Towards a Community of Purpose

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

by Andres Spokoiny

In our post-modern times, the traditional concepts of belonging, identity and community are collapsing under the weight of social-media, ideological skepticism and the paradigm of ‘user-defined’ content. Multi-hyphenated identities are the norm in a world of coexisting pluralities. At the same time, the raise of fundamentalisms and the polarization of the Jewish world are a symptom of a deep ‘cultural malaise’ that leaves most Jews perplexed, in the search for meaning and a redefined sense of community. The last financial crash and the ravages of hyper-consumerism destroyed the belief that, at a last resort, we could find in shopping malls the meaning that we can’t find in religion or politics. We live in a world that confronts two simultaneous crises: the crisis of belonging and the crisis of meaning. If we approach the concept of peoplehood in its true, multidimensional nature, it can offer a solution for this feeling of ontological crisis and perplexity.

Peoplehood – towards a community of purpose

The art of being a people.

A French philosopher once said that “Jews taught the world the art of being a people”. Indeed, the internal solidarity of the Jewish People as expressed in the concept of “Kol Israel arevim ze laze” (all Jews are responsible for one another), is one of the secrets of Jewish survival. It is, in great measure, the glue that guarantees our internal cohesion despite our differences. The idea of “for one another” takes us from “me” to “we,” and what message is more relevant today, as we live in conditions of individualism and disconnection? The concept of “for one another” means that none of us will ever be alone. The idea of being there “for one another” does not disconnect Jews from the rest of the world. Rather the opposite, by developing the concept of mutual responsibility, we extend this core idea to the rest of the world. Jews believe that all human beings are tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality wherein what happens to one happens to all.

This is the basic idea behind the concept of peoplehood: The concept of a kinship not of genes but of history and destiny. The idea of peoplehood is not just the basic glue that holds the Jewish People together; it’s one of the most significant Jewish contributions to the world.

Peoplehood today, however, is different than our modern-19th century understanding of the term. Peoplehood today is a collection of interactions and connections. It’s a sum of individual associations between independent nodes. It’s not the uniformity of the “party line” or the homogeneity of a religious belief. Far from the tidiness of a well-constructed family tree, peoplehood today is a messy juxtaposition of links and groupings that change shape all the time. As the concept of peoplehood was one of our great contributions to humanity, the re-invention of peoplehood in a way that it remains relevant in a networked world is an eminently Jewish task.

Yet, peoplehood is what mathematicians call a “necessary but not sufficient” condition. Peoplehood is the platform upon which our community of purpose is built; there is intrinsic value in peoplehood, and the creation of links of solidarity and belonging can solve one of the biggest crises of our time. But, as the crises of belonging and meaning are intertwined, peoplehood must serve as a platform for Jews to find meaning beyond simply belonging.

The “peoplehood of meaning” needs to be articulated along two avenues that run counter to the logic of restrictive kinship and victimhood. The Jewish people need to define a mission in the world that is both connected to it, and oriented to the future. We need to change our narrative: from one of persecution, to one that highlights our interconnectedness and the enormous contributions that we can make to the world and to the future of humanity. This is, in a way, a “return to the sources.” This is what Judaism has always aspired to be. When G-d blesses Abraham, he says, “and through you will be blessed all the peoples of Earth.”

So the first requirement in our quest to redefine the meaning of Judaism is to look outward. We need to define our mission in terms of what difference we want to make in the world. Nothing else will provide a better source of meaning and identity for the next generation.

Our reason to exist can’t be purely internally defined. Rabbi Nachman Krochmal said that the very essence of who we are as a people is a dialogue between the particular and the universal. Or, as Paul Johnson said, “Jews turn their particular fate into a universal moral.” For Krochmal, the dialogue between the universal and the particular is not an addition to our national character; it’s an intrinsic part of who we are. We are meant to take a part in the drama of human history. If we turn inward, and close ourselves to the world, the anti-Semites win, having succeeded in neutralizing our presence and our voice. Jews are called to transform the universal through their particularity.

