When I first co-authored a book on “peoplehood,” I was hoping that it would precipitate conversations on what it means to be a people. I hoped we would talk about what constitutes Jewish identity in a modern age and what we can do to bring people together with diverse Jewish commitments. It was an ambitious goal but not an impossible one.
Recently, some of that conversation has finally taken place in Jewish newspapers and across cyberspace. But, why, I keep asking myself and others, has it taken so long to get people to talk about one of the most urgent issues facing our Jewish future?
To digress for a moment, “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood” closes with a chapter of recommendations. They are not programmatic recommendations; they are conditions that should be met in order for our institutions to deepen their community building and our capacity to connect. When we think about creating programs, events and ideas of meaning, let’s set some goals for every interaction. We should: connect Jews to other Jews; engender the feeling of belonging; make Jewish learning/values part of what we do and relevant to who we are; provide venues for Jewish meaning that raise the threshold of Jewish intensity; advance notions of responsibility; and model warmth and inclusivity.
A few years ago, scorecards were popular in the corporate world of leadership. What do you measure yourself against? What does all your work have to achieve? If the goal is to strengthen our collective Jewish identity, then you have just seen my scorecard. Feel free to use it at your next board meeting.
Probably the most important way we can strengthen peoplehood today is by creating avenues for Jews to experience Judaism through a lens of commitment unlike their own. We have created so many Jewish enclaves and niche affinities that Jews of different ages, denominations, knowledge bases and geographic locations rarely have opportunities to experience Jewish meaning that is unlike their own. We will never reach the elusive goal of being one people with this high level of fragmentation and judgmentalism.
These are conditions for peoplehood, and if they make sense to you, then I go back to my original question: why are so few people having conversations about peoplehood when we care so passionately about the same outcome?
Ultimately, I believe it comes down to language. The word peoplehood is not warm and fuzzy. It has little emotional resonance. It sounds like something out of a cultural anthropology book about tribalism. It has not caught on as a word, even as we are struggling to understand what it means as a concept. The people I meet want to talk about identity today. They want conversations on community. They want to feel inspired Jewishly. They just don’t love the word peoplehood.
So I have decided that instead of talking to myself, I would open up this conversation and talk to you. If you believe in Jewish solidarity and community and if you value warmth and inclusion and you think we need a grater shared vision of Jewish identity, please write to me — firstname.lastname@example.org — and help me find the right language. I’ll be back to let you know what I’ve heard from you.
Let’s replace the word peoplehood with something that works for you. But let’s not have a semantic debate that misses the point of it all. We want to achieve a Jewish future together. We just haven’t figured out what together looks like. We haven’t found the language. Please help.
Misha Galperin is president and CEO of the Jewish Agency for Israel, North America.
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