Blogcast 6: Encounters and Journeys: Cultivating Jewish Peoplehood?


December 16, 2015

Is there a distinct type of travel experience? Or a special interaction with an Israeli peer? What are the defining characteristics of these experiences that lead to positive, long-term outcomes in Jewish Peoplehood? We will dig deeply into these questions and others throughout the blogcast conversation.


  • Alex Pomsom, Rosov Consulting
  • Jeremy Leigh, HUC-JIR
  • Shaul Kelner, Vanderbilt University
  • Clare Goldwater, Jewish educational consultant and coach, expertise in experiential & Jewish travel education
  • Ezra Kopelowitz, Research Success Technologies (ReST)
  • Siggy Rubinson, Jewish Community Federation-San Francisco
  • Sally Berkovic, Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe




Alex Pomson
Over the next few days, I’ll be joined by a small group of educators, researchers and community leaders from the US, Europe and Israel to explore the question “what cultivates Jewish peoplehood.”

To start our conversation – basically, to be sure that we’re discussing the same phenomenon – I want to ask: what does a sense of Global Jewish Peoplehood look like? How would you know it when you see it? Please do offer examples from your work.

Clare Goldwater
I have to start by noting the difficulty inherent in this question - a "sense" is a feeling, which by definition is internal, and doesn't always manifest itself in some kind of outward expression. So it is very hard to know what that feeling really looks like. But, because I believe that a sense is a necessary but not sufficient educational outcome, I do aspire to find behavioral expressions of what it means to belong to the Jewish People. And here are a few ideas for what I think that belonging should consist of, and look like.

First, I think there is curiosity to know and engage with other Jews who are different from me: to find out who they are, how they belong, what matters to them, and where are the points of connection between us. This can express itself through travel to other Jewish communities, work in cross or inter-denominational frameworks, or motivation to learn other languages that Jews speak.

Then there is a sense of connection to other Jews, no matter where they are, whether or not we have met or will ever meet. This is the "imagined community" that is a very powerful component of belonging to something bigger than oneself and is a critical part of what it means to have that sense of global Jewish Peoplehood.

And then there is commitment to the well-being of other Jews; the obligations of mutual responsibility that bind Jews with each other. And this may express itself in active campaigning for the benefit of Jews in need, giving of my time and money to help them, and taking an active interest in the welfare of other Jews, no matter where they are.

I don't mean to suggest that this is the necessary order - curiosity to connection to commitment - although it might be helpful in some situations. But I do believe that if we can identify and educate towards the expressions of these three feelings, we will have achieved this "sense" of global Jewish Peoplehood.

Sally Berkovic
GJP (oh, how the acronym makes it sound like a world power) is too elusive and amorphous for me to understand and implement in practice. Although I’ve read various definitions and concept papers about the significance of Global Jewish Peoplehood at this juncture of Jewish history, I’m simply not convinced it’s more than a secular notion of the idea that ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh’ i.e. that all Jews are responsible for one another. While it’s the perfect opening line for a fundraising dinner, what really lies at the core of GJP when our Jewish world is so dispersed and ideologically driven and when the very fundamental definition of a Jew is up for debate?

I never hear the use of the term GJP in more observant circles, so I wonder, where there are no shared notions of Jewish ritual or theology, where Zionism is weak, where young people have bifurcated identities, is the historical narrative that we share simply enough to make us feel responsible for each other? I’m simply not sure.

I represent a Foundation that has a broad European reach and we do bring people together across Europe to enable them to learn from each other’s experiences, provide professional development opportunities and offer the chance to confront the loneliness that some of them may feel working in particularly small communities. Is that GJP? Not in my book.

Sometimes a couple of token Europeans are asked to participate in a predominantly American program to add some exotica and give credence to the notion of it being an international program. Is that GJP? Have we made disconnected Jews, in particular young ones, an instrument for our own organizational need to prove that we’ve got our finger on the pulse and that we are engaged in strategies to ensure the future of the Jewish people?

Ezra Kopelowitz
“Peoplehood” is about transcendence. I am a part of a People because I am connected to others in space and time. To other Jews who live elsewhere (locally or globally) and to Jews who lived before me and who will follow me in time. Add the “Jewish” to Peoplehood and I am part of the Jewish People connected to other Jews in space and time.

There is no need for the global. By definition the term denotes a sense of going beyond one’s self and immediate face-to-face community, but that might be regional, national or international.

The term “Jewish Peoplehood” is necessarily new, as it is an attempt to label an entity, whose traditional underpinnings no longer exist. Once the Regime forced Jews to associate with the local Kehilla and through the mid-20th century broader social mores reinforced the idea that you are born into an ethnic group and in all likelihood would want to continue to associate with other members of your group.

In contemporary Western society Jews must choose as individuals to opt-in to the Jewish People or they can simply assimilate, no one is going to stop them. Why do Jews continue to opt-in? Why do they continue to embrace the idea that they have a meaningful connection to other Jews in time and place? The term Peoplehood is my platform for tackling the answers to these questions. A term such as ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” brings with it a lot of assumptions rooted in the religious tradition and limits my ability to wonder at the ways and the whys of how Jews continue to opt-in to the Jewish People. The reason Orthodox Jews don’t use the term “Peoplehood” is that they assume that they know who a Jew is and how he or she should behave. I don’t want to pretend to claim ownership on the definition of who is a Jew.

First given currency by Mordechai Kaplan, Jewish Peoplehood is used primarily by liberal Jews who continue to be amazed that there are people choosing to be Jewish and are also able to be full citizens of their respective societies. We want more people who are like those who are already opting-in. The goal is to understand what such a form of collectivity looks like, given the diverse ways in which people opt in and embrace membership in the Jewish People.

In my work I distinguish between the (1) indifferent, (2) the curious, those who (3) have decided that opting-in is meaningful to them and who want to learn more, (4) those who embrace being part of the Jewish People and who make the connection to other Jews in time and space part of their everyday lives, and (5) those who see themselves as leaders, emissaries or agents who actively engage with Jewish civilization and adapt it to our contemporary world for the purpose of improving the lives of Jews and the broader society. As a researcher I work to document how Jewish educational and community building organizations work to stimulate curiosity and then to enable Jews to opt-in to the Jewish People and move their embrace of Peoplehood to the point where they see then selves as agents of Jewish civilization.

