Ten Years of Peoplehood Activism and What Next?

Image courtesy JCC Global
Image courtesy JCC Global

By Dr Shlomi Ravid

Mordecai Kaplan says that what is unique about the Jews is not only their collective consciousness but also the fact that they are conscious of that consciousness. We live an era where the “social being” that determined Jewish consciousness (to borrow from Karl Marx) has dramatically changed. We cannot realistically expect the emergence of a collective Jewish consciousness as a byproduct of today’s Jewish upbringing. If we are to nurture Jewish collective consciousness we have to do it through education broadly defined. We have to engage the minds and hearts of today’s Jews with openness and through dialogue driven by a deep belief that collectively we Jews can make a difference.

My first public Peoplehood programming took place a decade ago. I was involved with planning the San Francisco Jewish Federation Board trip to Israel for the first time in its history. Most apparent in those days was a general state of confusion regarding the meaning of Peoplehood, coupled with skepticism and sometimes cynicism regarding the significance of the topic and its contemporary relevance. People described it as the “Jewish Buzz word” (replacing “continuity”), a modern “watered down version of Judaism,” an expression of “secular Judaism” or just rolled their eyes in distrust or to signify total lack of understanding. It is important to remember those initial reactions of the field because despite major changes they do tend to linger.

The dominant response to the above challenges in the initial years of building the field was an attempt to define and explain what Peoplehood means. The emphasis was on the conceptual level and there was a sense that if we succeed in providing the “silver-bullet” definition of Peoplehood our major problems will go away. As a philosopher in training I have always been skeptical of definitions and find them not always useful. I can define Peoplehood as “the collective consciousness of the Jewish People” and even defend that definition, but does it really provide anything significant for those asking? I believe that what they are telling us is that they don’t understand what we mean by Peoplehood. That problem does not get solved by offering a definition. How many of us can define “morality”? However, years of learning from life and from our educators help us develop an intuitive understanding of the concept and sometimes even guide our behavior.

A decade later we are at a very different place today regarding Peoplehood. Over the last three years, in multiple meetings with leaders and educators throughout North America, I have sensed a distinct shift of the conversation from the “what” to the “how.” Not that everything is clear, but leadership is now asking: How do we engage our communities with Peoplehood? The challenge of explaining the meaning of Peoplehood did not disappear but it is not perceived as a daunting obstacle to addressing the issue in practice. It seems like there is an agreement that while we will continue studying and interpreting what Peoplehood means (as is the case with most things Jewish) we understand enough to assess the challenges in practice and respond through policy and actions. The last editions of the Peoplehood Papers are very telling here (see for example: Engaging Millennials with Jewish Peoplehood – What Does it Take). They express the commitment of young Jews to collective causes coupled with an interest to further engaging their peers. It seems that the day of How Peoplehood has arrived!

And yet, recognizing the importance of the issue provides a necessary but insufficient condition for changing the reality. Below is a list of issues that have to be addressed if a significant change is to be expected:

1. A Peoplehood educational strategy: Most of the educational work in Jewish Peoplehood focuses today on direct engagement and experiential dimensions. While this is a positive development in itself, the key to the Jewish future lies in Jewish collective consciousness development. Without a deep belief in the value of Jewish civilization to ourselves and the rest of the world, the Jewish collective enterprise on both its local and global level will become obsolete. We need to advance from experiencing Peoplehood to developing Peoplehood consciousness as our strategic goal.

2. Peoplehood educational resources: We need to enhance the depth and spread of Peoplehood nurturing tools. The Peoplehood Educational Toolkit is but a first pilot tool. Its importance is first and foremost in making the statement that developing educational tools is the way of the future. It says to the Jewish world: The time has come to move from conceptual deliberations to developing practical tools for engagement and teaching – and for using them. The conversation now has to shift from defining Peoplehood to how best to nurture collective identity and how to make our tools more impactful.

3. Education broadly defined: We need to expand our work beyond what is typically understood as narrowly defined education. A stronger focus should be placed on leadership development and on working with adults and young adults in our communities including current, both lay and professional, institutional leadership.

4. Engaging Millennials: We need to develop the language of Peoplehood and the educational tools that will resonate with and appeal to a new generation. The good news is that we don’t need to do it for them. We can do it with them. It is time for a multi-generation Peoplehood conversation.

5. A local-global approach:

  • North America: The time has come to consider the development of a North American Center for Jewish Peoplehood that will provide resources and guidance towards the implementation of the above items. It should focus on developing content and resources, training and dissemination, convening of potential change agents, leadership development and advancing the filed in general.
  • Israel: The Israelis have to be engaged with this agenda. Israel is too important and Israelis need to be reminded of the main reason for the establishment of the State of the Jewish people – the need to ensure the continuity of the people. The challenge of peoplehood in Israeli society is complex, but in some respects the time is ripe.
  • Europe, Latin America & the rest of the Jewish world: Most of the Peoplehood conversation currently takes place in North America and Israel. In the rest of the Jewish world this is a nascent conversation that needs to be empowered and nurtured. This topic impacts all Jews and special efforts should be directed to advance the conversation throughout the Jewish world.
  • A global dialogue: Frameworks and platforms to advance the Peoplehood dialogue between communities from all corners of the Jewish world should be created and strengthened for the sake of the development of a genuine global Jewish dialogue. One that is not limited to our interests and needs as a group, but explores what good we can bring to humanity and the world as a people. That articulates our collective destiny in the 21st century. The current state of the Jewish dialogue over the collective Jewish agenda is troubling and if anything confirms the vulnerability of our collectivity.

6. A holistic mobilization: The whole community needs to be engaged in the “Peoplehood movement.” Our future as a collective will influence the lives of individual Jews as well as our future as a people. We need to mobilize the establishment, Jewish philanthropy, educators, activists, clergy and “amcha Israel” to contribute to the enhancement of Jewish collective identity. In this ever changing, highly individualized and “post-everything” age, success can be reached only through a holistic communal effort.

Much has been achieved over the last decade. The Peoplehood conversation, after nearly 80 years of being dormant, has found its way back into the agenda of the Jewish people. It is not a coincidence. At the beginning of the 21st century the Jewish People, if it seeks to be viable, has to offer a reinvigorated purpose and find ways for inculcating Jewish collective consciousness. The past decade built the foundation to impacting the Jewish landscape in the next decade. Transitioning effectively from concept to practice will be the challenge. Our aspiration to involve every young Jew in the Peoplehood conversation should begin by engaging the change agents and educational institutions throughout the Jewish educational system. Let’s at the least commit that every Jewish educational entity will address the challenges of Jewish Peoplehood, in one way or another, by 2025.

Shana tova,

Dr Shlomi Ravid is the founding director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.
Special thanks to Lisa Grant for her helpful comments.