Of Peoplehood and Purpose

Articulating the purpose of Jewish engagement is the gateway to tomorrow. Just as there is no technical “fix,” so will Jewish engagement opportunities not rooted in a compelling (to the participant) vision and purpose likely fall short of the mark.

by Dr. Gil Graff

Recently, I attended a conference that featured many of the leading lights of Jewish engagement. Whether relating to teens or adults, to Friday evening happenings or outdoor events, and whether incubating new projects or helping to re-imagine longstanding portals of Jewish engagement, presenters were of one voice on two notions: first, the desirability of an experiential approach; second, the need to frame the experience in other than religious terms. Leading a more fulfilled life, self-improvement, and community/peoplehood were among the underlying rationales proposed for “doing Jewish.”

The conversation was both encouraging and discouraging. The encouragement came from hearing thoughtful, capable people share the creative work in which they are engaged. No one supposes that what is needed, today, is a technical “fix.” Gone are the days of imagining that use of the latest technology or curriculum will draw the sustained interest of teens or young adults. The discouragement springs from a sense that we, collectively, have yet to articulate a compelling rationale for Jewish engagement. Resume building opportunities, travel abroad and social networks might serve as immediate inducements to “Jewish engagement,” but such draws are unlikely to translate to enduring interest in let alone commitment to action informed by Jewish wisdom.

If Jewishness is about self-actualization or peoplehood, why ought an individual – born Jewish or otherwise – take a particular interest in Jewish experiences as a means of satisfying such human needs? There are many paths to self-help, and a sense of American peoplehood – in an era beyond the heyday of ethnic pride – is surely sufficient. Is it any surprise that a declining percentage (relative to earlier generations) of Jews born in the United States feels strong kinship toward or responsibility for other Jews?

We stand “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” (the title of a book by the twentieth century theologian Eliezer Berkovits). Yesterday’s answers do not speak to most of today’s Jews. If peoplehood is – as some suggest – a meaningful platform on which to build Jewish engagement efforts, it begs the question: peoplehood – for what purpose? Mere tribalism is surely unappealing to most American Jews.

Peoplehood emerges from a sense of shared past, common experiences and a vision of the future. Historical ties alone – real or imagined – cannot sustain peoplehood. Jews who engage religiously with traditional Jewish liturgy express the aspiration/vision of repairing the world ‘neath God’s sovereignty. This vision – animating the study and behavior of the religionist – engagement experts agree, no longer speaks to most American Jews.

Articulating the purpose of Jewish engagement is the gateway to tomorrow. Just as there is no technical “fix,” so will Jewish engagement opportunities not rooted in a compelling (to the participant) vision and purpose likely fall short of the mark. As to constructivism – the creation of Jewish meaning constructed by participants from episodic Jewish engagement experiences (one expert presenter for whom I have the highest regard defined “serious” engagement of teens as eight encounters during the course of a year) – as key to a revitalized Jewishness, belief in episodic engagement as a springboard to developing enduring, shared Jewish meaning requires a greater leap of faith than that made by the religionist. Jewish purpose is today’s challenge; all the rest is commentary.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.