An example. I’m happy to give more, when needed.

The Birthright Effect: Where do active non-Orthodox Jews come from? Take for example, Israel advocates, those who go on long term programs to Israel, or Jews under the age of 40 who are leaders in their Jewish communities. The answer is that the come from one of two sources. One is a childhood Jewish education that includes a combination of intensive Hebrew school or day school along with youth movement or summer camp. The majority of active Jews under 40 have this background. The other major source is Birthright. On Birthright large numbers of indifferent Jews become curious and many act on that curiosity. Many on Birthright are exposed for the first time to the Jewish People. Being Jewish is not just about that boring ritual in my grand-parents’ synagogue, it about something greater and “meaningful to me.” Birthright enables a Wow! moment from which “I want to learn and do more.”

Clare Goldwater
Sally, I think your comment about Jewish Peoplehood being a concept for non-orthodox Jews to refer to mutual responsibility is a helpful and challenging one, that needs more discussion. But even if you are right - and I think Ezra's points are well taken - I want to return to the question of how we cultivate that feeling of mutual responsibility and connection to other Jews (whatever we call it). It seems to me that often we get stuck in the weeds of definitions, and debates about the concept, but in reality the question that is important is the one about how we (educators and Jewish organizations) can (if at all) intervene in order to build/cultivate/strengthen the sense of belonging and its expressions.

In my work with the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education we have worked within the classic paradigm of affective/cognitive/behavioral outcomes, as we talk about cultivating a Jewish Peoplehood consciousness. (Note that most of the credit for developing this goes to my colleague Shlomi Ravid). Basically our work is based on helping educators to create programs that cultivate the feelings of belonging, deepen the knowledge that strengthens the feeling, and encourages concrete actions that express the belonging. And I gave some examples of what that might look like in my first post.

Shaul Kelner
I want to echo Claire. To speak of a "sense" of peoplehood psychologizes what, to my mind, is essentially a sociological phenomenon. Either it exists in practice, through actual interactions between people, or it doesn't exist at all.

Alex asked, how would you know it when you see it? You can't. Not if you define it as a sense, a feeling, an individual's internal mental state. To "see" peoplehood, you can only see interactions and the public discourse that frame it. It is a collective behavior and a collective representation.

I think our language sometimes obfuscates. When speak of peoplehood, we use a noun, which leads us to think that whatever it is we ware actually talking about is a thing. Something of which we can say "Peoplehood is..." and then add the predicate. Then we can fight over the definition. Once we have our consensus, we can then use the definition as a set of criteria to test whether some new thing we see "counts" as "really" being people. (Actually, we we are deciding whether we choose to accept it as conforming with our definition.)

I find it more productive to frame the issue in terms of verbs rather than nouns, and processes rather than definitions (and here I am again picking up on Claire, who is making a nod to Benedict Anderson): How do Jews imagine community with other Jews and how does this shape their interactions? And vice versa.

Marching on the National Mall chanting "I am my brother's keeper" imagines community differently than meeting privately in a retreat center for conversations with Jews of different religious stripes. One asserts unity. The other celebrates diversity. The actions are different and the meanings they generate are different. (This is an al regel achat version of something I have written about in a chapter in Jack Wertheimer's volume, The New Jewish Leaders.)

Jeremy Leigh
Sorry for arriving late into today's conversation – a long behind me… and nice to meet.

Unhelpful though it may seem, I am not entirely convinced that I know what it Global Jewish Peoplehood looks like and but I know it when I see (feel) it.

Two anecdotes: (1) Several years ago, I found myself sitting in a tiny shack of a house in Kishinev belonging to a man whose wife had died and whose children lived abroad. With the thinnest self-recognition that he was Jewish, the JDC offered him the full treatment – home visit, hot food and care. I and three people in my group came to visit, the educational purpose for which is not relevant here. Sitting in the single room, with a broken TV and the odour of a broken toilet, it was clear that despite it being explained, he had scant sense of why our 'Jewishness' brought us there, albeit that he was happy to see us. But my group were profoundly moved, teary and after the meeting could not stop talking about the sense of unshakable Jewish connection.

On the one hand this was the most elasticated version of imagined community I could imagine – stretched to the point of absurdity. But there was no doubting the sense of GJP (thanks Sally, and the world Jewish conspiracy) was there in abundance. It mattered not that is was one sided, that there was no distinct Jewish ritual or act. The most there was in the room was the sense of being players in a story that transcended time and space. Imagining a version of his story made 'ours' come alive.

Anecdote (2) – standing with a group of adult Jewish participants on a trip to Sarajevo, having spent a tough weekend considering issues of 'history' and seeing shards and debris of history's most destructive moments. And to wrap it all up, we had a private viewing of the famous Sarajevo Hagaddah. Standing around a manuscript, an inanimate object that actually no-one could really see but everyone could 'sense', there was a GJP moment (actually it lasted an hour), with participants energetically recalling relevant Pesach conversations, quoting passages from the book in the middle of the room. The power of the experience was the transcendence – time, space, imagination of who had written, read from it, preserved it and the way that it had outlived all of turbulent periods of Jewish history. I should emphasize that no-one was under any phoney illusion that the book underneath the glass was a holy object, but there was a palpable sense that this was a physical symbol of something very GJP-esque.

With this, I wonder whether we are grappling with something raw, primitive, instinctive and tribal. There are certainly more sophisticated versions – you have all alluded to some of them – the common factor is that they are subjective. After all, there is a difference between the Global Jewish People and the sense of GJ Peoplehood. I know we objectively exist, but that does not help in convincing others that they feel it.

