WHAT is Peoplehood?

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Jeffrey R. Solomon

During my eleven year tenure at UJA-Federation of New York in the 80’s and 90’s, I’ve had many compelling moments regarding the topic at hand, What is Peoplehood? One of them was when I was visiting and soliciting a major donor who was an investment banker with Goldman Sachs. We knew each other reasonably well and he was forcefully blunt, in saying to me, “You’ve got 25 seconds, make your case.” I responded: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh. All Jews are responsible one for another, and you owe me 15 seconds.” He reached into his drawer and wrote out a check for $175,000. Peoplehood suggests to me a concept of a global family, a family that celebrates together and is in pain together when circumstances occur regarding any part of that family. We share responsibility. If we are to all reenact the exodus from Egypt, the moments in Mount Sinai, and understand that we have a shared heritage, we should also understand that we have a shared destiny.

This is important especially as we in the American Jewish community focus on the blessings and challenges of freedom and acceptance. With every Jew being a Jew by choice, we need to better explore why one should make the choice to become active participants in this global community. I believe that the compelling reason comes from the universal search for three things that express our humanity: identity, meaning and community. Mutual responsibility will not do it for Generations X and Y.

While we better understand the complex multiple identities that individuals stream in and out of, when one combines that quest with the quest for meaning and community, Jewish Peoplehood offers an extraordinary opportunity. In my practice, I have been blessed to have been among the architects of a number of programs that focus in this arena, including Birthright Israel, Reboot, Slingshot, 21/64, and other initiatives. Among the principles built into these programs was exposure to the best that Judaism (and Israel) have to offer within the creation of guilt-free zones. The message is not “you have to…,” but instead, you are bequeathed with this extraordinary inheritance. What would you like to do with it? If Judaism is to survive with the challenges of assimilation it has to survive as a free choice: a complex set of ideas that can compete freely in the panoply of ideas that form one’s identity, sense of meaning and community. Our work confirms that Jewish ideas and the Jewish people can fare well within that context and that connectiveness to the Jewish people is a major component of its success.

Too many of the institutions responsible for creating the pathways for the next generations to join the Jewish people are ill equipped to do so in the complex, highly competitive nature of contemporary society. They continue to act as if Peoplehood connections are a foregone conclusion. They are Shammai as millennials seek out Hillel. This global family is but one of the powerful magnets that have the potential to transform this generation into a Jewish renaissance; one driven from the authentic quest for meaning, identity and community in a world bereft of these important influences.

Jeffrey R. Solomon is the President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

JPeoplehood newThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.