Friday, June 29, 2012

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Life - 2 Year Study

In 2008, in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life (Hillel) launched a full-scale imaginative innovation in Jewish education and engagement on American college campuses. The combination of Senior Jewish Educators (SJE) and the Campus Entrepreneur Initiative (CEI) is designed to engage thousands of formerly unengaged Jewish students in Jewish life. The purpose of this assessment is to measure the effectiveness of SJEs and CEI interns in supporting the new Hillel paradigm of involvement, meaningful Jewish experience, and Jewish growth leading to Jewish “ownership.”

Please follow this link to read the report of the 2 year study undertaken by myself, Professor Steven M. Cohen, Dr. Jack Ukeles, and Dr. Minna Wolf

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Limmud International Survey

Steven Cohen and I recently completed a survey of Limmud participants worldwide.  Limmud is a Peoplehood venue par-excellance.  Limmud is a volunteer driven "celebration of Jewish learning," which takes place in the form of a one day to many day conference in a large number of countries world-wide.  The Jewish learning is not associated with any denominational, religious or ideological movement.  The events pull in a broad spectrum of the Jewish community from the entirely secular to Orthodox.

The research is comparative, providing insight into the differences between Limmud participants in different countries and the different manner in which they report benefit from their participation in Limmud.

Here it is:
The Limmud International Study: Jewish Learning Communities on a Global Scale

If you want to learn more about Limmud in the context of Jewish Peoplehood, see a research project I did with Shlomi Ravid on Peoplehood organizations in which we feature a case study on Limmud.  Click here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is Peoplehood an empty concept

In the past few years, tremendous progress is being made towards understanding the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, work that includes research papers and a number of publications.  Unfortunately much of the popular discourse on Peoplehood remains uninformed by the benefits of this good work.

A recent example is Micha Galperin's op-ed in the Jewish Forward, titled: "Funding Peoplehood: Why the Jewish Community Should Care About an Unsexy Cause." Galperin argues that: "Abundant research has let us know that the way to most significantly impact Jewish identity and the bonds of peoplehood is by providing people with immersive, meaningful experiences."   Daniel Septemus, rightly accuses Galperin of not defining his terms.  Septimus concludes that Galperin cannot define the Peoplehood concept, because the Peoplehood concept itself is empty.

I urge Galperin, Septimus and others to visit the website of the recently launched Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE), and view the publications its members have worked on over the past decade.  At the most basic level, this body of work distinguishes "Peoplehood" from "Identity."  While Galperin does offer a definition of Peoplehood in his response to Septimus, the distinction between Peoplehood and identity remains fuzzy.  Peoplehood is not about the individual Jew, but about relationships between Jews.  The CJPE publications offer definitions and criteria for distinguishing Peoplehood from other dimensions of Jewish life and most importantly the difference between organizations that build Jewish Peoplehood and those that do not.   Whether we are speaking about a synagogue, a community center, a school or camp, or conversation around the family dinner table, there are practices that enable Jews to develop a connection, commitment and feeling of obligation to the Jewish People.

Peoplehood practices are not the equivalent of an individual praying, eating kosher food or living a Jewish life. There are liberal Jews who enjoy spiritual Jewish experiences, which enrich their personal lives, but do not motivate or enable interaction with other Jews.  Likewise, a right wing religious Jew, might live a very rich Jewish life, but has no interaction with and lot of antipathy towards Jews who are different than themselves.

To nurture the connection between Jews is an art unto itself.  The project of Peoplehood focuses on this collective Jewish dimension.  For the collective Jewish project to succeed and have meaning for individual Jews, it must build on a rich lived Jewish life.  But being an active Jew is not the same as being a Jew  who regards him or herself as motivated to seek out interaction with other Jews and committed to the good of the Jewish People worldwide.

To succeed in the Peoplehood project, we need to distinguish between the form and content of of collective Jewish life.  When it comes to content, I find that the discussion normally gets lost - that is searching for "core values" or "practices" that all agree on.  We can certainly point to some central beliefs and practices, but there will always be some group who will disagree.

However, when it comes to the form of Peoplehood, that is the manner in which Jews who do not know one another personally, are able to come into interaction with one another and/or develop feelings of commitment and belonging to the larger collective; we know that there are organizations and communities that do this well and those who don't.   Peoplehood discourse at its finest focuses on the dimension of best practice for building collective Jewish belonging and has a healthy sense of what such discourse addresses and what it does not.

