Jewish Peoplehood Reconsidered

Mordecai Kaplan’s central idea of Judaism as a civilization, people and nation captured my imagination as a young adult who was exploring my relationship to Judaism and to my own identity. My fascination with these ideas has waxed and waned over my many years as a Reconstructionist rabbi. In a spirit of seeking more clarity about what binds us together as a people, before and after the tragic events of Oct. 7, I conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 15 Reconstructionist rabbis. I open with comments from three of my colleagues:

For me, peoplehood is still the place I can rest in that can hold everything else.

I’m just not sure what I think about peoplehood any longer. It was a bedrock idea for me as a young rabbi but does not appear to hold true for many Jews today. Was it simply a 20th-century construct? Can the idea survive the global and digital revolution?

I use the term peoplehood all the time — capitalized, interchangeably with Am Yisrael = the Jewish People. … What we need to do as a collective is central to who I am.

Kaplan’s ideas about Jewish civilization and peoplehood returned as a point of interest for me in 2017, when I realized that few of my second cousins knew one another although our parents had been very close. The family seemed to have unintentionally divided between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and I decided to plan events that bridged those divisions, hopefully while my mother was still alive. My efforts were reasonably successful, however much they were impacted by the pandemic. One of the Orthodox cousins with whom I’ve remained in closest touch is Israeli; we share common interests but not politics. I’ve asked myself whether the roots of our connection are because we are both Jewish, because we share Jewish interests, because he is Israeli, or maybe, primarily because he is my cousin. Is our bond a reflection of Jewish peoplehood or not so much?

Mordecai Kaplan conceptualized Judaism as a religious civilization and beginning in the 1940s, the Jews as a people and a nation. Kaplan recognized that a collective regeneration was needed for Judaism to continue into the 20th century. He drew upon the thinking of cultural Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-am, who transformed what had been a theological, aspirational conception expressed through biblical covenantal and prayer language (Am Yisrael, B’nai Yisrael), into a proposal for a modern program. The backdrop for Kaplan’s further formulation of a Jewish people and nation was the steady loss of Jewish communal bonds within North America as Jewish immigrants embraced citizenship in open, democratic societies.

For Kaplan, Jewish civilization needed to reassert its former role as the primary driver of character development, meaning and belonging that was once provided by semi-autonomous, localized Jewish communities in Europe. Kaplan recognized that if America were to become, as noted by Horace Kallen, a pluralist society rather than an assimilationist “melting pot,” Judaism could thrive with Jews living fully in both Jewish and American civilizations. Kaplan hoped that a meaningful, rationally reconstructed Judaism could become sufficiently compelling to American Jews despite their embrace of personal autonomy and freedom from parochial communal obligation. Thus, in The Future of the American Jew (1948), he made his appeal, claiming that belonging is a basic human need:

The sense of peoplehood is the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people… That ‘we-feeling’ is more inclusive than the “we-feeling” of family, clan or tribe… We cannot do without being needed, and without something of which we are proud. (p. 82)

Kaplan’s ideas about Jewish peoplehood thus had two aspects — one that was transnational, and the other that was built through local proximity and engagement. The former would bind Jews and coordinate Jewish interests internationally. The latter would bind Jews through the provision of a panoply of individual and communal needs. The results would be pragmatic and perceptual; Jews would be directly served by their local community, and they would thereby gain the sense of being part of a global people with a collective will to thrive.

A global perspective on peoplehood was boosted by the founding of the State of Israel and its population, which eventually represented several million Jews from around the world. The language of the Declaration of Independence of Israel held strong emotional appeal for American Jews, framed as the fruit of an unceasing longing to return to a land where the Jewish people were born and “their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” In A New Zionism (1953), Kaplan championed “the revival of Eretz Yisrael as the homeland of Judaism” (p. 41), but he came to view it as a constituent part of a formally confederated international Jewish People, a goal that remains unrealized. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War galvanized international Jewish attention to Israel, and for many Jews, Israel came to be a primary focal point of Jewish identity. Kaplan had hoped for Jewish life to be fed as much by blossoming Diaspora communities as by Israel, not that Israel would in any way replace Jewish life elsewhere.