The second principle in our redefinition is that it has to be focused on the future. As a people, we seem obsessed with the past. Indeed, the word zachor (remember) appears 172 times in the Bible. We are commanded to remember and give memory a central place in our consciousness. Nonetheless, for most of our history, Judaism has been a future-oriented culture.

Dan Falk, the author of a great book about our understanding of time, actually credits the Jews with the very invention of the idea of “future.” In ancient pagan culture, time was cyclical. The seasons of nature came and went and time, as such, was eternal, an endless repetition: What was is what will be. For Judaism, time follows a progressive sequence of distinct and unique events. In a phrase: the future needs to be different from the past. We are commanded to transform our world. We are commanded to bring about a messianic time, a different future.

That orientation to the future is critical to the continuity of Judaism. Nobody will stay Jewish only because of the past; the next generation will be Jewish because of the future. We remain Jewish because of what we have yet to achieve. If we believe that our task is only to preserve our heritage, we’d be better off opening museums. Our past makes no sense if it’s not oriented towards the future.

These two tenets help us build a peoplehood of meaning, and a community of purpose. If we believe that our purpose is universal, and that we need to orient ourselves towards the future, the question becomes simple: what can Jews contribute to the future of humanity?

That conversation itself, regardless of its result, outcome, or conclusions – or, more likely, lack thereof – will strengthen the internal links of the Jewish people, reinforce the idea of peoplehood and establish the Jewish experience as the framework in which the search for meaning plays out.

The role of Independent Philanthropy in peoplehood and meaning

There seems to be an inherent paradox in the title above. Peoplehood seems to be all about the collective, while independent philanthropy is about individual action. But independent philanthropy has been enormously successful in building peoplehood where collective organizations were failing. Take Birthright, an independent philanthropic initiative that has contributed more than anything to the creation of links between Israel and Diaspora youth, thereby creating the basic fabric of peoplehood. Think of Beit Hatfutsot and the work of the Nadav foundation, dedicated to the idea of peoplehood. Consider the Steinhardt foundation and its work in education towards peoplehood. The most successful programs building peoplehood today are funded and initiated by independent philanthropists.

That may be because network of philanthropists – and networks in general – embody the way in which the individual and the collective interact in our post-modern world. Mainstream, top-down organizations fail to grasp the complex nature of today’s collectives. In a world of ad-hoc fluid identities, peoplehood can only be built by those who understand the nature of networks and who, themselves, operate in networks. A network of independent philanthropists is better placed to create networks of individuals Jews. It mirrors and embodies the reality it is trying to create.

Moreover, when philanthropists define programs in which the participants themselves are the builders of the programs, their effectiveness increases substantially. In a world of “user generated content,” loose networks of philanthropists can have the flexibility to allow for multidimensional user input. The Schusterman and Jim Joseph Foundations, for example, are spearheading networking as a way of organizing an innovative Jewish community. “Network” is the new face of peoplehood.

And as philanthropists have played a pivotal role in the recreation of peoplehood among young Jews, they are uniquely placed to contribute to the next stage: the peoplehood of meaning and the creation of communities of purpose.

Less constrained than collective organizations, foundations can fund and support venues in which ideological debate is conducted freely and openly. They can encourage innovation and support those who propose new ways of finding meaning in our troubled world. The principle of “venture philanthropy” can help Jews “test out” new ways of finding and creating meaning. The community of independent funders needs to understand that in this quest for meaning, there is no “single bullet”. As a community of funders we need to help individual Jews create venues in which they can “hug and wrestle” with their own Judaism, alone and collectively. We need to empower individuals to put meaning on the links and nodes of their networked peoplehood.

Many are already doing it: from those that fund Jewish identity projects in Israel, to those that support independent minyanim and alternative Jewish culture in the Diaspora.

Helping Jews find their own answer to the question of “why be Jewish” may be a next frontier for Jewish Philanthropy. The foundations of Peoplehood need to be continually reinforced, so that an edifice of meaning can be built on them.

Andres Spokoiny is the President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.