They’re Shown It, But Can They Own It?

[The below essay originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Volume 8 - Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century - What Should We Do Differently? - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

In the past 13 years, more than 300,000 young Jews – almost 200,000 from the United States alone – have experienced a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. As the website says, “The trip aims to … build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide.” It is an apt “operational” definition of Jewish peoplehood.

The words signal the issues of concern that motivated the project in the first place: a lack of knowledge about Jewish history, religion, and tradition; a dearth of personal Jewish experiences, and little (or more often no) exposure to the land and people of Israel and Jews worldwide. These issues are byproducts of longstanding social and cultural trends that have been the fodder for numerous articles about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. The 10-day stint in Israel is meant to address those issues by providing a personal encounter with the land and the lore, and perhaps most profoundly, the Jewish people.

The awareness that one is part of something larger, something global and timeless, is what marks the beginning of what we might call peoplehood. But for one to feel a part of a people, one must first recognize themselves within a people. Trip-goers are shown it, but can they own it?

One thing that happens on a Birthright trip – and often for the first time – is the realization that Judaism is more than a religion. Time and again we have seen that realization slowly to sink in. We can almost read the internal dialog:

“I’ve never seen so many Jews in one place before. It makes me feel proud, but I’m also confused. Here, being Jewish seems to mean something different for everyone. How come I feel so comfortable (or uncomfortable)?
I want to know more…”

Those on the trip and those they encounter may define their Jewish identity in ethnic or nationalistic terms, or in different terms altogether. This can be a difficult thing for young Diaspora Jews to grasp, but it can also be a fascinating thing to explore. Judaism is revealed as the complex, living, evolving entity that it is. And in the process of exploring, Birthright participants emerge with more questions than ever about what the Jewish part of them is and how it ultimately will – or should – guide their actions and choices.

Our challenge, then, is not to assign or assume Jewishness, or a sense of peoplehood. Our job is to help these young Jews make sense of their new questions, and understand their Jewishness in the context of all of their other identities. In that process, peoplehood becomes something larger – the result of connecting to something that is at the same time common across people and deeply profound personally.

What can we do to ignite the process of personal discovery? How can we interest young Jewish adults to explore Judaism’s depths and meaning in their own lives? We believe the answer lies in providing opportunities for ownership of Jewish living and learning experiences. This is what peoplehood-building looks like in the 21st century.

At NEXT, we take the spark ignited on a Birthright Israel trip and work with partners to fan it into a fire. We use choice and ownership as our guide, connecting young Jews to myriad events and opportunities that appeal to their individual interests and inclinations. But we are also cognizant of the fact that organized Jewish activities are not for everyone. For some, finding meaning and making community is not a function of attending organized activities run by others but happens rather within a circle of friends, at home.

That insight galvanized NEXT to develop a do-it-yourself approach to holidays, Shabbat, and community-building that enables young Jews to create authentic Jewish experiences on their own terms. We also provide all of the resources and funding necessary to help them along the way. More than 20 young Jews have received support to fund their own community projects through Natan/NEXT Grants for Social Entrepreneurs. Over 6,400 Birthright alumni have hosted 16,000 Shabbat and holiday meals through NEXT Shabbat and Holiday grant programs. With an average of 10 people at the typical Shabbat meal or seder powered by NEXT micro-grants and educational material, we now know that this approach truly resonates with Birthright alums and their peers.

In looking at the words of young Jews who hosted Passover seders this year through our holiday grant program, we begin to see the true impact of owning a Jewish experience:

“Inclusivity and education are two of the most important values that I associate with Passover and the seder tradition. I wanted to host a seder to share these values with many friends of mine who had never attended a seder and had very little knowledge of Passover. For my Jewish friends, it was a great opportunity to discuss the different traditions we had grown up with and reconnect with our roots.” – Sam, New Orleans, LA

For others, owning these experiences allows them to create Jewish experiences in places where they cannot be found:

“Hosting a seder is a great way for me to connect with my heritage and celebrate the traditions that I grew up with. Going to school and living in Hawaii, I am physically isolated from my relatives back on the mainland. In Hawaii, my close friends are my family and I am more than happy to share my traditions with them.” – Matthew, Honolulu, HI

In these words, we start to see the things that connect one to a people – seeing one’s values reflected in a holiday, reconnecting with roots, and finding psychic comfort in sharing traditions despite physical separation.

At the same time, by providing ways for young Jews to own their journeys and experiences, we instinctively do something different that is profound in itself. We create spaces and opportunities where they aren’t asked to check their complexity at the door. Within these spaces, they are able to explore who they are as a Jew and as a person, and make their own determinations about what constitutes a meaningful experience.

This has ramifications for the larger conversation. Emphasizing Jewish “peoplehood” is not enough. For a large and growing share of the young Jewish population in the Diaspora, a sense of being part of the Jewish people occurs among peers and in a community that values authenticity, learning and debate, and interaction with the outside world. That’s when real ownership happens.

How such communities can be built, nurtured, and replicated is the question to which the peoplehood conversation must turn.

Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT, a division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

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