Jewish Identity: Goal or Mirage of Jewish Education?

Interview with Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman

Based on the recent volume that they edited, Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives.

Remind people why Jewish identity became the mantra in 1990, and why Jewish day schools were seen as the solution.

JAL: There are different ways of telling this story, but for me, one really important insight comes from our colleague Jonathan Krasner, who documented how the conception of Jewish identity changed in the 1960s. In the older conception, folks were concerned about “healthy” Jewish identities. Having a healthy Jewish identity meant that you were (to use another psychological term) “well-adjusted.” If we think about the pre- and post-war eras in America in particular, it meant that you were able to navigate an environment that was not particularly comfortable for Jews, an environment in which the messages that you received about being a Jew were not positive ones.

Notice that that’s not how we tend to talk about Jewish identity. We don’t talk about “healthy” versus “unhealthy.” Instead, we tend to talk about “strong” versus “weak.” How come? Because a group of sociologists came along who were eager to understand how American Jews were changing as they grew more integrated into American culture. These sociologists developed measures for a variety of Jewish practices (lighting Shabbat candles, fasting on Yom Kippur). They aggregated these measures to create a numerical score of “how Jewish” a person is. Voila! Instead of talking about healthy-versus-unhealthy Jewish identity, now we started using the metaphor of more-versus-less. And of course Jewish education was understood as the key to more. That’s why we now talk about “strengthening Jewish identity” or “deepening Jewish identity.” Those are all more-versus-less concepts—but they’re really problematic. What could it possibly mean for someone to have more of an identity than someone else?

AYK: I agree, but there are at least two other dimensions to think about here. First, you have a broad expansion of attention to “identity” across a range of areas in American life, starting in the late 1960s. Erik Erikson, the rise of identity-based rights movements (feminism, GLBTQA rights, civil rights and so on), and a resurgence of interests in immigrant histories all fueled a surge in identity discourse. The Jewish education industry tried to catch the slipstream of this broad array of social, cultural and political movements. So the question of “identity” was not just a Jewish one; it was a broadly social one in the US.

The second dimension highlights the role of day schools more directly. Day schools—particularly non-Orthodox day schools—grew in number and variety beginning in the 1970s, and then benefited from a renewed burst of concern and funding in the 1990s. In the 1970s, day schools picked up on the language of the time, and that was the language of identity. By the 1990s, identity itself had ossified into an educational output: Jewish schools were supposed to produce people with Jewish identities. But how do schools teach that? Furthermore, if the output is an individual identity, what does that portend for more collectivist forms of Jewish life? What if we had a community of people with strong Jewish identities but no desire to do much of anything Jewish together? The emphasis on individual identity may not be a result but a cause of some of what worries people.

Why are people today fighting back against this mantra? Don’t the underlying demographic challenges remain? Another way of saying this: Isn’t there still some legitimacy to the “survivalist” mode of communal operation?

JAL: Yes, there are demographic challenges. But I think it’s helpful to notice that there’s a pretty fundamental question about whether the changes that we see happening all around us are inevitably negative, or whether they may be signs of renewal or positive transformation. Not every change is a change for the better, of course. But neither is every change a change for the worse.

However, to address your point directly, I am personally committed to advocating for and working towards the survival and even more the flourishing of the Jewish people. But “survivalism” suggests that the goal is … survival, period. And that feels rather empty. Survival for what? What is our role in the world? Who do we want to be?

AYK: I’m with Jon. Survival is fine, but… really? That can’t be what all of this effort is about.

As for why people are pushing back, I can’t speak for others, but for me, it is clear that Jewish identity as a precondition for or an element of Jewish communal life neglects the plain fact that Jewish communities in the 21st century include and even rely on lots of people who do not have and do not want Jewish identities. These include teachers, custodial staff, spouses, grandparents and friends. The plain reality of Jewish communities is that their survival is intimately connected to the role that all of their members play. To hang the survival of Jewish communities only on those who hold Jewish identities is to miss out on resources and relationships that are already contributing to those very communities.

Talk about the misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions behind the term.

AYK: Well, here’s a rather glaring one. We all know about the 2013 Pew Study, but here’s a data point that we probably haven’t thought about: 100% of respondents to the Pew Survey have a Jewish identity. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in the study. Having a Jewish identity qualifies one to be counted. Likewise, the vast majority of participants in Jewish educational programming have Jewish identities. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in the room to begin with. Identity must therefore be considered an educational input, not an output. Once we understand it as an input, any attempt to measure or assess or document “Jewish identity” is not really about assessing whether or not it is there, but its relative “strength,” which necessarily reproduces “good Jew” and “bad Jew” dichotomies. And those are not helpful.

JAL: Building on Ari’s point, let me take the opportunity to plug another chapter in the book, by Tali Zelkowicz, a scholar who was also, until recently, the head of a Jewish day school. She writes that “Jewish educators don’t make Jews.” What she’s saying is that Jewish educators (her data comes from her work in day schools) sometimes fall into the trap of imagining that their job is to take unformed generic human beings and turn them into Jews. But of course this is nonsense. The students come in as Jews, with particular self-understandings. The work of the educator is to contribute to those self-understandings, challenge them, provoke them, provide the experiences which will enable those self-understandings to develop and grow. But, as Ari says, identity is an input.

Specifically within an educational setting, what is harmful about setting “Jewish identity” as a goal?

