Jewish Peoplehood Crisis: The Seattle “Call for Conversation”
by Rene H Levy and David Chivo
There is a general agreement among leaders of communal organizations that we are witnessing a dangerous erosion in peoplehood consciousness, particularly among the younger generation. In 2008, the Commission on the Jewish People of the NY Federation made the assessment that “the vision of Jewish peoplehood is at risk of disappearing”. Similarly, Dr. Shlomi Ravid (director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education) stated that there is “a sense of urgency in addressing the Jewish Peoplehood crisis of our time”.
There is also an assessment that we lack an approach to address this crisis. John S. Ruskay from the UJA-Federation of New York expressed it as follows: “The question of how to build and foster a sense of collective identity poses therefore one of our more salient contemporary challenges – one that the Jewish federation system has begun to confront.” That perspective was shared by Dr .S. Ravid: “the Jewish world seems to be caught unprepared to address the challenge of keeping the sense of Peoplehood alive though the consequences may dramatically impact its future.”
In this context, we wish to share an approach that was recently initiated in Seattle to address this problem at the community level.
Interestingly, it began as a grassroots effort by a small team (less than 10) of anonymous volunteers who publicized an announcement (using social and traditional media) to initiate a community-wide conversation on building Jewish unity entitled “The Jewish Peoplehood Crisis: A Call for Conversation”
It was proposed that the “community conversation” would be based on the seminal work entitled “Baseless Hatred: what it is and what you can do about it” authored by Professor Rene H Levy (a Seattle resident). Topics that were listed included: (i) the roots of the concept of mutual responsibility; (ii) how to teach the younger generation peoplehood allegiance based on an understanding of the purpose of the Jewish people; (iii) how to develop empathy, to self-transform and to impact relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Participation in this Town Hall event required advance email reservation.
The team reserved a hall for approximately 200 participants for an event slated on the evening of Sunday, July 14th, but within a few weeks, the number of reservations far exceeded these expectations. The team then reached out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for assistance in further publicizing the event. The cooperation resulted in a first-of-its kind event in the history of the Seattle Jewish community with an attendance approaching 800 participants. A number of details about Dr Levy’s new concept of peoplehood , follow up questions and answers, and reactions to the event can be found in the press coverage.
Nevertheless, it is useful to share here a summary of the principal features of that concept. Firstly, the Jewish peoplehood crisis was defined as (i) loss in “identification with Jews throughout the world”; (ii) loss in “commitment to Jews throughout the world”, and (iii) loss in “responsibility for Jews throughout the world”.
To address the needs of the younger generation, it was proposed that the peoplehood concept should include the following characteristics (i) an explicit moral dimension; (ii) a statement of the mission/purpose of the Jewish people (iii) it should be independent from religious affiliation; (iv) it should depart from published characterizations of Jewish peoplehood as a relatively recent concept, only a few decades old with no agreed upon definition (because of the various aspects such as ethnicity, nationhood [Israel/Diaspora], religion, identity, history and fate).
This “Seattle peoplehood concept” began with an analysis of the historical “on-off” relationship between Jews and their land, starting with the birth of the Jewish people in a foreign land. It was shown that “for Jews, peoplehood is unique because it has always been primarily about the ethical character of their interpersonal relationships, not just the passive sharing of real estate.” It was therefore proposed that “the mission of the Jewish people has been, and remains, to create a moral society based on the principle of mutual responsibility.” It was also shown that the notion of “mutual responsibility” is deeply rooted in Jewish history as a central Jewish principle of interpersonal relationships, aimed at addressing the unanswered question of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer was provided by Judah when he stated, “I am a guarantor for my brother” and thus re-united his family. The notion of mutual responsibility (in Hebrew “arevut”) was later formalized in Jewish tradition as “Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew”, meaning that “we are all our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers!” However, mutual responsibility is not achievable unless the endemic problem of “baseless hatred” is addressed because it is well established that hatred destroys the basic human capacity of empathy. Without empathy, “others” lose their humanity, and mutual responsibility is not possible.
In terms of relationships among Jews and Jewish groups, it was pointed out that we choose the significance we attribute to our differences. Therefore, when we feel threatened by the beliefs of other Jews, we should ask ourselves: “do we care too much or not enough for each other?”
A three component strategic roadmap was proposed including: (i) adult education aimed at self- transformation; (ii) new peoplehood curricula for children, teachers and parents; (iii) focus on the peoplehood dimension by communal institutions both internally (transformative learning for staff and lay leadership) and externally, in their programming and “convener” roles.
The question resonating today in Seattle’s Jewish community pertains to “what’s next,” in other words, how do the individuals and the institutions most concerned with advancing the notion of Jewish peoplehood move forward? In the Seattle case, the Jewish Federation played a positive role in promoting the community conversation led by Dr. Levy, but in general, federation-type organizations can be most beneficial to the process of moving forward via their ability to convene stakeholders and eventually fund complex communal endeavors, in order to proceed beyond a single institution.
For a Jewish community to develop effective strategies that address divisive issues within the framework (and spirit) of Arevut, at the table must be broad representation including worship institutions, community centers, schools, Hillel centers, advocacy organizations and other kinds of educational entities. Their collective buy-in is critical to the implementation of the set of educational, experiential and collaborative cross-institution endeavors that will bring to life a communal commitment to advancing a sensitivity and awareness of the importance of Jewish peoplehood. The leadership that brought this conversation to life in Seattle is in the process of defining its strategic direction, with the objective of a city-wide endeavor based on a broad consensus to achieve the meta-goals related to peoplehood consciousness. What is clear though, is that the community discussion about Jewish peoplehood in Seattle struck a chord with Jews from all walks of life and that many of its leaders are committed to its furtherance. While the exact nature of what will happen next is being finalized, the Seattle experiment showed that once the genie is out of the bottle, the wishes of the community are for the conversations about peoplehood and mutual responsibility to continue
Rene H Levy, PhD, is Professor Emeritus University of Washington (firstname.lastname@example.org) and David Chivo is Executive Vice President, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle (email@example.com).