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What is the Meaning of ‘Jewish’ for American Jews?

What is the Meaning of ‘Jewish’ for American Jews?

Dec 01, 2011

By Dr. Gil Graff

Recently, I had occasion to meet with a group of Israeli educators on a study mission in the U.S. These educators—including a Bedouin from the Negev, an Ethiopian-born Israeli, and Russian-born Israelis—were exploring multi-culturalism in American society and its educational systems. The visitors were traveling to 8-10 cities and meeting with various ethnic and religious groups; my interaction with them was in the context of their considering the diversity of Jewish life in the U.S., the place of Jews in the larger society and the substance and settings of Jewish education.

The Israeli educators discerned that (a) Jewish identity—let alone any "affiliation" with something Jewish—is entirely voluntary; (b) that, for most American Jews, "American" is a primary identity (certainly, in terms of nationality); (c) that, for those who identify as Jews, it is not a "given" that Israel is a significant part of that identity; (d) the vast majority of American Jews are not Orthodox. Given all of that, the visitors wondered, what is the meaning of "Jewish" for American Jews, and how does that inform Jewish education?

There is no single answer to the very good question posed by these Israeli visitors. "There are 70 faces to the Torah," opines a longstanding rabbinic dictum. That said, all "faces" or expressions of Judaism are grounded in the teachings of shared texts and traditions, are connected to a particular history and include a vision of what makes for a life of meaning.

The Jewish people has, throughout time and place, been both one and diverse. Education in a common body of teaching (including a shared language) has been an important, sustaining factor in maintaining unity within diversity. Is it telling that, 25 years ago, the United Jewish Appeal dropped its slogan, "We Are One"?
In his introduction to a book titled Cultures of the Jews, Professor David Biale observed that "the Jews throughout the ages believedthemselves to have a common national biography and a common culture." Whether this belief will endure depends in no small part on the incidence and substance of Jewish education in years to come. For, absent common "roots," as my visitors asked: "What is the meaning of 'Jewish' for American Jews," and can that meaning possibly serve as the basis for a sense of shared culture?

One Point of View...let us hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE

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