By Rabbi David Minkus and Rabbi Ari Moffic
We have noticed that many Jewish adults who are trying to describe their Jewishness go to a negative place first. They see themselves as the proverbial “bad Jew” as opposed to being proud and confident about their Jewish identity and expression. The reasons for this are varied but are often based on the premise that we aren’t doing enough. We don’t observe the commandments, we don’t belong to synagogues, we don’t know Hebrew or the prayers, we aren’t Jewishly literate. We aren’t interested in religious Judaism.
Ironically, one of the central aspects of Judaism, that of community, is simultaneously the top of the list of what people say they love about Judaism and is also a main culprit of making them feel like bad Jews. People don’t see themselves as in a community or contributing to a Jewish community, and they are blamed by leaders as hurting “the community.” They are choosing individualism over community, rabbis say.
When congregations or Jewish organizations advertise programs, they often write on the flyer that it is “Open to the Community.” Who is that community? How is the Jewish public a community?
What we hear as we dig deeper is that people celebrate major holidays over family dinners, perhaps they have been to Israel, they look to Judaism to mark their life cycle events and they care about social justice. What if we had a name with positive connotations that captures this form of American Judaism?
What about using the word peoplehood?
Sometimes peoplehood is conflated with ethnicity. Peoplehood is more than that, if not only because of Jews by choice and interfaith families. Peoplehood means that we place ourselves at Sinai. Peoplehood means we protect the most vulnerable in society because we were strangers. And peoplehood means that we begin our Passover story with the words “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Community can be a synonym for synagogue membership. This can create an in and out reality, pressures Jewish leaders to get more people to join so that the community can grow and sustain itself. In this way, community is also a synonym for the future.
Community can feel tied to affiliation and commitment. Peoplehood is for all of us, affiliated or not. It is at once ancient and still evolving.
If we are not connected Jewishly, we may not know how to actualize our sense of being part of the people. If we did not grow up with Yom Kippur break the fasts, Mel Brooks jokes, or dated bar mitzvah photo albums, then it can be hard to feel part of the people at times and in certain Jewish spaces unless we can access a bigger narrative.
Peoplehood is big enough to include folks from different places and backgrounds who are doing things because of Judaism. Peoplehood means that we are included even if we are not members somewhere. Placing ourselves as part of the people Israel just takes affirmation of and identification with the Jewish narrative.
Congregational communities and people identifying with Judaism at large are tied to each other with the string of peoplehood. In a Venn diagram there is overlap. Next time someone says that they love the community aspects of Judaism, we’re going to add in … you mean peoplehood and get the conversation and the wheels going.
David Minkus is the Rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago.
Ari Moffic is the founder of CoHere Chicago, bringing Jewish education to unaffiliated families in Chicagoland.