[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Lisa Grant
Peoplehood was my family’s religion. My parents came of age during World War II and I am a baby boomer. We were synagogue goers and observed Shabbat and holidays, but the core value of our lives was a commitment to the Jewish people. The historical and social circumstances of the time shaped this commitment and there was no need to reflect on why Peoplehood was important or what meaning it brought to Jewish life. It was essential to save Jews, to privilege Jewish causes, to maintain Jewish connections through family and friends in Israel and elsewhere. No debate, no equivocation.
Peoplehood remains core to my commitments today. But, my story is not the story of Jews coming of age in our contemporary reality of fluid identities and growing rifts within the Jewish community – over politics and values, over geography, and over religious practice.
We spend a considerable amount of time talking about Jewish Peoplehood with our students at HUC-JIR, almost all of whom spend the first year of their studies in Israel. For many, Peoplehood is an abstraction. They understand there is value in the idea of the Jewish collective, but struggle with making an emotional connection to Jews who are very different from them. In general terms, we see three types of attitudes and approaches to Peoplehood. A few reject the idea of diversity outright, saying things like: “I don’t know why somebody being born into a religion should mean more to my Am (People)…. I’d much rather my Am be composed of righteous people than simply blood relatives.“ Others distinguish between Peoplehood as a “birth family, where you have to accept everyone regardless of who they are“ and their choice to live as Reform Jews as an “acquired family“ where their primary allegiance remains. And others still, express a strong personal bond to the Jewish People, comparing it to “second cousins who practice differently but are still family.“
It’s interesting that no matter where these students fall in terms of their attitudes and feelings about Jewish Peoplehood, that they use the metaphor of family. Perhaps that’s the key. It may be obvious, but I’m not at all clear that we do enough to foster the sense that Jewish belonging is a family matter. We are a collection of relations who may live very different lives and have different beliefs, but are still part of a broad collective. Just as our notion of what constitutes a family has evolved, our understanding of the Jewish family can change as well. Debate and equivocation are very much a part of our reality today, within the Jewish collective and beyond. We need to cultivate the curiosity, habits of minds, skills to meet across difference. When we do so, we learn about ourselves and each other. We learn about Judaism and Jewish life. We learn how to compromise and how to disagree respectfully and thoughtfully. In short, when we meet our “distant cousins“ we are enriched and find greater meaning that perhaps can even bridge the distance and draw us closer.
Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.