Peoplehood, Shmeeplehood

Last Updated on Sunday, 21 March 2010 05:43 Written by bryfy Sunday, 21 March 2010 05:43

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the very stimulating and high level Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leader’s Assembly. The opportunity to meet and mix with colleagues old and new is always welcomed. This networking is the most important piece of many of these Jewish gatherings – and perhaps the topic for another blog post.

On Tuesday morning I was fortunate to be part of a session dedicated to looking at Learner Outcomes at Jewish Summer Camps – specifically asking the question of what a camper will learn in terms of their attitudes, knowledge and behaviors (what will they feel, know and do) as a result of spending a summer (or summers) at your camp. It’s a great question and one that any educational institution should continually be asking themselves. (special shout out to Rebecca and Adam!)

Well as luck would have it – I got stuck with the Jewish value of Jewish Peoplehood. My problems with Peoplehood stem from the fact that it never comes up as a real world on spell check. So, my first task was to not only analyze with camp directors and assistant directors what the learner outcomes of this overly used concept is, but to explain what it means – and thus began our discussions….

Before starting I should say that some of my best friends (colleagues and people I admire) are Jewish Peoplehood experts. (Melissa Zalkin Stollman, Yossi Abramovitz, Ezra Kopelowitz, Jewish Peoplehood HUB et al) And with that caveat I now have permission to offend everyone….

I want to share with you some of my insights from the session and see where it might take us:

  1. The term Jewish Peoplehood is overused and misunderstood in the Jewish world today because not enough time and energy has been spent trying to understand it. Let me rephrase that, a lot of people have been discussing Jewish Peoplehood for many years, and few have been able to successfully translate their theoretical and philosophical understandings of the term into practical and implementable strategies.
  2. If we cannot understand that Jews today want to and can simultaneously be both active global citizens and proud members of the Jewish tribe then the concept of Jewish Peoplehood is viewed as particularistic, exclusionary and even racist by many young Jews today.
  3. It’s easy to feel a sense of Jewish Peoplehood when the whole world is out to get us. The problem is that most Jews today (especially those in the US) feel safe and secure in their Jewishness, see no existential threat to the Jewish people, and despite efforts to be convinced by their understandably sensitive pre-1967 generation Jews, only know and see a world with a powerful (and sometimes too powerful) Israel.
  4. Jewish Peoplehood is not Zionism in another guise. In fact Jewish Peoplehood is a contrary stance to most visions of Zionism (including although perhaps debatable that of Achad Ha’Am). Jewish Peoplehood demands the acceptance that all Jewish communities have equal value and that their flourishing is good for the Jews.
  5. Jewish Peoplehood requires not only that all Jews see themselves as sharing a common history and heritage – but as importantly see themselves as sharing a collective destiny. That is not to suggest that Jews should all look the same – in fact the opposite is true – as Jewish Peoplehood by design must embrace pluralism. But being committed to Jewish Peoplehood is also a call to action – to actively be involved in developing relationships with Jews and Jewish communities from all around the world in the belief that as a result the Jewish people will be a stronger people.

The list could continue, and indeed it did. Unfortunately the session did not give many answers. But it did raise some very important questions – which I believe every Jewish organization must ask themselves in order to remain relevant in the 21st century.

What are your thoughts on Jewish Peoplehood? Is it a buzzword? Is it just another name for an old Jewish concept (read continuity, renewal etc.) Or is there something new about the phrase Jewish Peoplehood that is qualitatively different than anything that has come before it?

And for those you looking for a less cerebral approach to what can and I think should be a more values and affective based discussion I encourage you to read and contemplate Yehuda Amichai’s poem – The Diameter of the Bomb


  1. Sarah   |  Monday, 22 March 2010 at 8:30 am

    Great post – spot on – I’m definitely going to use this the next time I need to explain/defend myself.

    I believe it was Mordecai Kaplan who coined the term; sort of a generic way of saying ‘brotherhood.’ In Reconstructionist Judasim we also look at his 3 dimensions of belonging–>believing–>behaving (in that order). Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist sleepaway camp has done a great job to popularize in contemporary times Kaplan’s “Values of Spiritual Peoplehood.” As expected, they are both universal & particular in nature.

  2. Noam Pianko   |  Monday, 22 March 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I have had some very similar frustrations with the peoplehood concept. It tends to serve as a stand-in for many of the old assumptions about Jewish identity (commitment to Israel, survivalist mentality, synagogue membership.) Yet, this was not the original intention of the term. As Sarah mentions, Kaplan did much to popularize the term. However, he meant something quite different than its current use. I just wrote about this for an upcoming Shma issue. You can see an earlier draft of the article at I would be excited to hear your feedback. This might be an issue we want to write more about as the Jewish community puts more resources into promoting the term.

  3. @lookstein   |  Wednesday, 24 March 2010 at 8:23 am

    Great post. Technology allows us to connect with Jewish communities around the world, to get a taste of Jewish Peoplehood firsthand – way beyond the pen pal projects we did when I was in school. Schools and camps should be creating more opportunities for students/campers to interact in real-time with Jewish communities around the world.

    There are several good articles about defining Jewish Peoplehood and translating it into practice in one of our recent journal issues –

  4. Jasper Seefried   |  Thursday, 27 May 2010 at 6:33 am

    Excellent post! Eurovision in the past was all crap, but over the past several years it’s getting rather great with quality music and artists. They aren’t all corny.

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