With all this, my sense of the flaw in some of this echoes what Sally suggests, namely the ambivalence of those who simply do not feel it. I am all for the poetry of the experience but like much poetry, it bypasses many whose souls do not soar when we want them to. Personally, I am drawn to the idea beautifully expressed by Ari Elon which he brings in relation to the never ending conversation about 'who is a Jew'. He suggests that a Jew is someone who 'looks in the mirror of history and sees a reflection of themselves as a Jew'. The poetics of the phrase and the power of the idea are intoxicating - for me. But how do I stand by that site, that theoretically Jewish person, read that text, recall that event in our collective past and perform that ritual – indeed turn pedagogic somersaults to make the 'moment' happen and there is only a flicker of recognition. This is the stage before the first of Clare's three 'c's. If only the curiosity was there, the other bits would flow.

I should say that in my line of work, GJP somehow seems to resonate with certain populations more than others. It could be a reflection of what has been referred to – more observant Jews already have shared narratives and practices that do not require extra terminology. In the admittedly flawed world of stereotypes, why is it that it is easier to fire up GJP amongst Europeans but many Americans to a far lesser degree? Is this due to the consciousness of 'history' in the national culture? And like philanthropy for Jewish causes, my fellow (Israeli) citizens seem good at receiving the sense of GJP but less good at giving / expressing, unless it is Israel focused.

So as not to sound defeatist or reductionist, let me say that all these pedagogies and processes have value and need perfecting. My broad conclusion, and I have a sense this we will be discussing this week, is that the processes of cultivating GJP is slow and cumulative, based on multiple points of encounter and experience. The moments of recognition are largely imaginative and emotive.

Clare Goldwater
Jeremy, I think what you have added is enormously helpful and there is much to respond to. I will suffice by noting that your two examples involved taking people out of their daily, quotidian reality and physically transporting them to a new place. That may sound rather trite but I think that the educational ramifications are profound. As you know from your work, and Shaul has also written about significantly, something happens to people when they leave their own home and travel somewhere else. It may be partly about the liminality created by travel (which has been written about extensively by sociologists of travel/tourism), or it might be that being in a new place stimulates curiosity, or maybe lots of other things happen also. But, for whatever reason, in my previous life as a tour guide, and when I did research about Jewish educational travel, it was so clear to me that the act of leaving home and traveling somewhere else, less familiar, can create some of the conditions in which people have those subjective experiences of GJP that you describe. It isn't guaranteed, it doesn't happen to all people, and certainly some are more open to it than others (for reasons that I can't really explain either), but being away from home definitely helps.

Sally Berkovic
Jeremy - your anecdotes, while poignant, highlight my own discomfort with the utilitarian nature of Jewish tourism (perhaps the wrong term here) as a tool to deconstruct an existing identity and reconstruct it with a specific educational goal in mind. Not to speak of exploiting the people in dire circumstances, like the man in Kishinev. There is something so contrived about these encounters that disturbs me, however, I also recognize that they are opportunities for engagement. But engagement for whom - seems to me it's usually and inevitably wealthy Jews from the West. These are just a couple of my many skeptical observations, and I look forward to being challenged to re-examine them.

Shaul Kelner
I am intrigued by the closing sentence of Jeremy's first post-- "The moments of recognition are largely imaginative and emotive."

What is being held up as a value to strive toward? Interacting with other Jews? Or interactions that generate a thought-in-the-moment, "Hey, this is a microcosm of something larger." That is, is it about doing? Or is it about going meta while doing it?

Alex Pomson
Wow! When I started this conversation I didn’t expect it to move so far and so fast. Thank you all.

I do like your challenge to my use of that term “sense” of GJP. Clearly, that’s too insubstantial for many (most) of you. Please do continue to suggest more tangible (and researchable) substitutes, as Shaul and Ezra did.

I’ll leave others to respond to Sally’s last contribution (she’s expecting you to; especially you, Jeremy). In the meantime, I want to follow the turn that Clare took when beginning to identify the contributors and conditions that stimulate what she called “those subjective experiences of GJP.” Even while we debate how to describe those experiences, are the participants in this conversation ready to propose what are special stimuli of those experiences?

Jeremy Leigh
I hear the anxiety or critique. Let me reassure, the meeting with the elderly man was not about wealthy people at all, nor was it a planned contrived 'encounter'. The meeting was accidental in a way since it was a program designed to explore the nature of Jewish life in Moldova and Ukraine. For whatever reason, honorable in intention I believe, they were keen to show that this is one part of Jewish life. In terms of our discussion here, much discussion was had about how and why we ended up in his house and thus I mention it for other reasons - in a way to pose the question, why did the three participants perceive this as such powerful Jewish Peoplehood moment which they so palpably did?

As for the utilitarian nature of Jewish tourism, I think you are presupposing too much about the nature of that or other programs. No-one was deconstructing anyone's identity and certainly not reconstructing it with a specific version in its place. The purpose was and always would be to explore the landscapes of Jewish life, past and present and engage in conversations about who we are, what we believe in and how we wish to pursue our lives - maybe to be aware of what values are exposed by confronting sites and more importantly, conversing with other Jews whose lives are by definition tied to different chapters of the Jewish story. I agree with Clare that the characteristic nature of travel is that we leave regular and normal settings of life and not surprisingly, as much of the literature on tourism would point to, we are open to seeing things (and ourselves) differently. If curiosity about the Jewish story leads to the locations of where that story happened that seems quite benign. The challenging part is where education kicks in - seeking to find an ethical pedagogy to deepen the experience. In the case of the elderly gentleman in Kishinev, the conversation was wide ranging since no-one had anticipated making such a visit nor the reaction it would stimulate. I would stress that it was a reflective moment in which Jewish people were genuinely perplexed as to why they had felt connected to someone else purely on the basis of the fact he was a fellow Jew. One reaction, if my memory serves me was indeed the quote that i think you offered 'kol Yisrael areivim...etc as part of the JDC brief and pinned above the door of the 'site' of the first JDC building in the city from the pre war period. So, the conversation was along the lines of 'why do anonymous Jews from another part of the world contribute money to help people they do not know in quite remarkable ways? Here it was witnessed by other Jews who were passing through who focused on the entirety of the encounter - him, them and the non Jewish employees of the JDC who were bringing him food.

As I say, part of my conclusion from this moment was that something raw and tribal was at play.

