JPPI's Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity


This year’s Dialogue Process marks the third year that JPPI has been building a structure for a systematic discourse on issues that are at the core of the collective interests of the Jewish people globally. Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, discussing together how the different streams approach Judaism, is a main component of our project on Pluralism and Democracy in Israel and the Diaspora. We are grateful to the William Davidson Foundation for supporting this endeavor and encouraging a deeper understanding among Jews globally.

The 2016 Jewish World Dialogue was co-headed for the first time by an Israeli JPPI Senior Fellow in tandem with an American one. Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay, representing the two largest Jewish communities in the world, started a personal conversation before widening it to 49 different seminars worldwide. They didn’t neglect the smaller communities, which many times present the most difficult challenges.

JPPI’s effort to enhance pluralism in the Jewish world has, from its inception, enjoyed the encouragement of Israel’s leaders, such as former President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and JAFI’s Chairman Natan Sharansky as well as the participating communities and Jewish organizations abroad. President Reuven Rivlin, who is dedicated to bridging gaps in Israel and world Jewry, launched a tradition with JPPI to bring together representatives of all the streams to study together Jewish texts. The Dialogue is approaching the point when it should culminate in a deeper results-oriented conversation at the highest echelons of leadership on how we should fulfill our common destiny.

The Jewish people is undergoing a period of radical change in its internal dynamics: generational transitions; the promise of some normalization of Israel’s situation in the Middle East; a shift in Jewish Identification and sense of community. The external environment of the Jewish people is changing radically as well: globalization; geostrategic shifts; value transformations; scientific and technological innovations; new manifestations of anti-Semitism. All these create new realities and challenges that provide the Jewish people unprecedented opportunities for thriving but also pose serious risks of decline.
Enriching the dialogue in the Jewish world between different communities, streams, and political orientations may help us take advantage of opportunities and avert dangers and threats.

We are continuing in making an effort to internalize and implement the lessons learned from each year of JPPI’s Structured Dialogue Process.

I want to thank the Institute’s leadership, and especially Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross, and Leonid Nevzlin, who head our Professional Guiding Council, for their continuing commitment to, and support of, our work. Special thanks, once again, to the William Davidson Foundation for its confidence and trust.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

1The main implication of the changing ground of Jewishness is on the allocation of funds for Jewish activities. According to the vast majority of Dialogue participants, investment should be made in all those wanting to participate, without much regard to their brand of Jewishness. “The question must not be who is a Jew, but what a good project is for the Jewish community and how we can achieve the goals,” a participant in Brazil asserted.233 “I think that if anyone declares themselves Jewish we should reach out to them,” a participant in Detroit said.234 “There was an overwhelming desire to reach out to those on the periphery of the community to engage and thus allocate resources to do this,” the Boston discussion summary notes.235

Reservations were few, and mostly based on pragmatic concerns, such as the reality that resources are not plentiful enough to cover all the bases. “In Salvador, a community with a high percentage of Jews by conversion, it was interesting that most of the participants agreed that allocations must go to ‘Jews’ as defined by main Jewish denominations.”236 “Minority opinion: too much outreach has the danger of diluting the community.”237

JPPI Dialogue participants were presented with several options for prioritizing which kind of Jewish programming should receive funding from the organized community (and possibly, for Israel programs as well). We proposed the following allocation options: to ‘Jews’ as defined by main Jewish denominations; to Jews as defined by (Orthodox) Halacha; to all people who say they are Jewish; and to all people who seek to participate. The overall agreement was that the Halachic criteria is much too restrictive for program funding. In several discussions, the example of Chabad outreach was mentioned as proof that not even Orthodoxy – when it reaches out – would limit its outreach to verifiably Halachic Jews.

Viewpoints ranged from those advocating the allocation of most communal resources to Jews as defined by any of the Jewish streams, and those proposing to accept every person who “comes through the door” (a notable exception in all U.S. communities: Messianic Jews are considered beyond the pale of acceptability in community activities – not as individuals, but as representatives of a culture that Jews perceive to be in stark contradiction to their own).

What are the practical implications of these views? Obviously, decision makers do not have the luxury of providing unlimited funding and must, therefore prioritize resource allocation. But, based on Dialogue discussions, it is reasonable to conclude that Jewish institutions and the government of Israel have to take into account the following points:

  1. Jews do not condone principled exclusion. If funds have to be distributed based on a set of priorities, these priorities have to be rooted in financial reality rather than ideological preferences.
  2. There is a sense among many Jews that the Jewish community is not yet doing a good enough job reaching out to the broader community. This perception may or may not be accurate, but as so many believe this to be the case, it is worth noting.
  3. The government of Israel, as a body operating under a more restrictive understanding of Jewishness, has to be aware of the need to tailor certain programs and initiatives so they are compatible with Diaspora realities.
  4. There needs to be a better understanding within institutions, including religious ones, of the ultimate goal of funding programs for the broader community. The Dialogue raised the possibility that connected Jews, while understanding the sensitivities and risks involved (being offensive etc.) would like to see a somewhat more daring approach to getting distanced Jews and their families to become, with time, “fully” Jewish.
  5. The components of Judaism most Jews consider important may suggest that a larger portion of the Jewish financial pie should be invested in programs that speak to the cultural and national sentiments of Jews – rather than their declining sense of narrowly defined religiosity (for example, framing Shabbat in a cultural context, rather than a Halachic-religious one). This is a challenge for communities whose primary institution of Jewish expression was the synagogue.