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Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?

Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?

by Erica Brown

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Peoplehood—everyone’s talking about it. But what does it actually mean and why is it important to the future of Judaism?

“Why is this conversation important? Why does it merit your attention? If you care about Jewish identity and community, then you know that we have no trouble identifying the problems that fragmentize us as a people but


Peoplehood—everyone’s talking about it. But what does it actually mean and why is it important to the future of Judaism?

“Why is this conversation important? Why does it merit your attention? If you care about Jewish identity and community, then you know that we have no trouble identifying the problems that fragmentize us as a people but have far less success identifying that which unites us. Without a unifying, collective notion of Jewish identity that is meaningful and robust, it is virtually impossible to make a strong case for Jewish continuity.”
—from the Introduction

This call to Jewish community explores the purpose, possibilities, and limitations of peoplehood as a unifying concept of community for a people struggling profoundly with Jewish identity. It defines what peoplehood is—and is not—and explores both collective and personal Jewish identity and the nature of identity construction.

Drawing on history, sacred texts and contemporary scholarship, The Case for Jewish Peoplehood identifies some of the obstacles that challenge a shared notion of peoplehood: personal choices, construct of membership and boundaries, growth of Jewish illiteracy, identity fragmentation between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, and the generational divide affecting traditionalists, baby boomers, and generations X and Y.

To help you join the conversation, the authors support a vision for the future and provide practical guidance and recommendations for getting there.

Editorial Reviews

AJL - Ilya Silbar Margoshes

In this thought-provoking book, authors Erica Brown (director of adult education at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, and scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington) and Dr. Misha Galperin (CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington) explore a wide range of issues related to Jewish identity and the concept of peoplehood. The authors examine the implications of peoplehood in relation to changing Jewish demographics, ideas and values. They also explore aspects of Jewish personal and community identity. At the end of each chapter are "questions for conversation" which are appropriate for individual reflection, group discussion and community development or leadership exercises. Recommended for community, synagogue and academic libraries.

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix - VICKI CABOT

Who will be sitting around the table?

It's an apt question this time of the year, with Passover just weeks away, invitations extended and hosts doing quick counts of haggadot and chairs. Yet it is also a provocative one, as posed by Erica Brown and Misha Galperin, when the table becomes a metaphor for Jewish community and the chairs around it seats for the Jewish people.

The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (Jewish Lights, $22 hardcover) adroitly explores the question, drawing on anecdotal experience, scholarly perspective, sacred text and incisive analysis. Galperin, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and Brown, director of adult education for the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and scholar-in-residence at the Washington federation, make a compelling argument for peoplehood—a unified, collective notion of Jewish identity—and posit that it is critical to creating a robust and meaningful Jewish future.

As scholars—Brown holds a doctorate in Jewish education and Galperin one in clinical psychology—they first seek to define their terms, identifying a number of key elements that inform peoplehood, including shared history, language of faith, ritual and culture, and mission and purpose. They gloss that with a notion of "care and comfort" and suggest that in its simplest terms, peoplehood is a sense of extended family.

The authors go on to examine the construction of Jewish identity, both individual and collective, and then look at a number of obstacles that test the notion of peoplehood. Their analysis of the contemporary Jewish landscape as "pro-choice," with its emphasis on personal Judaism and a plethora of alternatives for animating Jewish life, illuminates understanding of today's Jewish world.

Too, their discussion of boundaries and limits, implicit in any notion of community, is insightful, manifesting the inherent contradiction between open-tent Judaism, with a place for every Jew, and the need for common identity markers to bind us together. Their analysis of intermarriage, differences between American Jewish and Israeli identities and generational boundaries further dissect the challenges of constructing a strong collective Jewish identity.

Substantive Jewish literacy, meaningful Jewish experiences and a renewed connection to a shared Jewish past offer ways to surmount barriers to cohesion and bind us together, say the authors. As Jewish professionals working within the federation system, they are clear that a cohesive community depends on the collective voice and collective connections a system such as the federation provides.

