Calibrating the Collective

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Arie Levy

Bringing a wide range of partners to cooperate is what we need now to calibrate the collective and introduce Peoplehood as a modus operandi. 


“R. Yishmael says: the Torah is interpreted in thirteen principles… 7) KLAL-PRAT-KLAL general-specific-general…” (Sifra, Braita of R. Yishmael) 

This famous quote from the thirteen rules can be interpreted not only as a hermeneutical approach the Midrash which provides us a toolbox for understanding text, but also as a way to manage our communal life: the collective, the particular and then back to the collective. 

We are a people of the collective. Since biblical times we were commanded to pool funds together in the form of half a shekel for the upkeep of the Jewish rituals. At the same time, if someone wants to give more, beyond this obligatory requirement, one can do so and designate his offering for a particular cause. Later, when Jews were scattered in all communities, the model became a communal-collective one in which the central community leadership would collect funds in a central pot to eventually distribute them according to set priorities. This allowed the implementation of a central, organized community platform, that is described by the Rambam’s as the “second level” (out of eight) of best tzedakah – the ones who gives do not know who they are giving to and the ones who receives do not know from whom. 

Hence, central campaigns in the form of the North America Federations are not a new concept. They blend into the millennial old Jewish tradition of caring for everyone by everyone, a tradition that can be seen around the world, from Fes, Morocco to Krakow, Poland. 

Because of the historical timing of the creation of the State of Israel and the needs of other communities across the world, the North American Federations movement introduced the idea of a “united,” “combined” or “associated” campaign, which pooled together funds into a collective to meet these needs. 

Since then, something unexpected happened: the central Jewish project of the last two millennia seems to have turned into a thriving, prosperous state. We found ourselves with two Jewish entities living side-by-side with no real financial dependence on one another, but with a clear need for each other. 

The “not-living in Israel” side feels a need to connect and engage with the national aspect of the Hebrew identity, while the Israeli side needs to engage with the communal and Jewish aspects of the communities abroad, among other things. The collective is shifting from an existential need (that still exists, but is much less central) to a “Peoplehood” dimension, and now has come to express what connects Israelis and communities abroad. In both communities though, philanthropy follows trends that challenge the collective model. In Israel, most Israelis still feel their contribution to a collective is via their taxes or their military service and expect the State to do more. When they give, many Israeli philanthropists will develop or give to a particular cause. This is similar to growing designated gifts from North America, not to mention the wider support of Jewish donors to general causes in their respective communities (universities, museums, etc.). 

So, what is it we need to achieve in order to have a better connection between Peoplehood and Jewish Philanthropy? To me, this requires three steps: 

First, KLAL– we need to acknowledge that the “collective” is a must and the best and purest expression of what still bonds our people: Jews caring for others anywhere in the world, together. It might need to be modernized, reviewed or reformed, but the collective must continue to maintain that Jewish “insurance policy” worldwide, while focusing on the connection between our communities. A global Jewish network of funding and philanthropy that puts the subject of Jewish Peoplehood at its center, while continuing to care for the ever-changing needs of communities worldwide. 

Second, PRAT– as we need to embrace the fact that individual donors and foundations will continue to express their values via philanthropy and designate funds to the causes they hold dear. 

Third, KLAL as a course of action – not the regular collective or individual giving, but something that brings them together: Coalitions. It could be around one particular subject, geographic area, or anything such a group of funders would consider. It would not necessarily be around a subject the collective would fund, nor would it be something a specific funder would consider. Focusing on one cause that attracts funders of all kind together, in cooperation, coordination, and on a “willing” basis (as opposed to an obligatory formula), is probably what we need more of. With such a method, we can have foundations, federations, governments and others come together; and even if the cause is not issues related to Peoplehood, the methodology and the coalition itself is an implementation of the idea of bringing together a wide range of funders from both sides – and they will develop these bonds we seek in Peoplehood. 

An example of such a coalition was built around the Negev region by federations who understood that their time and effort required them to see not only their specific partnership region, but to zoom out and work together to maximize the effect. This brought new and surprising partners into the fold (such as ministries, regional clusters, etc.) and while the leverage of funding is great, the connections developed within this partnership are ones of great depth and developed interactions that wouldn’t have been developed otherwise. 

Coalitions are not easy to maintain. However, they allow developing new, additional bonds between people and organizations – to pursue a specific goal. When in the area of Jewish life and Israel, coalitions allow people to engage in a more active form of philanthropy, in which partners and funders learn to get involved in crafting solutions and programming instead of only allocating and steering. 

Thus, Peoplehood becomes not only a subject to be funded and to develop programs that promote its implementation, but a methodology. When coalitions are created on any subject, this methodology brings unusual partners to work together in a multi- organizational setting. 

The Jewish collective as it is today is still the best expression of Jewish Peoplehood in terms of its goals and content. However, since we are working in a dynamic philanthropic world, we can embrace individual giving and invite them to join wider coalitions in order to deal with specific subjects. Bringing a wide range of partners to cooperate is what we need now to calibrate the collective and introduce Peoplehood as a modus operandi

Arie Levy is the Director General of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, Israel Office.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.