Why be Jewish?


It was an off-the-cuff comment during the Q&A portion of a recent Jewish leadership development program. The event featured a panel discussion on media and narrative, but the opening question to the panelists was “How has anti-Semitism affected you?” In the course of the discussion, panelists talked about the violent attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway during the past year, being targeted for abuse online and general feelings of fear.

Toward the end of the program, a woman in the audience asked why the panel started as it did. Why emphasize fear? Why not be positive about Jewish identity? On Instagram, for instance, she said, Jewish identity is celebrated by strong Orthodox women running their own businesses, who share information and experiences about their lives as moms, and talk about how they embrace Judaism and how it brings them joy. This event, by contrast (from her perspective), started with an entirely different view of what it means to be Jewish.

“Listening to you guys, it’s like, why even be Jewish?” she said.

American Jews are diverse, and Jewish identity is defined and expressed differently across our religious and cultural spectrum. Chanukah observance in the U.S. is a good example: Some focus on the miraculous and nationalistic aspects of the holiday’s narrative, others more on cultural and culinary elements. But no matter how you approach the holiday, Chanukah represents a triumph of Jewish continuity.

Irrespective of religious observance, political affiliation or even belief in God, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for each of us to look inward and examine the elements of our personal Jewish identity.

We are not just the funniest or smartest person in the room; the most neurotic or greedy person in the room; nor any of the other Jewish stereotypes, positive or negative, pervasive in pop culture. Nor should we define ourselves as the most persecuted people or as history’s victims. And in seeking definition, we need something more substantive to rally around than fears of rising anti-Semitism, and calls of “Never Again” and “We’re Still Here.”

So who are we as a Jewish people? And why are we still here?

We encourage open and meaningful discussions about Jewish identity in the U.S. — an existence filled with meaning and pride. And we encourage our leaders and our teachers to engage with us in exploring what being Jewish means and how being Jewish enriches our personal and communal lives.

In the process of such introspection, we encourage the exploration of vast Jewish resources that have been unlocked and made generally accessible, no longer obscured by barriers such as language and level of Jewish education or background. We are more than a one-dimensional people. And there are lots of good answers to “Why be Jewish?” So don’t ignore the question. Embrace it as a call to action.

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