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
What did I learn from the conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education a few weeks back?
The first thing, which actually occurred early in the process of planning the conference, is that my colleague Ari Kelman and I are not the only ones troubled by the concept of Jewish identity. Far from it. We received more than twice the number of proposals than we could accommodate, along with dozens of requests to join the conversation in other ways.
Clearly, a lot of people are concerned about the ways that the Jewish community talks about Jewish identity and Jewish education. Continue reading
At the end of March, about 45 scholars, educators, and Jewish community policy-makers gathered at Brandeis to critically examine the ways that the concept of “Jewish identity” is used and sometimes abused in discussions of Jewish education. As it turns out, the topic is of interest to many, and we had to turn away a lot of people who wanted to join the conference. We asked audio producer Ari Daniel to pull together the strands of the conversation, to make it accessible to a broader audience. The podcast is now available. Tell us what you think!
This guest post is a paper presented by Rokhl Kafrissen at the recent Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at the Mandel Center, co-sponsored with Stanford University. It was originally published on the blog Rootless Cosmopolitan.
The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life
The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my personal project, situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?– those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.
What happens when you get about 45 sociologists, educators, historians, scholars of literature, and people who work in philanthropic foundations in one room to talk about Jewish identity? What happens when they challenge assumptions about what “Jewish identity” means, and how the concept works in the Jewish community and in Jewish educational settings?
We’re finding out now, at our conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education.
When I invited participants to share their thoughts and questions at the end of the first day (Sunday, March 30), here’s some of what they offered: Continue reading