Shaul Kelner
Sally asks, "engagement for whom - seems to me it's usually and inevitably wealthy Jews from the West." You are speaking of tourism, but let's broaden it. When Jews are imagining community, who is doing the imagining and who is being imagined, and how?

At Soviet Jewry rallies, American & British Jews who never met Soviet Jews imagined Soviet Jews in particular ways. Later, when they interacted with real live people who had emigrated from the USSR, the Westerners were shocked, (shocked!) that the real people did not match the idealized constructs they had imagined. The rallies, as a forms of Jewish behavior, were very good at imagining community as an undifferentiated unity. Everyone chants the same slogans. The people about whom the slogans are being chanted are not present. If one wants to construct a version of "peoplehood" that imagines We Are One, the rally is a great form of behavior to generate and reinforce that sense.

I have studied leadership development programs that take small groups of Jews from different religious background away on private retreats. In small discussion groups, they get to know each other as real people, and then having built trust, they listen empathetically to each other as they discuss the issues that divide them: gender, politics, you name it. The version of Jewish community that they imagine through this behavior is much more "70 faces of Torah" than "We Are One." And it is this way because there is a certain mutuality of gaze.

Sally Berkovic
Where's the passion of the Soviet Jewry rallies in today's Jewish world? Is the emergence of GJP a response to the lack of a cause that is unifying the Jewish people as Soviet Jewry once did? GJP was writ large in those mass rallies and there was no need to articulate it.

I'm interested in Shaul's notion of an imagined people and perhaps we can come back to that - who is doing the imagining, and what are they possibly imagining. For example, thinking about Soviet Jews - many non-practicing Jews sent siddurim, chumashim, tefillin, candlesticks etc to Soviet Jews, imagining that they needed these artifacts to lead a Jewish life, and the irony of course, that many of those from the West sending spiritual 'care packages' rarely engaged with religious ritual themselves.

Jeremy - I was gently and purposefully provocative in my comments about Jewish travel - partly because I am struggling myself to articulate a coherent position and partly because I was interested to see how you would respond. Don't get me wrong - I am certainly not against Jewish travel (in fact, the Foundation supports some of it) and perhaps we need to define our terms; - specifically 'Jewish travel.' I also liked Clare's ideas about travel taking you out of your comfort zone, stretching you beyond the familiar - and maybe that's the best time for those pedagogical moments.

Siggy Rubinson
Hi everyone, it’s almost 4 pm in San Francisco and I’m through with my meetings for the day and ready to dig into the conversation.

As a federation professional, I sit at the nexus of funder, fundraiser and program developer all under the structure of a community foundation. We know, as was pointed out by many in this conversation, that experiential travel is effective; it brings people together (the magic of a “cohort”), it connects the cohort to something bigger than itself (ie. to broad social issues in Israel; to emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, etc); and to the people involved in social change. The challenge is how to build and sustain an authentic encounter that’s cost effective and relates back to the (Bay Area) community in a meaningful way to continue to inspire, deepen and broaden Jewish life.

Ezra Kopelowitz
I’m responding to Alex’s request to focus on stimuli of Peoplehood experiences. Perhaps Alex will focus us down the line on the very focused question that Sigalit asks in her previous post and if so I'll respond to it then.

I suggest three categories of peoplehood stimuli: Ceremonies, Conversations, Objects. In the best Jewish educational or community building programs, ceremony, conversation and Jewish objects are used consciously and intensively to stimulate Jewish Peoplehood experiences.

1) Ceremonies
Referencing Shaul– ceremonies enable us to imagine that “we are one.” Ceremonies are scripted interactions which encourage us to identify with the Jewish People. A ceremony can be local and intimate, a Pessach seder, singing a Jewish song with a group of people to mark a life cycle event or praying on Shabbat; or it can involve large numbers of people in a foreign country such as the many events that occur during the March of the Living. As Clare points out, it is also important to distinguish between ceremonies that are rooted in and shape everyday life and those that occur on special occasions.

2) Conversation or Discourse
Conversations that enable people to identify one another as Jews require a shared vocabulary, or use of words in a uniquely Jewish way. They also open up the possibility of different interpretation, reaction and hence diversity, hence Shaul’s reference to "70 faces of Torah" – each person will bring their personal reading to a common text.

3) Objects
What makes a ceremony or a conversation Jewish? The answer is found in the objects that are used or referenced. For example, a sefer torah, or particular word with Jewish meaning, a Jewish text or a tourist site. These objects serve as Peoplehood triggers. They enable the participants to associate their behavior in the present with Jews who live elsewhere or in other times.

Sally Berkovic
Thanks Ezra, I like your categorizations and they are helpful for building a frame of reference for understanding how GJP, or at least JP, can be conceptualized in an educational setting.

Can we categorize the feelings that were discussed earlier on in this conversation? Where do they fit in? How is Peoplehood education designed to ensure the future of Jewish communities, or is it merely a seductive tool to engage individuals in their moments of transcendence?

I'm interested in the relationship between inspiring individuals, giving them the tools to acquire knowledge and the option to engage in Jewish ritual AND the ability to build communities from this investment in people. If JP education is idiosyncratic and for the self, of what use it is to the broader sustainability of communities?

Clare Goldwater
I completely agree with Sally that JP education isn't and shouldn't be about the self. Indeed, my assumption is that JP education is (or should be) intentionally designed to broaden the horizons that an individual has for him/herself, connecting him or her to community, to something bigger than him/herself. This is the challenge, and the power, in JP education, and it is counter-cultural by definition. It has to lead to community, collectivity.

And I also find Ezra's three triggers very helpful - objects, conversations and ceremonies. I would return to the three components I started with - curiosity, connection and commitment. Maybe (and I am thinking "aloud" here), those three components can be linked with the triggers (in a kind of matrix) - how do I develop curiosity about Jewish objects that are unfamiliar to me? how can i be connected to them? what do they require of me? Or, what kind of conversation does my curiosity lead me to? How can I connect in dialogue with other Jews? and what commitment do I have to them?

As I write this I start to imagine a framework for building educational experiences that answer these questions and would (hopefully? potentially?) lead to a stronger "sense" of JP.

