The Jewish Communal Future and the Role of Federations

Jewish peoplehood could be said to refer to the idea that there is such a thing as collective Jewish life in which we engage when we engage in Jewish civilization, when we live Jewishly. We can live more intertwined or less, more responsible to each other or less.


Over the 20th century, from the inception of Jewish Federations to today, the concept of Jewish peoplehood has changed, perhaps changed dramatically. From needing landsmannschaften to settle in North America, we now face no segregation and relatively rare anti-Semitism. In this context, what are the forces that shape peoplehood today?


Here, Dr. Shlomi Ravid suggests that we—Federations—are the force that leads peoplehood, and he gives the beginning of an agenda for us to pursue this work. Shlomi’s Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and its education toolkit can be a partner in this pivotal work.


The Problem

The Federation system was created and developed by American Jews as a platform for building and developing the Jewish communal and national frameworks in North America. It was a true reflection and expression of the spirit of Jewish collective responsibility felt by Jews through most of the 20th century. The outcome has been a glorious and unprecedented chapter in Jewish communal history.


But times have changed and with it the prevailing paradigm. Both ideologically and through their actions, Jews today are challenging the notion of collective Jewish partnership. Many question it altogether and others challenge the importance and relevance of giving priority to Jewish causes and of privileging relationships with fellow Jews. 


In more concrete terms, Jews are not just criticizing the operations of Federation-like entities. They are asking why Federations in the context of challenging Judaism as a collective/communal enterprise. They are challenging the rationale, the raison d’etre, and the overall relevance of the Jewish institutional system. This challenge needs to be addressed at the core level of re-embracing Jewish collective destiny and a renewed sense of collective responsibility. 


The Required Strategic Shift 


The paradigmatic shift in the way Jews in North America see Jewish community is a reflection of a significant weakening in Jewish collective identity. The word Peoplehood entered the Jewish public discourse in the last decade in part through the sense of crisis in the way Jews perceive themselves as a group. Some probably see peoplehood as a need from the past when Jews were new immigrants making their way into American and Canadian societies. Others deny the relevance of this collective sentiment in a postmodern, post ethnic individualistic era.  Regardless of the reasons it is weakening, if one does not accept the notion of collective Jewish responsibility and does not see value in developing Jewish community and civilization, one will fail to see value in Federation.


Federations have to take the lead on developing Jewish collective identity in their individual communities and throughout North America. They need to go to battle over the Jewish collective soul. This needs to be addressed in current terms reflecting the changes in perceptions, concepts and values. Federations’ strategic role is to be the protectors of the notion that Judaism is a collective enterprise, which sometimes even calls for re-interpretations of that concept. The Federation system is not only the embodiment of Jewish collective responsibility. It is also the entity responsible, by definition, for nurturing that identity.


What Needs To Be Done?


  • Shift organizational culture; integrate into the current mission a significant collective identity building component.
  • Facilitate current articulations of collective narratives, through communal processes, that express the diversity of voices in the community. Encourage a dialogue between community members about their collective enterprise.
  • Integrate Jewish collective identity building into the Jewish educational system from early childhood all the way to adult education through:
    • Curricula development,
    •  Stronger emphasis on local Jewish history, and 
    • Integration of the local story into the broader Jewish story.
  • Adjust structure, budget, and staff to address the strategic shift (enhancement of leadership development, development of community building and educational capacity, development of content and curricula). The above will require funding if we hope for an impact.


And What Could It Look Like In Concrete Terms?


  • Initiation of experiential and interactive educational programs targeting the breadth of the Jewish educational field geared at nurturing collective identity and responsibility.
  • The development of leadership curricula and pedagogy for adult and young adult frameworks emphasizing that Judaism is not an individualistic but rather a collective enterprise.
  • The nurturing of a cadre of communal change agents that would envision, inspire and work for the future Jewish collective. 
  • Catalyzing a Jewish conversation, through both existing and new media channels, that focuses on the future of the Jewish collective.
  • Engagement of participants and alumni of local and global programs (Birthright, etc.) in the conversation about Jewish collectivity.  
  • Making a Mifgash, global Jewish encounter, a core component for any community sponsored educational travel. 
  • Making a Peoplehood Engagement Department part of the core Federation structure.




Addressing core sociological challenges is, by definition, a long term process with no guarantee of success. However, if performed thoroughly, systemically, and persistently, we can expect:

  • Stronger communities that affirm their commitment to the Jewish collective enterprise both locally and globally.
  • A more committed leadership and Federation donor base whose convictions are anchored in Peoplehood consciousness and the broad set of values that comes with it.
  •  A platform for the future development of the Federation system which promises to look different but will be based on the understanding of its essence. 
  • A renewed spirit of a movement dedicated to the Jewish collective future and to the destiny of making the world a better place.


Final Words


Big ideas need institutional frameworks to implement them and simultaneously serve as their expressions in the world. At stake is the ability of Jews to see themselves as a People with a joint commitment to the Jewish collective enterprise and to the future development of Jewish civilization. Without the institutions to serve that vision the whole enterprise is at risk. In the 20th century, to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik's framing, the call of Federations was to respond to the covenant of fate. In the 21st century they need to lead their communities on the journey towards an inspiring and meaningful collective destiny.


For reflection and discussion:


  • How do you define peoplehood in your life? In your work? Is it a relevant concept?
  • Is Jewish peoplehood something that your Federation actively works toward building? When and where?
  • How can Federation convene and catalyze community partners to work together, in an integrated way, to strengthen “Peoplehood consciousness” in your community?


For further reading:

The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education has published 16 volumes of the “Peoplehood Papers,” usually offering short, accessible essays that explore various aspects of Jewish peoplehood. They can be used to provoke conversation in almost any setting, including committee meetings. Some of our favorites include: