When I was asked to join the distinguished group of signatories to the Statement on Jewish Vitality, I was pleased to do so. I am not, by disposition, a hand-wringer. If anything, I tend towards optimism. But I agree that the American Jewish community faces a set of significant challenges that we should not ignore.
This, I think, is the main message of the statement. Many of the signatories differ about the specific policy recommendations, the most obvious being the one about tax policies related to day school tuition – a recommendation that is surely far too tentative for some, and wholly anathema for others. And as some have already noted, these ideas are hardly revolutionary. But that’s the point. We already have a toolkit of well-developed and well-documented ways to build stronger Jewish communities. What we seem not to have is a communal and philanthropic commitment to support them, or a sense of urgency in doing so.
I was pleased that the invitation to sign the statement also included the encouragement to offer commentary or additional perspectives. The goal, in other words, is to provoke discussion. In that spirit, I offer three caveats:
This guest post is by Jonathan Krasner of Hebrew Union College. He is a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center this year; next year, we will welcome him to Brandeis as the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Education Research.
In 1994 Leon Wieseltier declared in the New Republic that identity was “an idea whose time has gone.” Twenty years later the Jewish identity industry is still going strong.
I recently had occasion to reread Wieseltier’s article in preparation for a conference on “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education” at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Listening to the various panel presentations and the vigorous discussions that ensued, it was clear to me that Wieseltier underestimated the enduring power of identity as a concept, particularly within the North American Jewish community. As the opening conference statement made clear, “With the possible exception of ‘continuity,’ identity (and the attendant fears of its disappearance or weakening) has driven more philanthropic initiatives and educational policy than any other single concept.”
With funders and community leaders eager to shore up the Jewish identities of millennials and their younger siblings, there is plenty of money to be had and made in the Jewish identity industry. Hence my quip at the conference that “Jewish identity has basically become the crack cocaine of the Jewish educational world.” Continue reading
This guest post is by Ari Y Kelman, The Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies and the director of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford, and co-chair of the conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education.
Jewish identity ain’t what it used to be.
Let me explain: This isn’t a lament about declining affiliation rates or weak ethnic ties. I’m not writing about actual Jews living actual Jewish lives. I’m talking about the concept of “Jewish identity,” which seems to have entered the Jewish communal vocabulary sometime after World War II, and, by the end of the 20th century, had become part of the internal logic of Jewish life and Jewish education in the United States and beyond. In some circles, “Jewish identity” had become something of a holy grail or ultimate pursuit. Camps, day schools, travel tours to Israel, early childhood interventions, and virtually every other imaginable delivery mechanism for Jewish education had been tasked with enhancing, fostering, growing, nurturing, strengthening, and otherwise doing good things for “Jewish identity.”
The relationship between identity and Jewish education has become axiomatic. Sociologist Sam Heilman opened an article about Jewish schoolingwith the following: “The ultimate goal of Jewish education today is the affirmation of Jewish identity.” (1) Even someone as critical of Jewish education as David Schoem takes the centrality of “Jewish identity” for granted. Shoem explained, “Jewish educators must begin with the assumption that an authentic Jewish identity for life in modern America is not understood either by the masses of Jewish people or by its educators and leaders.” (64)
By the time the Pew Research Center published its report on the state of American Jews in the fall of 2013, “Jewish identity” had been reified beyond recognition. “A key aim of the Pew Research Center survey,” its authors explained, “is to explore Jewish identity: what does being Jewish mean in America today?” (15). But, the best the Report could do was to explain, “Jewish identity is changing in America,” (7) a claim that leaves more substantive examinations of identity to its readers and, more importantly, to the Jewish people it statistically represents. Continue reading
Today’s guest post is by Renee Rubin Ross, a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation and a former post-doctoral fellow at the Mandel Center. This piece originally appeared on the foundation’s blog.
In early June, I attended the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) conference, held at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. It was a great opportunity to hear about different research projects and catch up with colleagues. In the early morning hours before the meetings started, I even had the chance to go running in Central Park, very sentimental for me since I used to run in Central Park frequently when we lived in Manhattan a few years ago.
My primary purpose for attending the conference was to participate in discussions about the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), an effort to bring together funders, researchers, and practitioners for the purpose of improving Jewish education.These individuals work collaboratively to address CASJE’s three primary areas of focus (termed “panels”): Israel Education, chaired by Mitch Malkus and Alex Pomson; Jewish Educational Leadership, chaired by Ellen Goldring, Joe Reimer and Lee Shulman; and Educational Sustainability, chaired by Ari Kelman and Rachel Friedberg. At the conference, I saw several indicators that portend well for CASJE going forward. Continue reading
Today we hear from Josh Miller, Steven Green, Leah Nadich Meir and Joel Einleger about Nadiv, a collaboration between the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI foundations. Nadiv is a pilot program to create six senior experiential educator positions to be shared by overnight camps and Jewish day/synagogue schools.
Collaboration and partnership have become the buzzwords of our time. The business world as well as the nonprofit sector heralds the advantages of collaboration: sharing resources, bringing multiple perspectives to address difficult issues, eliminating duplication, learning from one another and pooling assets.
The Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations, as funders interacting with multiple organizations across sectors, have a bird’s-eye view of what can result when organizations function from within their own separate silos: duplicate efforts on the one hand and unaddressed needs on the other. This led us to ask: can we, as funders, use our resources and influence to catalyze collaboration? And taking that one step further: can we, as funders, collaborate to more effectively advance our common goals? Continue reading