An Israeli expert on peoplehood education said the biggest challenge facing Jews on this subject is not defining peoplehood but engaging young people.
On that front, Shlomi Ravid, the founding director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education in Israel, wants to work with American Jewish communities.
“I think our role is to engage [young people] in the conversation and in that context to offer them a whole variety of options [to express Jewish identity],” Ravid told the Chronicle. “Israel is still the sovereign Jewish experiment. [But] I think we should offer the variety of pillars or issues that comprise peoplehood today. I don’t think we should decide for people how to express it. The emphasis should be on nurturing peoplehood rather than interpreting it.”
Further, he emphasized that laying a guilt trip on the next generation to be Jewish won’t make young people identify as Jews.
“Guilt trips don’t work today,” he said. “We need to find another language.”
Ravid was in Pittsburgh last week meeting with Jewish leaders on the subject of peoplehood. He met Wednesday with members of the Israel and World Jewry Commission of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for a two-hour workshop. He facilitated a Lunch and Learn at the Agency for Jewish Learning for rabbis, educators and congregational presidents on Thursday, and he made a short presentation later that day to the Federation’s board of directors.
A pioneer in the field of peoplehood education for 25 years, Ravid was the founding director of the Israel Center of San Francisco and the founding director of the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beth Hatefutsoth. He has published over a dozen articles and studies on Jewish peoplehood.
He studied philosophy at Tel Aviv University, where he earned his doctorate.
“Peoplehood education focuses on nurturing a sense of peoplehood, Ravid said. “We [at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education] are a fairly new entity. My startup started with five educators — now we’re up to eight actually — who are really interested in working with those interested in belonging to the Jewish people and nurturing what we call a collective consciousness, and that’s our focus.
“Our real focus is how we engage the young generation in the conversation — what it means [to belong to a people], what responsibilities come with it, what are the challenges, how can people actually define their involvement in the current and future Jewish civilization,” he continued. “I like to look at it as what are the bricks people want to put into the wall that the Jewish people have been building for thousands of years.”
Different people have different ways to identify, he said.
“It could mean focusing on your own town; it could be focusing on the needs of the Jewish community. My own daughter volunteered in Africa for a year, in Rwanda. People express it [peoplehood] in different ways; they take it in different directions, but it’s part of our DNA. We’re perceived as a community that cares.”
If Jews disagree on how to express a sense of peoplehood, that too reflects Jewish identity, according to Ravid.
“We don’t take things for granted,” he said. “I actually think that’s very important. We don’t accept the status quo; we always push to make things better and I think that’s part of our sense of argument.
“I don’t see my role as to tell people how to express their sense of Jewish peoplehood,” he said.
The CJPE is developing online resources to help American communities nurture peoplehood, he said. Among those resources is a new peoplehood bookshelf where visitors can download resources.
The center also is creating a peoplehood tool kit, in which educators can find resources for their lesson plans.
“We don’t actually have a physical center,” Ravid said. We’re more of an educational resource center, or hub if you will. Part of my visit to Pittsburgh was to see if there are some things we can develop together, to advance or to enhance the goal of peoplehood nurturing.”
Part of the CJPE faculty happens to be a Pittsburgher — Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“CJPE has the potential to bring culture change to our community in an organized and productive way,” Aaron said. “While the concept of peoplehood has been explored and inculcated in larger cities and in Israel, it is still a new conversation locally but one that must be had in order to be more in sync with global Jewry.”
Ravid said he was impressed by the openness of Pittsburgh Jewish leaders to peoplehood development, noting that it is different from other larger American communities with which he’s worked.
“Here, you can really feel the community,” Ravid said. “It’s a little like a kibbutz — Kibbutz Pittsburgh.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)