Is Peoplehood an Empty Concept

by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz

In the past few years, tremendous progress is being made towards understanding the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, work that includes research papers and a number of publications. Unfortunately much of the popular discourse on Peoplehood remains uninformed by the benefits of this good work.

A recent example is Micha Galperin’s op-ed, titled: “Funding Peoplehood: Why the Jewish Community Should Care About an Unsexy Cause.” Galperin argues that: “Abundant research has let us know that the way to most significantly impact Jewish identity and the bonds of peoplehood is by providing people with immersive, meaningful experiences.” Daniel Septemus, rightly accuses Galperin of not defining his terms. Septimus concludes that Galperin cannot define the Peoplehood concept, because the Peoplehood concept itself is empty.

I urge Galperin, Septimus and others to visit the website of the recently launched Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE), and view the publications its members have worked on over the past decade. At the most basic level, this body of work distinguishes “Peoplehood” from “Identity.” While Galperin does offer a definition of Peoplehood in his response to Septimus, the distinction between Peoplehood and identity remains fuzzy. Peoplehood is not about the individual Jew, but about relationships between Jews. The CJPE publications offer definitions and criteria for distinguishing Peoplehood from other dimensions of Jewish life and most importantly the difference between organizations that build Jewish Peoplehood and those that do not. Whether we are speaking about a synagogue, a community center, a school or camp, or conversation around the family dinner table, there are practices that enable Jews to develop a connection, commitment and feeling of obligation to the Jewish People.

Peoplehood practices are not the equivalent of an individual praying, eating kosher food or living a Jewish life. There are liberal Jews who enjoy spiritual Jewish experiences, which enrich their personal lives, but do not motivate or enable interaction with other Jews. Likewise, a right wing religious Jew, might live a very rich Jewish life, but has no interaction with and lot of antipathy towards Jews who are different than themselves.

To nurture the connection between Jews is an art unto itself. The project of Peoplehood focuses on this collective Jewish dimension. For the collective Jewish project to succeed and have meaning for individual Jews, it must build on a rich lived Jewish life. But being an active Jew is not the same as being a Jew who regards him or herself as motivated to seek out interaction with other Jews and committed to the good of the Jewish People worldwide.

To succeed in the Peoplehood project, we need to distinguish between the form and content of of collective Jewish life. When it comes to content, I find that the discussion normally gets lost – that is searching for “core values” or “practices” that all agree on. We can certainly point to some central beliefs and practices, but there will always be some group who will disagree.

However, when it comes to the form of Peoplehood, that is the manner in which Jews who do not know one another personally, are able to come into interaction with one another and/or develop feelings of commitment and belonging to the larger collective; we know that there are organizations and communities that do this well and those who don’t. Peoplehood discourse at its finest focuses on the dimension of best practice for building collective Jewish belonging and has a healthy sense of what such discourse addresses and what it does not.

My answer to Septemus is, following Mordecai Kaplan, Jewish Peoplehood is the life force and world view behind Jewish civilization as it evolved over the last 3,500 years. Not a bad result for an “empty concept”. Our challenge is to nurture the meaning of Peoplehood in a manner that enables access for the current generation. To both Galperin and Septemus, I recommend reading the recently published Jewish Peoplehood Education: Framing the Field a book that calls for shifting the conversation from “what is peoplehood” to how educators and community builders are already engaging the next generation with the Jewish collective enterprise. You may be surprised to find out how far Jewish practitioners have advanced in figuring out what we should do in order to strengthen the Jewish future.

Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz is a sociologist of culture, education, organizations and Jewish Peoplehood. Ezra’s research covers topics having to do with Jewish identity and education in Israel and the United States. He is is the CEO of Research Success Technologies and a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.