Peoplehood as Process

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Beth Cousens

When I interviewed twenty-seven year old Charlie as part of research on adults in their twenties and thirties and their Jewishness, we sat under a poster of a scene from Ulysses that he found in Ireland while exploring his mother’s family’s roots. I asked him about his relationship with the non-Jewish parts of his identity, and in response he raised Philip Roth’s ideas about Jews and otherness: “You know, American Jews driving themselves to neuroses with their otherness or their conflicts. … It’s something I can’t identity with.” Why Philip Roth, I asked? “Him envying that non-Jewishness and seeing that as something totally different than you are. I mean, I realize there are differences but … his characters seem to perceive non-Jews as alien in a way that I definitely never have…. There is a difference … but … it’s a difference you can talk about, it’s a difference you can deal with.” To Charlie, non-Jews are not that dissimilar from him. “Us” and “them” doesn’t exist for Charlie; by extension, he also explained, Jews are not inherently aligned with him. If peoplehood is a sense of “underlying unity,” a sense of “us” that “transcends time and personal acquaintance,”[1] peoplehood is not something that feels intuitive or sensical to Charlie.

Charlie is not unusual among his peers. Raised without occupational, social, or structural segregation, with all professions, neighborhoods, and social opportunities open to them, in a socio-cultural environment that privileges multiculturalism, and in a socio-political environment with increasing diversity due to immigration, many younger (Jewish and other) adults see no dividers between “us” and “them” and, as a result, nothing that ties “us” uniquely together. A sense that each Jew stood at Sinai, that we each contribute to and are part of the collective memory of the Jewish people, is, without intervention, lost to many younger Jews.

This is in large part because many younger Jews are not comfortable with ideas about inherent loyalties and unities, to Israel, to the Jewish people, or to any community or country.[2] But it is also because younger Jews were raised in the American Jewish world described in Jack Wertheimer’s A People Divided,[3] a world where the Jewish people is inherently fractured. For younger Jews, a pluralistic Judaism is not part of the modern condition; instead, Judaism comes in fragments, with infighting and radical differences between sub-communities. For some, this Jewish pluralism leads to feelings of inadequacy, to feeling judged by other Jews – which exacerbates feelings of distance from the Jewish people writ large.

Yet, younger Jews do develop relationships with Jewish communities and with Jews different from them. They find Jewish communities to which they can belong, rooted in personal attachments. In their attachments, they provide a new understanding of peoplehood, suited to the pluralistic Jewish condition and to the world that younger Jews will lead.

At Home and In Exile

At Anytown Hillel, I interviewed four college seniors about their experiences with Hillel and with Jewish life during their years on campus. These seniors are more Jewishly connected and experienced than typical Jewish students: Among them, they have years in day school, family Shabbat dinners, and trips to Israel. In exploring how Hillel has influenced their feelings of peoplehood, I asked them about their sense of belonging to Jewish community on campus, to Jewish communities more generally, and to the Jewish people as an entity. As they answered, they began to bring nuance to my questions.

First, they noted, “There are two ways of seeing Jewish community: my communities and the larger Jewish community.” “Jewish community,” to them, is their own Jewish community; one student mentioned her high school, her home synagogue, as her places of belonging. She contrasted these communities with the larger Jewish community, where she feels less comfortable.

Another student continued this idea,“[Jewish community is] the one place I know I will always belong. But it also can make me more mad than anything else in the world. and it does on a daily basis.” She suggested:

There are different parts. You sort of have to find a place where you belong. I have, but what makes me upset is when the different groups within the larger community don’t accept each other. We can be worse to each other than we are to any other community.

Another student added:

Yeah. I feel the most distance from this community when I feel like I’m refusing to choose a certain group that will put distance between me and the community ….

I asked, Will you ever feel a sense of belonging to the larger people? A student answered: Well, when you say the Jewish people, there’s so many versions of that. I don’t think anyone can be fully connected to the Jewish community. Even the most “ultra-othodox” person…. they’re not connected to the 98% of Jews who are living full Jewish lives but who don’t subscribe to that.

