Jewish Peoplehood – A Philanthropic Focus

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by David Mallach and Sanford Antignas

“One cannot be Jewish without being a part of the Jewish People”

For the first time in more than 2,000 years, Jews live in a world where they may choose their primary collective identity, sense of group identity. Increasingly, Jews are not choosing the global Jewish People as their primary, or even co-equal, collective identity. For some, this is true even though they may identify as Jewish Israelis or pursue an individual spiritual Jewish journey wherever they live.

Only in the last few years has there been recognition of this challenge and the opportunities it may bring. It has not, however, become a philanthropic focus and we are risking the future of the Jewish People if we do not pay sufficient attention to this issue. Jewish Peoplehood must become a priority for funders of all kinds. This is especially the case for Federations, because ultimately the only valid argument that can be made for individual Jewish support of a range of institutions and communal frameworks is that of a collective identity, a sense of being a part of a global Jewish people.

The Case for a Jewish Peoplehood Planning and Funding Focus

There was a time when individual and collective Jewish identity was co-mingled, so that neither could be distinguished from the other. Over our history, “Jewish solidarity,” often imposed by negative, external forces, drove collective Jewish association for the vast majority of Jews. In the 21st century, that is no longer the case.

The combination of the universalistic vision that all people need to be our concern, and an aversion among increasing numbers of Jews, particularly younger generations, to Jewish particularism, have eroded the strong sense of collective Jewish identity. In addition, Jews today have other strong “collective identities”, such as their “national” identity (e.g., Israeli, American, etc.), which dominate their daily lives. One must add to that, at least in the US, the impact of the individualistic American ethos and the Protestant understanding of religion that have made Judaism, for many, a personal identity search and not a community experience.

Any philanthropist who is concerned about the Jewish future must recognize that without a positive raison d’être for global Jewish collective identity, there is little argument to support efforts to define and direct the collective future of the Jewish People.

A strong argument can be made that Judaism constitutes an extraordinary positive and diverse opportunity for a meaningful and rewarding life. It is not only that the Jewish People have existed, but that they continue to evolve and develop, add new dimensions to their collective and individual experiences. And importantly, the Jewish People continue to make the world better as a result of their presence. This is the result of the presence of Jews as a people, not only as individual Jews. The Jewish People have contributed a wide range of ideas and experiences to humanity, including a long series of religious values which have become universal values, and gave birth to both Christianity (directly) and Islam (indirectly). Similarly, the educational and cultural values that have been and continue to be developed and transmitted by Jewish life enrich the world in the arts, sciences, civil society and social experiences. This is to an extent that is far beyond the numerical significance of the Jewish People. For individual Jews, being part of the Jewish People and benefiting from this collective has and can further their quest for self actualization, a life of meaning and contribution to the world around them.

The challenge that faces any funder concerned about the Jewish destiny, whether a collective such as a federation or an individual philanthropist, is how to build on the sense of Peoplehood that remains, and reintroduce it as a central, relevant concept into contemporary Jewish life. Importantly, in meeting this challenge we must recognize the reality that in the contemporary world, with the exception of the Haredi community, Jews have multiple collective identities that are not mutually exclusive from their Jewish identity, but rather do co-exist and are mutually enhancing. In our efforts we must weave together, and help Jews navigate, the perceived tension (which can be a positive) between the universal and the particular.

It is not a simple situation where inaction will sustain the status quo. The forces that sustained the collective identity of the past are no longer as powerful or even present in some cases. Left uninfluenced, the trends towards a growing focus on universalism by most of the community and growing insular, separatist particularism by parts of the community, will continue to define much of the Jewish future. The view long held in Jewish life was that if we focus on Jewish caring (social service agencies, geriatric centers, child care agencies,) and on building individual Jewish identity, we would ensure communal identity. However, this view does not by itself provide the rationale for a distinctly Jewish approach to social service. Nor does it ensure that educational frameworks include as core, not as an icing on the cake, the inculcation of a sense of a shared past leading to a shared future, rather than a focus on distinct personal Jewish expression. The problem with this view is that these two directions have reinforced the trends of universalism and isolationist particularism. This is because an active, widely accepted presence of a Jewish collectivist framing vision is absent today.

Consequently, Jewish Peoplehood must be an area of focus distinct from, but synergistic with, Jewish individual identity. Ultimately, neither will be able to survive without the other. Jewish Peoplehood must also not merely be a “repackaging” of the approaches and agendas of the past half century, but rather reflective of the challenges and opportunities of Jewish Peoplehood today. The Jewish world has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, the founding of the State of Israel, the Six Day War and the end of the Soviet Union. The external forces that played such a key role in sustaining Jewish communal identity are no longer present. It truly now is up to us as to whether we choose to be associated with the Jewish collective.

