Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education

[Ari Daniel] - For the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, I'm Ari Daniel.

[Jon Levisohn] - Actually, come in and take a seat so we can get started.

[Ari Daniel] - Fifty people are gathered together at Brandeis University from across the United States and Israel to talk about a deep and important issue confronting the Jewish community.

[Jon Levisohn] - Welcome everybody.

[Ari Daniel] - Jon Levisohn is a professor of Jewish education at Brandeis and the co-organizer at this gathering. We'll get back to being in the middle of that room in a moment. First, I need to pull Levisohn away so he can explain the point of this thing.

[Jon Levisohn] - This conference emerges from a sense that there's a great deal of confusion out there about what we mean by Jewish identity. We use the term a lot.

[Ari Kelman] - Is something of a scrim on to which people projected all kinds of ideas about what Jewishness is or should be.

[Ari Daniel] - Ari Kelman is the other co-organizer. He's a professor of education in Jewish studies at Stanford. So, the term Jewish identity has come to mean everything and nothing. It's become increasingly vague and empty. Okay, so what, who cares?

[Ari Kelman] - It's a question of capital. 

[Ari Daniel] - Before Kelman spells that out, you should know that for the last 50 years, this notion of Jewish identity has been at the heart of Jewish education and what students have been learning in order to be Jewish and own that part of themselves. In other words, Jewish identity drives a lot of investment in education.

[Ari Kelman] - The net worth of the Jewish not-for-profit world is $26 billion. It's a lot of money. Not all that 26 billion is spent on education. Surprisingly, little is, relative to the total. But Jews, probably more than any other ethnic or religious group, maybe save the Catholic Church, have this incredible communal infrastructure. It really sticks in micro that so much of that human capital, so much of the money is squandered in ways that seem irresponsible. It seems not informed by knowledge about the way that actual Jews live their actual lives. For me, the language of identity, which seemed so productive, I think at one point in American Jewish history, I think we've lost sight of what identity was meant to do.

[Ari Daniel] - The fact that people have kind of lost their way is having a real impact on what's happening inside the world of Jewish education, in classrooms, day schools, summer camps, on Israel trips.

[Jon Levisohn] - It makes it hard for us to think about how to design educational programs when we are stuck with a concept that's confused, that we're not so clear about. If we could become more articulate about what we really want, then, at least in theory, that will then drive educational programs that are more focused, that are more disciplined, that understand what they're about. As it stands, we have a terrible time actually figuring out whether we're doing a good job or not, because we haven't decided what it is we're trying to accomplish.

[Ari Daniel] - And, Levisohn says, if he and his colleagues can start to figure that out,

[Jon Levisohn] - There's a lot  more potential for helping Jews and the Jewish community towards a better, healthier, more vibrant Jewish future.

[Ari Daniel] - So there's a lot at stake here. Okay,

[Jon Levisohn] - Turning now to the substance of the conference.

[Ari Daniel] - Back to that room of 50 people who are experts in Jewish religion, history, education, program evaluation, even philanthropy. The tables are arranged into a giant square so everyone can see each other.

[Jon Levisohn] - We didn't want there to be a podium. We're not going to have any PowerPoint presentations. Mostly this is a kind of experiment to see whether we can actually have a conversation about a set of issues related to Jewish identity and Jewish education where we learn from each other. Do we have all the panelists lined up? - Yes, we do.

[Jon Levisohn] - Fabulous.

[Ari Daniel] - Within minutes, people are already voicing their problems with the term "Jewish identity." People like Yehudah Mirsky from Brandeis and Jonathan Krasner from Hebrew Union College in New York.

[Yehudah Mirsky] - Jewish identity increasingly seems to me less a meaningful term than a kind of linguistic ghost. It's unclear to me what this kind of identity does to help answer the basic questions posed by Immanuel Kant. What can I know? What should I do? And, for what can I hope?

[Jonathan Krasner] - Jewish identity has basically become the crack cocaine of the Jewish educational world. You go where the money is.

[Ari Daniel] - These concerns arise for a number of reasons. Let me name just three. First, what folks mean by the word identity is fairly nebulous. It's something of a moving target. Even at this meeting, there is no single working definition: - Minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today. The term identity, which I take to mean meaningful belonging. - I find it useful to think of identity as the internalization of the collective experience. I define identity as a process whereby individuals manage their relationships with the world.

[Ari Daniel] - In fact, if you trace the term through time, it morphs before your eyes, and its different incarnations influence how we regard the word identity today.

[Eli Gottlieb] - I want to start with three pictures.

[Ari Daniel] - Eli Gottlieb directs the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. He points to his first picture. To him, it's symbolizes the view of identity that became popular starting in the mid 20th century. It's a picture of hard candies.

[Eli Gottlieb] - They start out fluid and eventually they become solid. That's one model that's very dominant in Jewish educational discourse. It's like a kind of DNA, an identity as something solid, unitary, stable. Once you get there, it's kind of a bit murky in adolescence, but once it's solid, it's solid.

[Ari Daniel] - Gottlieb moves on to his second picture. This one's a little freaky. There's a guy in it with no face, just skin where his face should be, and his arm is outstretched towards a wall. He's choosing between several face masks, each one with a different expression.

