The Challenge of Individualism
In the Western world, individualism is a core value. We learn that each individual is of primary importance and that individual self-expression and autonomy are goals. Our desire to belong to groups, movements and organizations that make intense or specific demands on us are on the decline.
Rather, we prefer to do our own thing, customize the things we buy in order to get exactly what we want without sacrificing any detail, and we even feel restricted by belonging to a community that includes obligations. If we join or participate in a community, it tends to be a looser, more informal network than in the past, a network that allows us to move in and out at will, without sacrificing other commitments.
In this climate it becomes increasingly difficult to demonstrate to young people that there is a value in being part of a close-knit community, which offers both rights and responsibilities and which might sometimes demand a sacrifice of individual needs for the bigger whole.
The Challenge of Pluralism
In most liberal Jewish communities today, it is an understood value that Jewish life has many possible expressions and possibilities. There are many ways to be Jewish, many kinds of organizations and synagogues from which to choose and a huge diversity of Jewish expressions.
Even in Israel, where Jewish pluralism is less accepted than in the US, we see more opportunities for Israeli Jews to find their own ways to access and express Judaism.
While Jewish pluralism has many benefits: a multitude of new artistic and cultural productions; creativity and innovation; opportunities for individual learning (among other benefits), it also poses a challenge to the core value of unity espoused as part of Jewish Peoplehood.
The well-known phrase, “We are One,” may be less appreciated, divided as we are by varying beliefs, expressions of Jewish life and approaches to core values. As Peoplehood educators, we want to help our students feel connected to Jews in other places and with differing values, but often we are challenged to find points of contact or connection.
How do we create a unity that transcends differences in perceptions of core issues? How do we sustain a sense of a meaningful collective while disagreeing on specific issues? How do we embrace diversity and remain whole?
The Challenge of Multiple Identities
For centuries, Jewish Peoplehood was the only collective identity accessible to Jews. They could not join professional guilds and they were not accepted into the national collective identities surrounding them (such as Russian, French or Egyptian).
Thus, their Jewish identity offered them the only community in which they could participate. With modernity the situation changed; Jews gained access to citizenship in their countries as well as building their own State. The result is that today Jews have access to multiple collective identities. They can belong to many groups and communities and and feel a strong sense of belonging to all of them.
Although a Jews can hold multiple collective identities without challenging his/her Jewish identity, there is a risk to Jewish Peoplehood in that the other options may lead one to believe that belonging to the Jewish People is obsolete or irrelevant.
In Israel, for example, many secular Israelis have replaced commitment to a broader Jewish collective with commitment to a national Israeli collective.
In the United States, for example, being part of the American people leads some Jews to believe that they can’t be a part of two peoples, and so they treat their Judaism as a religion rather than a People, thus missing out on a core component of Jewish life.