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Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

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Jewish Identity Ain’t What it Used to Be

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 I’ve Learned About Jewish Identity

What did I learn from the conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education a few weeks back?

DSC_5708 smallThe 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

A Time to Act and a Time to Tell

Today’s blog post is by Jonathan Krasner, who is a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center this year.

commissionjewishedNA“When do contemporary events become history?” my eighteen-year old nephew asked me as we were walking together in Jerusalem one evening during my recent research trip to Israel. The question was more relevant to my work in Israel than he could have realized. And it has been very much on my mind since my return. Continue reading

Rethinking Jewish Identity: Questions and Thoughts from Day 1

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

NRJE and CASJE: Laying the Foundation for Successful Jewish Education Research

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

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