Creating a sense of peoplehood, or extended Jewish family, is ongoing, the authors say, providing questions to provoke lively conversation, perhaps around the seder table. "Peoplehood is a process," they write, noting that Jews today are living in times of great change and intellectual and emotional turbulence.

But, they suggest, "There is great energy in turbulence."

For many Jews, the meaningful Jewish experiences Brown and Galperin advocate come from hands-on social action encounters. Rabbi Avraham Weiss, in his new book, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Jewish Lights, $25 hardcover) provides an enlightening how-to guide. Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the modern and open Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, and national president of The Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, has been on the frontlines of Jewish activism for decades. His impassioned call for service is rooted in a deeply held belief in the natural human capacity for giving and caring that comes from the divine.

"Just as God gives and cares ... so too do we," he writes, reflecting on how God acts through people.

But Weiss' book is more than a simplistic call to action; it is a call for a studied approach to doing God's work. Weiss lays out the spiritual precepts that inform social activism and the specific principles that guide it. He makes clear that taking on a cause requires not only passion but also careful thought, planning and execution.

"Activism is precisely the opposite of what most people think. It involves engaging in serious analysis, grappling with tough political issues and attaining a deep understanding of the ethical precepts that must be at the heart of any planned action," he writes. A concise action plan is provided at the end of the book.

"We all have the capacity to become spiritual activists," writes the rabbi, "lu yehi, if only it will come to pass."

Rabbi Neil Gillman, in his new book, Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah & Israel in Modern Judaism (Jewish Lights, $25 hardcover) offers an excellent starting point for exploring the basis of Jewish literacy that Brown and Galperin advocate. Gillman, a rabbi and PhD, is a professor of Jewish philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He draws on his 50 years of teaching experience to examine the major themes of Judaism and distill the spiritual and theological questions that face us all. Beginning with essential questions about the existence of God and the sacredness of Torah, he confronts other concerns such as God's role in suffering and what happens to us after we die.

"The function of religion is to describe the sense of an ultimate order that pervades the universe and human experience," he writes. His book helps to elucidate that order.

Washington Jewish Week - Aaron Leibel

In 1967, when he was 9 years old, Misha Galperin came home and told his father he was "angry at the Israeli aggressors who were hurting our socialist friends" in the Six Day War—the lessons he had been learning in his school in the Soviet Union.

His father decided that it was time to tell him "our story," Galperin, the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, states in The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), which he co-wrote with Erica Brown.

Nonetheless, Galperin is convinced that there is much that American Jews can learn from their counterparts from the former Soviet Union about Jewish peoplehood. "For Jews in the Soviet Union, being Jewish was about being part of a people, not about religious identity, knowledge or practice, or membership in institutions—not even about belief in God," he says in an interview. "It was about being part of an extended family and being part of history."

That permits more openness in accepting Jews who are different and may define their Judaism, not religiously, but in cultural or other terms. And, he notes, it fits in with the book's definition of Jewish peoplehood—"sharing a mission or a purpose with an extended family with whom we have a collective history and a shared language of faith, ritual and culture."

The book, says Brown—director of adult education at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and scholar-inresidence at the federation—evolved from many conversations between the coauthors. "Many people have been using the language of Jewish peoplehood, and we felt that many didn't know what it meant," she says in an interview. "We began an exploration of the nature of peoplehood, defining the term and talking about what gets in its way."

Those discussions continued during the writing of the book, which took about a year. "I did most of the writing," says Brown. "I would write and we would review—that was a constant process." The authors find that Jewish peoplehood faces several challenges—choice, membership and boundaries, illiteracy, Israeli-American divide and generational divide.

In separate interviews, both agreed that "generational divide" challenge is the most serious. In the past century, the American Jewish community has heavily invested in "institutional infrastructures," Brown says, but the younger generations "care less and less" about those institutions.

Those in the past three generations also have become more focused on the individual, as opposed to the collective, says her coauthor. Reconciling that view with caring about and connecting with others is a challenge. What to do about intermarrieds is a crucial question for advancing Jewish peoplehood that is also addressed in the book.

