Peoplehood as a Local Phenomenon

Peoplehood as a Local Phenomenon: The Case of UJA-Federation of New York’s Connect to Care
by Roberta Leiner and Robert Hyfler

Over the past 14 months, UJA-Federation of New York has been engaged in the development and implementation of a transformative Jewish initiative. Connect to Care was initiated as a Jewish call to action in response to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is a conscious embodiment of our commitment to one another by assisting Jews severely affected by the recession of 2008-2009. Connect to Care has transformed for the better the realities and mind-set of agencies, synagogues, clients, and service deliverers on the grassroots level. Going forward, UJA-Federation of New York has an expanded 21st-century appreciation of its leadership role, of how a community responds to the urgency of the moment, and of reweaving the structures and organizational relationships within the community to advance a consciously Jewish agenda of peoplehood and areyvut, connectedness, and Jewish responsibility.

The concept of peoplehood is as relevant to what we do on the streets of Brooklyn and in the suburbs of Scarsdale as it is to what we accomplish in Kiev or Hadera. It is about the active engagement of Jews to help other Jews; hence, this story of what we have lived and what the New York Jewish community has accomplished. Connect to Care embodies in both goals and practice, and as both a case study and inspiration, a piece of this broader picture of what Jewish peoplehood is meant to be.

The vision of Jewish peoplehood is that of a global Jewish community connected through mutual responsibility and the unique joys of Jewish life. Peoplehood is a Jewish aspiration concept that transcends artificial distinctions between what is in our backyards and what is beyond our local borders, what fosters a Jewish identity and what it means to care for others.

Jews today, as we have been for centuries, are a complex and diverse collection of human beings that are only becoming more complex and more diverse. Half of us live in a Jewish state, speak and live a Jewish language, and participate in a society where Jews are the majority. The other half of us are citizens of other nations, actively engaged in the cultures and realities that surround them. Given our overwhelming diversity, if our commonality – our peoplehood – is to have meaning, we must preserve that single constant of being there for all Jews in need and thereby fulfill a mission to expand the moral sensibilities of our communities, our people, and our world. It is therefore by our actions, collaborations, and the vitality of our structures that our peoplehood is defined.

The Jewish communal network in New York has moved beyond serving the most desperate and needy, and from the language and practice of simply meeting individual and family needs to a culture of creating and supporting “caring communities.” This model of care is moving from a compassionate yet paternalistic us-versus-them paradigm, which defines those we help as fundamentally different from ourselves, to the concept of a community in which all may both receive and give help.

UJA-Federation efforts have reframed the communal mission from one of solely allocating funds in support of traditional, formal human services to becoming a source of inspired Jewish care. UJA-Federation of New York now asks how Judaism, in and of itself, can become a wellspring of opportunity to shape caring responses. We have accomplished this through both formal and informal strategies, drawing on interventions of Jewish spiritual care and actively promoting volunteerism and community service through the full range of settings in which Jews naturally commune, including synagogues, Jewish community centers (JCC), and day schools. The community-building or strengthening approaches promulgated by UJA-Federation seek to ensure that all Jewish people are included in the collective, and that they experience the warm embrace of the Jewish community.

UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care, a present embodiment of this paradigm shift, addresses the needs of multiple Jewish constituencies affected by the current economic downturn. There is the newly affected and largely middle-class, middle-aged, and even high-end earners who had never perceived themselves as recipients of services, as well as the traditionally served Jewish poor, including a newer population of needy individuals and families with multiple and complex needs who were relatively invisible to the system previously and live in quiet desperation. In its planning and operation, Connect to Care relies heavily on a collaborative model of UJA-Federation planning and a regional, decentralized interagency model of program planning and service delivery.

The search for community is the search for shared responsibility. The best of peoplehood programs must engage and transform the client and the service deliverer, the funding and planning entities, and the day-to-day participants. The effort should add greater definition to how Jews work together globally and locally to serve other Jews, and how the fullest range of our talents and historic values can be attached to 21st-century realities. Peoplehood programs must give the message to funders and all present and future generations of Jewish activists that tending the Jewish vineyard serves as a model for others and transforms for the better the world as a whole.

The full report is available on the Federation’s website.

Roberta Leiner is managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission. Robert Hyfler is a consultant to UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care initiative.