Here’s my entry in the 28 Days, 28 Ideas series. The article — Idea #23 — was written for Jewcy.com, which has been having some technical difficulties, so I figured I’d post the whole shebang here, as well.
Over the last several years, I have read dozens of articles and listened to scores of conversations about the challenge of strengthening Jewish identity in America. Indeed, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey canonized Jewish American assimilation, an unprecedented amount of communal dollars and efforts have been poured into this endeavor.
Programs aimed at “young Jews” are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.
Hillel “provides opportunities for Jewish students…to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers.” Birthright Israel aims “to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity.”
This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition.
What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?
At The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, in a panel on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown noted that there are three components to identity formation: the cognitive (what we think), the behavioral (what we do), and the emotional (what we feel). In discussing some of the maladies plaguing the American Jewish community, Dr. Brown suggested an interesting diagnosis: when American Jews speak about Jewish identity they aggressively emphasize the emotional.
In other words, to too many American Jews, Jewish identity means feeling Jewish.
Dr. Brown’s insight articulated something I have been noticing for years and was, most recently, driven home during a conversation with a prominent Jewish philanthropist. As we spoke, this generous and committed Jewish leader extolled the virtues of Jewish education and lamented its current state. When I asked him what he wanted Jewish education to achieve — what its aim should be — his answer was simple: “I want Jewish kids to feel proud of being Jewish.”