Jewish Identity Is More Complex Than Ticking a Box

Rather than see the Pew survey's 'Jews of no religion' as disconnected and a lost cause, these 'cultural Jews' show us how Jewish identity is evolving.

Years ago, during a day-long meeting on American Jewish identity, a prominent Jewish demographer was discussing the results of his latest study on identity formation in young Jews. As he listed his data, he became impassioned about the rise of intermarriage and what he saw as its result - a growing dilution of Jewish religious affiliation, disconnection to Israel, and the eventual loss of Jewish peoplehood.

For most of us in the room that day, this was not new information. We had sat in numerous sessions where similar conclusions of doom had been drawn. Yet as the demographer continued detailing his grave concern about “intermarrieds,” one of the meeting attendees stood up, his face red, his body shaking. You think you are talking about numbers and data, he shouted, but you are talking cavalierly and disparagingly about me and my wife.

As the debate, dissection and commentary continue to circle around Pew’s recent “Portrait of American Jews,” there seems little more to add, except perhaps to remind ourselves that we are talking not only about numbers, but about real people.

This is a lesson we have continuously learned through our involvement with the nonprofit organization Reboot. Founded over a decade ago, Reboot is based on the belief that every generation has the opportunity and responsibility to examine what it means to be Jewish for themselves. As such, Reboot engages young, Jewish cultural creatives in what has become a 400-plus network of artists, writers, journalists, technology leaders, academics, activists, and entrepreneurs. These “Rebooters” in turn generate projects that reach tens of thousands of people. While Rebooter’s backgrounds vary, most define themselves as culturally Jewish and share some level of disconnection to Jewish institutional life. They are, in essence, Pew’s “Jews of No Religion.”

In order to see what Jewish identity means outside of sterile categorization, here are some of their stories:

* A writer meets us at a cafe on a busy street in Los Angeles. She has recently moved to Los Angeles after writing for a television comedy. We are meeting to talk about Reboot. Half way through the conversation she meekly mentions that she is not sure that she will be able to attend the Reboot weekend. Is there a scheduling conflict or is she not interested, we ask. No, she says, but her mother is not Jewish and so she is not sure she really qualifies. When she is told that Reboot is based on self-definition so that if she considers herself Jewish she is welcome, she cries. She has always gotten a sense from the Jewish community that she is not accepted, not really one of them.

* A young man in his late 30s tells us how he grew up in New York attending yeshiva, but left Orthodoxy and religion altogether when he became disillusioned with Judaism and the “narrowness” he saw in his community. Yet, his wife is pregnant and so the issue of what he was going to give to his children by way of heritage and tradition is on his mind. Post Reboot, he finds himself drawn to Ikar, a spiritual, social justice based congregation led by Rabbi Sharon Brous (one of Reboot’s faculty). He is especially struck by the fact that the prayers and conversations that happen at Ikar on Shabbat have something to say about what happens in the world during the six other days of the week. While he still considers himself a secular Jew, he finds himself most Saturdays roaming the halls of this newfound home.

* A 40-something father of three, who has been married to a Jewish woman for years, considers himself culturally Jewish, but never officially converted (nor will he) because he doesn’t identify with the religious aspects of Judaism. He sends his children to Jewish day school, though and after learning about Abraham Joshua Heschel, has began a weekly, illustrated blog to give people ideas about how to unplug on Shabbat.

* A reporter for The New York Times went to Hebrew school but remembers little and has not engaged in Jewish education since then. She quickly agrees, though, to write a commentary on one of the weekly Torah portions for Reboot’s latest book “Unscrolled.” She is assigned the text in which Miriam places Moses in a basket on the Nile and watches as Pharaoh’s daughter pulls her brother from the water. The reporter calls her childhood rabbi who she has not spoken to in years to learn more about the text. Ultimately she chooses to retell the story from Miriam’s perspective. She writes with detail and insight gained from years of reporting on girls living in extreme conditions in such places as Afghanistan. Her resulting passage brings richer meaning to a thousands-year-old Torah passage.

The stories of these individuals go on – each with its own twist and nuance, each unfolding and adapting to life events, societal pressures, and internal callings. Identity, as we know, is a complex continuum. Polls are important for capturing broad trends. The nuance, though, is in the details and that is where opportunity exists.

To see that opportunity, though, means understanding people beyond the religious laws they do or do not observe or the people they choose to marry. It means being curious and open about who people are, not as pretense and “engagement tool,” but as reality. Jewishness and Judaism have always evolved. We are at another moment of evolution. We need to make sure that people have the space to ask the questions of who they are, what they are inheriting and what, if anything, they want to do about it. When given this opportunity, their answers will surprise us.

David Katznelson is a Grammy-nominated record producer and chairman of Reboot. Rachel Levin is the president of Fundamental, a philanthropic consulting firm and Reboot’s co-founder.

Why is cultural appropriation from Jews different from all others?
Dreamstime