Jewish Peoplehood: Getting The Message Out
05/11/2010 - 12:47
Gary Rosenblatt

How do you convince a young generation of Jews increasingly detached from their past that connecting to their heritage and community is important and beneficial – to their fellow Jews and to themselves?

“We can’t coerce or guilt them,” noted Jack Ukeles, a consultant on policy-oriented research studies for a number of Jewish communities around the country.

The dozen or so communal leaders and academics around the table on Monday night, at the last of a four-part series of conversations on Jewish Peoplehood, nodded, almost glumly, it seemed.

Ukeles offered one “under-rated” suggestion for engaging young people: “tell our story clearly and effectively,” he said, citing as an example the idea of publishing a Haggadah for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) that would present the narrative of the Jewish people’s remarkable quest to create a modern state in their ancient homeland after thousands of years of statelessness.

“We have a Jewish narrative, a powerful link to our past,” and based on the success of the Passover Haggadah as a means of transmitting tradition from one generation to the next, we should follow that model today, he said.

But Ukeles sounded less than convinced that young Jews would “buy in,” noting his own ambivalence about “whether we should care [about the lack of involvement in Jewish life among many young Jews] and what we can do about it.”

Still, his proposal was refreshingly specific to those who had participated in one or more of the discussions over the last few weeks sponsored by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, with support from UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People, convened and moderated by sociologist Steven M. Cohen.

So much of the talk at prior sessions had been abstract in seeking to define and conceptualize Jewish Peoplehood. But this final two and a half hour session was focused on policy implications for the organized community.

And while the Ukeles presentation was questioned and challenged – which narrative do we tell? How do we honor diversity? Who’s listening? – at least we were discussing a real proposal.

Ukeles, a veteran of Jewish communal life, said he believed promoting Jewish Peoplehood was worth investing in, particularly at a time when “we are embattled,” expressing concern at attempts to de-legitimize the Jewish people as well as Israel. And he asserted that “there is no Jewish narrative without Israel,” taking exception to the previous session’s presenter, writer Jay Michaelson, who argued that Israel has become an obstacle to identification with the Jewish people.

Clare Hedwat, the respondent to Ukeles and planning manager for UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People, said that for her generation of younger Jews, “identification with Israel is not a given.”

She expressed reservations about whether hearing/reading the Jewish narrative (given that one could be agreed upon) leads to identifying with Jewish Peoplehood.

Ukeles did not dispute that but maintained that “if we don’t tell our story, we’re finished.”

Whether or how UJA-Federation will implement programs in response to these discussions is an open question, and a challenge.

Skeptic that I am, I think we are doing a pretty good job of telling “our story,” and have been for thousands of years. Like reading from the Torah every week in every synagogue. And there are so many creative new efforts to get people to listen, from the lively cartoon G-dcasts (www.g-dcast.com) that make the Torah portion of the week accessible and fun in four minutes, to dramatic Storahtelling programs – attempts to reach young people at the level they will respond to.

We need more of these thoughtful programs, true, but I think we’re on the right track.

 E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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Comments

There already exists a Haggadah for Yom Ha'atzmaut. It was put out by JNF, the Frankel Center for Jewish Family Education, and the World Zionist Organization, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Agency, in English in 2000. It is clearly a text envisioned for a Seder-like ceremony, complete with four cups of wine or grape juice, songs, readings, etc. Why reinvent the wheel? I admit the aesthetics on this booklet could be improved, but that is not why it didn't get much traction. It is hard to get new rituals to take root, as was discussed vis-a-vis Yom Hashoa a few weeks ago. Roselyn Bell
Is Jack Ukeles not aware that a Haggadah for Yom Haatzmaut was produced twelve years ago by JNF, the Frankel Center for Jewish Family Education, and the World Zionist Organization, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Agency? It is organized as a text for a Seder-like ritual (complete with four cups) to be performed on Yom Haatzmaut. It's a bit of a hodge-podge, but it does try to tell the story of the birth of Israel, with songs, activities, displays, and storytelling. I have a copy on my shelf. So before reinventing the wheel, one should at least look at this version. Roselyn Bell
Thanks for the hat tip Gary! G-dcast is also working on other texts, see our illumination of a piece of the Haggadah at http://www.g-dcast.com/passover and our first attempt at a historical piece, on Chanukah, at http://www.g-dcast.com/chanukah We agree that the People of the Book have pretty consistently pulled out our favorite scroll for thousands of years, but that literacy of what's in that scroll - even amongst Bnei Mitzvahs - is shockingly low. And our other texts? Most day school graduates I know can't cite much from Prophets. We have a lot of work to do. It used to be that regardless of one's religious leanings, one had an appreciation for these texts. Even secular founders of the state of Israel made references to Tanach, etc, in their design of the state and its government. Jewish kids (and adults) can tell you all about Captain Ahab, Tess of the D'urbevilles, Holden Caulfield - because our public school curricula are good and consistent and sometimes even compelling. Ask those kids who Joseph, Ruth, Isaiah are? Yikes. With knowledge of your past comes enthusiasm for your future. Individually or collectively. At least that's what we think. -Sarah Lefton, G-dcast

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