These students demonstrate the extent to which Judaism and Jewish community, for them, are multifaceted. They are angry at some parts of the community, but that does not mean they feel that they do not belong wholesale; at the same time, they see parts of the community as not belonging to them, and, in turn, they do not seek to feel a part of the entire community. For these students, Jews comprise a community of communities, or, more accurately, a series of groups overlapping and distinct, to which Jews simultaneously belong and feel excluded. Like Charlie, “us” does not exist – or, “us” does not exist for the entire Jewish people, but each student feels part of a community, one in which they feel comfortable and that they can call their own. Significantly, a sense of belonging to the Jewish people does not extend from this sense of belonging to one community. In these students’ minds, Jews are too different to allow this.

Being in Relationship

As part of a larger research project on Jews in their twenties and thirties,[4] I spent ten days in Israel with a group of Boston-based adults, participants in a Temple Israel outreach and education project for this population. Most had not been to Israel before. As a group, they were often inquisitive of their surroundings and even skeptical. They critiqued Independence Hall for being too focused on the story of the Jews at the time and leaving out any details of 1920s Arab Israel; similarly, they cringed when the group’s guide made assumptions about their relationship to Israel or to the Jewish people (saying, for example, “This is your country, too.”) They were reflective skeptics: Before internalizing something said to them or something they saw, they often asked themselves, Does this feel true to me? What is there to be curious about here? What will I accept, and what will I examine?[5]

On the almost-last night of the trip, participants spent Shabbat with Temple Israel’s sister synagogue in Haifa. We went to prayer services and were hosted for dinner and general socializing by some of the younger adults in the congregation and community. Boston trip participants mixed happily with Haifa residents, in groups of two and three, packed into the apartment, the noise level growing throughout the evening. Ultimately, later, participants would say that their time in Haifa was one of the best parts of the trip. Dena commented that she “had never met an Israeli who was like her” before, who she wanted to “hang out” with. The participants thought they could live in Haifa; it seemed to them like where they belonged.

Despite or alongside their skepticism, in Haifa, participants saw themselves in Israel; they came to be able to envision themselves in the country. They felt truly comfortable in that living room and had a mirror in their Haifa peers. This personal, peer encounter helped them begin to see a place for themselves within a construct of Jewish community. After this experience, like their counterparts in Anytown Hillel, they still would feel uncomfortable in some Jewish spaces or with Israel’s decisions. But their feelings of being at home helped them make a commitment to Israel being a part of them, personally and emotionally. Their connection to Israel became rooted in the entirety of their experience, their debate and their comfort, and the contrast between the two. In this contrast, their feelings of peoplehood became both/ and – discomfort and attachment – rather than either/ or.

Peoplehood as Process

Participants in this Israel trip demonstrate the importance of localized Jewish community that Anytown Hillel students raise. It may be that in a disunified Jewish world, we cannot expect that all Jews will feel responsibility for the other. Belonging requires too much comfort, and Jews can be too different from each other to allow that comfort. But through localized connections, commonalities can be identified, and feelings of peoplehood can grow out of relationships that are built.

Participants in this Israel trip also demonstrate that while younger Jews push against “us,” they are willing to be in a place to push. Discomfort is the corollary to attachment. Relationships grow within a larger context of debate, of personal struggle to find one’s place, with the present Jewish people and with the Jewish past and future. Peoplehood, then, becomes an ongoing dialogue – even a tense dialogue – with Israel, the Jewish people, and the Jewish narrative. This is the essence of being in relationship, unity aside: Peoplehood is a process, not an outcome, and it involves being present, showing up. The project of peoplehood is to be in the middle.

Beth Cousens, PhD, is a consultant to Jewish educational organizations.

[1]  Shlomi Ravid. “What is Jewish Peoplehood? And is it the Right Question? From Defining Peoplehood to Creating Peoplehood Capital.” The Peoplehood Papers (United Jewish Communities, 2007).
[2] Kleinman, Max L., Terrill, Marc B., Cousens, Beth, Levine, Eric. “Confronting the Tensions: Jewish Community Building in the 21st Century.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service vol 83 no 2-3 (Spring 2008): 125-139; Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel (The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, n.d.).
[3] New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 1993.
[4] Beth Cousens, “Shifiting Social Networks: Studying the Jewish Growth of Adults in Their Twenties and Thirties.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Brandeis University, 2008.
[5]  The term “reflective skeptic” is Stephen Brookfield’s. It refers to a learner’s intuitive and automatic propensity to examine ideas for one’s own truth. Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.