Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education: The Podcast

May 20, 2014

Source: Brandeis University Blog


At the end of March, about 45 scholars, educators, and Jewish community policy-makers gathered at Brandeis University Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education to critically examine the ways that the concept of “Jewish identity” is used and sometimes abused in discussions of Jewish education. As it turns out, the topic is of interest to many, and we had to turn away many people who wanted to join the conference. We asked audio producer Ari Daniel to pull together the strands of the conversation, to make it accessible to a broader audience. The podcast is now available.


The way many in the Jewish community talk about "identity" does not capture the complex ways in which people understand their Jewish commitments, engage with Jewish communities, and enact Jewish practices. If Jewish education is to respond to the needs of American Jews and their communities in the 21st century, we need to rethink the assumption that Jewish identity is the goal of Jewish education. This podcast captures the conversation at a recent Brandeis University conference to "rethink" Jewish identity. Participants considered:

  • What does it mean to learn to inhabit or embody an identity or identities? What do we know about the ways that contemporary Jews do so?
  • Where does the language of “Jewish identity” come from, when, and why? What work does it do for those who use it? What kind of educational efforts does it promote, and what does it inhibit?
  • To the extent that the construct of “Jewish identity” no longer satisfies us, what alternatives are available – especially in conceptualizing the desirable outcomes of Jewish education?

In Jon Levisohn's reflection on the conference, he concluded:

So, what is “Jewish identity”?

It still makes perfect sense to talk about Jewish identity in terms of how a person thinks about who she or he is in the world. How do I understand myself? Whom do I understand myself to be? What story do I tell myself about myself?


I have an understanding of myself as a father, and a spouse, and a professor – and in each case, I can fill in those general categories with lots of specifics about, for example, what kind of professor I understand myself to be, what professorial ideals I aspire to enact (even if I often fall short). So too, I have an understanding of myself as a Jew, including a lot of specifics about what I think it means to be a Jew and what kind of Jew I am trying to be (even if I often fall short).


That’s the way in which it is still helpful, I think, to talk about Jewish identity: as the self-understanding, including the aspirational self-understanding, of individual Jews as Jews.


The problem is that that’s almost never what we mean, in the Jewish community, when we talk about “strengthening” or “cultivating” Jewish identity. We mean something more like “make them more Jewish.” But without articulating what “more Jewish” means, we’re avoiding all the hard questions. That’s intellectually lazy, and it’s particularly unhelpful when it comes time to figure out whether our Jewish educational projects and programs are doing whatever it is we want them do.


So next time you hear someone using the term, ask yourself: What do they mean by it?

Updated: Jun. 11, 2014