My answer to Septemus is, following Mordecai  Kaplan, Jewish Peoplehood is the life force and world view behind Jewish civilization as it evolved over the last 3,500 years. Not a bad result for an "empty concept". Our challenge is to nurture the meaning of Peoplehood in a manner that enables access for the current generation.  To both Galperin and Septemus, I recommend reading the recently published Jewish Peoplehood Education: Framing the Field a book that calls for shifting the conversation from "what is peoplehood" to how educators and community builders are already engaging the next generation with the Jewish collective enterprise. You may be surprised to find out how far Jewish practitioners have advanced in figuring out what we should do in order to strengthen the Jewish future.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The obvious nature of Jewish life in Israel and its implications for Israeli Jewish education

In 2005 the Department of Education of the Jewish Agency commissioned me to write a thought piece, based on existing research about the 20 something generation of Israeli Jews.  In preparing to teach a class this week, I realized that nothing much was done with the document.  Looking back at it, I think it is probably among my most creative work to date and has a lot to add to our thinking about the connection of everday life to Jewish education.

The report titled, "Who is the Young Israeli Jew? Changing Leisure Habits and Jewish Education,” explores the embedded/public nature of the Israeli Jewish experience.   Israel Jews young and old regard their Jewish identity as obvious. “Being Jewish happens while you are doing other things” and is not perceived as something an individual has the power to choose or reject, nor among the secular is much thought given to the matter.  Being Jewish is simply an obvious fact of life.  

Through the prism of leisure activities, sports, backpacking, shopping and dance, the report explores the obvious nature of Jewish belonging is constructed in Israel and explores the implications for Israel Jewish education.

The report can be downloaded

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pardes Educator Alumni Retreat Presentation

The following are links to a PowerPoint presentation and handout for a talk I'm giving today at the Pardes Educators Alumni Retreat.  The material appears elsewhere but you might find it useful in this condensed form which has a Jewish day school teacher in mind.
  • PowerPoint on: Three basic ways of conceptualizing “Jewish Peoplehood” from a sociological point of view.  Download
  • Hand out for educators:  Download

Monday, September 27, 2010

Three ways by which Jews connect to the Jewish People

Many of the categories of Jewish life which were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are shifting and changing, leaving us unsure of the manner in which Jews around the world continue to connect to the Jewish People.  What are the nature of current commitments and the identification of Jews with the Jewish People?  By what means and in which modes do Jews continue to connect to one another?  This short article offers a three part framework for making sense of possible modes of Jewish belonging.

1.      Traditionalism – “obvious Jewish belonging”
In the 19th and 20th centuries Jews transitioned from traditional to modern society, in the process shaking the conceptual and organizational foundations of Jewish life.  Traditionalist concepts of Jewish belonging assumed the existence of “a Jewish People.”  That there are Jews with a coherent set of beliefs and practices for determining who is and is not Jewish was as obvious as there are clouds in the sky and birds that fly.  The regimes in which Jews lived enforced belonging and empowered traditional hierarchies to control the pace of change.  The result was that one did not ask if a person is Jewish, but rather what level of piety and local customs he or she held to.  Questions such as “what constitutes the Jewish People” and “how best to change tradition to meet the demands of the times,” were not topics for community wide discussion.  

2.      Modernism – “boundaries for distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’”
Since the advent of the modern state in the late 18th century, traditionalist understandings of who is a Jew have steadily weakened and all but disappeared.  Modernity rests on the shoulders of individual citizens who are granted “the right” to decide, if, when and how to belong to an ethno-religious group, such as the Jews.  The “obvious nature of Jewish belonging” upon which traditionalist Jewish life rests, disintegrates as each individual can now choose to opt out or in.  Personal preference, rather than received tradition becomes the touchstone for determining the character of collective Jewish life.  Individuals will seek out a Jewish life-style and community, which they feel appropriate to their needs.  The result was a rapid generation of new and innovative forms for Jewish expression, such as the various forms of Socialist, Zionist, Liberal and Orthodox Judaisms which arose in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The paradox of modernity is that on one hand, the secular and religious Jewish movements seek the adherence of individuals.  They are built to cater to the ideological preferences of their constituents.  On the other hand all propose “collective solutions.”  Each movement competes with the other for the loyalty of the Jews, arguing that their solution best guarantees the future of the Jewish People.  The classic modernist ideologies offer sharp distinctions between Jew and non-Jew, and right and wrong Jewish ways.  While the modern ideological movements offer conflicting definitions of who is a Jew, it is nevertheless obvious that there must be clear sets of criteria for determining, who is in and who is out.  Jewish education is the effort to socialize adherents into a clear set of beliefs and practices that Jews should do when they are together and which distinguish them from non-Jews.

3.      Late modernism – “meaningful Jewish belonging in a collective context”
We currently find ourselves in a situation of flux between modern and late modern society.  The rise of global society and the weakening of the nation state, grants individuals even greater authority to fashion a personal connection to collective life than ever before.  Increasingly individuals across the spectrum of Jewish life are disregarding or loosening their affiliation to the modernist ideological movements and national communal frameworks and are searching out more intimate forms of group life. 

