This piece was originally featured in The New Jersey Jewish News on March, 12, 2014. To read it, please click here.
With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passe. Forget the Jewish legal dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! —forget the Pew study.
The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”
The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps, is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?
And, of utmost importance in the case of Millennials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.
When we make these questions central, whatever our intention is in asking them, the question that many people will hear is this: Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew? And labeling people “bad” Jews is probably not the best way to draw them into deeper engagement with Jewish life.
At the very least, the Millennials I know are quite bored with all this who-is-a-Jew business. At worst, the idea that this question will be useful as we confront the challenges now before us is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the changes we see today. These changes profoundly affect every element of our community’s demographics, suggesting many new questions: geography, migration, values, priorities, affiliation, and reproduction.
Allow me to use myself as an example:
48 percent of Jews born after 1980 are children of intermarriage: Though their wedding ceremony was Jewish, only one of my parents was. (Remember when I told you to forget the Pew study? Yeah, I lied. Still, let’s just try to stay on this side of the line between informed interest in the Pew study and unhealthy obsession with it, shall we?) 20 percent or more of children of intermarriage who consider themselves Jewish are patrilineal: Like me, their father was Jewish when they were born, while their mother was not. 61 percent of intermarried families are raising their children with a Jewish identity: I was circumcised as an infant, and later taken to Tot Shabbat at a nearby synagogue. I went to camp. I became bar mitzva. 59 percent of adult children of intermarriage under the age of 30 identify as Jews: Hi, there. Jews by choice are not a novelty for us: My mother became a Jew when I was seven years old. One of my high school best friends had converted when he was younger. I once went out with a Conservative rabbinical student who converted in college. Jews of color are not a novelty for us: The Garcias are one of the most visibly active families in my childhood synagogue. I’ve had a number of Jewish peers who were adopted from East Asia. I’m too young to remember what Israel looked like before the waves of immigration from Ethiopia. We have been both insiders and outsiders: I was deeply involved in our synagogue, my high school youth group, and Jewish life in general. Yet, when I first came into close contact with other strains of Judaism, I found myself suddenly on the outside. We receive mixed messages: Our synagogue was Reform, so my status as a patrilineal Jew wasn’t an issue. But my tastes evolved, putting me for a time in a Conservative synagogue where I underwent a conversion. (Not for me, but for the synagogue; I’ve always considered myself an unqualified Jew.) We are just not interested in denominations and fee-for-service membership: I go to services regularly—sometimes at informal, independent groups, sometimes at any one of a number of synagogues (none of which I am a member).
In short, our identities are complex, too complex to be explained with binaries. Change has arrived in the North American Jewish community. Bigger changes are on the way. If we plan to hold the interest of the entire Jewish community — energetic Millennials, boomers bored with retirement, the LGBT community, intermarried families, Jews of color, families with young children — we’ll have to do a lot more. We are no longer in a battle to maintain our relevance, but to regain it. The question should no longer be “Who is a Jew?” The question now is “Why be Jewish?”
The first steps toward this are inclusion, diversity, and welcoming. Not just inclusion, but active inclusion; not just diversity, but embracing diversity; not just welcoming, but encountering everyone in the Jewish community as individuals with unique stories, needs, interests, and longings.
As people who are already comfortable and fortunate enough to be involved in Jewish life, we are called to learn about, embrace, and direct into deeper engagement these myriad individuals who make up the entire Jewish community.
David A.M. Wilensky is program associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.