“Jewish identity,” which emerged as an analytical term in the 1950s, appealed to a set of needs that American Jews felt in the postwar period, which accounted for its popularity. Identity was the quintessential conundrum for a community on the threshold of acceptance. The work of Kurt Lewin, Erik Erikson, Will Herberg, Marshall Sklare, and others helped to shape the communal conversation. The reframing of that discourse from one that was essentially psychosocial and therapeutic to one that was sociological and survivalist reflected the community’s growing sense of physical and socioeconomic security in the 1950s and early 1960s. The American Jewish Committee and its Division of Scientific Research offers an enlightening case study of this phenomenon. Jewish educators seized on identity formation, making it the raison d’être of their endeavor. But the ascent of identity discourse also introduced a number of challenges for the Jewish educator—conceptual, methodological, political, and even existential.
The discourse on Jewish identity and education is sufficiently ingrained and ubiquitous in American Jewish culture that it has an almost timeless quality to it. But like most other buzzwords and phrases it has a history that reveals much about its utility. Focusing on the years between 1940 and 1980, when the contemporary pattern was set, my purpose here is to historicize the term Jewish identity, to point out that it has a particular genesis and that the discourse on identity serves a particular purpose. It appeals to a set of needs that American Jews have felt, at least since the 1950s, which accounts for its popularity. Jewish educators have seized on identity formation, making it the raison d’être of their endeavor. But the ascent of identity discourse has also introduced a number of challenges for the Jewish educator, conceptual, methodological, political and even existential.
From the conclusion:
The Jewish educator’s role as a witting accomplice in the elevation of identity to a sine qua non in Jewish education has been a mixed blessing. While Jewish education has come to occupy an increasingly central position on the communal agenda, which has translated into increased funding for projects and programs, reductionist and often-unrealistic goals have too often defined success and failure. The matrix of philanthropic foundations, federations, Jewish schools, camps, Israel trips, Jewish campus organizations, service learning organizations, youth groups, and the like has become a veritable Jewish identity industrial complex. And there is little to suggest that the obsession with identity is on the wane, within either the Jewish community or America at large.