Kaplan’s broad formulation of American Jewish communal structure also remains unrealized. Yet Jewish Federations — constituted to coordinate communal social services and fundraising, and joined by a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — positioned themselves as a central address for Jewish communal concerns and positions. By the 1970s and ’80s, “Jewish Community” and Klal Yisrael became terms firmly embedded within the Jewish communal lexicon, galvanizing support for Israel, Soviet Jews and in efforts to address assimilation and intermarriage with a new watchword, “Jewish continuity.” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg called attention to liberal-Orthodox divisions, speaking in terms of Jewish peoplehood, as reflected in the title to his 1985 article “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?”

The period following the Second World War was a time of expansion for North American synagogues as they increasingly became a staple of suburban communities. In important ways, the synagogue became more than a locus for Jewish prayer, ritual and social activities, assuming a substantial burden of Jewish childhood education and expanding programming to meet the needs of different constituencies, generations and interests, among them social justice and Israel concerns. Yet Kaplan set an unattainably high bar for American Jews when he conceptualized a localized, full-service, non-denominational Jewish center — the “shul with a pool” integrating prayer, ritual, cultural, artistic, social and other elements of Jewish civilization — at the center of Jewish life.

At the same time, summer camping, often affiliated with the various denominations or secular organizations, became a major driver of Jewish identity. The breadth and depth of Jewish retreat centers, Jewish Renewal groups, campus Hillel organizations, social justice initiatives and a plethora of programs for Jewish adult study and educational experiences in Israel and Eastern Europe became features of an expansive period during the closing decades of the 20th century.


One could interpret this broad picture through a Kaplanian lens of peoplehood in many contrasting ways: as a sign of pluralistic flowering, of fragmented denominationalism, of intensive efforts to serve the members of individual institutions with movement affiliation serving as a bridge, of adaptation to individualist consumers, of duplication of efforts, of a committed core thriving within a sometimes indifferent population, as successful efforts to serve an intermarried population that is engaged beyond what was anticipated …

For the Reconstructionist movement, Kaplan’s ideas about belonging, evolution and change, his multifaceted civilizational model, democratic values, openness to reinterpretation of liturgy and ritual have been translated into operating principles for Reconstructionist synagogues and havurot. In those settings, the core experience of peoplehood is experienced in local community. An idealized model has prioritized values of democratic decision-making, rabbi-lay partnerships, active engagement, inclusion, pluralism and a dynamic interplay between traditional forms and creativity in liturgy. This Reconstructionist model has sought to balance intimacy with broader inclusion, democratic process with freedom of expression, tradition and change.

Our understanding of identity has moved far beyond Kaplan’s binary “Jewish or not Jewish.” Each of us live in multiple civilizations, not just two, and we understand ourselves in the 21st century as intersectional and our identities multiply hyphenated. Millennial and Gen-Z Jews, particularly in cities, are seeking out alternative forms of Jewish connection and meaning, often via DIY, social media, entrepreneurial and political organizing models. While some continue to find conventional synagogues welcoming, others view them as unaligned with their interests, modes of connection, forms of expression and political concerns.

While Israel remains for many a driver of Jewish connection, it is also a source of conflict with some definitively aligned with Israeli policies, others affirming affinities with the state while questioning or opposing its policies, some challenging the idea of a Jewish state, and others yet questioning where they stand. Those who reject statist Zionism sometimes join coalitions with other activist organizations. It is common now for young Jews to question messages they learned when they were young about the birth and evolution of Israel, and the place of the Palestinians. While there is a long history of suppression of dissenting views, such as those voiced in 1973 by Breira and subsequently by New Jewish Agenda, in the present day, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist or post-Zionist affinities are emerging for some as a source of Jewish identity and connection.

What does this complex picture mean for Jewish peoplehood?

I believe that the Reconstructionist rabbis with whom I spoke reflect the wide variety of perspectives, experiences and identities within this rabbinate. Most affirmed the continuing value of the general concept of Jewish peoplehood, with many caveats and concerns, and varying in the degree to which it rests in their minds.

Peoplehood came from my parents, great-grandparents; Kaplan’s ideas came to me experientially in my family, although I didn’t articulate it in the same way. My family was filled with love. I wasn’t living in a primarily Jewish neighborhood, so I felt friction where I was living; it wasn’t a shtetl.

My involvement growing up in Reform summer camping, was super energizing and an indicator of Jewish peoplehood — finding one’s cultural roots and being in a place that was a fully integrated Jewish community, living on Jewish time where Shabbat is in the center and where Jewish culture is woven into this highly intensive kind of communal experience.

