Peoplehood: A Cloudy Concept

by Adam Simon

For many Jews, the most powerful aspect of Judaism is the sense that we are part of a narrative that spans millennia and includes millions of people. While Jewish organizational leaders spend countless hours and dollars trying to inspire Jews to seek out and be impacted by Jewish values and community, arguably the hardest component to teach of what it means to be a Jew today is the connection to other Jews. We see this challenge play out in declining federated giving, ambivalence towards Israel and decreasing affiliations with Jewish institutions overall.

This theme of “individual identity as bound to a collective” was repeatedly touched upon during our conversation about “Peoplehood,” and it is the central issue to an argument that has been debated for centuries: to what degree is it a Jews’ responsibility to care for and be engaged with the Jewish community, and to what degree is caring for and engagement with the broader secular community the dominant priority?

Because this is a time in the U.S. when a majority of Jews live relatively affluent lives, we have the privilege and the burden of making this choice. While I believe everyone can agree Jews have a responsibility to do both, and those who are deeply affiliated with Jewish life wrestle with the choice regularly, it is a challenge to explain to Jews who have minimal affiliations why the Jewish people should take priority.

I believe a fundamental first step is to engage young people in a dialogue about why caring for the general non-Jewish community is an inherently Jewish act rooted in Jewish values. In a world where, for so many, the choice of whether to express public Judaism is limited to the religion field on a Facebook profile, we must create opportunities to connect secular humanistic values to uniquely Jewish concepts.

The task of the Jewish community is to make Judaism relevant, to bring Jewish ideas and Jewish values to life in ways that are meaningful for young people in an age where, for better or worse, choice and inspiration take precedence over historical obligation. If we can do this, we will discover a new generation of Jews who are excited to be part of the Jewish community and are eagerly embracing their Jewishness as a core component of their identities.

From this perspective, it’s actually not about peoplehood – at least not initially. It’s about meaning.

Adam Simon is the director of Jewish programs at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, overseeing the Foundation’s Jewish young adult engagement portfolio, Adam was the recipient of the J.J. Greenberg Memorial Award at the 2010 Jewish Funders Network International Summit. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and two young children.