Posts Tagged ‘Peoplehood’

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Will We Let This School Fail?

March 10, 2010

Rarely a day passes without hearing from one of my friends in the Jewish world about a new project in which they have become engaged or an organization for which they are fundraising.  The conversation that ensues is often one about shared interests and common concerns. Sometimes the conversations result in my renewed optimism and other times they cause me to have sobering realizations; but never have they made me sick to my stomach.

Until last week.

An unexpected call from a former colleague who  left Atlanta to move to Asheville, North Carolina started out with the usual pleasantries – work, family, memories of old times. But quickly the conversation turned to the matter that was obviously on my friend’s mind – the state of affairs of the nascent community Jewish Day School in Asheville where his children attend and of which he is president. His story started out inspiring enough, nineteen families had come together in 2006 to create a fully integrated core/Jewish curriculum day school for their twenty-one children, with plans to increase the school size by the incremental addition of students and grades. In the middle of North Carolina, where so much of the Jewish community had migrated away from to lager population centers like Charlotte and Atlanta, the small but resilient Jewish community of Asheville was not going to yield to demography. Grounded in a community with religious diversity and a small but strong JCC, the school would be an extension of the Jewish community’s efforts to create a rich Jewish experience for their children. At least that was the intention.

Now, like every school (and other community organization) in the country that is facing the hardships of the Great Recession, the Maccabi Academy of Asheville is in financial crisis. Its $40,0000 deficit is too big, its community is too small; it is literally on the edge of going from a school that could be much more to a school that might be nothing more than a memory. It made growth decisions that anticipated financial security and now must revisit those decision with deep cost-cutting measures.  It must ask more from each family, and has already received more than most families can afford.   Looking beyond its small community it has reached out to friends throughout the Southeast that might have connections to Asheville or North Carolina in the hope they might find an angel or an unexpected benefactor from afar. But one decision my friend, his board, and his fellow parents are loathe to consider, but nonetheless must – without the needed funds, will it be possible to continue this Jewish day school experience for those nineteen families?

As a Jewish people we say that education is one of the most important elements of sustaining ourselves. As a North American community we insist that day school education is one of the most critical means to provide our children an immersive educational and communal experience (often at the expense of investing too little in congregational education). We encourage families to send their children to day schools; we cajole parents to give more of their resources to make those schools strong. We know that education is expensive and we say to one another that we face an affordability crisis that threatens our ability to provide the education we know is needed. Yet say every child matters, so we mustn’t fail in providing that education, no matter the cost. We say all of these things.

There are nineteen Jewish children in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the Jewish centers of life in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. These children are getting a daily dose of Jewish education, culture and language, and they are sharing experiences that will help cement their identities for years to come.  They may go elsewhere in life, far from Asheville – perhaps even to our own communities. We know this.

So with all we know, let me ask this – will we, the Jewish people, let this school fail?  And if we do, what does it mean about what we say?

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Defining the Mission, Vision, and Values of the Next Jewish Century

October 25, 2009

Words matter. For the People of the Book, there is almost no greater truism; we are a people inspired by a covenant and guided by the words of five books. We are a people that have revived a dead language and created words to express modern experiences, and we have no lack of artists that illuminate those words into a beautiful tapestry of Jewish memory and storytelling. But we are also a people that struggle with the meaning of certain terms and how we define them. We guard words so that they singularly reflect certain Jewish experiences (Holocaust) and we empower words so that the serve as a reminder of our collective Jewish future (Peoplehood).   But even though we are a people that love language, we still struggle and debate the meaning of certain words and how we define them for use in our Jewish communities.

This struggle became clear to me as I recently sat in a conference room with Jewish community leaders from around the world and from a range of Jewish experiences. There was no doubt that each person in the room loved the people, the faith, and the state of the Jewish People; however even in a short conversation it was clear that we were all struggling with how we define our mission and vision in the next Jewish century. On one hand there was talk of the mission and vision for the Jewish People, and on the other hand there were questions about how we express Jewish values when engaging people in the pursuit of realizing that vision. Of course some would say all of that is semantic, but the more thoughtful would realize that like the other words of the Jewish People, mission, vision, and values need to have meaning and need to be used in their proper context and with serious emphasis on the possibilities they encompass.