"Peoplehood, unlike Jewish rituals or even beliefs, is much more difficult to simulate in a household committed to two faiths," they write in the book. "It is much easier to light Hanukkah candles, sit at a Passover Seder or even pray in a shared language than it is to share the mysteries of Jewish identification: the jokes, the food predilections, the body language, the modes of expression."

It is those ethnic differences that often cause marital problems for intermarrieds, they write. "They create the insider/outsider tensions that many non-Jews feel in an intermarriage; they bolster the claims that Jews are exclusive, biased or noninclusive."

Both authors, however, agree that intermarriage is a reality that the community can't afford to ignore. Galperin says he "absolutely" believes in outreach. "We need to bring people in, make them feel welcome," he continues. "However, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't draw some boundaries." For example, someone practicing Christianity should not be considered part of the Jewish people. "Boundaries should be permeable, not rigid, but they should be there," he says.

According to Brown, it's not clear whether outreach will have a positive impact, "but alienation always has a negative effect." With all the problems, both Brown and Galperin are optimistic about the future of Jewish peoplehood. "People expect more depth from Judaism today, and I think we can deliver that," Brown says. She believes that some of the "identity searching" among young people and "their comfort with being ethnically Jewish" has created a great opportunity.

Her coauthor takes the long view. Jews have come through many difficult periods, many more difficult than this one, Galperin says. More concretely, he notes that many basic values from Jewish tradition are still held by many Jews—the importance of education and social justice, optimism that the world can be improved. Those basic values, important to Jewish peoplehood, "have been preserved even when people don't know how they are connected to our Jewish heritage," he says.

There is a generational challenge, he notes, but this generation is becoming "concerned about justice, social action and responsibility. There are enough bright and committed people among us, and the leadership will emerge—it is already emerging—to meet this challenge."

From the Publisher

"Accessible and stimulating. Opens the windows and doors wide to invite all of us to participate in a spirited conversation about the changing nature of Jewish peoplehood in the twenty-first century."
Shifra Bronznick, co-author, Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life; founder and president, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community

“Effectively combines a broad review of the Jewish peoplehood concept with a nuanced understanding of how Jews live their lives. The authors take a conceptual framework with its origins in the works of Kaplan to a new plane, understanding that at a time of unlimited choices and unprecedented freedom, Jewish peoplehood takes on a myriad of meanings, while guided by unified values and powerful inspiration.”
Dr. Jeffrey Solomon, president, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies

“As the issue of Jewish peoplehood assumes greater urgency, Drs. Misha Galperin and Erica Brown have provided us with a rich resource. A must read for all concerned about the Jewish future.”
Dr. John Ruskay, executive vice president and chief executive officer, UJA-Federation of New York

“Addresses the issue of what the Jewish People really is, and why it is important. The questions raised here must be faced by everyone concerned with a Jewish future.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, author, Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life

“Timely, immensely thoughtful, provocative, rewarding. Illuminates and enriches every aspect of peoplehood with keen analysis, deep personal insights, and wise suggestions.”
Dr. Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer, JESNA; director, Lippman Kanfer Institute

Product Details

Turner Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Meet the Author

Dr. Erica Brown, an inspiring writer and educator, is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She is an Avi Chai Fellow, winner of the Ted Farber Professional Excellence Award, and the recipient of a Covenant Award for her work in education. She is author of Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things; Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism; and co-author of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (all Jewish Lights). She contributed to We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism—Ashamnu and Al Chet, Who by Fire, Who by Water—Un'taneh Tokef and All These Vows—Kol Nidre (both Jewish Lights). She lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband and four children, and can be reached at www.EricaBrown.com.

Dr. Misha Galperin is CEO and president of Jewish Agency International Development and former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Dr. Galperin serves on several non-profit boards and was previously COO of UJA-Federation of New York, the world's largest local philanthropy. He has a PhD in clinical psychology and has written about and spoken widely on the issues of Jewish identity, values and community. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and immigrated to the United States in 1976 with his family at age eighteen. He is coauthor of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is author of several books that have made Jewish philosophy, theology, and history accessible to the broad public, including Jewish Literacy and Jewish Wisdom.

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