September 17, 2019

‘You can’t really support the State of the Jewish People unless you recognize Jewish Peoplehood’

Dr. Shlomi Ravid, the director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, discusses Zionism and the role of philanthropy in Jewish life. 

Is raising money from Jews still the best way to make them feel invested in Jewish life?


This question was framed by an Israeli who does not understand the role philanthropy plays in the American civic ethos. Philanthropy is not just a means for engagement but constitutes – together with volunteering and active participation – the whole framework of civic society. Jewish life in America is very much part of the American civic ethos, but no less part of the history and culture of Jewish communal life. I would recommend turning the question around: How much is Jewish giving a reflection of the belief in the necessity  and importance of organized Jewish life?


In your paper, Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective, you present two ways of engaging the next generation: outreach as espoused by JHUB, and developing Jewish identity through study, which the Avi Chai Foundation advocates. Which do you believe is the best way to reach young Jews? Are the two mutually exclusive?


Both are legitimate ways of achieving the engagement goal and yet they differ significantly. Avi Chai focuses on teaching the issues that form the Jewish collective agenda (such as, for example, the love for Israel). JHUB offers a new mission for the Jewish people, which it claims can and should galvanize today’s Jewish youth – Tikkun Olam. The new mission is to offer a new purpose and meaning to the Jewish collective. Needless to say, the two are not mutually exclusive and can actually compliment each other.


It is well documented that American Jews give more to non-Jewish causes than Jewish causes; how do we increase donations to what many see as particularistic projects rather than general charities?


Following the previous response, the Jewish collective enterprise needs to provide meaning and purpose to Jews if they are to “buy into it”. Today’s Jews are asking very basic questions such as “why be Jewish?” and “What is the Jewish added value  to the Jews and to the world?” 

Unless rich, meaningful, relevant and convincing answers are provided, the above trend will continue. The tensions of particularism versus universalism are part of the issue. Here again, if Jews understand that strengthening the Jewish people will also add to the well-being of humanity, the donations will increase. The dichotomy here is actually false, but it is up to the Jewish people to prove the point if it seeks to engage more Jews in the collective effort. 


Is Jewish Peoplehood an excuse that allows Jews to stop being just plain old-fashioned Zionists? 


The belief in Jewish Peoplehood provides the ideological and conceptual foundations of Zionism. Zionism is after all the belief that the Jewish People is entitled to a national home. You can’t really support the State of the Jewish People unless you recognize and believe in Jewish Peoplehood. Here again the dichotomy is false. It exists on the part of those Zionists who turned the means into an end, and believe that we are not a People with a State but actually a State with a People. I happen to be a second generation Zionist, son of Israeli pioneers, whose Zionism is based on his belief in Peoplehood.   


If you had to choose the three most important causes to which Jewish philanthropists need to contribute, what would they be?

I don’t really think that my perspective offers any advantage in answering this question. If you still want my perspective, I believe Jewish philanthropists need to be at the avant guard of seeking justice; I believe that we should invest in developing our common vision on the meaning of our personal and individual Jewish Journey in the future; and that we should seek to help the less fortunate among us and in the entire world.