AYK: The big issue, for me, is that I don’t know what the term means as an outcome. When I say to my students, “I want you to be a more efficient reader of scholarly texts,” I can envision a range of exercises to help them learn how to do that and a variety of ways to measure their ability to perform that skill. Or if I am interested in attitudinal changes (say, about climate change), I can create assessments to measure that change. But how does one measure identity in a non-hierarchical way? Or, how might one envision a non-hierarchical measurement of Jewish identity that can account for the variety of ways that American Jews engage with others in their community or invest in religion, culture or politics?

JAL: As I see it, perhaps the most harmful thing is that the meaningless term “strengthening Jewish identity” is a marker of a kind of instrumentalization of educational experiences. Why are we learning this thing (whatever it happens to be)? Because it will “strengthen our Jewish identities”? I think that’s a terrible answer. It’s a terrible answer not only because nobody really knows what they mean when they say that. It’s a terrible answer because it pulls us away from whatever it is that we’re actually engaged with—whether that’s Talmud, or Israeli dance (which is the example that I use in my chapter), or tikkun olam, or Jewish history and thought, or whatever.

The best education happens in a context in which the educator is both knowledgeable and passionate about a particular topic or area, and works really hard to get her students to share that passion. Nobody in the history of the world has ever been passionate about something as vacuous and meaningless as “strengthening Jewish identity.” That’s what I mean by “instrumentalization.” It turns something that ought to have its own value and integrity into a mere instrument for something else.

Anxiety over “Jewish identity” became one factor in the rise of Jewish day schools. In what other ways do you see this notion factoring in day schools—in mission, marketing, curriculum, etc.?

JAL: I do see Jewish day school folks talking about the role of the school in “strengthening Jewish identity.” I think that’s unfortunate. Their stakeholders ought to ask, “Wait, what do you mean by that?”

AYK: To Jon’s question, I would add, “What does it look like to teach for identity? What pedagogies work here? How might we measure our success or those of our students?”

JAL: Right. Which is a question that ought to concern prospective or current teachers, if they’re being hired to work in an institution that tells them to “strengthen Jewish identity.” They should rightfully be able to say, “Hold on, I know a lot about how to work on aspirational goals in mathematics or Talmud (or history or Hebrew language or drama), but what exactly are you asking me to do?”

Is there a positive role for “Jewish identity” to play in Jewish educational and communal discourse?

AYK: It depends. But before relying on the term, we first need to think critically about it and what it means in this context. Does it mean “Torah-true” Jews? People who light Shabbat candles? People who don’t marry people who are not Jewish? People who wear “chai” necklaces? I don’t mean to be obtuse, but I don’t know what it means, and if I don’t know what it means, I’m not sure how to use it.

JAL: Here’s a non-problematic way that people use the term: People talk about learning opportunities that shaped or changed the way that they thought about themselves. When they say that “This program or institution shaped my Jewish identity,” I think they’re saying that it had a deep effect on them, an effect that seemed to transcend the particular content that they learned.

If we were to probe that kind of usage, I think we might find some interesting things. For example, perhaps the program helped them to realize that they really want to make space for Jewish ritual in their lives (or that ritual doesn’t work for them). Perhaps it helped them to realize that the study of Jewish texts could be a joyful and illuminating experience that they want more of (or that they should get over their guilt at not being that kind of person, and instead could focus on other aspects of Judaism). Notice that, in these examples, Jewish identity really means something like “what kind of Jew I imagine myself to be,” and that that kind of subjective self-understanding is inherently pluralistic and non-monolithic.

What concepts are people using to replace “identity” as crucial markers of Jewish individual and communal vibrancy—especially in Jewish education?

JAL: I’m intrigued by the increasing use of the term “flourishing,” which has a long and distinguished philosophical pedigree. Some people may find it vague and hard to measure. Fair enough. But it signals that there are better and worse versions of individual Jewish lives and Jewish communities, and we want more of the former—and now let’s argue about what constitutes flourishing.

AYK: I’m not interested in synonyms. If we offer a synonym, it will just stand in for the same murky mess of prejudices that currently hide behind the language of “identity.” And that won’t do anyone any good.

Furthermore, “identity” was never a marker of “individual and community vibrancy.” To have a Jewish identity was not a prerequisite for vibrancy of any kind. If you’re interested in vibrancy, that’s great! Aim for that! And if that’s the case, schools should develop curricula, cultures, structures and so on that are likely to result in the kind of vibrancy that they think is most important or valuable. But vibrancy is not identity, and identity is not a marker of vibrancy. The Pew Report also told us that there are lots of people who have Jewish identities but who do not engage in what some might call “vibrant” Jewish lives, communal or otherwise.

What contributions do you see your volume making, or do you hope it will make, to the conversation about Jewish education?

AYK: I would like to dislodge identity discourse from the heart of Jewish education, because I think that the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century need better language and better practice, a deeper engagement with the variety of ways that people learn both in and outside of school, and a more sophisticated set of approaches to the complex question of how people learn to share in Jewish life. I hope that the book participates in a shift in how people think about Jewish education, its practices, aims, outcomes and intentions.

JAL: I would just add that I think that the book contains some really interesting and thought-provoking chapters that have the potential to push educators’ thinking—as Ari said, about practices and outcomes. We can think about it as a different kind of “visions” discourse. Unlike Visions of Jewish Education, the volume edited by Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler and Danny Marom that came out in 2003, our book is not offering grand and comprehensive visions of the “educated Jew.” But like that earlier book, we hope that this book can help educators to engage critically with the big questions that should animate and guide all of our practice.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020