What exactly is Jewish Identity?

For years, I’ve used the term “Jewish identity”, and never gave it too much thought. As a Jewish educator, the talk among my colleagues was often about how to instill our teenagers with a strong sense of their Jewish identity. This was so that they would feel a part of the Jewish community and continue that connection throughout college and beyond. 

Recently, I started to think about this descriptor more deeply. It seems like an “add-on”—as if identity can be carved up into little pieces and assigned categories. Isn’t your identity just who you are? 

As in, “I don’t have a Jewish identity, I am Jewish”. Period. 

This might sound a bit silly or trivial, but our language speaks volumes about our situation in life and sometimes even the choices we make.

I remember hearing a question asked by one Jewish person to another: “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?” 

The person answered, “I’m Jewish. That’s it. Anything more is unnecessary”. 

If the goal is to integrate how we present ourselves on the outside with our innermost being, assigning extra adjectives to who we are seems counter-productive.

Years ago, there was much attention and concern in the formal Jewish community about whether or not our teenagers would have “Jewish identities”. This was especially in response to alarming polls (Pew studies) that announced an extremely high intermarriage rate (70% in progressive, aka non-Orthodox, communities).

So there was an awful lot of programming that was fun and engaging so that doing Jewish would be enjoyable and therefore, increase one’s desire to identify with what was causing the overall good feelings (Jewish stuff).

But I think we are paying the price for ‘fun’. 

Sarah Hurwitz, known as the Obama’s speechwriter, recently wrote a book called Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). 

Others in her generation have also said that their Hebrew school education didn’t offer them enough meaning. 

I wonder if organizations still debate whether various programming meets the goal of “increasing Jewish identity”.

I’m not saying that enjoyable activities shouldn’t occur, but not as the sole rationale for the experience. 

What exactly is a Jewish identity? Is it a sense of obligation to tradition? Is it a commitment to continue to study our texts and glean meaning from them? Is it a commitment to keep certain mitzvot or to undertake more? Is it a desire to socialize only with other Jews? 

My educational philosophy was unpopular then, as it probably is now.

I believe that by offering programming of meaning (which may or not be fun), the message we give is that Judaism has something to say about your life. You can be enriched by seeing your life through a Jewish lens and by living and practicing as a Jew. 

Is that fun? Sometimes. Does it have staying power? Absolutely.  

I think that after experiencing a Jewish program, you should expect to experience some change, to be more learned and aware than before. I don’t believe that goal is met by merely socializing with other Jews.  

Historically, Jews did not have to make these distinctions. Our ancestors “did” Jewish because they were Jewish. Being Jewish meant that you participated in Jewish activities that felt natural to you and your community [prayer, acts of loving kindness, monetary donations, visiting the sick (pre-covid), etc.]. 

Now, in some communities, we seek to “do” Jewish in order to “feel” Jewish.

How Jewish do you feel?

What are you doing that is “Jewish”? What could you be doing? What little changes could you make that would strengthen you as a Jew? 


Want to learn more? Please visit Inner Judaism for course information. 

About Ruth Schapira

As a Jewish educator, I hope to broaden opportunities for learning and offer new ideas. If my posts inspire you to hold conversations and motivate change within the Jewish community, that would make me very happy. I'm interested in making a difference. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

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