In a brilliant post, Daniel Septimus, Executive Director of MyJewishLearning.com, suggests that we discard the concept of strengthening Jewish identity to frame the work of engagement of Jewish young adults, or of Jewish continuity.
“What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?” asks Septimus. He goes on to say, quoting Dr. Erica Brown, that the Jewish world today “aggressively emphasize[s] the emotional.” This desire to get young Jews to feel good and proud about being Jewish is a shallow and meaningless educational goal that has no roots in Jewish tradition. Septimus suggests that we replace Jewish identity as a concept with a much older rubric, composed by Shimon HaTzaddik, who says in Pirkei Avot that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, Temple service (avodah) and acts of kindness (gemilut hassadim). Septimus reads in Torah all of the study and intellectual and cognitive aspects of Judaism; into Avodah, the religious, ritual and spiritual aspects; and into Gemilut Hassadim the ethical demands of Judaism and the conduct among human beings.
Needless to say, I heartily agree with Septimus. While many theories of identity exist, including the aforementioned Dr. Brown’s schema of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional components of identity-building, I think we can settle on a layman’s simple and direct approach. A person’s identity is composed of those things that he does, those things he refuses to do, and the intentions behind those choices. The problem with the non-Orthodox Jewish institutional community is in its own identity! Jews fifty-five and up, who sustain and captain Jewish institutions, have largely chosen not to commit to regular Torah-study, nor to observing very much ritual or spiritual practice. I’ll grant the ethics though, and will salute this generation for defining as primary the ethical role in Judaism.
When this generation talks about strengthening Jewish identity, I’m not sure that they are just talking about emotions. I think they are talking about some real choices. The makeup of their own identity rests on the choice to support Israel and Zionism through unblinking solidarity, to affiliate with synagogues (but not to attend much), and to donate to Federations. These choices simply do not resonate with young adults, many of whom don’t suffer a sense of shame around being Jewish and don’t need Israel to feel strong, or impressive synagogues to feel proud, and who especially don’t feel like they need an ethnic social safety net to be cared for like any other American.
The Judaism of the previous generation was an expression of their cultural and spiritual needs. Those needs were the needs of an immigrant community to take care of its own in the face of active discrimination, to build institutions and establish itself as a legitimate part of American society, and to support the state of Israel as a point of pride, but also as a potential safe haven.
None of these cultural and spiritual needs are in play today. Young Jews in America feel safe, and they feel as though they belong. They want to express theiur values by giving of their time, not their money. They don’t fear Judaism will be destroyed, they seek to understand why it was so important to preserve it. They don’t want to draw pride from Israel because Jews there fight back, they want to support and be proud of Israel because Jews there make peace. Those are the actions and intentions of the next generation of Jews. That’s their Jewish identity, that’s their Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hassadim. Let’s support that.