Putting the People Back in Peoplehood

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by Lisa Eisen

Rachel Brody, 26, always knew she was Jewish, but growing up in Houston, Texas, it did not mean much to her. She was much more focused on the parts of her identity that drove her to working with students with special needs.

She never realized the connection between the two until she visited Israel in 2009 as part of the pilot cohort of our Foundation’s REALITY Israel Experience, a program that brings Teach For America corps members to Israel to explore the Jewish values that undergird their commitment to public service.

“It left a profound impact on me,” said Rachel, who is now working on a movement to create a more welcoming Jewish community for people with disabilities. “Prior to the trip, Judaism was not something I thought about at all. I also never thought about social justice as connected to Judaism. I now realize that my work in social justice is connected to my identity as a Jew.”

While Rachel is certainly exceptional, thankfully, she is not an exception. There are many young Jews just like her who are mobilizing around their passions and are eager to root their efforts to make a positive difference in the world in a strong value system.

By creating opportunities for them to explore their passions through a Jewish lens and to develop a personally meaningfully connection to Jewish life – be it through history or Hebrew, arts or Israel, spirituality or service – we can help them connect with each other and forge an enduring relationship with our Jewish heritage and homeland. We can also foster in them a sense of belonging to a global Jewish people.

Indeed, at the heart of our Foundation’s efforts to cultivate Jewish peoplehood is this idea of nurturing the individual Jewish journeys of young adults and ensuring they are inextricably bound up in strengthening the journey of the whole.

In short, we are working to put the young people back in peoplehood. As a foundation committed to helping foster vibrant Jewish life, we believe the greatest wellspring of vitality and creativity rests with the younger generation, and we see it as our responsibility to provide young Jewish adults with the tools, resources, framing and opportunities necessary to help create the most empowered generation of young Jews ever.

Our approach to ensuring their relationship with the Jewish people and Jewish life is enduring, is rooted in our commitment to the values of pluralism, inclusivity, service and support for Israel. It also reflects both our understanding of the realities of the contemporary world and our deep sense of optimism about the Jewish future.

In the 21st century, the Jewish community faces increasingly complex challenges in ensuring we remain a people bound together by a common set of values and a shared purpose – and in finding agreement on the question at the heart of it, why be Jewish?

One-size-fits-all Judaism is a thing of the past. We live in an age defined by choice and change. One in which being Jewish is only one component of increasingly multi-faceted identities, and new technologies have expanded our sense of community beyond the physical to include the virtual. As a result, traditional methods of engagement are proving less effective at best – and entirely irrelevant at worst.

In this new world, the question is not who is a Jew, but rather how we can deepen the identities of all who choose to cast their lot with the Jewish people and ensure they are firmly rooted in an appreciation of our rich Jewish narrative.

And so, at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, we are working to forge a new paradigm of Jewish engagement that puts the young people at the center of the relationships, experiences and networks we are supporting. We do this first and foremost by understanding our audience. We know that young people today are passionate and believe in their ability to help repair the world. They want to eradicate poverty, care for the environment and work for educational equity and literacy. They see themselves as global citizens, and diversity and pluralism are important to them.

We also know that they want to be where their peers are; their allegiance is based on relationships rather than institutional loyalty; they are largely self-organizers; and they are drawn to experiences and organizations in which they can be actively involved in shaping the focus and nature of the work.

Efforts to engage them with Jewish values, the global Jewish community and Israel have to reflect these realities and incorporate familiar elements from the rest of their lives in order to be relevant. Organizations like BBYO and Moishe House, which now has 46 houses in 14 countries, have seen explosive growth in their ranks because they are successfully creating consumer-centric experiences, shaped by young Jews for young Jews.

Likewise with programs such as REALITY, which actually look outside of the organized Jewish community to meet young Jews where they are, allow them to engage Jewishly through multiple aspects of their identity and provide them with opportunities to define their own Judaism in ways they find resonant.

But there is another key element to our work that goes beyond programs and organizations: we invest in great people, not just great ideas, because we understand that young Jews want to be creators, not just consumers, of Jewish experiences.

We have seen success with this approach most clearly through the ROI Community. Now in its sixth year, ROI is a community of 700 passionately committed young Jewish innovators who are creating new avenues of Jewish experiences and inspiring thousands of their peers to join their efforts. By providing space for them to network, mentor each other and create together, ROI ignites sparks that will transform the Jewish future.
And this moment is as bright as any in our history to invest in that future.

Though the term Jewish peoplehood may be a modern formulation, the belief in an underlying unity that makes an individual part of the Jewish people dates back millennia. At the heart of it, however, is the people themselves, whose diverse backgrounds, unique pathways and distinct perspectives are sources of vitality that ensure our community is able not just to survive but to thrive in a modern world.

Being Jewish is about being part of a family, a community and a people. Within the collective, however, there must be room for individual Jews to customize their own journeys and to cultivate personally meaningful connections to their Judaism. Though it seems counter-intuitive, only through nurturing individualism will the next generation of Jews feel a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves and be able to forge a lifelong commitment to our shared heritage, values and purpose.

Ultimately, our role is not to define what being Jewish should mean, but rather, to reach young people with a powerful message: that in their quest for meaning, for relevance, for transcendence, actively engaging in Jewish life and belonging to the Jewish people is a path well worth pursuing.

Lisa Eisen is the National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The Schusterman Family Foundation is part of a global philanthropic network that includes the ROI Community and the Schusterman Foundation-Israel.