Navigating between Community and Peoplehood

By Eric M. Robbins

Every leader of a major community organization devotes time to staffing, and when you are not staffed-up, your organization runs at a disadvantage. And every so often, there’s a search that involves soul-searching – a staffing decision that speaks to the core of who we are, and why we must innovate in order to survive and thrive – which is how I would describe my community’s current search for a Director of Global Jewish Peoplehood.

Yes, the position involves community visits to Israel, exchanges with Israeli partners, grantmaking to programs across the Jewish world, recruiting shlichim and other programs not unfamiliar to most Jewish communities.

But these days, it also involves so much more.

What’s our relationship to the Jewish world, especially with communities outside Israel, and particularly in an era when the vast majority of World Jewry lives in free and open societies, secure in their identity, and eager and able to engage Israel and Jews everywhere?

How do our communities re-imagine our relationship to the Jewish state and with Israelis, so that it is prideful, impactful and unifying?

Yes, our top development professionals are critical; and yes, we could not provide the critical services for which others depend on us without our educators and social workers; and yes, community relations remains the bedrock for ensuring our Jewish community’s sense of belonging in the local and national tapestry that makes America so unique; but we must find the right formulas to strengthen our sense of global Jewish peoplehood to strengthen our local communities.

I work in one of the most vibrant, diverse, and growing Jewish communities in North America – just ask any of the 10,000 Israelis who have recently moved to Atlanta to study or work. It is for them, and for our community members from the FSU, and for those from Argentina and every other corner of the Jewish world, and also for our native Atlantans, it is for all of us that we must nourish our sense of peoplehood.

I know it sounds like bragging, but Jews had a world wide web long before electricity was discovered. We know how to connect across space and time. But our history as a world community does not guarantee our future as one.

And in an increasingly globalized world, where the time and attention of our community members has never been under such competitive pressures, we need to find new and innovative ways to nurture and instill our sense of peoplehood.

And peoplehood is like tango dancing, you can’t do it alone. Moreover, it flows in multiple directions.

For example, as much as we draw pride and identity from Israel, our contributions have never been more needed. My community in Atlanta, like so many other communities in North America, is stronger because of our commitment to diversity and pluralism, and Israelis are just beginning to learn these lessons and we need to help accelerate that process. In fact, our future as a people may depend on it.

We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, we are gay and straight, we are liberals and conservatives, and we all find fellowship under one big tent. We traveled together on a recent trip to the Jewish state which surprised many Israelis we met.

They were even more surprised to learn that in our community, religious leaders belong to a single, rabbinical council. They study together and meet regularly in fellowship, even if they remain divided on doctrinal questions about halacha, or gender equality or same sex marriage – and that example of inclusivity is our gift to our people.

In Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” Jewish bonds with the African American community remain strong. Our own Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose synagogue was bombed in 1958 by the Ku Klux Klan, had a close personal friendship with Dr. King and organized Atlanta’s celebration when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

Our new director of global Jewish peoplehood will be charged with building on this legacy as well, sharing Atlanta’s experience in confronting and ultimately overcoming deep social, ethnic and racial divides – an on-going challenge in many of our North American communities, in France, Belgium, the U.K. and elsewhere in the Diaspora, and also in Israel.

So, if you know someone who is up to the task, please tell them to apply. It’s on my “must-do” list this summer.

And I can guarantee all applicants that this is an exciting role and a good fit for anyone who wants to write the next chapter and map out new frontiers for the Jewish people.

Eric M. Robbins is President and CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.