Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – Shifting From the “What” to the “How”

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

by Shlomi Ravid

The challenges of Jewish Peoplehood have emerged on the Jewish scene over the last decade or two. Most of the efforts in the initial period went into trying to understand the meaning and significance of Jewish Peoplehood in this day and age. Some of the lead questions were: what does peoplehood mean today? Why is it important? How do we define it? However with the growing awareness to the weakening of the Jewish collective and its impact on the Jewish communal and global life, a shift in focus has begun. More and more Jewish organizations and leadership are asking themselves: How do we nurture a sense of Peoplehood in the minds and hearts of today’s Jews? What are we to do in order to insure the future of the Jewish people? How do we make our collective commitment to improve the world relevant and inspiring? How do we inculcate Jewish collective identity as an essential part of a person’s individual Jewish identity?

We are dedicating this issue of the Peoplehood papers to the shift from the “What” to the “How”. Our hope is to open the conversation on how we change the current Jewish landscape to one that is conducive to nurturing a sense of the collective. What is our theory of change? What are impactful areas of interventions? How should this challenge impact our thinking on Jewish education, leadership development and our communal structure? Who are effective change agents? What tools are needed? What age groups should we focus on? Our aim is to shift the Peoplehood conversation towards the practical questions of identity, community and people building.

Noam Pianko proposes a rather revolutionary paradigm shift. “My vision for peoplehood reflects another -hood paradigm – not nationhood, but “neighborhood.”…” Peoplehood based on a neighborhood, rather than nationhood model promotes understanding Jewish collectivity as the sum of divergent processes of Jewish exploration and community building.” According to Pianko “Neighborhoods” broadly construed, either in-person or via focused global networks, create a platform for engagement, meaning, creation, and innovation, with Jewish communities looking to develop what the software community calls open-source standards.” The outcome will therefore be: “… local, informal expressions of collectivity, rather than overarching institutional centers. Micro-communities emerge as the creators and perpetuators of the ongoing project of Jewish peoplehood. Divergent and grassroots expressions of Jewish involvement are not signs of the end of Jewish peoplehood, but the basis for its future”.

Speaking from a global perspective Einat Wilf proposes “five potential avenues of action to nurture the sense of belonging to a Jewish people globally: Global minyans, a global Jewish family genetic tree, Israel, Hebrew and recognition”. Together they frame what she calls the “Mitzvot of Peoplehood” which “much like the known Mitzvot, then become “the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, the substance and the mechanism, by which one is a member of the Jewish people”.

Lynn Schusterman shares the Schusterman Foundation approach towards the development of “a virtuous cycle of vibrant Jewish life”. It is expressed through the vision she lays out for their endeavor: “… if we are successful, we will see a time when the vast majority of young people readily participate in Jewish life, draw on Jewish values to inform their worldviews and take on leadership roles in their communities. We will see their journeys supported by a global Jewish infrastructure that embraces, incubates and scales effective efforts to meet the needs and interests of all Jewish people. And we will see Jewish communities around the world, strengthened by a surge of engaged young people, an appetite for innovation and a strong communal infrastructure, connected to each other and contributing to the greater whole”.

Netaly Ophir Flint points to an untapped resource of global Peoplehood change agents – individual Jews who relocated to other countries on the globe: “we should be better utilizing the best resource we have out there for fostering global Jewish peoplehood – those members who naturally embody the global-ness of the Jewish people”. Using the examples of Israelis who reside abroad and Olim who moved to Israel Ophir-Flint proposes: “our goal should be to cultivate and nurture those individuals who can serve as ‘living bridges’, and to do so wherever they are in their local communities”.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz reports about the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program (RCFP), a yearlong program on Judaism and human rights for young adults, ages 25-35, with hubs in New York, London and Jerusalem. He claims that “the lesson for those who care about strengthening the Jewish people is that we need to meet today’s young adults where they are at and help them articulate what is at the root of our collective Jewish enterprise. This is the only way to engage Next Gen Jews”.

Clare Goldwater and Shlomi Ravid focus the conversation on education broadly defined. They introduce the new Toolkit for Peoplehood Education: “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”.

Dan Brown proposes to bring a [national] Limmud to the USA: “A strong, national Limmud is the perfect vehicle to connect, and engage, American Jewish young adults in Jewish Peoplehood”. Brown points to the potential impact: “as a community we gain the ability to engage the minds as well as the hands of today’s young adults. Through this engagement we will nurture both commitment and Peoplehood. We help instill a sense of Identity and connectedness that will propel the community to even greater heights in the years ahead”. The Limmud process as well as content makes it according to Brown the “place to practice the ‘How’ of Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century”.

Rene H Levy and David Chivo from Seattle share the amazing story of a call to a conversation to discuss the Peoplehood crisis that yielded nearly 800 participants. Not less inspiring is the strategic roadmap proposed at the meeting: “A three component strategic roadmap was proposed including: (i) adult education aimed at self-transformation (starting with leaders of any Jewish institution); (ii) incorporation of peoplehood in school curricula; (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”.

Yahal Porat who directs the Israel New York Connections program brings a practitioner’s perspective to the table. It is interesting to note that he sees most of the challenges in what happens to the participants after their return home. For him “the work is just starting once the Mifgash ends. On the basis of this fundamental and unique experience the real Peoplehood path begins”. Porat sees the challenge of developing the Peoplehood “Mitzvot” as the piece still missing from our puzzle. But interestingly enough, just like Pianko who we opened with, he sees the community as the arena where the next phase of peoplehood will be built.

As we are beginning to grapple with the findings of the recently published PEW study, practical approaches such as the ones presented in this publication, point to the way of the future. It is important to note that despite the study’s concerning findings regarding the state of the American Jewish community, it does open with the following sentence: “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people”. The Jewish community ought to seize that sense of belonging, enhance and deepen it. It needs to focus its efforts on developing strategies, tools and means to achieve those goals. And it needs to do it now in order to impact the finding of the future studies.

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