Alex Pomson
Having just got off a 12 hour flight, it is quite exciting to see how this conversation moved on in my absence. I think my role is to make some order of this rich interaction.

I know that some of you still want to discuss the "towards what end” question. However, it seems that all agree with Sally that (G)JP education is about more than engaging individuals. It is also about connecting them to something larger than themselves, as expressed in sociologically observable actions, as Shaul reminds us. We’re not just interested in “senses” here.

Becoming connected to something larger than oneself begins with the cohort (as Siggy proposes) and continues through resonant encounters with the other (both persons and objects) of the kind that Jeremy evocatively described and deconstructed.

I appreciate Ezra responding to my last question about what are the stimuli to these outcomes. I want build on (and also challenge) his three suggestions. Taking my lead from Clare, I agree that it would be fascinating to consider a conceptual framework that makes visible the relationships between the means and ends so far suggested as follows:

  Curiosity Connection Commitment

I think this is very much a starting point. But I invite the group to push further on the stimuli side of the matrix. Ezra offered up three suggestions. How do others react to his proposal?

When CASJE launched this conversation at a convening a few weeks ago we focused on travel and mifgash as signature practices of GJP education. While I assume that "Conversation" is a synonym for mifgash, travel doesn’t even make it in to Ezra’s taxonomy.

Please all, do share what you see as the stimuli to the desired outcomes surfaced in this conversation.

Clare Goldwater
Without wanting to talk for Ezra, I would assume that travel is an effective (and attractive to participants) means to arrive at Conversations, and also to engage with Objects, which I would define broadly to include sites of Jewish history and activity. So an old synagogue would be an object, as would a cemetery or a Jewish neighborhood. Ezra, is that your assumption too?

Ezra Kopelowitz
I like Clare's suggestion for a matrix and the way Alex developed it. I would suggest embedding that matrix within particular contexts such as a heritage travel trip and within that a particular educational event, such as a visit to a cemetery (using Clare's example). During the visit to the cemetery we could have examples of all or some of the cells in the matrix.

The heritage travel trip or a mifgash are educational experiences during which we ask the participants to engage with their connection to the Jewish People. The ceremonies, conversations and the objects evoked, structure that educational experience and give it content. They enable or encourage participants to intensify their curiosity, connection and commitment.

Shaul Kelner
Different sites present different opportunities. Place matters.

Different places offer different objects, and ground them in different narratives.

Different places offer different interlocutors, which lead to different conversations.

Different places make possible different ceremonies, which I take to mean performances of commitment to specific value-bearing narratives.

There is a wide Jewish world out there. Every place where Jews have lived has Jewish stories that could be told.

Maybe we should be helping local educators to develop their own communities as destinations for Jewish travel education.

Daniel Olson  Added by: CASJE
Hi all, I really like the matrix that Alex provided that combines some of Clare's ideas for outcomes of Peoplehood Education and Ezra's ideas for moments or characteristics of Peoplehood Education.

What I think would make such categorizations stronger would be seeing if they also apply to other minority communities confronting inter-group diversity (on the local and global levels) and varying degrees of acceptance/assimilation into mainstream culture. While Peoplehood may not be the right term to describe such phenomena, I do think there are parallels in the LGBTQ community, the Disability community, and in other religious communities. To what degree do these communities care about Curiosity, Connection, Commitment, Ceremony, Conversation, and Objects? Is Jewish Peoplehood a unique phenomenon?

I also think including intersecting categories of identity can enrich the conversation about Jewish Peoplehood Education specifically. We know there are people who are Jewish AND have a disability, Jewish AND LGBT, Jewish AND a person of color. How can our conception both of what Jewish Peoplehood is and how to foster it include Jews who stand in more than one "imagined community"?

Daniel Infeld  Added by: Alex Pomson
I really appreciate that all of the panelists are honing in on educational travel as a key factor for creating connections between diverse Jewish communities - but I wonder how similar modalities can be applied in a local context?

If we agree that the immersive experience of tourism allows the learner to understand themselves in relation to an other (real or imagined), could similar local immersive experiences achieve the same results without the expenditure of resources that it takes to send people halfway around the world?

I also know that these sorts of experiences have been examined in depth through the theoretical lenses developed by sociologists of tourism - but I also think that theories of situated learning are relevant. Lave and Wanger's work on Legitimate Peripheral Participation (how "newcomers" learn to be a part of a community of practice through interaction/work with "old timers") and Holland et. al.'s work on Figured Worlds (how people reframe their identity in relation to their social environment) both speak to the learning processes that are going on when learners find themselves in a new or different situation.

Shaul Kelner
To Daniel Infeld's question, part of what makes travel education so powerful is not just that it is immersive, but that it situates people in an explicitly narrated context. Tourism largely involves gazing on places and telling stories about them that make sense of them, that situate them in framing contexts, that, in short, make them meaningful.

The idea of local immersion certainly offer possibilities, but even without immersion, there is also the potential for local narration. What are the Jewish stories that you can tell about the place where you live? What sites can you best use to elicit stories?

In Nashville, where I live, for example, we could be developing a Jewish heritage tour that would engage us deeply in questions of Jews and race in America. Our cemeteries have headstones of Jews killed by the Klan, as well as soldiers from the Civil War (both sides, I think--don't hold me to that). We have an overpass that used to be the JCC that was bombed during the Civil Rights movement. Not much to look on now, but a good place to stand, tell a story, and help people imagine what used to be. We have a Temple where a rabbi spoke out for civil rights, and preached to his congregation why he had an obligation as a Reform Jew to stand up for justice.

And we have dozens of other sites that could tell other stories about our local Jewish heritage-- from businesses that trace an economic and migration history of Jews in the South, to performance spaces and production venues that reveal how Jews have shaped and been shaped by Music City, and more.

What we don't have is a plan to transform our wealth of sites into educational heritage tours that could build a stronger sense of place identity within the community.

In other words, we are like almost every other Jewish community in the US: Under-utilizing our own resources and failing to tell our own stories.

