Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Dialogue participants tended to be pragmatic: rather than look for any unitary “definition” of Jewishness they apply different definitions to different situations

As Jews face the highly complicated world of Jewish connectedness, and as they realize that finding a formula that would be acceptable to all (or at least most) Jews at all times and in all places and situations is unrealistic, they still want some “norms” of Jewishness to be applied. “Without demonstrating commitment to Judaism, you can feel Jewish in one minute and non-Jewish in another minute,” a Boston participant explained.190 “I want to have some sense that a person who claims to belong to the Jewish world is actually Jewish,” a discussant in Baltimore said.191 But cognizant of the impossibility of agreeing on what makes a person “Jewish” for all things, the Dialogue participants tended to be pragmatic: rather than look for any general “definition” of Jewishness they apply different definitions – or different expectations around communal norms – to different situations. Rather than trying to reach agreement on an entry bar for Jewishness, they negotiate the feasibility of diverse entry bars for a multiplicity of Jewish connections.

Broadly speaking, there are four areas to which Jews apply these changing expectations and definitions:

  1. Participation in Jewish life;
  2. Religious leadership;
  3. Communal leadership; and
  4. Israel.

Our discussion groups tended to apply certain rules to Israel that do not apply to the Diaspora community. They expect certain things of their communal leaders they do not expect of all participants in Jewish life, and so on and so forth. Of course, participants did not always agree on which criteria fits which situation. “We all had a lot of difficulty with this question. One thought that only Birthright should be limited to Jews, while synagogue and federation leadership should be open to non-Jews, while another felt just the opposite,” a Zurich summary explained.192 But citing a few examples from JPPI discussions may make these differentiations more tangible, and appropriate examples are plentiful. Dialogue sessions included several scenarios that prompted participant interaction around specific issues: where should the bar of “Jewishness” be for Birthright trip eligibility, or for being a member of a synagogue building committee, or on the ritual committee, or to be a rabbi, or a communal leader, or to get funding for Jewish activities, or to be eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law or Return. JPPI asked participants to look at different Jewish “types” and tell us how they fit into these slots.

For example: does a person on a synagogue’s building committee need to be Jewish – and according to which definition? Most participants answered this question quite simply: when it comes to a synagogue life, the first rule is to adhere to synagogue norms. Dialogue participants did not anticipate, nor expect, that all synagogues have the same rules. “Ritual committee membership would depend on the synagogue,” said a participant in Cleveland.193

But this does not suggest that Jews see no difference, for example, between a member of a building committee and a member of a ritual committee. They do. Most discussants shrugged off the question of any “Jewish bar” for sitting on building committees: “Why would anyone have a problem with a non-Jew being on a building committee?” asked a UK participant.194 A participant in Detroit was more blunt: “If someone is dumb enough to want to be on a building committee, Jewish, not Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, by all means, let him be on the building committee.”195 But when considering ritual committees, some more complex debates unfolded. There were those who insisted that even synagogues in which mixed families are normative reserve membership on committees that dictate the rules of ritual for Jews exclusively. Then again, a Dallas rabbi made the exact opposite argument: “I need non-Jews on the ritual committee, and if no one volunteers I will search for such members,” he said. “My synagogue has many families of Jews and non-Jews, and this makes it essential for me to get the non-Jewish outlook on our rituals. I want to know if something is appealing or offensive to non-Jews, I want to make sure they feel comfortable at the Temple.”196

Looking at the various types and scenarios considered in JPPI Dialogue discussions, it is possible to paint with a broad brush a certain hierarchy of expectations and norms participants would apply to different situations. Clearly, for almost every participant the entry bar for inclusion was low, and the expectation that the Jewish community be welcoming to those seeking to participate in Jewish life or engage in Jewish learning was high. “In general, I lean toward greater inclusivity. Focus on people who actively seek to engage rather than trying to cast a net and draw people in,” a Portland participant advised.197 “Anyone who walks through the door should be eligible for funding, self-identifying, and self-selecting,” an Atlanta participant argued.198 “It doesn’t feel like a Jewish value to exclude people,” said a Cleveland participant.199 “’Keiruv’ is a Jewish value,” asserted a participant in Israel.200

If there were any caveats in regard to participation, they were focused on the specific goals of specific activities. “Consider what’s best for the Jewish community. The goal is to make the Jewish community better. The ‘who’ is less important than the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’” according to one Portland participant.201 “The allocation of funds cannot be centered on the roots of a person but on the goals of the project,” offered a Rio participant.202 One example of an activity where stricter rules might apply: “For a singles event I would be less inclusive.”203 One example of a particular, yet inclusive guideline that could be applied: “We should make funds available for families with one Jewish parent. Cleveland is doing that now, and we’ve strengthened our community with that outreach.”204