are about to become moral adults. Their unity is no longer a matter of a common familial past; they were about to create a shared future. They would no longer exist in a state of dependency, relying on Moses and through him, God, to provide for their needs, welfare, and safety. Henceforth, they would have to take responsibility for one another.

Through this subtle linguistic shift, the Israelites were taught that once they crossed the Jordan they would have to learn to function collectively. Israel, the people, would be defined by the covenant their parents had made at Mount Sinai. It would be their constitution, their mission, their task, and their destiny. They would no longer be a band of disparate individuals bound only by blood; now they would become a people.

Peoplehood has long been a driving force in Jewish decision-making on both the individual and communal level. For decades, Jews cared about aliyah and klitah – helping Jews immigrate and assimilate into new communities – because of a sense of connection that transcended geography.

Many of UJA-Federation‘s donors expressed their sense of peoplehood by giving to the annual campaign. While their parents or grandparents were fortunate to have come to America, others were not as lucky. The fortunate ones felt an obligation to do their part, thinking, – I will rescue Jews whenever they are in need of help, wherever they are in the world. Because they are us and we are them.

So why does the language of peoplehood language seem relatively new? Perhaps it is because peoplehood was taken for granted as long as external forces kept us a people. If those borders were once physical – as they were in the ghettos – or more invisible – discrimination, anti-Semitism, marriage patterns, acceptance rates in elite universities, etc. – now they are neither visible nor invisible. They no longer exist. With this, however, fewer Jewish couples stand under a chuppah and hear or even believe that their fate and fortune are bound with the destiny of the Jewish people.

The Jewish community has responded. Partnership 2000 was created in the early 1990‘s as a way of expressing our sense of peoplehood, binding North American communities to Israel. The Commission on the Jewish People was created at UJA-Federation to acknowledge a need to be proactive in working to maintain collective cohesiveness, given that external forces had thankfully eroded. The goal was to creatively build denominational, ethnic, and North American/Israeli ties among and between all divides.

There is still much debate about the peoplehood movement. Misha Galperin says all he needs to evoke strong peoplehood emotions is a pair of Levi‘s jeans. Jay Michaelson believes peoplehood efforts are leading to meaningless, watered down, vacuous Judaism. For some Israelis, peoplehood is North American Jews‘ rationalization for not choosing to make aliyah. And there are those who question if there really is such a way to build a sense of peoplehood as a separate variable to building more caring and literate Jews.

Considering the history of the peoplehood movement within the context of the continuity movement provides clarity. The continuity movement, which began in the early 90‘s, addressed a new reality where being Jewish was no longer seen as a matter of survival but a matter of choice. Many found themselves confronted with the existential question: – Why should I be Jewish? This question evolved into the equally complex: – Why and how should I identify as a Jew? What does it mean to belong to the Jewish community?

We have some of the intellectual architects of the continuity movement to thank for placing this concern of strengthening Jewish identity and improving Jewish education within the goal of revitalizing Jewish community. Barry Shrage, John Ruskay, and others argued early on that our focus must be on the creation of compelling communities that were inclusive not exclusive and embedded in principles of Torah, Tzedek, and Hesed. They argued that quality Jewish education devoid of living Jewish communities would be insufficient to create a true renaissance here in North America.

For the past 15 years, we have embarked on multiple strategies to foster engaged, literate, responsible, Jewish communities with the hope that the power of the experience would convince Jews to want to learn and connect more. Whether it has been promoting Israel experience, Jewish summer camping, adult Jewish learning, we have understood that strengthening Jewish identity is not an end in itself. It is only within the context of a living, vibrant, dynamic Jewish community that Judaism can flourish and blossom.

While the continuity movement was unfolding, sociologists began to uncover growing trends towards a personalist form of Judaism. During the early 1990’s, as the search for meaning and community in American society influenced American Judaism, the focus on creating intimate and transformational Jewish communal experiences grew dramatically. The Jewish continuity movement became part of that trend.

One of the great contributions of the continuity movement was its full embrace of a healthy and vibrant Jewish life in America. Many were proud that their own Jewish identity was based on positive Jewish experiences, including Jewish summer camp experiences, youth groups, and Israel experiences. Beyond lachrymose readings of Jewish history, or Israel at risk, or simply the vicarious Judaism of our grandparents, many could find a sense of meaning and purpose in building communities that were at once intimate and transcendent.

If one of the successes of the Jewish continuity movement was the reawakening of creativity within the North American Jewish community, it is also important to note that one of the unintended consequences of this movement was reinforcing broader societal individualistic, perhaps narcissistic, trends. A key question of the continuity movement was: – Does my Judaism provide a sense of meaning and purpose to me? It did not address our responsibility to the collective. The line of questioning needed to look beyond the individual to include others, so that one might ask: – How does my sense of belonging connect me through time and space to the Israelites in Egypt, to Jews in the early days of the Haskalah, to Jews in the former Soviet Union today, or to grooms who have broken the glass under the chuppah for centuries?

