Jewish Peoplehood: From Concept-Building to People-Building

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

The Case of the Peoplehood Education Toolkit
by Clare Goldwater and Shlomi Ravid

Historians of Jewish communal history may well describe the last two decades as the period of the rude awakening to the crisis of Jewish Peoplehood. The long-term impacts of the forces of modernity and sociology on one hand, and lack of response on the other, have combined to shake the foundations of Jewish collective identity. Jews of different backgrounds and commitments have less and less to do with each other, the sense of a joint fate and common destiny is fading away rapidly and the feeling of a joint responsibility for fellow Jews and for the Jewish enterprise is weakening significantly. The result is that Jewish collective identity is under an existential threat.

The initial attempts at responding to the challenge over the last two decades, beyond the attempts to understand it and its sources, can be grouped into three approaches:

    1. The Conceptual approach starts with the concept of Peoplehood itself, and focuses on trying to define it and explain what it can mean in today’s world. The assumption or aspiration was that if we succeed in explaining this complex concept in simple and clear words, Jews would actually be convinced to embrace Jewish Peoplehood. Or, in other words, if we clarified the vagueness of the concept and also reframed it as the ancient Jewish value that it is, that should bring Peoplehood back.
    2. The Interactive approach focuses on action, and assumes that if Jews of different origins meet and interact, the Mifgash (encounter) will re-light the Peoplehood spark. Similarly, the impact of the Israel Experience is to spark a sense of engagement with both a common Jewish fate and a global Jewish partnership. The assumption is that these experiences create a sense of peoplehood by design.
    3. The Joint Projects approach aspires to replicate the impact of grand collective projects such as the creation of the State of Israel, the Six Day War or the Save Soviet Jewry campaign which galvanized the People, across religious, national and all other boundaries, in a common cause. The challenge with this approach is that authentic projects that will resonate with a broad majority of Jews are difficult if not impossible to generate.

All these approaches, while valuable and effective in their own terms, are at best partial responses to a much more complex challenge. The crisis of Peoplehood is an identity crisis. As such it can never be addressed with a single-pronged approach. Engagement and commitment are never strictly intellectual outcomes. Nor can an interactive approach suffice when shaping consciousness is the goal. A cognitive and reflective process needs to follow if identity is to be impacted. As to the joint projects, beyond our ability to generate them artificially, and even if we had significant numbers of Jews embrace them (such as, for example, projects of Tikun Olam) they do not necessarily nurture the sense of the collective.

It is in this context then, that the development of the Peoplehood Education Toolkit by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the Commission on the Jewish People of the UJA-Federation of New York represents a strategic shift in the approach to shaping the Jewish collective future.

The Peoplehood Education Toolkit* is a concrete and practical online resource for Jewish educators and leaders who seek to engage their constituents with Jewish Peoplehood. The Toolkit offers both conceptual as well as highly practical, ready-to-use resources that can be used in all educational settings (camps, JCCs, Hillels, schools, synagogues and more). It provides answers to the questions of ‘Why incorporate Peoplehood into Jewish education?’ as well as ‘How do I build engaging and meaningful Peoplehood activities?’ and ‘What should I do next?’ As such, the Peoplehood Toolkit is the first attempt to offer educators a comprehensive set of tools and resources for teaching Peoplehood.

By focusing on both the conceptual AND the practical, the Toolkit reflects a different approach to the challenge of nurturing and strengthening Jewish Peoplehood than those that have gone before. It assumes that the way to a significant and vibrant collective passes through the conceptual discussion about “What is Jewish Peoplehood?” into the questions of “What does it mean for me to be part of a Jewish collective?” and “How can I contribute to that collective, and the world?” This approach shifts the focus to the educational practice required for engaging individual Jews with the Jewish collective in practice. It frames the endeavor and the challenges of building collective Jewish identity through a learner centered approach.

As a result we believe that, in policy terms, the significance of the Toolkit is much more than the creation of another set of educational tools. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are dealing with an identity crisis that requires a holistic educational approach, facilitated by educators as the key change agents for assuring a strong and rich Jewish collective future. It reflects a conviction that our response should be practical, pro-active and impactful. We believe that it signifies a broader shift from an intellectual conversation about what is Peoplehood to a practical approach to rebuilding Jewish collective identity; A shift in focus from concept-building to people-building. Or, as Karl Marx framed it: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”.

Clare Goldwater is a Jewish educational consultant and leadership coach. Clare is a graduate of Oxford University and the Hebrew University and was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and editor of the Peoplehood Papers.

*The Toolkit was conceptualized and created by Shlomi Ravid and Clare Goldwater

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.