Others described experiences traveling to synagogues all over the world as formative, a felt connection that emerged while “picking up the prayerbook and hearing the same prayers and Hebrew will always be there, alternating with the local language.” Another rabbi observed:

When I was in various cities in the Former Soviet Union, I kept meeting people with whom I connected, who wanted to move to Israel. I found a synagogue in Kishinev and others everywhere I went. … After returning to the States, my thoughts focused on how for me “people” had come to mean “the Jewish people.” The idea of peoplehood thus came out of my lived experience.

A priority for Reconstructionist rabbis has been building and sustaining viable and flexible, yet grounded Jewish communities.

Maybe “community” as a term replaces “people.” In an age of individualism, do people want more than feeling part of the community? I hear more that they want to see themselves that way than that they actually want to live it. The values behind the ideas remain.

Before attending rabbinical school, I had [experienced] a lot of vibrant community in non-Jewish spaces, but what led me to rabbinical school was seeing how the social justice spaces were flat and tenuous in ties. I was looking for places with deeper ties, the kinds that exist in congregational life and to some degree in [broader] Jewish life. Outside of congregations and churches in America, we have few strong places that build that kind of connectedness.

Communities are sustained through intentionality and hard work. One rabbi commented about the programmatic challenges involved in connecting people with very different interests:

At my synagogue, it is community, not ritual, that draws people. Making it about community is broad enough that it can hold diversity. Many members will not go to services, so we’ve invested a lot of energy in setting up all kinds of other groups, havurot run by various members. There’s a board game havurah, a havurah for young parents, a havurah for people over 65. On a regular Saturday morning, we get as many people attending for a woman’s or men’s havurah or other havurot; for some, it’s ritual, including a Torah-study havurah, or a Shabbat singing group, but that’s more about community than about ritual or a little of both.

At times, it is a group whose members may not share ancestry, ethnicity, culture or personal identity, experience and Jewish status that must be interwoven into a single community.

There is a single Jewish people, but I think the borders — the fringes of the tzitzit — are not solid. Some think of themselves as Jewish but aren’t officially, and some are officially Jewish but are not connected.

Given the many ways our congregation incorporates people with different identity markers, can peoplehood hold all of these markers in a way that varied theologies have been able to do so?

Another rabbi commented that peoplehood provides a useful conceptual framework for those who seek to convert to Judaism:

I now call the conversion class I teach “the peoplehood course” since you become not just Jewish but part of the Jewish people. You aren’t converting but taking all that you’ve been and expanding and bringing to being part of this people. “Becoming” is a fourth B.

Canadian-born rabbis observed that the “mosaic” of their national experience provided a model for the multiplicity of Jewish identities. One noted that “in Canada, being part of being a nation meant being connected to a lot of different nations. … My identity has a lot of identity markers; we don’t have to dissolve into one culture.” For another rabbi, growing up as a Jew in French-identified Quebec meant “being the minority within the majority within the minority, and this was absolutely formative for me.”

One need not and maybe cannot conform to Kaplan’s binary of Jew or non-Jew. For some rabbis I spoke with, being a woman is primary; for others, being lesbian is of equal importance to being Jewish. At the same time, Jews of color continue to feel unseen or unrecognized, their Jewish identities questioned. The Reconstructionist movement recently began one of the first concerted efforts to explore the ways that whiteness functions in the United States as an indicator of normativity, social value and belonging. With that awareness, our ability to identify and address obstacles to fuller racial inclusivity is growing. Another important initiative seeks to address accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities.

In many of our communities, there may be an uneasy balance between strongly felt bonds and Jewish content, while both are critical to Jewish community:

Our main concern in most synagogues is that people feel connected to others in the room with them and have a Jewishly enriching experience, more so than have a peoplehood connecting experience. There is a little bit of tension between doing the congregational work for community building and its Jewish content. On one hand, I’m committed to building the most vibrant, connected experience for whomever walks in the door. On the other hand, when people walk in the door with deep knowledge and experience, it gives us so many more knowledgeable people to work with … [Yet] if peoplehood were the most important thing in Judaism, the most valuable thing that we could be teaching is spoken Hebrew.

