Making Peoplehood Work: The Institutional Challenge

by Dr. Shlomi Ravid

Most people mistakenly view Peoplehood as a global, amorphous and abstract concept that presents an optional ideological approach towards the Jewish collective. The truth, however, couldn’t be farther from this interpretation. In reality, Peoplehood provides the basic rationale for the whole Jewish communal system. If it were not for the need and desire to do things with and for other Jews, how could one explain and justify Jewish Federations, JCCs, Hillels, Jewish summer camps, not to mention Jewishly focused political, philanthropic and advocacy organizations. My claim is that the notion of Peoplehood constitutes the communal and institutional framework of Jewish civilization. Making Peoplehood work is a challenge for local, national and global Jewish institutions.

The argument does not stop with the general communal institutions. Jewish congregations and schools too, while perhaps not stating Peoplehood as goal, actually operate according to this model. On the surface, the role of congregations is simply to provide religious services while schools are dedicated to teaching Judaism. However, a simple analysis of their mode of operation, structure and array of services provided reveals a significant focus on building and sustaining Jewish community and Peoplehood.

The problem with the above misconception is that the lack of understanding as to the rationale and true nature of institutions often leads to confusion in goal setting and policy making. If a JCC is seen as primarily a provider of social and communal services and loses sight of its role and place in the larger Jewish scheme of things, its ability to serve that cause will be impacted. This will obviously be the case for a Federation which sees itself as solely a fund raising and allocating agency for the local community, or a school that would claim that its role is limited to providing knowledge. My claim is that in order to be true to their cause and also function effectively, Jewish institutions need to redefine themselves as creators of Jewish nodes and cells which together form Jewish society and civilization.

When we refer to Jewish Peoplehood we usually point to the larger global context. As this broad concept, however, actually defines our institutions, we need to understand how Peoplehood concretely plays out in their lives and is expressed by them. By the same token we need to see what they contribute to sustaining and enhancing this core Jewish value. In other words, we need to explore what it means to be an institutional expression of Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st century and how it should shape and impact the future mission of Jewish institutions. If part of the mandate of JCCs, Federations and Jewish schools is to engage their members with the Jewish People, how is that challenge to be addressed?

What is required here is first and foremost recognition by the Jewish communal leadership of the Peoplehood dimension of their work. It is far from being understood. In practical terms, strategies of leadership education need to be employed, backed by the development of Peoplehood educational materials. This is not an impossible challenge but it requires global mobilization of resources. Not so much because of the amount of resources required but more because the next chapter of Jewish Peoplehood will be written by the whole Jewish collective based on the conviction that this is indeed the agenda of our day. It cannot be done by the Israelis alone. It cannot be done by world Jewry alone. Rejuvenating the Jewish collective is a global Jewish challenge that can be addressed only by the whole people.

There is no need to recreate the wheel. Jews have been extremely effective in sustaining for over 2,000 years a sense of joint responsibility towards their people and its members. While the current reality seems very different than any prior time in Jewish history, part of the Jewish legacy is that of adapting to changing circumstances. Relying on education as a primary tool for sustaining Jewish civilization, but adapting both content and pedagogy to fit the current challenges, should provide the strategic road map.

The challenge of creating a sense of Jewish solidarity in the 21st century where the prevalent paradigm is that of free choice is not simple. In a way, it is part of the larger question of why being Jewish is significant and important in this day and age. However, while most of our focus and resources have been invested in strengthening Jewish identity, the dimension of belonging to a people (also known as Peoplehood) has been neglected. If my assumption that Peoplehood provides the rationale for the Jewish institutional system is correct, then those institutions are bound to be impacted by its weakening. If Jewish institutions want to flourish and thrive, strengthening Jewish Peoplehood must become a priority for them.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the director of the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beth Hatefutsoth.