Some notable scholars in the Jewish community such as Dr. Jonathan Sarna have called for a new mission for the Jewish people. While I disagree that we need a new mission, I do believe we need to frame the mission of our People clearly in the context of the faith that guides our People. Our mission is our essential purpose statement and our reason for being, and it is found in our texts and in our belief system. The mission of the Jewish People is unwavering and unrelenting, and as a light in this world it must be unflickering. A vision however, can and does evolve over time because the times in which we pursue our mission change. The vision is what the future looks like, what will be tomorrow if we advance our mission today. It is what we strive for and rely upon to give us the endurance to move forward into the bold future of our imagination. Lastly, there are our values. They are the bedrock of our actions and they are the guideposts of our journeys. The Jewish People have a value system that is incredibly strong but often under-defined. For example, while we understand and respect the value of kavod for example, we often don’t always invest the energy in extrapolating how that value must be expressed in our Jewish endeavors.

As many of our contemporary Jewish leaders have begun to openly discuss, we need to be more open, expressive and thoughtful in the way we craft the vision of the Jewish people for the 21st Century and beyond. We need to boldly imagine what the future could look like and the ways in which our mission and values intersect with that vision. We need to unharness ourselves from the language of hesitation and gird ourselves with the language of optimism. But we also need to make sure we are mindful of defining the values that will help us advance towards the future we envision and the ways in which those values strengthen our ability to make that vision a reality.  And most of all we need to make sure that while we may all speak in different tongues, we nevertheless use the same concepts to guide our future endeavors.

We stand on the edge of a bridge of Jewish tomorrows that is unfolding in front of us, from one beach of history to the other beach of the future.  The bridge crosses a sea of opportunity and challenge, and it is slippery and sometimes hard to see. But if we use the mission, vision and values of the Jewish people to serve as our guide rail, we will surely get to the other side.

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Jewish Journeying With Purpose (and Peoplehood With Meaning)

August 3, 2008

As I referenced in my earlier post critiquing the current over-emphasis of the concept of “Peoplehood” in attempting to framing solutions for the Jewish future, I have been considering my own theory of “Jewish Journeying” in light of some of the stellar essays I have recently read. Among the best was the essay “Peoplehood With Purpose” by Yossi Abramowitz in the Spring edition of Contact.  In the middle of his essay Abramowitz makes some substantial statements with respect to the concept of Peoplehood, its importance and its role in the future of Jewish life. In particular, Abramowitz states:

  • “Jewish Peoplehood – and its universalistic, noble purpose – must replace the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community.”
  • “Neither faith nor nationalism can continue to be the grand, unifying field theories of world Jewry. Only Peoplehood can, because it is inherently inclusive and encompasses religion, nationalism and culture.”
  • “The goal should be for a critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders to be engines and agents of Jewish Peoplehood.”
  • “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.”

Abramowitz then summarizes, in a clear and convincing fashion that “the purpose – the essence of Jewish Peoplehood – is to be an ongoing, distinctive catalyst for the advancement of morality in civilization.

However, I am not convinced.

If you take all five of the statements I cite above, and recalibrate them into a summary statement of Abramowitz’s argument, it might read as follows:

A critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders should become engines and agents in replacing the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community with a conceptual understanding of the Jewish people as an ongoing distinctive catalyst of the advancement of morality in civilization. As a result, these actions will create an inherently inclusive conception of the Jewish people, encompassing religion, nationalism and culture, and serve to recalibrate and synchronize Jewish enterprise and philanthropy.

That is a pretty big statement, and I must admit, I really like it. But here’s the problem, I don’t think it works.

Why?  Quite simply because I think the catalytic nature of Jews is not simply from their distinctive values, but from their distinctive experiences as well. The catalytic impact on history and society has not only been by the values of the Jews, but by the “otherness” that has often resulted from adherence to those values.  The experiences of the Jews are not just ritualistic or faith-oriented, but also social and cultural. Not only are they communal, but also deeply personal.  Some of the most catalytic Jews were transformed into those catalysts by an experience (not a knowing expression of Jewish Peoplehood) that triggered an unawakened component of their personal value system.  And therefore it was not the overarching Jewish system of values, nor was it an awesome sense of Peoplehood that triggered the development of their own personal identity, but rather, it was a personal experience in their life journey, and as Jews, it was part of their Jewish Journey.

