Peoplehood in Pods: A View from the Field at the University of Chicago

The rhetoric of Peoplehood is meaningless to students with weak ties to Jewish life, but relationships with other Jewish students, in the context of an intimate community, are real, meaningful, and powerful.

by Rachel Cort

In a recent essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy, Beth Cousens writes about the important role that “localized Jewish community” plays in building and reinforcing a sense of Jewish peoplehood in young adults. In Cousens’s view, the concept of Jewish peoplehood is one that feels foreign to young American Jews who have grown up “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.” In other words, young Jewish adults in America have the most freedom, the most privilege, and the most choice of perhaps any other Jews in history, and this lessens their inclination to care strongly about being part of an abstract Jewish “people” that may not speak to their identities, habits, and expectations.

Cousens’s article gives a theoretical framework for what we’ve been experiencing on the ground at one of America’s premiere universities, the University of Chicago. The understanding that peoplehood is no longer an organizing principle for young, largely unaffiliated, Jews has shaped the program of our new campus organization, jU Chicago. While we work with students across a wide range of Jewish experience and commitment, we are focused primarily on creating a highly experimental approach to engaging Jewish students who have been left cold by the kinds of institutional Jewish experiences previously available to them. For these students, Jewish connection most frequently emerges out of a sense of immediate community and in the nexus of meaningful relationships that they have with other young Jews. While a sense of obligation to tradition or to an abstract larger “Jewish community” usually have little bearing on the development of students’ Jewish identities, the most influential factor in creating and reinforcing Jewish identity in young adults is the power social networks.

The Community Building internship that I run at jU Chicago grew from the conviction that small communities are “a consistent source of meaning, a focal point for relationships, and a powerful contributor to a sense of self-worth,” as sociologist Jonathan Woocher wrote in his Jewish Journal of Education article entitled “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century.” The rhetoric of Peoplehood is meaningless to students with weak ties to Jewish life, but relationships with other Jewish students, in the context of an intimate community, are real, meaningful, and powerful.

The Community Building internship is designed to meet two challenges of Jewish life for young adults: the “pod” phenomenon of Jewish community, and the need to create opportunities that take into account the fact that Jewish identity may be only one piece of today’s students’ “identity mosaics.” There is no such thing as one overarching Jewish community on campus; rather, there are small pods of Jewish communities that occasionally come together at large-scale public Jewish events. Millenials hold multiple and overlapping identities, rather than defining themselves through a primary ethnic allegiance. By empowering a cohort of students to create small communities organized around a specific theme, activity, or shared interest, the internship program incubates many specialized Jewish opportunities that can engage a larger number of Jewish students on a deeper and more meaningful level.

In this framework, success ultimately looks like a growing number of small Jewish pods – communities that meet regularly (once every two weeks or once per month), have a core group of members or a regular list of invitees, and usually have between 8-15 members in attendance at any given gathering. This is the opposite of large-scale, pluralistic programming, which aims to engage all but more often fails to please any, and which actually alienates some, as Cousens rightly points out. These pods are also self-sufficient and allow students to be the creators of their own Jewish experiences, rather than passive consumers of Jewish experiences designed for them by an institution. This year, our student interns have created seven small (and growing) pods around everything from watching Woody Allen flicks to cooking intricate recipes from the Jerusalem Cookbook to weekly, student-run Judaism-infused yoga sessions, successfully engaging many students who would not otherwise participate in Jewish life on campus.

While small communities are critically important, Cousens is right to point out that a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish collective does not necessarily extend from a sense of belonging to one particular Jewish community. At jU Chicago we are also working to design and deliver the kinds of public Jewish experiences that not only create the transcendence that leads to a feeling of membership, but that also make being Jewish actually aspirational. Such experiences can look like well-designed and exciting large-scale events, like Jewish holiday celebrations, but they also might look like clever and sought-after T-shirts that become a proud badge of Jewish affiliation (this year we have given away nearly 500), or a multimedia art project exploring Jewish themes and displayed in a public space. And we believe that digital tools can be used as a critical part of stitching together the elements of small Jewish communities and large-scale public-space Judaism; Jewish young adults are digital natives, and the digital space is an important piece of a sense of Jewish connectedness that extends beyond the bounds of campus life. Jewish identity that is grounded in small communities should, ideally, be complemented, tested, and stretched by such experiences.

In the beginning of her piece, Cousens described Charley, who had a hard time attaching meaning to the concept of “peoplehood” because of his own mixed heritage. On campus, Charley is our typical Jewish student, not an outlier. A notion of peoplehood that relies solely on ethnic tribalism will not survive much longer. What Cousens describes is something different. When she writes about “peoplehood,” she is really describing the sense of shared purpose that arises from common experiences and relationships, and that’s something we can get behind at jU Chicago. The notion of a commitment to peoplehood based on obligation or inheritance is no longer tenable for Millenials, but commitment to the Jewish collective based on relationships, community, and experience – that is where the future of the Jewish people, and peoplehood, lies.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago, a project of the Institute for the next Jewish Future. Rachel previously worked as a Community Engagement Fellow for Birthright NEXT, is a Tikvah Israel Fellow, and is working on her Master’s in Jewish Professional Studies from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.