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

The following list of recommendations was compiled based on: A. Recommendations and suggestions specifically made during JPPI discussions in the communities; B. Sentiments expressed in the dialogue, and the recommendations emanating from these sentiments, as JPPI fellows understand them. In other words: The recommendations below do not always reflect the consensus of the community dialogues. But these are recommended steps that many engaged Jews – many among them leaders in their communities – advocate for the Jewish world as it strives to strike the delicate balance needed, as stated above, to accommodate current realities, and keep the Jews as a true collective.

The professional policy directions listed below are those JPPI recommends volunteer and professional policy makers consider (more recommendations can be found in the last chapters of the report itself):

Seed and support programs that reach out to Jews with weak Jewish identities and/or those whose Jewish status may be uncertain but still seek to learn and engage in Jewish life. In this regard, the Government of Israel, Jewish federations, and philanthropies should continue to invest, both to encourage as many Jews as possible to intensify their engagement with Judaism, and also to create a welcoming environment. Support should be directed to the broadest range of Jewish organizations that have record of providing quality Jewish education.

  • If inclusivity is to be the communal ethos, then communal leaders – rabbis, philanthropists, volunteers and professionals – must become ambassadors and greeters for a welcoming community. The Jewish community will be strengthened and well served with leaders who offer a welcoming hand and recognize the value of providing support to the broadest range of organizations that nurture Jewish identity at each stage of the lifecycle.

Forge a language of best professional practices. Jewish organizations should encourage and support convening volunteer and professional leaders, formal and informal Jewish educators, and Jewish communal professionals to create communities of practice, networks for those on the front lines of program development with the goal of developing a common language of best practices in dealing with the broad range of contemporary Jews and Jewish groups.

  • Communities would be well served to develop leadership training programs so leaders can deepen their understanding of the new milieu and think strategically about how their organizations can most effectively respond to the new challenges and opportunities at hand.
  • Encourage the inclusion of welcoming language and messaging in organizational marketing materials and websites.

Convene inter-denominational dialogues. Efforts should be undertaken by Jewish organizations around the world and by the government of Israel to convene ongoing inter-denominational interchanges. As late as the 1970s, there were structures that brought together leaders of the major religious streams in North America. Whatever its achievements, having a body that convened religious denominational leaders had symbolic value and vividly communicated that although there are profound differences in how Jews of various stripes understand God, Torah, obligations and far more, we share a common history and destiny. Diaspora communities spend tens of millions of dollars annually on Christian-Jewish dialogue, but little is devoted to intra-Jewish dialogue. Local communities should convene such discussions among senior volunteer and professional leaders, as well as mid-level leaders. The value, in terms of relationship building and learning, can only strengthen Jewish life during this period of evolving fluid identity.

Inter-denominational dialogue is especially needed in Israel, where tolerance toward, and familiarity with, a broad range of Jewish ways of thinking is lacking. Surely, not all Israeli groups will agree to participate in this kind of dialogue, but it is the duty of official Israel to encourage and facilitate such interactions for the benefit of the majority of the Jewish people.2

Considering the criteria for the Law of Return. Considering cultural and demographic developments in the Jewish world, Israel might consider whether changes in the criteria governing the Law of Return are advisable.

Strengthen the sense of Jewish peoplehood among all members of the community. Jewish institutions, with the possible help of Israel, should look for new ways – in addition to Birthright – to strengthen the sense of what was traditionally known as “nationality” but is more commonly referred to as “peoplehood” today. This is especially important for Jews who do not instinctively feel that kind of connection, including some “Jews by choice,” distant Jews, mixed families, partial Jews, and non-Jews who affiliate with Judaism. As our study shows, while connected Jews tend to view “nationality/peoplehood” as the main components of Jewishness, there is a growing number of people affiliated with the Jewish world (whether it is “Jews by choice” or non-Jewish members of the Jewish community) who do not instinctively feel a connection to Judaism as a nationality, and see it mostly as a religion. This development makes it necessary to create initiatives that consciously seek to enhance the understanding of the Jewish peoplehood component among all who participate in Jewish life (Jews and non-Jews who affiliate with the community).

Acknowledge those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. Both Israel and Jewish communities around the world ought to recognize that current demographic realities are changing the internal fabric and structure of the Jewish world and its relations with the non-Jewish world. Thus, Jewish leaders are strongly encouraged to examine ways of acknowledging those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, in terms of behavior and self-identity, but have not yet undergone conversion and become fully fledged members of the Jewish people.