Siggy Rubinson
Another component I'm thinking about as an addendum to the immersive experience is the post-trip (dare I say, follow up) expectation. In my work, we're hoping to build on the experience back home. The question is how to continue the connection among the cohort and with the communities abroad in a meaningful way?

Sally Berkovic
Thanks Shaul for introducing more of the theoretical concepts underpinning the educational value of tourism, and for the examples you cite close to your home. It sounds like you've got a ready made curricula for your students right there.

Just to go back to the matrix for a moment - it's certainly a tidy solution to the ideas that have been generated in the last 24 hours - almost too tidy, and I wonder if the matrix is actually new, or rather a convenient shorthand for what practitioners like Jeremy have been actually doing for years - what do you think Jeremy?

I don't have to tell this audience that Europe is replete with sites that tell a story - check out this page for convenient routes to follow or adapt to your interests. The Foundation has also started some preliminary thinking about a conference on Jewish tourism in Europe during 2016, so I'm very interested in how to combine theory with policy, concepts with educational outcomes and create the tools to help people understand the meaning of place, and how, in Jewish terms, it represents the embodiment of so much more than its actual physical location. And what is the role of place in the mifgash - how is the mifgash different pending the place? Is there a mifgash when people meet a place? Or must a mifgash be between peoples in a significant place?

Jeremy Leigh
Again, coming to this well after midnight at the end of a long day, I have missed the chance to respond in real time to some of the chat – and therefore, a cluster of responses:

1. Shaul: "Tourism largely involves gazing on places and telling stories about them that make sense of them that situate them in framing contexts that, in short, make them meaningful."

Total agreement – however, getting the frame is part of the challenge. Clearly, an unhealthy amount of Jewish tourism is doom laden and death obsessed. Or, at the other end of the spectrum is highly celebratory (again, not bad) but may not catch millennial skepticism. To convince people to stay with the tribe, the sites and stories must be compelling, authentic and honest. Peoplehood is surely not about merely absorbing, but contributing a voice and feeling that your voice is welcomed.

2. I would like to emphasize in both broad educational terms and in travel education in particular, the division between sociological goals (deepening our sense of collective sense) and the ethical goals (connecting with values, meanings and actions). Jewish Peoplehood education, naturally drives home the point that 'we are one', 'we were all standing at Sinai', 'We ARE Soviet Jewry' …etc but I would like to speak up for the possibility that Jewish travel can push further without weakening the sense of solidarity.

Again, to quote – "There is a wide Jewish world out there. Every place where Jews have lived has Jewish stories that could be told."

Indeed, but the stories could be aiming to connect with the ethical purpose of belonging. It should be compelling and animating to belong to a group that asks questions about its actions as well as celebrates its dramas.

3. Last night's example ruffled feathers and so I hope tonight's will not. I want to refer to a site that featured in a workshop for educators for tours loosely intended to present 'Jewish London'. I refer to a monument in the centre of London (just below the London Eye) commemorating those young people who left Britain to fight against fascism in Spain as part of the International Brigades 1936-38. Remarkably, at least a quarter of those fighters were Jews albeit only some acknowledged that. There was even a Yiddish speaking company attached to the Polish Brigade. The site is not 'essentially' Jewish but there is an intensely Jewish conversation around it, the symbols and words invite a sharply Jewish discussion. For example, the inscription on the monument, beneath a giant pair of open hands is a poem by C. Day Lewis, 'The Volunteer' that acknowledges those who upped, went and in many cases fell in a battle to fight evil and defend freedom – including the powerful phrase 'They went because their open eyes could see no other way'. [As an aside, the site has the potential for all three stages of Clare's model – curiosity, connection, commitment'.] But more importantly, and my reason for referencing it is that it helps to introduce a different version of 'why we, the Jewish People are here' – not just to reinforce our sense of group solidarity, to exist – what we may call, the heavily sociological goal of travel - but instead to challenge the ethical and values oriented one. In my opinion, we must find this or else have content-thin self-love, the Peoplehood obsession could end up being no more that egoism.

So, asked the activity on this Jewish travel workshop, is the poet correct? Do the Jews promote the idea of action based on witnessing? Bringing a selection of texts we had Moses propelled to the greatest Jewish Peoplehood experience ever (Mount Sinai) through his witnessing of the cruelty of Egyptian task masters. Pretty much half of the Prophets reflect this very idea. 'They went because their open eyes could see no other way'. Morally, witnessing (the essence of the tourist gaze) must lead to action. And so, by way of contemporary contrast, are the Jewish People compelled to ask what should happen if Eritrean asylum seekers should come to our Jewish country, telling their story. Open Jewish eyes see them and then – do they lock them up / shoot them / send them back / open our eyes to genuinely see them. There has to be more to Jewish travel that cemeteries.

4. I have no idea if this helps the Nashville conundrum Shaul, but there is no reason why a Jewish travel experience cannot look and sound more like a slightly complicated page of Talmud with numerous side margins and comments, rather than a speech, a history text book, folk story or a poem. There are many sections around the page that can connect, there are many discussions to be had within and around the sites. Sites can be read many different ways and the rules of interpretation are not entirely agreed thus the conversation is richer. The one commonality is that the text is read (the sites are visited - as a group) that many people are all on the page attempting to make sense of things. Staying with this image, the International Brigades monument referred to above is on the same tour as that passes by all manner of seemingly disparate sites and stories that can be read together.

5. And finally, 'developing local educators to develop the travel of their own communities?' It’s a no-brainer. It is crazy that Jews shlep across the world to visit other Jewish stories but fail to do the travel thing in their own backyard. Referring to the city of my birth and growing up, I wonder why I was allowed to make my first Jewish journey to Israel before visiting where my parents grew up, where my grandparents arrived and built new lives for themselves.

Shaul, I feel animated by the examples that you offer and perplexed why there is no plan for development – it sounds to me like you are providing it in the way you conceive of the sites themselves. Is this a question of resources – finding someone with a salary to work on this project – or one of narrative, finding the appropriate way of understanding how these things fit together- or one of finding skilled practitioners?

I apologize for not relating to the matrix (Alex, from many hours ago), which I do think is exceptionally clever and have yet to fathom what to put in each section.