[Eli Gottlieb] - From the '60s and '70s onwards, you had a number of psychological theorists who spoke about identity as a series of masks which we don and doff as the situation requires. This sees identity as something contextual, fluid. There is not necessarily any core that's essential.

[Ari Daniel] - Gottlieb's final picture shows someone whispering into somebody else's ear. This represents the narrative view of identity.

[Eli Gottlieb] - In the last 20 years or so, increasingly psychologists are talking about identities as being stories we tell about ourselves.

[Ari Daniel] - Aspects of those stories are stable and don't change. Other elements change with every telling. The problem, says Gottlieb, is that because people move between these three very different perspectives on identity, sometimes within a single conversation, the metaphors get mixed. And the result,

[Eli Gottlieb] - We literally do not know what we are talking about.

[Ari Daniel] - So that's the first reason why identity is such a fraught topic. Because the people in this room talk about Jewish identity without knowing what that thing is. The second has to do with the fact that fewer and fewer people have just one identity. Where stacks of multiple identities interacting with each other.

[Samira Mehta] - I brought you descriptions of racially blended Jewish identity.

[Ari Daniel] - Samira Mehta works at Fairfield University. One of her descriptions contains a quote from author James McBride.

[Samira Mehta] - "My view of the world is not merely that of a black man, but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul."

[Ari Daniel] - McBride's dad was African-American and his mom was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. So there are racially blended Jewish identities. There are also religious blends. Shaul Magid is based at Indiana University.

[Shaul Magid] - A large majority of American Jews have close relatives who are not Jewish. You have a situation of Jews married to non-Jews, children with one Jewish parent, non-Jews married to Jews, all who want to be and are increasingly part of the American Jewish community. Therefore, Jewishness and Jews are no longer inextricably linked.

[Ari Daniel] - All this layering of multiple identities brings up a fundamental tension. On the one hand, if Jews are so diverse, what makes them a distinct group? And on the other hand, according to David Mittelberg from Oranim Academic College of Education,

[David Mittelberg] - The Jewish people does not have to be homogeneous. It does not have to have consensus and agreement on what it was, is, or is going to be for people to belong to that same entity.

[Ari Daniel] - The final reason why discussing identity leads to trouble, is that it's something that's impossible to observe directly, which therefore makes it really tough to measure. Fern Chertok is based at Brandeis.

[Fern Chertok] - Are we measuring the thing we think we're measuring? We need to measure it in some way that allows us to then study it and to see if it changes in different contexts. This is one of the areas where I think that the field of Jewish education and identity in Jewish education is really thin. We don't have a lot of theory that says identity or this piece of identity should be tied to these measurables.

[Ari Daniel] - One way to establish that theory is to look beyond the academic circles inside this room and ask real people, real Jews, who they are, to hear them articulate their own identities. It's a reality check that keeps coming up at this gathering, including from Bethamie Horowitz from NYU and Tobin Belzer from USC.

[Bethamie Horowitz] - Following the individuals matters. The aggregate doesn't tell you about all this movement underneath.

[Tobin Belzer] - I'm just really struck by how different it is to talk to young people about what it means to them to be Jewish, and then what's happening in this room. Young people out there are not talking about it in this way at all.

[Ari Daniel] - Belzer is part of a research team at Stanford that's interviewing young Jews about what's meaningful to them, whether that's Jewish related or not, to get at understanding how their identities have emerged and developed. The verdict's still out. In the meantime, and this is where things turned from the reflective to the forward-looking at this meeting, co-organizer, Jon Levisohn poses a question to the group.

[Jon Levisohn] - What would Jewish education beyond identity look like? Another way of thinking about the same question: What do you wish Jewish education could be or do?

[Ari Daniel] - Levisohn wants the group to avoid thinking about Jewish education as something that strengthens Jewish identity. They consider the question for a few moments, and then the responses come, fast and furious: - I would like every single school in Israel at every age level to be connected to every other school in every other culture in the world. Now I'm prepared to make a bet that if I could do it, the Jewish conversation would be more powerful in both places, and for all time. - How much more American Jews could learn about themselves if they took the time to look at other Jews also, and not just Jews in Israel. - I wish that Jewish education, but actually address the role of actual faith of God. - We have to somehow connect what Judaism has to offer with questions that people are asking. And I would favor an education that encourages people to ask questions.

[Ari Daniel] - Jon Levisohn says he wants more of this kind of discussion about educational goals. One that avoids the trap of talking about strengthening Jewish identity. It's a phrasing he finds intellectually lazy. Ari Kelman, the other co-organizer, gets the final word at the conference.

[Ari Kelman] - Whether the upshot of the conference is just meeting new people and having a common conversation across disciplines around a similar area of concern, or it changes the way that you publish what you write next or the programs that you're evaluating and developing, I think all of those are for the good. But if we can somehow use this as a moment to ripple outward in the broader community, if people could just be a little more cautious when they use the term of identity, our time here will have been even better spent. So thank you all for being part of it.


[Ari Daniel] - In fact, Kelman admits he doesn't want just a little more caution. He wants people in the Jewish community to be a lot more cautious when they use the term “Jewish identity.” Ultimately, Kelman and Levisohn hope this gathering starts to change the conversation around what it means to be Jewish. And in time, that conversation might just influence what it means to help others be Jewish as well.