Debby Artz-Mor
Debby Artz-Mor

Confab to explore fresh takes on Jewish peoplehood

Ever since he moved back to Israel after running the now-defunct Israel Center in San Francisco, Shlomi Ravid has focused on his overarching passion: Jewish peoplehood. Now serving as executive director of the Israel-based Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, Ravid says the concept of peoplehood has changed in the past two decades.

It’s no longer focused primarily on Israel.

“The monolithic interpretation of the second half of the 20th century — [which] focused on the building of [Israel] and the Jewish communities throughout the world after the Holocaust — is gradually phasing out,” Ravid said. “We are seeing a shift from a particularistic focus to one that emphasizes universal values.”

That is certainly true in the Bay Area and especially among millennials, Ravid said, for whom “pursuing tikkun olam and social justice” is a priority “over caring mostly for Jews” in a newly shaped “collective value system.”

The evolution and future of Jewish peoplehood will be the focus of a five-hour conference, led by Ravid, on Nov. 4 at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. Open to the public, but with spaces going fast, it’s co-sponsored by CJPE, the Peninsula JCC, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund, and panelists will be coming from as far away as New York, Israel, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Local panelists include Rabbi Darren Kleinberg (head of school, Kehillah Jewish High School, Palo Alto), Debby Arzt-Mor (director of Jewish learning, Brandeis School of San Francisco), Zack Bodner (CEO, Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto) and Jeremy Ragent (assistant director, Hillel at Stanford).

Arzt-Mor said peoplehood helps underpin some of the big ideas included in her school’s “vision of Jewish education.”

We strengthen the vitality of the Jewish people when we identify, engage and take responsibility for one another.

Those ideas include that the “Jews are connected to one another through shared history, traditions and purpose,” and that “we strengthen the vitality of the Jewish people when we identify, engage and take responsibility for one another.”

“For me,” Arzt-Mor said, “Jewish peoplehood is about connection between people, a feeling of belongingness, to a community of the past, present and future. The way we speak about peoplehood has to change and be expanded to explicitly include our diverse community, of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities, so that it is an inclusive rather than exclusive concept.”

Ravid said the current dichotomy between Israeli and diaspora concepts of peoplehood is “rather worrisome” and hard to reconcile.

“Most Israelis hang on to the 20th-century paradigm that focuses on the particularistic agenda of the Jewish people. The well-being of the people and the State [of Israel] are perceived as the main goals of the collective enterprise,” he said. “In recent years this approach creates growing tensions with American Jewry that is seeking a more universalistic approach as a way to revitalize Judaism and the Jewish enterprise.

“Add to that the difference in approaches to religious pluralism, and you end up with a real crisis.”

For Ravid, the Nov. 4 event will be a homecoming of sorts. He kicked off the Israel Center, a former program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, in 1996 and served as its director for eight of the next 10 years. With programming and advocacy, the center aimed to strengthen ties between Bay Area Jews and Israel.

Ravid said the conference at Wornick is the culmination of two years of working with Jewish organizations — from JCCs to schools to congregations — on their conception and approach to peoplehood, which he defines as “the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.”

He hopes a cross-section of community leaders can envision the future of Bay Area Jewry through a peoplehood lens, with questions such as: “What is the role of Jewish professionals and community builders in grappling with the changes and shaping the Jewish future?”

What Can Future Peoplehood Look Like in the Bay Area and Beyond? 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4 at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. Free with advance RSVP; space is limited.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.