Alex Pomson
Jeremy, no need to apologize. That matrix was an attempt to bring order to an extraordinarily fertile conversation.

In an effort to connect this multi-textured dialogue to the concerns that launched it, I want to ask one more (big) question before we wrap up today.

I’m struck by the smarts of this group; by how subtly you understand the purposes and practices of Jewish peoplehood education. I’m also struck by how much of your knowledge is what Connelly and Clandinin call “personal practical knowledge.” Others might call it the wisdom of practice (even while that practice might be the practice of scholarship).

Your conversation (preserved in this Blogcast) has captured some of that knowledge for others. That was one goal in convening this conversation. In my last punt, I want to ask about a more formally constituted form of knowledge: research knowledge. Prompted by the conversation over the last couple of days, what research do you think we need in order, more smartly and more effectively, to do the work of Jewish Peoplehood education as so richly described here?

To paraphrase a question we at CASJE like to ask: what don’t we understand well enough, that if we did, it might improve our practice? Please do share your thoughts in this last day of conversation.

Clare Goldwater
I am very much enjoying this "conversation" - even without us all being in the same room. Maybe the time between comments helps us organize our thoughts …

To answer Alex's question: One thing I think we don't understand enough is what participants/students/learners really experience from their visits to different sites and their listening to the different narratives. I think our theories are basically correct but I don't think we know enough about what really goes on during immersive travel/Peoplehood experiences. Is there indeed curiosity to start with? (in certain populations yes, in others no - to return to a point Sally made earlier) What do they find most compelling? what is the difference (if any) in impact/learning when people travel far away or stay closer to home? A number of years ago I followed a group of British 17-year olds with FZY, on their trip around Europe, and I wrote an ethnographic report on it. I would love to see more research like that, that could really illuminate what happens for the participants. I think it would help us understand this whole field and connect the theories we have to the practice.

Ezra Kopelowitz
In all my years of Peoplehood discussions, this one is by far the best, as we managed to drive down to places of practice and not get absorbed into the nuances of the term Peoplehood. For me personally, the creation of the matrix through this conversation contributes to my work. I also think that the contributions of Daniel and Daniel are important and build on the spirit of this discussion. We need to not only grapple with the opportunities presented by taking Jews away from their homes to far-away places, but to understand that the Peoplehood enterprise occurs wherever Jews find themselves, including the manner in which they integrate into the broader society.

Any tool that we develop, such as heritage travel, must be applied locally and globally. Our role is to help educators and community builders maximize the Peoplehood potential of their work.

Alex, to answer your question: I will focus on the form rather than the content of research. Researchers should integrate into the work being done by educators and community builders. The best educators and community builders are able to explicate the rationale of what they are doing to connect their constituents to the Jewish People, but they don't have the luxury of time to document their work or to engage others in formative discussions. Researchers should sit at that point, between practice and discourse and enable the two to interact with one another. Intellectually oriented practitioners should generate the case studies and questions, which the researchers should help shape, document and contribute to an integrative discourse involving both theory and practice. Researchers should not be thought of as independent agents undertaking an academic or evaluative enterprise that looks at the field from an outsiders perspective.

Sally Berkovic
I'm pondering research questions, and a few random thoughts are below - but whatever the questions, I'm interested in how they might be refracted through the different stakeholders? For example - Clare - in your ethnographic study of British teens, were you interested in the teens, the staff, the people the teens encountered, the parents (i.e., what did they want their kids to get out of the program?) the youth movement (i.e., to what extent did the travel experience further their ideological intent). Has there been any follow-up of that group - i.e., 10 years later how do they see that event - life-changing, interesting or they've almost forgotten about it.

If the matrix is going to be used, perhaps it needs an overlay of the players involved and their different perspectives, so it becomes a 3-D matrix.

Instead of focusing on the participants, is there a research question to be asked around the organizers/conceivers of Jewish heritage travel - i.e., their intents and goals? And how does their repeat trips of taking people impact on their own evolving understanding of how the participants relate to the experience? (I'm thinking of those I know who take hundreds of people on short trips to Poland - week in, week out - what does it do to them?)

We haven't really addressed Israel specifically in this conversation and of course there is Birthright and the extensive research that has been carried out on that program. But is there something else in Israel that's under-researched?

We've vacillated between encounter with a place, and encounter with people - they are not mutually exclusive, but we need to distinguish between them, or research the parallels.

What about Jews from smaller communities - does one's community of origin impact on the nature of the heritage travel. If you're from Slovenia, Finland or Greece, the impact of meeting a diverse range of Jews outside your country for the first time is going to be very different than if you're a New York or Tel Avivi Jew.

With the notable exception of Spain, I'm usually skimming material around Ashkenazi-themed 'death tourism' as I've seen it referred to. Is there a research question to be had on Mizrachi heritage travel - clearly there are obstacles - a trip back to Iran or Iraq is not so easy, but is there the same desire, infrastructure and resources? I am simply not familiar with the scene.

What about the experience of meeting Israelis outside Israel? Is it relevant to look at Israelis in Germany - their encounter (or lack-there-of) with the German Jewish community, and perhaps this is an off-the-wall suggestion - the encounter between Israelis and contemporary German culture. I've seen lots of journalistic articles about this, but has there been serious academic research on Israelis living in Germany (or I guess anywhere with such a complex history) and how their mifgash with the place impacts their Jewish identity, or their sense of GJP?

Has there been academic research on family roots trips - or are these too personal to warrant attention as part of the bigger questions around building GjP?

Finally, I do think that there's some sort of research question around people who are not Jewish but who are facilitating GJP - I won't go into detail on this topic here, but I'd like to leave it hanging in the ether for consideration.

I'm signing off - thanks for letting me join the conversation but now I'm off to polish the candlesticks and stick a chicken in the oven. Shabbat Shalom!

Shaul Kelner
I can't begin to express how much I agree with Jeremy's words. Travel is a uniquely powerful means for opening rich explorations of existential questions about values. At its best, Jewish travel education will be about conversations, not speechifying; multivocality, not a singular narrative; and ethical engagement, not egoism and self-love.

There are so many Jewish conversations about ultimate questions of what it means to be human, and so many places that can open these conversations and ground them. Jewish travel education has only begun to scratch the surface. It seems to me that the examples Jeremy describes point the way forward to a much more robust field.

And this, coupled with Sally's charge to focus on the link to policy, prompts research questions that might help us accomplish some serious field-building:

1) How are objects, conversations and ceremonies around non-canonical sites being used to push the envelope on how Jewish travel education is being thought of? In other words, more investigations into things like the International Brigades monument in London. We have a lot of research on Israel and Poland. If we keep looking in the same places, we'll keep seeing more or less the same things, maybe adding some nuance. Let's broaden our sample.

2) What are the best practices for using sites to engage ethical issues? How are sites identified, developed, framed, and curricularized? (I'd distinguish between the pre-trip curricular work and the on-the-ground guiding practices.)

3) What are the best practices for curriculum designers and for guides/morei derech to open conversations and encourage multivocality, and to avoid the trap of over-determined, closed narratives?

4) Most important, on the policy front, we need to translate what we do know into practical systems for expanding the field. For that, we could benefit from some case studies of successful field-building in Jewish education. For instance, how did Jewish Family Education establish and institutionalize itself, and what lessons can we take for building Jewish Travel Education as a field in its own right?

Jeremy asked why the examples I gave of Jewish travel education in Nashville exist in potential only but haven't been realized:

"Is this a question of resources – finding someone with a salary to work on this project – or one of narrative, finding the appropriate way of understanding how these things fit together- or one of finding skilled practitioners?"

Yes, yes and yes. The question points us to what we should be looking at on the policy front. Jewish travel education is ripe for expansion, but outside of Israel, there is no overall US or European system yet that can do this to scale.

(BTW, there is an opportunity for the existing players in Jewish travel education in Israel and Europe to expand into the consulting business, to help local communities in the US and Europe develop their local heritage sites for Jewish travel education. Clearly, the local communities are not in a strong position to do it themselves yet.)

Ultimately, the goal should be field building, and for this we need to start conversations that bring together interested foundations, Jewish Ed schools, the umbrella bodies of the local educational institutions (JCCs, religious schools, day schools), and existing players in Jewish travel education in Israel, Europe and North America.

Now, as an expression of my own "sense of Jewish peoplehood," I am signing off to prepare to celebrate our family holiday, 20 years in the running, Chag Elifaz, zman otzmateinu, which commemorates two months speaking only Hebrew and cutting thorns off date palms on a kibbutz in the Arava.

Shabbat shalom, chag hamidbar sameach.

Jeremy Leigh
Shavua tov – this has been a wonderful opportunity to be stretched and to think in a field that I hold dear. Given the relatively small field, it has been enriching to 'meet' and discuss with everyone and I look forward to the real face to face opportunity. Jewish travel has a long way to go (no pun intended), both in establishing itself as an embedded practice of Jewish life and a wide ranging field within Jewish education.

In terms of directions for research, I do not want to restate too much of what my esteemed colleagues have already put into the pot. Briefly, the following:

  • A broad educational challenge from which GJP in general and travel in particular feeds is that of imagination. One major part of the travel experience is the encounter with the past and also with different experiences to their own. It baffles me daily why some of my students (American Jews coming to Israel for the year) often struggle to genuinely appreciate the messy Jewish life here in Israel, in contrast to the more comfortable one at home. Acknowledging the value of 'the experience', can miss the idea of deepening a connection to a regular but different environment of Jewish life. Instinct says there is an issue here with imagination. Similar things can be said about Israelis going to the diaspora. In a nonscientific nonacademic educational setting where the emphasis is on knowledge, how do we develop imagination in order to make the place and past (history, memory, etc.) engaging? what do travel educators need to know about encouraging imaginative experiences?
  • We are using a practice (travel) to promote a value (GJP) - If the destinations generally reflect pre-existing agenda, how can locations (destination and sites) be better deployed to advance broader values of being Jewish?
  • Jewish travel in your own backyard' – is it possible to use local stories to promote global identity? Most realistically, honestly and indeed ethically, local comes first but how can one build it outwards.
  • Israelis traveling – given the shifting tides of Israeli identity and culture, what sort of programmes can be developed to promote GJP amongst Israelis? Periodically touted, the idea of a well-funded 'Birthright' for Israelis to travel is tantalizing but is not going to happen without some solid research. I have major doubts that the current Israeli powers that be would be able to cope with a diaspora travel that did not project familiar tropes about power and powerlessness, עם לבדד ישכון..etc but that is not to say we should be ready for when that changes. If as we know in admittedly stereotypical terms that many Israelis discover Jewishness at Chabad sedarim in Nepal or on occasional encounters with Jews they meet on the road, what sorts of programmes could reframe the gaze? What would have to happen for Israeli 11th and 12h graders travel to travel to other sites in Europe from the Balkans to the Baltics, and talk about the broadest range of topics?
  • Individual travel – if 'groups' are modern, how does the ultra-group experience of GJP travel work when postmodern people prefer to travel on their own? Are they beyond our reach? Several years ago I tried my hand (unsuccessfully!) at developing self-crafted programs for the many thousand American Jewish students taking year or semester programs in Europe, many of whom travel voluntarily and individually to the very places we would want them to go….just they tend not to seek out Jewish connections of any type. The idea was also based on the untested assumption that in certain stages of life, people are squeamish about groups. Avoiding the costs of group travel, insurance, guides and group meals …etc are there strategies for catching them. Chabad has a version of this but what can we do?
  • Training and pedagogy of Jewish travel – I know I am echoing some of the comments already stated, but in short what sort of training programs can be generated to help create best practice in the field?

That’s all folks. Thanks.

Alex Pomson
One last word from me. Piggy-backing on Jeremy's last comment, I want to express the hope that this conversation will not be all there is. After such a rich conversation, the CASJE team will be making every effort to sustain engagement with the issues raised here. Our goal is to stimulate research that can make a difference to the work of those in this field.

Please stay tuned. And thank you again to the six of you for being such generous conversationalists.