Continuing a Peoplehood Debate

by Dr. Misha Galperin

I am delighted that my op-ed has spurred a conversation about an issue that is critical to modern Jewish life. What is the nature of Jewish peoplehood? If it is about connection among Jews, but has no additional substance, then we have failed our history and our values. If peoplehood is only a way to raise money, then we haven’t gone deep enough. If it is to serve “the stranger ” without caring for our own first, then we have missed the mark.

Peoplehood is such a new word that it comes up every time you spell check it. The newness of it has collapsed into vague discussions and definitions. I offer mine again: Jewish peoplehood is the bond that exists among Jews that transcends time and geography and involves mutual care and responsibility; it’s about meaningful belonging. It is not enough to be part of an extended family. We need to be part of an extended family with a vision, a unique mission in the world. Part of that mission involves seeking social justice for all people. More of that mission involves nurturing Jewish literacy, Jewish values and Jewish solidarity with Israel and Jews the world over. It includes mobilizing Israelis and young Jews elsewhere to take a greater role in nurturing the less fortunate. It is about focusing on what should bring us together as opposed to what pulls us apart.

Has this definition of peoplehood emerged from my own experience as a Russian Jew? Yes, it has. I say that proudly because despite our lack of Jewish education, options for affiliation and weak ritual observance, Russian Jews generally have a profound and even enviable commitment simply to being Jewish and being connected to Israel – as a state and as a people. I have learned that not every outwardly “religious” adherent to Judaism has what I have found in the Russian Jewish community at large. Indeed, there are plenty of fervently observant Jews who reject Israel and reject the legitimacy of Jews who are in disagreement with their views of Judaism. Ours is as contentious a family as originally described in Genesis.

Daniel Septimus may be crying because more Jews do not study or receive ritual or spiritual nurturing from their religion. They do not know Jewish songs or fall into a network of chesed. I commiserate with him. I agree with him. Indeed, Jewish life must be made richer.

Being Jewish today must be more than surface deep if we are to have what Charles Taylor calls a “thick identity.” It’s not merely about survival anymore. It’s about meaningful survival and a feeling that being Jewish is a verb. In our book, “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood,” Erica Brown and I argue that all Jewish organizations need to create more immersive Jewish experiences that strengthen the reach and depth of Judaism for participants.

That’s what we’re trying to do at the Jewish Agency in addition to promoting our historic vision of aliyah. We understand that aliyah may not be the first step into Judaism. Portals into Jewish commitment require a lot of short and long-term immersive experiences, especially experiences with Israel at their heart.

Programs like Lapid for high school students and Birthright and MASA for college students to ensure that our emerging leadership stays strong and committed. We are expanding beyond these highly successful programs to include additional opportunities for Israel experiences for several months, particularly in the summer, to offer short, middle range and long-term programs for our youth. We’re also bringing Israel to Jewish communities, college campuses, JCCs, day schools and summer camps through shlichim. And we are launching social activism programs in Israel in the spirit of tikun olam, for Israelis and their Diaspora peers to take greater responsibility for the bettering of Israeli society. We’re leveraging our relationships with our partners and other organizations to provide the best Israel has to offer in order to engage people in the bonds of peoplehood, and there’s so much more for us to do.

So I commiserate with Daniel Septimus, but I am not crying.

I am not crying because when I look towards Israel, I see a vibrant, robust Jewish culture that serves as a magnet for Jews around the globe. I am not crying because I see the influence that Diaspora Jews have in literature, politics, science – to name but a few areas. I am not crying because we are living in a time of immense Jewish affluence and influence.

I am not celebrating either. I have yet to celebrate. I will celebrate when every Jew I meet seeks to deepen his or her Jewish identity through any number of portals. I will celebrate when we as a community make it our business to create immersive and educational Jewish experiences so that peoplehood can flourish. It won’t even need to be explained. I will celebrate when every Jew has been to Israel and feels a powerful connection with our land and our People. And when every Israeli feels that connection with our people wherever they happen to live. I will celebrate when every Jew believes that charity begins at home.

Conversations about peoplehood need to go beyond rhetoric and defining the terms. We also need more people to join this conversation about our future, to cry and to celebrate together. The Jewish Agency, perhaps the only truly global Jewish forum where all streams of Judaism and political persuasions come together, may just be the ideal platform to promote that conversation.

Dr. Misha Galperin is President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development. Published courtesy of the author.