It’s a question that has been asked over and over again for as long as Judaism has been a religion – who is a Jew? The answer is elusive, nearly impossible to pin down as Jews have settled in every corner of the globe and put down roots among various cultures and communities. As our diversity has grown over the millennia to include Jews and Jewish families of all types of backgrounds, our Big Tent has ably expanded to include nearly all those in our midst. But too many are still left on the periphery, so the guidelines that traditionally define who is a Jew, writes JOI associate executive director Paul Golin in the Huffington Post, “must be expanded if the Jewish community — particularly the American Jewish community — is to remain relevant well into the 21st century.”
In a piece titled “Who’s a Jew? Redefining Jewish Identity for the 21st Century,” Golin points out the hypocrisy in many of the arguments regarding who is or isn’t Jewish, particularly towards intermarried families, Jews-by-choice, and children of intermarriage. He even coins a new term, the “Born-Jewish Privilege.” This is a phenomenon in which those born Jewish feel entitled “to not do a single thing Jewish all year — not attend synagogue, not observe Shabbat, not donate to Jewish causes — yet feel completely 100-percent Jewish while at the same time questioning the authenticity of an intermarried household where the non-Jewish parent is doing all of those things in order to instill a Jewish identity in his or her child.”
This is a shame, he writes, because while there are only a few different synagogue denominations, there are “hundreds of ways for Jews to express their Jewish identity.” If we want all these folks to continue exploring and celebrating their Jewish identity, we need to do a better job of ensuring everyone has a place within the community. We can do this, Golin writes, by defining ourselves “based on what we are, not what we’re not.” We are a people with an amazing capacity to welcome in those who were born Jewish (to two Jewish parents or one), those who married into Judaism, and those who chose Judaism. Each demographic makes an invaluable contribution to our strength, vitality and future. Each demographic should be celebrated for what they bring to the Jewish community.
But perhaps the best answer to “who is a Jew” doesn’t need to be rewritten; it just needs to be reinforced. Golin recalls the words of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who is quoted as having said, “I consider as Jewish anyone who is meshuge [crazy] enough to call themselves ‘Jewish.’”
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