So while I agree with much of what Abramowitz articulates with respect to his conception of Peoplehood, I once again have to state that I don’t think that we should over-emphasize that concept at the expense of understanding Jewish Journeying as a central concept of Jewish life.

In understanding Jewish Journeying, we can understand the limitations of what we can achieve by focusing on Peoplehood exclusively.  The paths of individual Jews are distinctive journeys, and although we may try to infuse them with an understanding of Jewish faith, nationalism, history and culture, it is their journey and we can only act as influencers. But we need to be tactical in the way we endeavor to influence the identity of those on a journey, and using categorical terms such as Peoplehood is not tactical.  It is universal.  Which is all well and good when we are debating conceptual frameworks, but in practice it is a non-starter.

Abramowitz correctly articulates that Peoplehood “will not work as a rallying cry to the Jewish public, which is post-tribal in its inclinations and commitments.”  I whole-heartedly agree.  But then why focus on this concept as an organizing principle when we know its organizational utility is limited?  Each of those post-tribal Jews may not resonate with a conception of Peoplehood that is vague and amorphous, but they can inherently identify with the idea of journeying. They are each on an individual journey, emotionally, socially, religiously and Jewishly.  In the way Peoplehood won’t resonate, Jewish journeying will.

Let’s go back to Abramowitz’s statement that “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.” How would I revise that statement? I might say that Peoplehood should be a central experiential element of Jewish Journeying (as opposed to an organizing principle). And rather than a blueprint (which implies some sort of construction) it should be viewed as the topography of Jewish Journeying. Accordingly, I would then propose that the development of an individual-oriented understanding of Jewish journeying be an organizing principle used to calibrate and synchronize Jewish institutions.  Before we start understanding Peoplehood, we must understand the journeys of the people who comprise it.  And before we try to frame for individual Jews their experiences in the context of Peoplehood, we should use an understanding of their Jewish Journeying to better frame our understanding of how to meet them at the “peoplehood points” of their journeys.

Then we will understand Jewish Journeying with greater purpose, and an understanding of Peoplehood with greater meaning.

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On Jewish Peoplehood – The right word, the right concept?

July 27, 2008

In my spare time I endeavor to be a good student of Jewish communal issues – the language we use, the approaches we take and the ongoing combination of the two. Recently I have been considering the ongoing dialogue about Jewish peoplehood. Like other ‘buzz words’ before it, the term ‘peoplehood’ has taken on a life and dialogue all its own. In the few years those who are concerned with the future of the Jewish people have, at least in part, rallied around the exploration of what ‘peoplehood’ means in order to discern the paths forward for the Jewish people.

And I have recently been reading essays on ‘peoplehood’ from some of our global Jewish community’s finest thinkers. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, Leonard Saxe, Rabbi David Gedzelman, Rabbi Joy Levitt, Dr. Alan Mintz, Professor Douglas Rushkoff, Rokhl Kafrissen, Ruth Ouzana and Yossef Israel Abramowitz each wrote thoughtful essays on peoplehood in the Spring edition of Contact, a publication of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Before that, I read The Peoplehood Papers published by UJC that included thoughtful essays by Dr. Shlomi Revid, Dr. Misha Galperin, Jay Michaelson, Einat Wilf, Barbara Lerner Spectre, Ahava Zarembski, Alan D. Hoffman, Jonathan Ariel, Eric Levine, Wayne Firestone and Gil Troy. I have read countless books on the subject and topics ancillary to it. And I have tried thoughtfully struggle with the question of how one can best understand the Jewish experience and the opportunity embedded within that experience.

Now I am not classically trained in Jewish thought, history law, social services or education. Nor am I an academic or a Jewish communal professional. Everything I have leaned is the result of my (reluctant) congregational schooling as a child, my experiences as an adult learner (including my experience in the Wexner Heritage program) and as a constant reader. It is important that I share that information because what I am about to say needs to be put in the context of my limited knowledge – I am humbled by what I do not know – and therefore this statement is made in the most humble of ways.

I think we are getting it all wrong in the way we focus on ‘peoplehood’ as a centralizing term of the Jewish experience. Read the rest of this entry ?