The Role of Jewish Federations

The Jewish federation system in North America, somewhat ironically was able to thrive because of the sense of collective identity – for if not for a sense of Peoplehood why would an individual Jew in New York care about a Jew in Morocco or Israel. For almost all of the 20th century, the efforts to rescue and resettle Jews, whether in Israel or the US, were a strong reflection of the collective. Yet, since the closing years of the last century, federations have focused virtually all their resources on individual Jewish identity and caring services. The building of a sense of the Jewish collective was assumed to take place by ‘osmosis’ from being with other Jews and doing good together, or was posited as an inherent outcome of Jewish education.

While the federations have not fully recognized the importance of working specifically on building a sense of collective identity, they have come to realize that as federations they have a unique set of assets for both building the collective and in modeling the collective that they are seeking to build. A mission to the former Soviet Union is no longer simply to see how we are helping the poor elderly Jews, but is to interact and engage with the emergent Jewish communities that are now there. One partners with Israel today not only to help those in need, but also to build ties to partner communities with whom we can share concerns on how to best build Jewish life.

The federation is well positioned to do this because from its inception it was seen as an expression of the collective. Its core ideology is to receive support from all segments of the Jewish community, involving all groups in the process of generating support for the annual campaign. The vision of serving the collective community is also expressed in the planning and financial allocations process as it seeks to provide services to a wide range of efforts in the community, and increasingly in recent years, provide support for those opportunities to strengthen and share in the global collective experience.

Federations have the building blocks to be leaders in the field of strengthening the Jewish collective, locally and globally, to ensure the Jewish future. Although North America based, the federations have always viewed their role in a global Jewish frame of reference.

By virtue of their role as a funder, they receive a wide range of proposals, concept papers, research and suggestions. This allows them to have a relatively comprehensive view of the landscape – who the players are, what ideas are being considered and what directions are of growing interest in the field. In addition, as a result of the past history of funding and the experiences gained form that, the funders have a sense of history and perspective on the field. These two broad landscape aspects, one horizontal and one historical give the funder a unique vantage point to guide grantees in a field, particularly a relatively new one such as Peoplehood where there is little literature or published experience. It provides funders with ability to act as “connectors”, bringing people together to share and create ideas to develop better, more innovative programs that leverage our limited collective human and financial resources.

Approaches to Strengthening Jewish Peoplehood

There are various modes that diverse types of funders may deploy to further Jewish Peoplehood, depending on their particular areas of interest, expertise and capacities. This work can be done through the development and implementation of on the ground programs, as well as strategic interventions by furthering relevant research and development of the field. It can also be promoted by a conscious articulation of the vision of a collective Jewish People. As this is an emerging field, funders should collaborate when appropriate and it is essential that they share their approaches, learning and best practices.

UJA-Federation of New York has been focusing on Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st century context for more than a decade, funding programs and research and development. It has sought to act as a catalyst, convener and connector. These programs have ranged from funding tri-lateral programmatic relationships between organizations in New York, Israel and a third country; to convening and funding the Global Task Force on Jewish Peoplehood Education to begin development of “how to make Peoplehood happen in practice” in various educational settings; to conceiving and funding Siach – an environment and social justice conversation bringing together Jewish professionals from Israel, the US and Europe to network, collaborate and explore their collective Jewish identity and their work in the Jewish world and the world at large.

We are at the beginning of this Journey … 

Strengthening global Jewish Peoplehood is hardly a simple task. Defining impact and insuring meaningful approaches to measure effectiveness, two vital concerns of any funder in the contemporary world, is difficult. Depending on the kind of initiative, one may look for indicators that suggest how the broad is the community engaged. If those taking part are key opinion leaders and trendsetters who can have a ripple effect throughout Jewish life, one might follow what those individuals do and their impact. Similar to measuring the impact and effectiveness of Jewish individual identity initiatives, the real impact of initiatives and understanding the effectiveness of particular approaches will unfold over several years.

Each aspect of strengthening Jewish Peoplehood needs to be answered thoughtfully and carefully. They can only be judged, however, when one looks at them from a Peoplehood perspective. The question is not whether a program or initiative will be a meaningful personal Jewish experience, for we know how to do that. But rather, how will the program or initiative that we are supporting connect this person to the Jewish People and impact that person’s actions on the collective.

We are just at the beginning of this process. This is an emerging area of focus and learning. As such, funders need to take some risks, accept some failures and learn from them in order to achieve our objectives. Innovation, flexibility, patience and a long term commitment to this work is essential. The challenges –the need to insure the Jewish future– make the importance of our task very clear.

David Mallach is the Managing Director of the Commission on the Jewish People of the UJA-Federation of New York; Sanford Antignas is the Chair of the Connecting Communities Cluster of the Commission on the Jewish People.