When Teens Say “I’m not that Jewish”

Jewish Star; Star of David

Image by Alex E. Proimos via Flickr

I met with several teens yesterday, and when I asked them to tell me about their Jewish identity, their answers surprised me.  At one point or another, more than half of them responded in the negative with: “I’m not that Jewish” or “I’m not really so Jewish” and sometimes they completed  those statements with: “because I don’t go to synagogue”, “because I don’t really practice”, “because I’m not that religious”, or because I don’t really believe in God….”

Does this strike anyone else as strange? Why the emphasis on ‘not being Jewish’ and why the focus on what they don’t do?

Somehow, they are defining themselves by what they’re not.  Yet, I don’t think that holds true for other aspects of their lives.  If I would ask them to describe themselves, I doubt they’d begin by telling me what they’re not: “I’m not athletic, I’m not friendly, I’m not really into music” –would sound ridiculous.

I wanted to explore these comments with them, and decided to challenge them instead of playing it safe. I responded with something like: “saying you’re really not that Jewish is like saying ‘I’m really not that human’, isn’t it?  “A human is what you are through and through….and so is being Jewish. It’s your identity, it’s who you are and what you are.”

They just looked at me, surprised by my strong opinion.

I proceeded: “Why the continuum? Why do you rate yourself on your Jewishness? Why do an evaluation? By the way, do any of your non-Jewish friends define themselves that way—-on a scale?” (This sounds much harsher in print than the actual tone of the conversation, but you get the point).

I also encourage them to stop defining “Jewish” .  Those other qualifiers of belief, practice, attendance….tend to create distance and separation–the opposite of what we should be after.

I think we need to be aware of the language our teens use and help them flip it towards the positive.  As a start, “I am Jewish” sounds great to me.

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About Ruth Schapira

I am a Jewish educator and my hope is to spur new ideas through this blog, perhaps to inspire new conversations and motivate change within the Jewish community. I'm interested in making a difference through training, leadership development, and outreach. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

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