Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education


Co-chairs: Ari Kelman (Stanford) and Jon A. Levisohn(Brandeis)
This project has emerged from the conference on "Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education," which was held at Brandeis on March 30-31, 2014.

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.

The forthcoming book Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives (eds. Ari Y. Kelman and Jon A. Levisohn) will explore such questions as:
  • 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?
Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives

Part One: Uses and Abuses of Jewish Identity
  1. "The Invention of American Jewish Identity" -- Jonathan Krasner
  2. "Taking Jewish Identity Metaphors Literally" -- Eli Gottlieb
  3. "Re-Thinking American Jewish Zionist Identity: A Case for a (Spiritual) Post-Zionism in the Diaspora" -- Shaul Magid
  4. "The Paucity of 'Jewish Identity'" -- Ari Y. Kelman
  5. "Regarding the Real Jewish: Authenticity Anxieties in Contemporary Polish-Jewish Identity Narratives" -- Katka Reszke
  6. "You are Jewish If You Want to Be: The Limits of Identity in a World of Multiple Religious Practices" -- Samira Mehta

Part Two: Alternatives

  1. "Subjectivity, Not Identity: How Jewish Selves Create their Jewish Worlds" -- Shaul Kelner
  2. "Fostering Metalinguistic Communities: An Alternative Approach in Jewish Education" -- Sarah Benor and Netta Avineri
  3. "Jewish Sensibilities: A Vocabulary for Articulating Educational Goals" -- Lee Moore and Jon Woocher
  4. "The Habits of Highly Effective Jews: Jewish Education as Education in the Practices of Jewishness" -- Jon A. Levisohn
  5. "Jewish Educators Don't Make Jews: How to Orient the Work of Jewish Education Away from Imaginary Outcomes and Toward Lived Processes" -- Tali Zelkowicz