Conference on Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education

March 30-31, 2014

Brandeis University

Conference co-chairs: Ari Kelman (Stanford) and Jon A. Levisohn(Brandeis)
 
The concept of “Jewish identity” has been fundamental to post-war policy discourse and scholarship on Jewish education.  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.  
Yet recent research has exposed the problematic nature of this concept.  The combination of strong identity and low engagement, as demonstrated by the recent Pew Report, suggests that the very concept of Jewish identity can no longer shoulder the burden of Jewish educational efforts. The time has come to reconsider the notion of “identity” as the desired outcome of Jewish education. 

Standard uses of “identity” by Jewish educators and policy-makers fail to capture the complex ways in which people understand their Jewish commitments, engage with Jewish communities, and enact Jewish practices.  Approaching identity as an outcome offers a mismatched measure of Jewish education and poorly describes the various and shifting ways in which people live their Jewish lives.

So, if Jewish education is to respond to the needs of American Jews and their communities in the 21st century, we need to rethink the assumption that Jewish identity is the goal of Jewish education. This conference will gather together scholars, practitioners, policy makers and thinkers to focus on these questions:
  • What does it mean to learn to inhabit or embody an identity or identities?  What do we know about the ways that contemporary Jews do so?
  • Where does the language of “Jewish identity” come from, when, and why?  What work does it do for those who use it?  What kind of educational efforts does it promote, and what does it inhibit?
  • To the extent that the construct of “Jewish identity” no longer satisfies us, what alternatives are available – especially in conceptualizing the desirable outcomes of Jewish education?
The conference will emphasize the productive exchange of ideas, and will be organized around a series of panel discussions.  (The program will be posted when it is available.)  Despite robust interest in the topic, the conference has been limited to a small number of active participants.

We regret that we cannot accommodate more participants.