What Does It Mean to Be Jewish, in Israel and Abroad?

If we Jews do not have our ‘Jewishness’ mean something, then why do we care to survive?

In class a few weeks ago, our instructor asked us, a mixed group of Israeli and North American students, to discuss the most important issues facing the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. We were being asked specifically as Jewish educators in an attempt to determine, among other things, if there is a common ground.

There is no question in my mind that the Jewish experience in Israel is different than the Jewish experience in the Diaspora; in fact, it’s equally true to say that the Jewish experience in the United States is different than the Jewish experience in France, Japan, or Uganda. And without denying the unique Jewish experience of living in the Jewish homeland in a Jewish state, the fact that Judaism is different in Israel doesn’t really make Israel special at all.

Soho Synagogue - Dan Keinan
Dan Keinan

Despite the differences in Jewish experience and Jewish identity in the various countries, one constant remains. In each place, it is the job of Jewish educators to help those around them negotiate the hyphen of their Judaism. Indeed, whether one is Jewish-American, Jewish-Israeli or Jewish-anything else, in our world, the question of Jewish education is one of determining how we allow Judaism to affect our many identities.

Even in Israel, the Jewish state, nobody is simply “Jewish” without having some additional element to his identity. Growing up in America, I frequently had to negotiate what it meant to be both a Jew and an American, and now that I am in Israel, I have to explore the meaning of being both a Jew and an Israeli. And it’s particularly important to me now that I not conflate those two identities, for being Jewish and being Israeli are far from the same thing.

Many Israelis seem to believe that any existential issues facing the Jewish people would be solved simply if world Jewry moved to Israel en masse. Certainly, in their minds, the issues of assimilation and intermarriage would disappear. But in proposing mass aliyah as a solution, these people are missing the larger point. “Jewishness” is not meaningful only in the continued existence of people who call themselves Jewish, but in the way in which people allow their Judaism to inform their actions and their lives.

The answer of how we are to be Jewish is different for many people, irrespective of a person’s other national identities. For some, the answer is obvious: being Jewish means being faithful to mitzvot, God’s commandments, as understood in the codification of Jewish law. For others, being Jewish is about cultural expressions, perhaps in terms of certain foods eaten at certain times of the year. What is important, however, is that one’s Jewishness is expressed in some way. While I will not deny that a Jew-by-genes is a Jew, as a Jewish educator I strive to instill something stronger than that in my students.

Indeed, those of us in Jewish education need to instill Jewish values, not a sense of Jewish identity. Outside of Israel, the push for Jewish identity may be stronger (by necessity), but such a push is not enough. Both in Israel and abroad, the question facing all of us as Jews is, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Are we to be Jews by birthright or Jews by action? I do not dare guess whether the survival of the Jews is guaranteed, whether it be in Israel or anywhere else in the world. But if we do not have our “Jewishness” mean something, then why do we care to survive?

Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and a student at the Israeli Bet Midrash at Machon Schechter. The views expressed in the article are his alone.