Late modern sensibility does not assume the existence of a coherent group of Jews with clear rules for determining insider/outsider; nor, does Jewish education focus on establishing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews and socializing someone into a clear set of values and practices.  Rather, late modernity provides individuals with the means and motivation to search out the company of others Jews on their own terms.  For educators, the assumption is that Jewish continuity depends on intensifying each individual’s personal Jewish journey within a collective context.  If an individual sees value in building Jewish relationships, he or she is more likely to seek out Jewish family and community and less likely to marry out, for these are the basic conditions for fully exploring and developing a meaningful Jewish life.  

The primary concern of the late modernist is not with constructing boundaries against intermarriage or assimilation, or declaring commitment to a particular ideology.   Rather, than keep the dangers of modernity at bay, the late modernist seeks to offer positive content which will compel individuals to seek out the company of other Jews within the context of modern society.  Modernity is background, a resource, rather than a danger for Jewish belonging.  When Jews perceive Jewish life as a means for building a rich human life they will opt into the Jewish People.  The end result are associations of individuals with one another in institutions that enable them to connect and interact with other Jews in the richest possible way; and, at the same time live life as full citizens integrated into the broader society.     

Post-modernism – “disconnected individuals”
Many of the ideological clashes at all levels of Jewish life today, the world over, are occurring as Jewish leadership attempts to grapple with the pull of the classic and late modern solutions for enabling Jews to connect to the Jewish People.  However, beyond the politics and debates of Jewish life, all are battling a common danger, namely the disconnected or free floating individual often identified as by the term “post-modernism.”  The post-modern Jew is apathetic or even opposed to living in the context of an organized network or community of Jews.  In contrast, modern and late-modern individuals embrace group life; each according to their own sensibility.  One, other or a mix of the modern and late modern sensibility is vital for Jewish Peoplehood.  Jewish life depends on the fashioning of strong and vibrant connections between Jews. 

Towards a renewed understanding of the ways in which Jews fashion connections to the Jewish People
The role of research is to help us understand the extent to which Jews continue to connect to one another.  If a survey question uses a scale of 1=”no connection” to 4=”strong connection,” anything from “2” above indicates continued connection.  Once the Jewish connection is confirmed, we can then inquire into the nature of that connection. 

For example, a major challenge for educators is to move Jews away from simplistic, one dimensional understandings of what Jewish belonging is about.  For many Jews, Jewish life is reduced to “religion.”   For the assimilating Jew – “If I am not religious, do not believe in God or do not identify with religious ritual then why should I be Jewish.”  In contrast, for the fundamentalist it is all about a particular set of religious beliefs and practices - “If you don’t do it like me, then you aren’t an authentic Jew.”  Both extremes rest on too heavy an emphasis on religion, which is but one medium (albeit very important) for connecting to the Jewish People.  Whether in a modernist and/or late modernist modes, a connection to the Jewish People occurs when an individual expands their “Jewish consciousness” – “ahh, it is not just about being religious.”   Is that happening?  Where in the Jewish world are there Jews who are “getting beyond religion,” and expressing a multi-faceted connection to other Jews and the Jewish People?   What do those connections look like?  To what extent do modern and/or late modern approaches prevail?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moving a relationship to Israel away from "us"/"them" language

Today I stumbled on a blog post by Noam Planko's on Israel Diaspora relations that I found thought provoking.   Naom calls for a more sophisticated approach to American Jews relationship to Israel, one that is embedded in developing a broader connection between local and rich Jewish community life in the United States and the global Jewish community.

Read Naom PIanko's blog post

The only point that I’m not entirely comfortable with is his tendency to speak of “The State of Israel”.   If the goal is to get rid of the binary language of "American Jews" and "Israel" and develop a more nuanced relationship in which individuals grapple with their relationship to Israel, then one need not to speak of "The State of Israel."  Rather, there is a need to emphasize the multi-faceted nature of Israeli life and to encourage American Jews to pick their partners and develop a stake and opinion about where they stand.

As Planko points out, it is disastrous to demand that all American Jews "support Israel" without enabling each to  to think through what and they support and oppose.  "Israel" is not a homogeneous entity, but a vibrant civil society.  Every Jew can find within Israeli society a wealth of resources and inspiration by which to develop their Jewish life and a vision of Israel to which they can commit (and reject).  Jewish Peoplehood and Israel education are two parts of a greater whole; which, serve a common purpose of developing commitment to be a part of the global Jewish People.  "Israel" is a major strand in the weave that connects Jews to one another as a "global People," thus it is impossible to speak of one without the other.