Expanding the Tribe in the Home of the Brave

The passing of Debbie Friedman and shooting of Gabrielle Giffords highlighted the stretching and morphing of Jewish identity in the U.S., a trend sadly not mirrored in Israel.

Naamah Kelman, Elan Ezrachi
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Naamah Kelman, Elan Ezrachi

The assassination attempt on U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' life drew attention to her Jewish identity and once again raised the issue of the boundaries of who is a Jew. Giffords sees herself as Jewish, even though according to the definitions accepted in Israel she would not be accepted as such by some of the powers that be.

Gabrielle Giffords. Credit: AP

She was born to a Jewish father and grew up assimilated. However, as an adult she chose to self-identify as a Jew, to join a synagogue and to identify with Israel. As the great-granddaughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Giffords would certainly be entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return but then she would bear the brunt of endless bans and shunning. Her activity in the Reform Jewish community in her home town of Tucson, Arizona, would not be of help to her.

Over the past 30 years, several demographic studies of Jewry in the United States have been published. For many years the dominant line was that mixed marriages were a disaster that would lead to a decline in the number of Jews. There is, however, another view that sees connections between Jews and non-Jews as in fact a possibility for expanding the definitions of identity and enlarging the ranks.

Recently there have been a number of new studies showing the number of Jews in the United States is not decreasing.

Beyond the demographic hairsplitting, it appears there is a phenomenon of historic dimensions developing there: Instead of fleeing from Judaism, entering Judaism; instead of black and white definitions, "hybrid" definitions that enable surprising connections between Jews and non-Jews. These new definitions are expanding the boundaries of the tribe.

A few days after the attack at the Tucson shopping center, another event occurred that sent shockwaves through America's Jewish community. Folksinger and cantor Debbie Friedman died suddenly. It is hard to imagine American Jewish culture in the United States without Friedman. At Jewish summer camps, schools and synagogues many of her melodies for prayers and her songs are sung.

Friedman led the Jewish version of the youth revolt influenced by the 1960s. She was active in equal rights movement organizations, the feminist movement, the struggle for peace and justice and initiatives for tikkun olam - repairing the world.

The prayer for Giffords' welfare offered by tens of thousands of American Jews was a special version based on the traditional "Mi Shebeirakh" prayer for healing the sick combined with words in English, to a melody by Friedman.

Sadly, Friedman died just a day after Giffords was shot. Most in the Israeli media were not familiar with her and did not mention her passing but The New York Times saw fit to publish a long article about the woman who returned "congregational singing" to the Reform synagogues, which had been known for the strict formality of their prayer.

Giffords and Friedman embody the right combination of democratic values and Jewish tradition. While Judaism in Israel is become moving further to the margins and concentrating mainly on whom to push out of the fold - the convert, the foreigner, the half-Jew or the new immigrant serving in the Israel Defense Forces - in American Judaism a dynamic of acceptance, embrace and widening circles is developing. This is another measure of the growing gap between Israeli society and the largest Jewish community in the world.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem; Dr. Elan Ezrachi is an educational consultant to international Jewish organizations. They are married.



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