In some cases, the focus on the individual has led to a rejection of the collective. If one doesn‘t like local shuls, he or she may create an independent minyan with a few like-minded friends. If one doesn‘t like the way a federation operates, he or she may start a tzedakah fund or private foundation.

Forging a strong sense of Jewish identity without a full appreciation for the power of Judaism as a collectivist religion is insufficient to create the vibrant, dynamic communities needed to bring about the renaissance of Jewish life. The question of, – Why be Jewish?, has been met with a set of responses that basically argue that Judaism can provide a source of meaning, belonging, community, and a sense of the holy in one‘s life. Only now is an understanding beginning to develop that once personally engaged, Jews are more likely to also seek to connect to the history and destiny of the Jewish people.

As a community, we want Jews in North America to not only ask, – Why should I be Jewish?” but also, – Why should I care about other Jews? What is my connection to Jews across the globe? How do I take all of my new understandings of Jewish values and put them into action? How do I become part of a Jewish community so that I can actualize my appreciation for the value of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh?”

The past 40 years have taught us that crisis cannot be used to teach this message. Some called the summer of 2006 the summer of Jewish peoplehood. Both Israelis and North Americans came to appreciate their interdependence as never before. As the war raged in Israel, many North Americans woke up to the fact that it was not just their history that defined them as a Jewish people, but that their destiny was linked to the fate and fortune of the state of Israel.

North Americans Jews realized anew how dependent they were on a safe Israel. And in addition to dependence, they learned how emotionally attached they are to Israel. They suddenly felt more vulnerable as Jews in America. Some asked in hushed tones whether they had taken the very existence of the state of Israel for granted. They considered what would have to be done to secure its future.

Israelis realized anew their dependence on the solidarity and support of North American Jews. Op-ed pieces appeared in Israeli press calling North American Jews a strategic asset to Israel. Many Jews relearned that summer that they were more than part of Bnai Israel. They were also part of Am Yisrael. Some would say this thinking was why the federations‘ Israel Emergency Campaign was so successful.

Yet, with the exception in a blip in summer 2006, the lack of connection between North American Jews and Israel continue to grow with each survey. Interdependence based on crisis does not endure.

It was from this realization nine years ago that UJA-Federation‘s Commission on the Jewish People was born. Its purpose is to develop strategies that weave our community together in new ways. It seeks to find new ways to animate Jews by the incredible fact that we have lasted as a people for more than 5000-plus years and have much to contribute to society at large.

While we have learned that Jewish caring and strong Jewish identity can lead to a sense of belonging to a Jewish people, there is much we need to do to prod Jews on this journey from being part of Bnai Yisrael to being Am Yisrael. In fact, there are concrete steps that can be taken on the road to building Jewish peoplehood. First, a curriculum needs to be developed to teach what it means to be part of the collective.

To be sure, it is also about creating a vibrant Jewish culture, and it is about maximizing technology to connect Jews to one another. Social justice also plays a big role in this process. This is the goal behind Break New Ground, a new program which aspires to have every one of the 65,000 Jewish college students in New York participating in meaningful service with Jews from other parts of the world. It‘s also about bringing together Jews of all stripes, ethnic groups, and backgrounds into the family we call Am Yisrael, And finally, it is about developing new mitzvot of Jewish peoplehood.

Many who reached bar/ Bat mitzvah age during the Soviet Jewry movement recall the empty seats on the bima signifying our twin – our Jew of silence – whose voice we were supposed to carry as our own. What is the modern day analog to that all powerful peoplehood experience from so many childhoods?

Last month my daughter became an Israeli citizen. I asked her, – What is the accompanying ritual? Surely there must be some way our tradition could help her mark this momentous moment, one that runs throughout our liturgy, a dream of returning to the land of Zion. There was none. Since she is a writer, I urged her to write one. There will be new olim, new immigrants, who will follow her and ask the same question.

One of the most famous of the olim who is also one of the most recognizable names from the Soviet Jewry movement is Natan Sharansky, Recently, at the wedding of his daughter, Rachel, he said:

“This moment takes me back to our wedding, Avital’s and mine, 34 years ago in a small Moscow apartment. All we could do was simply repeat every word after the rabbi, while hardly understanding many of them. But when it came to breaking the glass, the rabbi spoke about Jerusalem and we became instantly reconnected to our reality. It was so obvious to us that we were in the very last stages of the thousands of years of struggle to return to Jerusalem.”

Obviously, Natan Sharansky understands the concept of peoplehood in deeply personal and Zionistic terms.

The definition of peoplehood is no longer the central issue. Today, the overriding issue is finding strategic interventions that will help all Jews understand that we are part of Am Yisrael. If Jews can appreciate the connection to history and destiny, fate and fortune, the next chapter in our story will be as meaningful and full of possibilities as the moment a groom steps on the glass under the chuppah.

Alisa Rubin Kurshan serves as the Senior Vice President for Strate gic Planning for UJA-Federation of NY.