Community, of course, extends beyond individual institutions. One rabbi notes that the experience of being a Hillel rabbi can “steep” one in pluralism. Another speaks to the value of sustaining ongoing relationships between organizations:

In my city, I meet every month with the leaders of all the congregations and Jewish organizations, though the Federation director recently decided to leave the group. I feel that we should cooperate even though we often disagree. I have long and close relationships with the other rabbis; they are friends of mine. We believe that we should work together as much as we can, and we respect each other.

For some, life in small towns can encourage more collaboration, whereas city life allows for more cloistering. One rabbi concludes:

The test of my loyalty, belonging and peoplehood, is whether I can feel a sense of peoplehood with people with whom I don’t feel I belong. Belonging is easy if I feel as if I belong.

For many American Jews, belonging on a global scale is more abstract and diffuse but sparked by positive experiences of living in Israel:

I was really excited by my post-high school Israel experience. I saw how things looked different in Israel than as represented in the Western press. That was the high point in my feeling part of the Jewish people.

For many of these Reconstructionist rabbis, Israel represents an important aspect of connection with Jewish peoplehood. One Israeli rabbi pointed to the reality that the largest population of Jews lives in Israel; it is thus essential for all Jews to learn about and engage with them. An American rabbi’s connection with peoplehood was fostered while living in Israel, next door to Ethiopian Jewish neighbors. Subsequently, political polarization rendered peoplehood less compelling: “I feel less connected to an extremist, messianic Jew on the West Bank than I do to a progressive non-Jewish person in my city.” Another American rabbi resonated with a sign bearing the words libi bemizrakh, “my heart is in the East,” reflecting an emotional tie that transcends politics.

One rabbi observes: “All kinds of people say: ‘I’m done with Israel.’ My thinking is ‘say that all you want, but the world understands Israel and the Jewish people as interconnected.’” Another teaches about Israel, but feels that “what bound us together was our connection as Jews, not land boundaries or borders. … I feel that the creation of a nation state broke peoplehood.” A third rabbi remarks: “There’s so much that’s come from Israel that’s so good for our souls and survival even though there’s so much that’s so corrupting. I believe that nations are an unfortunate compromise with living in this world. … We need nations because of history. The earth belongs to God and borders are awful, but if that’s the game, we should get to play … .”

For Kaplan, peoplehood must be active, reciprocal and embedded in the ongoing lives of Jews. It is not only an abstraction. Yet if our perceptions of being part of a people impact or change how we think, is that not an indicator of the salience of peoplehood?

Maybe the enduring legacy of Kaplan’s framework of peoplehood, beyond localized belonging, is found in his teachings about the inseparability of particularism and universalism. Belonging functions within interpenetrating concentric circles; caring about one’s inner circle is inseparable from caring for one’s broader circles. The alternative is exclusivism if not xenophobia. Two concluding observations by Reconstructionist rabbis address this theme:

My spiritual practice calls me to seek to be curious about people who are different, and to honor the tzelem Elohim [‘Divine image’] in every human, regardless of whether or not I have an affinity with them. The practice requires constant attention and discipline to transform the human inclination to seek out the familiar and comfortable. Jewish sancta, as Kaplan taught, are particularistic expressions that can point to shared values. … At the same time, as a civilization, Judaism calls me to express a special level of care for the Jewish people and the needs of individual Jews.

For me, peoplehood covers everything. One of my favorite ideas from Kaplan is that if you are only working for your own salvation, you haven’t gotten it right. It must be universal salvation; it’s supposed to happen for everybody. That’s a deep-seated Jewish obligation. For me, a ritual practice that isn’t grounded in that understanding is lacking since that’s part of the ultimate statement of being a Jew.

Mordecai Kaplan was a person of broad ideas, vision and mission. He was also a person of his time. Today, we live in an era of multiplicity and division; we grasp for sources of connection and meaning, large and small. We are not the first Jewish generation that is in multiple ways divided; this may have always been our situation. Kaplan recalibrated the idea that the awareness of being a people can provide sustenance and a creative spark.

As an idea, Jewish peoplehood continues to have sustaining power, even as it faces multiple sources of competition for our attention, time, identities and affinities. Its continued power likely depends upon our willingness to accept if not embrace a higher degree of pluralism than may be comfortable for some. If Jewish peoplehood is to have meaning for a new generation, its conceptualization and actualization must be tremendously elastic and open.

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