JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By David Ackerman

One hundred years ago, Chaim Weizmann led a vigorous diplomatic initiative to convince the British government the Jews were a nation and therefore entitled to a state. Today, we are engaged in an equally vigorous initiative to convince the Jews they are a people whose connection and relationship to one another transcend the specific boundaries of place.

Throughout the course of that century JCCs have proven loyal to four principles: inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, multi-dimensionality, and responsiveness (Cohen and Chazan, 1999). Inclusiveness refers to the JCC ethos of welcoming all Jews without judgement and assuring them the JCC is a place “where everybody knows your name.” This constant is the historical foundation for the 21st century JCC’s peoplehood orientation.

Jewish peoplehood means different things to different people, but generally, refers to a sense of belonging to a group with a shared history and mission. This is an act of faith in imagination, since the Jewish people in its entirety last gathered on the plains of Moab three millennia ago. So it wasn’t necessarily the mindset for the successive waves of Jewish immigrants to the US in the late 19th and early 20th Century who continued to identify primarily with their communities of origin. JCCs approached peoplehood from a local perspective and worked to bridge the overlapping economic, ethnic, and denominational divides in the fragmented Jewish community, and to create a coherent balance between secular and religious Jewish life (Kaufman, 1999). At the same time, JCCs worked tirelessly to link individual communities together in a national movement. The JCCs’ circles of peoplehood rippled outward: local to national to global.

In 2014, the JCC Movement released its Statement of Vision and Principles for the 21st Century, affirming its commitment to this peoplehood-oriented/inclusive heritage:

“We believe the JCC is a primary destination for Jewish engagement, a locus of learning and celebration and a connector to Jewish life: a place where individuals and families can encounter Jewish ideas, principles, practices, and values; where they encounter Israel and explore the ideal of Jewish peoplehood in their lives; and a public square for convening important conversations both within the Jewish and among the broader community.”

21st Century JCCs work toward this vision by identifying the diversity of the Jewish people as a primary asset. JCCs aspire to be not only the Jewish public square, but to act on a more intimate level as the Jewish community’s kitchen table, where Jews of radically different backgrounds can meet one another “up close and personal,” argue with one another, learn about themselves from one another, and in so doing, become more tightly woven together. These individual relationships are the inner circle of Jewish peoplehood.

21st Century JCCs build community not by focusing on the relationship between the member and the JCC as an institution, but rather, by functioning as a platform for the development of individual relationships between members. The strength of the community is a function of the density of the web of relationships. Thus, the community is the next circle of Jewish peoplehood. By targeting individual relationships and weaving them into a community, JCCs model peoplehood on two levels, simultaneously: the connections established between Jews locally represent the connections between all Jews globally even as the JCC community as a whole takes its place within the network of Jewish communities worldwide.

The JCC vision imagines a welcoming environment dedicated to Jewish living and learning. Its central purpose is to encourage individuals to explore the fundamental question, “Why bother being Jewish?” Its goal is not to prescribe a specific way of living Jewishly, but rather to help individuals identify what being Jewish means to them and to act upon that meaning in their daily lives. The JCC’s primary tool for achieving this goal is Jewish conversation.

The metaphor of conversation is a powerful one. Jewish life can be likened to a conversation which began when God called out to Abraham and continues to this day with each generation adding its voices. Jewish thought has evolved as a function of intergenerational conversations (arguments, even!) about what being Jewish means. The classic texts provide documentation of this conversation over time and engagement with those texts has always been a primary way of accessing the historical dimension of Jewish Peoplehood.

But participating in this never-ending conversation can be daunting: many are hesitant to try because they feel they do not possess sufficient fluency in the language of discourse, in the vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics of Jewish life, and are not familiar enough with the ideas, events, and personalities comprising Jewish history. 21st Century JCCs serve as language incubators, places where Jews of all backgrounds, beliefs, practices, and knowledge levels increase their level of fluency in the Jewish people’s shared language.

21st Century JCCs differ from many institutions in Jewish life in their open-ended approach to the Jewish conversations they support. Maintaining the conversation is the goal; determining its outcome is not. As long as Jews are talking with one another about what being Jewish means to them, they are participating in the Jewish interpretive tradition and are contributing to Jewish peoplehood.

While the classic texts were a primary source of peoplehood, both across time and across space, they no longer hold the same authority in Jewish life. The State of Israel has served that purpose for the last three generations, at least. More recently, though, Israel’s place in the American Jewish psyche is threatened. 21st Century JCCs understand engagement with Israel means engagement with the Jewish past as well as with the Jewish present, as all Jews are connected not only to Israel, but through Israel. JCCs recognize the importance of maintain Israel’s role as as an essential thread of Jewish peoplehood, while also viewing the larger global web of Jewish relationships as its fullest expression.

21st Century JCCs recognize while they structure many activities and programs, it is always the participant who determines the meaning. JCCs model Jewish peoplehood locally to inspire the individual’s imagination of Jewish peoplehood globally.

Kein y’hi ratzon. So may it be.

Dr. David Ackerman is Director of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Jewish Education at JCC Association.


Steven M. Cohen and Barry Chazan, A Jewish philosophy for the JCC movement – An invitation to a discussion on Jewish peoplehood, pluralism, living and learning (New York: JCCs of North America, 1999).
Kaufman, David, Shul with a Pool: The Synagogue-Center in American Jewish History (New Hampshire:Brandeis University Press, 1999).