A New Model For Jewish Identity

Today, personal choice trumps group-oriented feelings of obligation as the basis for Jewish identity.

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The Main Principles

Spend less time creating standards for the options we offer and more time broadening the number of communally acceptable choices. However unusual new views or practices may seem, we should expand the range of communally acceptable options in Jewish politics, religion, music, etc. We have to stop devaluing others for making identity choices that differ from our own.

Add new menu options for what counts as Jewish. For example, can we imagine creating communal institutions that treat general philanthropy as a Jewish activity? We need to remember that in a culture of choice, people will remain committed to the Jewish world only if it is big enough to embrace their most important values.

Proactively connect Jewish identity construction with other significant life events. For example, getting a driver's license, taking a first legal drink and other turning points in life could be transformed into Jewish activities. Or why not move beyond the more conventional sense of "Jewish activities" and look at what it might mean in the most profound sense to work--invest, practice law or medicine--Jewishly?

Begin teaching Jews how to be skillful at consciously constructing and maintaining their own Jewish identity across the lifecycle. This might mean that on occasion we put less emphasis on motivating young people to adopt the particular ways of being Jewish that earlier generations practiced. In a culture of choice, young people create their own Jewish identities and, whatever our own proclivities, it is important that they do so thoughtfully.

These guidelines already are employed in many parts of the country. This suggests that this model is only making explicit what Jewish professionals and lay leaders intuitively know--we need a paradigm change in the area of Jewish identity formation. As Jews try to create new Jewish identities that are exciting and interesting enough to invite their allegiance, we now need to create a model that expands our sense of what being Jewish can mean. We must construct a model that understands and encourages the many ways that today's Jews form their unique Jewish identities. This will not only help revitalize Jewish life but will help reinvigorate Jewish communities for the decades ahead.

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Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the director of organizational development at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the 2003 recipient of the Bernard Reisman Journal of Jewish Communal Service Article of the Year Award for "How to Think About Being Jewish in the 21st Century: A New Model of Jewish Identity Construction" (Fall 2002), on which this piece is based.