Barry Shrage recently joined Brandeis University as a Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. At CMJS, he will lead the Initiative for Jewish Identity.
First, welcome to Brandeis and CMJS and congratulations on the conclusion of 31 very successful years at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.
Thank you! I’m excited to be here!
At CMJS you will be spearheading the Initiative for Jewish Identity. Can you describe the Initiative and tell us what experiences prompted you to feel this is where you wanted to focus your intellectual energy?
At the heart of the Initiative is the question of how to build a Jewish community that loves its faith, institutions, traditions, and Israel. Understanding how Jewish identity forms is an essential part of this inquiry. Jewish identity has been an issue that has been at the core of my work since 1970, when I became involved in Jewish community after the Six Day War. Through my work at a community center, I saw how the Six Day War brought issues of Jewish identity to the fore for many Jewish Americans and a renewed sense of ethnic pride to young people. At that same time, I saw firsthand that most formal afterschool educational programs were not really working. As the head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Jewish identity continued to strike me as the preeminent concern of the community. For that reason, we put a high priority adult education programs and Israel travel followup.
How can CMJS’ data/research contribute to the Initiative?
I don’t think there is another institution that has as much data available on the Jewish community as does CMJS. The center has been tracking issues around Jewish identity for many years, including topics related to Israel, Jewish education, and intermarriage. Working with CMJS researchers is truly a dream come true. It is the only place with the ability to explore these issues in interdisciplinary way using a variety of academic tools.
What kind of research questions or projects do you envision coming out of the Initiative?
There is a part of Jewish identity that decays through a natural process of assimilation. But on other hand there have been times when we see the process slow down or reverse. The Six Day War and Birthright are two examples of interventions that had this kind of impact. I want to understand more about how this kind of change occurs. I want to examine young people’s relationship with Israel and religion. Young people say that they have no interest in religion, but they do have an interest in spirituality. What does that mean exactly? That is one of the issues I want to explore.
Another area we will look at is how to build on programs that we know are successful. CMJS has great research on the impact of Birthright. How can we do better Birthright followup in the United States? In Boston, we have had a lot of experience with followup programs like CJP’s Campus Initiative (IACT). In terms of adult Jewish education, we have Hebrew College’s Meah program. How can these programs be adapted to other communities to have an even larger impact?
What role do you believe Israel plays in 21st century Jewish identity in the United States?
Israel is a fundamental part of Jewish identity. Birthright proves this. We see that an educational experience in Israel can foster a love of the Jewish people and identification with the Jewish people among children of intermarried and inmarried households. I don’t believe there is much of a Jewish future without Israel. And Israel needs the US Jewish community in terms of more than just political support. I hope to explore that issue further also. Brandeis has so much research and so many talented people working on these issues. I look forward to our collaborations.
Can you describe some of the outcomes you hope to see develop as a result of the Initiative? How will you share your findings with the public?
We will be looking at how evidence and research can support programs in the Jewish community that make a difference. Our symposia and reports will be strong on practical outcomes and accessible to everyone. I also plan to finish a book project that I have been working on for 12 years. The book is about Jewish identity and how it manifests itself in variety of ways. It’s constantly being updated. We will see where it will lead me!
“Young people say that they have no interest in religion, but they do have an interest in spirituality. What does that mean exactly? ” The answer misses out on a key component. This generation is interested in spirituality but they are more interest in identity and community. How can we make young people again feel that their Jewish heritage is also a worldwide community and a identity.