Pluralism and Peoplehood

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

by Chip Edelsberg

While I eagerly accepted the invitation to reflect on how the Jim Joseph Foundation’s philanthropy emphasizes pluralism within a peoplehood context, it turns out to be a problematic proposition.

First, the concept of peoplehood is itself nebulous. While there are myriad efforts to define peoplehood, to my knowledge no single, commonly accepted definition has gained currency. Even Jim Joseph Foundation professionals themselves do not agree on the meaning of peoplehood. Nor is the Foundation professional team of the same mind when individuals are asked to describe the degree to which peoplehood is integral to one’s Jewish identity.

Second, the Foundation’s Board of Directors has not formalized any position on funding peoplehood. In fact, transcripts of past Board Meetings do not reveal that the Foundation’s funder, Jim Joseph z”l, ever discussed “peoplehood,” per se. Mr. Joseph did refer occasionally to “pluralism.” He also was fond of challenging his advisors to “find young Jews wherever or whoever they are … and educate them.”

It is in this spirit that the Foundation forged its approach to philanthropy – an approach that encompasses the core idea that diverse expressions of Judaism are valuable and legitimate. The Foundation has a vision of increasing numbers of young Jews choosing to engage in ongoing Jewish learning and seeking to live vibrant Jewish lives. It is an expansive vision and one that construes education broadly.

This view results in Foundation funding across the denominational spectrum to organizations that, in their own words, expressly seek to engender Jewish peoplehood. We also partner with funders who invoke peoplehood as one of their animating values. The topic of peoplehood is often present in conversations between Jim Joseph Foundation professionals and Jewish educators, rabbis, and CEOs and Board Chairs of organizations funded by the Foundation. Many of these individuals actually prescribe peoplehood as a key cornerstone of a prosperous Jewish future.

Yet we have come to realize that peoplehood is neither a word nor a concept that represents a fundable idea around which Jim Joseph Foundation grants can be structured. True – we understand community as a transcendent force in Jewish life. Yes – we observe that learning experiences that fortify collective Jewish identity and responsibility strengthen the bonds between Jews. Of course we see how the Torah and its teachings, Israel, the Holocaust, and Jewish holiday and family rituals bring together Jewish people in celebration or acts of memory or religious observance that unite a people.

But, with all its burgeoning individualism, the Jewish people are still populated by homogeneous sects that repudiate other Jews. In various parts of the Jewish world, there is no commitment to pluralism. In these cases, difference is rejected, change disavowed, and innovative expressions of contemporary Judaism disdained.

We are inclined to contemplate peoplehood as a fundamentally social phenomenon. It draws Jews into personal connection with one another in pursuit of shared meaning and purpose. In this regard, we imagine that peoplehood can be an antidote to the potential anarchy of so many Jewish “sovereign selves.”

It seems to us that pluralism may be a necessary but insufficient condition for establishing a credible peoplehood agenda. Pluralism as it is examined from multiple perspectives in the book Peoplehood: Change and Challenge makes a strong case that “Jewish peoplehood will be unable to flourish in the context of any extremist view…” (Prell, “Against the Cultural Grain: Jewish Peoplehood for the 21st Century,” pg. 124). But in and of itself, pluralistic Judaism could ultimately fail to bring together diverse Jewish peoples around what is common, shared, hallowed, and quintessential in Judaism.

In essence, I am answering the original question by inferring another: what other conditions, along with pluralism, must be present to establish a strong peoplehood? The concept of pluralism is an integral component of the Foundation’s vision and the philanthropy that it pursues. By contrast, lacking a consensually agreed upon definition of peoplehood, it is implausible for me as a grantmaking professional to seek funding opportunities solely in its name.

Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D is executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.

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