[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Yahal Porat
In this short paper I will try to share a few insights and observations accumulated over the last year of directing the Israel-New York connections portfolio in Jerusalem. The Israel-New York connections oversees joint programs which engage Jewish institutions in NY with “peer” Israeli organizations (JCCs-Matnasim, Hillels, Congregations, etc.) with the aim of enhancing their connections and nurturing a spirit of Jewish Peoplehood. All of these programs include face to face encounters (“mifgashim” in Hebrew) which represent the highlight of the joint program.
How does programming change when the Peoplehood lens is being used?
Traditional “Mifgash programs”, operating now for a good 18 years, aim to bring Jews together and develop long and lasting meaningful relationships, where Jews are “Arevim ze L’aze”. Those programs have touched tens of thousands individuals from Israel and the Diaspora, and transformed many who have become advocates of the necessity of the “Kesher” (connections in Hebrew) between Jews everywhere on the globe.
In my eyes, the Peoplehood lens brings a change of focus: the short term Mifgash ceases to be an end in its own right and becomes the means for further work. The real work only begins once the Mifgash ends: On the base of this fundamental and unique experience the real Peoplehood path opens before us. Our programs’ participants are expected to come back to their communities, organizations and daily lives to work for the Jewish people. We know that the experience participants had during the Mifgash programs is often life changing, but the real measure of success will be the social change programs that the alumni will operate in their home communities as a network of activists for the Jewish collective.
Israel engagement programs
Recently one program participant commented: “it is amazing to see again how Israel is important to our two sister communities and how excited they are to be here with us in our big community event”. Embracing the unique place of Israel is indeed a Peoplehood goal, as this is the state of the Jewish people.
The Peoplehood discourse allows us to relate to Israel not only from a narrow political point of view but also through the broad lens of the Jewish collective perspective. The participants in the peoplehood programs come from varied cultural, geographical, lingual and religious backgrounds. This context is conducive for an open discussion where different points of view about Israel can be brought to the table: traditional Zionism vs. Babylon-Jerusalem. Greater (Promised Land) Israel vs. the Israel of the 1967 borders. “Halachick Judaism” vs. “ethnic Judaism”. And more. Agreeing that the peace among us (Shevet Achim Gam Yachad) is more important than one’s “truth”, can define our new public conversation space. A space where we meet and exchange ideas, but commit to stay unified even as we disagree respectfully.
One of a kind or part of a family?
There are numerous travel and “Mifgash” programs and a variety of initiatives operated in NA, Israel, Europe and around the globe. While those programs may have somewhat different goals, there is considerable potential in the conversation between these programs. When similar programs, such as Mifgash programs for example, take place in a specific geographic area at the same time, they should not only know about each other but make sure they coordinate an inter-program Mifgash. This requires a network of agents that seek opportunities to join forces between programs for the sake of creating additional “Peoplehood moments” (as well as cheaper logistics costs). This search for collaboration between programs should be built into their planning process.
What should the impact of Peoplehood programs be?
While I am not sure that we have a full answer yet, the answer is to be found, as I pointed out at the opening, in the post program effect. We need to agree that we are all in the business of social change within the Jewish polity. If so, program alumni should be considered change agents in their communities as well as being part of a network. While today we are seeking a meaningful outlet for those change agents in existing structures, the “fourth sector” model can provide a new horizon. The fourth sector model suggests a unique hybrid approach that seeks to maximize social benefit while income is being earned (rather than contributed). In a world of diminishing philanthropic funds and economic instability, and when younger generations are no longer consumers but prosumers, this model can point to new ways to work within the Jewish world. Using the globalizations processes to bring a local community into a network of worldwide communities through the skills and energies of program alumni will be a win for all.
Peolehood in practice – what does it look like?
Our work on developing peoplehood program is beginning to take shape. We have gone through a cognitive process – learning about the Jewish people, traditions, mutual responsibility, Israel and more. We have also developed an emotional/spiritual sense of being part of the Jewish people that we believe imparts a greater sense of caring for fellow Jews wherever they are. One area that needs to be further developed is the behavioral aspect: what are the mitzvoth or rituals of Jewish peoplehood one should fulfill? How should we express the imperative of “V’eAhavta Le’reacha Camocha”? How should we as members of our people express in concrete terms, our collective commitment to justice and Tikun Olam?
I want to propose that the very essence of Jewish existence is community life. Being active in a communal life which is both local and global can have a significant Peoplehood impact. Imagine for example a gathering of professional and volunteers’ activists on one thematic idea (say environmentalism) from around the Jewish globe. This can be both a beginning of a community and a unique Jewish contribution (Say Shmita) to the world.
Yahal Porat is director of NY-IL connections office, a joint initiative of the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel. This portfolio includes supporting some 20 projects in Israel NY and Europe where through institutions and organizations a network of JP activists is built.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.