Jewish educators are expected not only to imbue their students with Jewish knowledge but with Jewish feelings and Jewish actions as well—in short, with Jewish identity. However, in spite of a growing understanding among researchers that identity is fluid and dynamic, many of the traditional methods for assessing Jewish identity reflect essentialist concepts of identity that assume Jews and their Jewishness remain unchanging across various contexts. Our intention in this article is to review briefly some of the ways in which traditional methods of studying Jewish identity reveal problematic conceptualizations, and to suggest an alternative that seems to us more in keeping with constructivist concepts of identity.
In this article we attempt to critique from a theoretical perspective the concept “identity” and how it has shaped the methods by which “Jewish identity” has been assessed and measured. We challenge the generalized psychological approaches that have held sway in many studies of identity, and suggest that supplanting the categories typically used with social activities and contexts is a better way to describe human behavior. We present a pilot study—a kind of limited experiment—that offers a method of examining the activities and relationships through which people identify themselves as “Jewish,” thereby revealing in place of “identity” new conceptualizations that warrant researchers' attention.
Finally, we explore the implications these findings have for Jewish education. Throughout this article, we have approached critically “identity” as a useful construct in the social sciences, and in Jewish education in particular; nonetheless, we find it difficult, given its long tradition and influence, to abandon the term altogether. Our study is meant to be illustrative rather than a complete model, a beginning rather than an end.