Jewish Peoplehood: The Values of Collective Action

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Jerry Silverman

Mina is in her late 80s, and for more than four decades has lived alone in an apartment in Kiev. This former teacher barely gets by on a meager pension, aided by care packages from the government. Thankfully, a social worker from the Chesed network of social service agencies visits Mina and other seniors, helping her do chores, and brings her to concerts, lectures and holiday programs.

After graduating from college, Jesse felt distant from his Conservative upbringing. But a Birthright Israel trip rekindled his identity and helped propel him to become an active volunteer in his community, working with children, teens and Holocaust survivors along with other younger, professional Jews.

Idit is a young Ethiopian-Israeli, a single parent in the town of Afula, whose children are now achieving new success in school while Idit is learning to manage her finances and spending more quality time with her kids.

What connects these Jews in the former Soviet Union, the U.S. and in Israel are global human service programs, which for more than a century have cared for the most vulnerable of us at home, in Israel and around the world, while nurturing and sustaining our community. These efforts, whether through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, The Jewish Agency, ORT, Birthright Israel, Hillel, and others, help our community survive and thrive in more than 70 nations around the world.

None of these programs would exist without perhaps the central value of Jewish Peoplehood, expressed in the Talmud as “Kol Yisrael arevim ze ba’ze,” the notion that all Jews are directly responsible for all other Jews. That sense of collective responsibility remains the essence and the central driver of Jewish Federations, and the Annual Campaign, which raises and collects an average of more than $900 million annually to meet Jewish needs worldwide.

In fact, we believe the core value inherent in Jewish Peoplehood – collective action – can kindle the spark to motivate our people toward ever greater achievements for generations to come.

Jewish Federations exist in 155 communities across North America, from Montreal to New Orleans, from Toronto to Dallas, to San Diego and Vancouver, but their boundaries are limitless. For more than a century, Jewish Federations have believed that we are defined, and enhanced, by our collective responsibility and action – that together we can do so much more than if we act alone.

More than a century ago, local Jewish welfare boards and societies realized they could care for Jewish orphans, or the elderly and sick, by collaborating rather than through separate and sometimes uncoordinated efforts. Through collective efforts, they built community centers, hospitals, senior facilities and so much more. Eventually, the National Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds helped convene local Jewish Federations across America, transforming into a central fundraising power during the Holocaust and earliest days of the State of Israel.

Today Jewish Federations contend with an array of unfolding challenges. The State of Israel, the “Start-Up Nation” that’s making a huge impact on global technology and culture, still is forced to deal with serious military threats, while a singularly thriving economy still suffers real gaps, reflected in last summer’s social protests. At the same time, even as Israel has grown into a breathtakingly multi-cultural ingathering of Jews from around the world, the vision of creating a pluralistic Jewish society in Israel faces real challenges.

In the Diaspora we continue to meet other challenges as well. We are focused sharply on engaging the next generation of Jews, who will help lead us into the future. Jewish Federations support many exciting new projects, including efforts like Moishe House, which helps young leaders in their 20s create home-based communities. We support Israel experience programs like Birthright and MASA. Meanwhile, our communities are recruiting and developing many outstanding young philanthropic leaders who will help carry us forward.

But unlike those of us of previous generations, for whom Jewish identity was more of a fixed notion, these younger Jews are creating and shaping new Jewish experiences. Jewish Federations and their partners are finding that a key to nurturing the collective is to not only provide a range of Jewish entry points, but to foster a real global Jewish dialogue that engages a broad range of views.

For more than a year, the Jewish Federations, along with historic partners, have been deeply involved in a project to help foster new thinking about Jewish Peoplehood from a global Jewish perspective. The Global Planning Table will create a new philanthropic forum for Jewish Federations and their partners to closely analyze the needs of the Jewish people, set our shared priorities, and put new strategies into effect.

The goal is to animate new voices and dialogue, by convening more participants, new funders, and new partners. Through social media and mobile technology, we will have the ability to dynamically promote this new forum and connect with Jews around the world.

Dialogue and engagement, based on our people’s timeless value of collective responsibility and peoplehood, will inspire our community toward even greater action. Our oldest values, coupled with our ability to seek new opportunities, will provide the key to helping help us meet the challenges of the next century. Kathy Manning, a great leader in her own right, said it best, when she noted that “our greatest strength has been our willingness to envision a better world and our ability to work together as a global people to accomplish big goals.”

Jerry Silverman is the President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.