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What kind of jew you are will most likely determine whether you pass on Jewish identity to the next generation

Posted on January 1, 2018

There are many expressions of Jewish identity that have helped sustain Jewish identity in America for the last century, including:

  1. The Holocaust as an imperative for Jewish survival
  2. Jews are a people as expressed through organizations like, B’nai Brith and JCCs
  3. Jewish life (including religious and social expressions) shared in the family context and institutions like the synagogue
  4. A life dedicated to the observance of halakha (Jewish law)

Of these four expressions, the first two are losing their ability to motivate Jewish identity and most likely will not provide the passion and relevance necessary for the Jewish identity of the next generation.

During the last 60 years, many Jews have felt the passion and obligation to self-identify as Jews based on the Jewish suffering of the Holocaust. Whether it was the personal loss of family members, or a shared-trauma experience, the Holocaust has stirred the hearts of many Jews to feel Jewish. It was an “in your face” attitude that Jews would not succumb to the genocidal wishes of the Nazis. But for the next generation of Jews this motivation no longer resonates. To them, the Holocaust is ancient history and is as relevant to their Jewish identity as the Spanish Inquisition that took place more than 500 years ago. It is not that they are unmoved by the tragedy of the Holocaust. In fact, there can be a great sorrow for the tragic loss of innocent life by the younger generation, but this does not translate into a motivation or a passion to self-identify as being Jewish. While the Holocaust will remain an important chapter in the history of the Jewish people, its impact on Jewish identity is limited to the older generations.

Throughout history, the individual Jew was forced to cast his lot with the Jewish people.  The world was not a place for the individual Jew to survive physically, economically or spiritually. The choice was a life with your people or without them (i.e. conversion).   The modern world of post-Enlightenment Europe provided an opportunity for Jews to leave the ghetto and still live as Jews. While previous generations of American Jews expressed their Jewish identity through communal institutions like JCCs, B’nai Brith and other fraternal organizations, this is no longer the case. Whether they spoke of the Jews as “chosen people” or just people, there was an affiliation and relationship with other Jews; a kinship with Jews throughout the world. Unfortunately, for many of the next generation of American Jews, the sense of relationship to the Jewish people is non-existent. In fact, for many of the next generation, speaking of the Jewish people (i.e. it is important to marry someone Jewish) smacks of racial prejudice. It is a world in which universalism prevails and distinctions among people are considered racist.

While the fourth group (committed to halakha) is still the most likely to pass on Jewish identity to the next generation, it is the third group (Jewish life) that has had the greatest impact in the 20th century and still has the greatest potential for the future. In my opinion, the inability of the first two groups to provide Jewish identity for the next generation of Jews is reflected in the lack of passion and relevance now necessary for Jewish identity.  Whereas Jewish identity was previously an assumption for Jews, it now is not. In the words of Rabbi Schulweis, for the next generation, “every Jew must become a Jew-by-Choice.” The problem is that most parents of the “next generation” Jews don’t understand this. They assume that the Jewish connections that made them identify as Jews will do the same for their children. Unfortunately, this will be a fatal error for the Jewish identity of their children.

What is the answer?

One of the answers lies in a fifth category of people who identify as Jews. I hear from a number of congregants that they are on a Jewish path of identity for themselves and their families because it was lacking in their own upbringing. Rather than succumb to the natural order of assimilation, they have become Jews-by-Choice. Choosing for themselves to participate in Jewish life in the home and synagogue, they are taking the steps necessary to provide the passion and relevance to sustain Jewish life.

Are you one of these Jewish-born Jews-by-Choice?

Should you be?

The future vibrancy of the Jewish people demands that we all consider this question and decide what kind of Jew we want to be.

—Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel

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