NEW YORK — For the longest time, Jewish peoplehood was lived rather than discussed. But no longer.
Ever since the Israelites fled Egypt and crossed the Red Sea in miraculous fashion — a seminal act in Jewish history commemorated and celebrated in Passover seders — the Jews have been a nation and a people.
Bonded by religion, strong family ties based on marrying within the faith, a special calendar, love for a homeland (even when removed from it) and a narrative that too often included being the object of discrimination and persecution, Jews shared a common belief system, history and sense of destiny.
Rarely defined, peoplehood was simply an expression of Jews being responsible for one another, all part of klal Yisrael (the people of Israel).
In recent times, though, with increasing assimilation and decreasing commitment to ritual practice throughout the diaspora, there has been a growing concern that the organic connectivity of Jewish peoplehood is in peril and must be preserved before it is too late.
Surveys in the last year or two suggest, for instance, that for the first time a majority of American Jews under the age of 35 do not share a sense of collective responsibility for other Jews, a concept that was a given until now.
Among the rationales for this disturbing shift in attitude is the notion that ours is a society that cares more and more about the individual rather than the collective, and that as a result of assimilation, the very composition of, and commitment to, klal Yisrael has become watered down.
Into the breach have come a number of projects, studies and institutions focused on addressing this crisis in Jewish peoplehood.
• The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, predicts a continuing decrease in “collective identification” or sense of “group cohesion” over the next two decades.
• Former Russian Jewish oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, a billionaire now living in Israel, has poured millions of dollars into various projects designed to foster Jewish peoplehood, including the development of a new institution at Beit Hatfutsot (Diaspora Museum) in Tel Aviv, designed as a world center for Jewish peoplehood.
• The Jewish Agency sees its new mission as “building the Jewish people into a tightly connected family that has the feeling of a [shared] Jewish identity,” according to Natan Sharansky, its chairman.
Amid all this activity, defining Jewish peoplehood can still be elusive.
I recently took part in the first of four programs on exploring the meaning of Jewish peoplehood today, convened by sociologist Steven M. Cohen and sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York and the Berman Jewish Policy Archives.
About 30 of us heard a thoughtful presentation by Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor of contemporary Jewish life, who traced the shifting definitions of and perspectives on Jewish peoplehood from biblical times to the present — from a people chosen by God for a unique, eternal relationship, to an American Jewish community that values education and liberal causes and whose members, Fishman said, “feel most comfortable with other Jews — but are very uncomfortable with articulations of ‘chosenness’ or peoplehood.”
The discussion that followed was both fascinating and frustrating. It contained a number of sharp insights from the participants, touching on the importance of pride, the issue of whether strict religious observance equals authenticity and the power of Birthright trips to connect young Jews to Israel and their history. But in the end the talk kept circling back to the wide variety of views of what Jewish peoplehood means and whether it even matters anymore.
Cohen noted that “there is this intergenerational conversation between the older generation that says, ‘we’re not sure what Jewish peoplehood is but we know it’s very important and you younger people should have it,’ and the younger generation that says, ‘we’re as confused as you, if not more so, but we don’t think we care, and we’re kind of suspicious and skeptical of the whole venture.’”
This was borne out when one of the far too few people under 40 in the room asserted that his contemporaries don’t understand the notion of Jewish peoplehood or find it important. He said he and his peers don’t like “the idea of being tied to one identity or being put into a tribe or ethnic group.”
Overall, I was struck by the lack of reference to the concept of mitzvot or communal responsibility associated for centuries with living a Jewish life. Indeed, consciously or not, there was little mention of the Torah as the core of Judaism.
But the arc of that discussion was not unique, I’ve learned. Just a few days ago, I took part in another conversation — this one sponsored by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies — intended to consider shaping a national dialogue on key policy issues ahead for the American Jewish community.
Different faces at the table, but remarkably similar themes as the 20 participants sought to clarify a purpose to the meeting beyond worrying about the communal future.
“American Jews are thriving, but American Judaism is not,” was one pithy observation that seemed to underscore the dilemma.
Once again the talk turned to the desire to identify and engage young assimilated Jews in the wonders of organized Jewish life, begging the question that if our synagogues, schools and institutions have so much to offer, why are so many younger Jews decidedly uninterested?
We seem to be trying to convince younger Jews that they need what we are offering rather than listening to what it is they want. And what they want — at least those with any interest in Jewish life — is hands-on, accessible projects that speak more to universal than parochial concerns, like social justice, social networking and the environment.
(The fact is that the perception of The Big, Outmoded Institution vs. the Scrappy, Creative Startup is somewhat unfair because some of the old models do the heavy lifting — feed the poor, help people find jobs, etc. — as well as support the young ones. In New York, for example, UJA-Federation contributes about $7 million a year to projects focused on serving college students and young adults here, from Hillel to JDub Records to Dor Chadash.)
In the end, the informal group voted to meet again to discuss where it might fill a niche in the crowded maze of Jewish projects and concerns. The open question is whether its target audience of younger Jews even cares, or could be made to care.
That was the very same question the sages who formulated the Passover seder so many centuries ago asked themselves. And they were remarkably successful in coming up with a formula that has withstood time, and unspeakable challenges to Jews and the Jewish people.
The power of the seder is that it blends past, present and future, bringing families together today to reflect on what freedom means in a modern age when we are slaves to time and technology. And it takes us back in history, as we not only recount but actually experience the original Exodus, tasting the bitter maror of slavery and the sweet wine of freedom. As the hagada tells us: “In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he personally had gone forth from Egypt.”
The primary purpose of the seder is to engage the next generation, encouraging young people to ask questions. Though we recite The Four Questions each year, the hagada never answers them directly, reminding us that it’s the asking that counts, and being part of the struggle.
In his notes on the hagada, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that seder means “order” and that “we become God’s partners in the work of creation when we create order in society — an order that honors all persons as the image of God.
“Order turns individuals into a community and communities into a people,” he writes. “The seder night reflects the order that binds us to other Jews throughout the world and in previous generations.”
Surely if we can transmit the value of a Jewish life to our children — a covenant of faith, action and community — peoplehood will take care of itself.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)