This minyan cohort has been exploring Jewish identity, trying to make sense of the 2013 PEW study, and how Jewish scholars understand the study and Jewish identity as a whole. This month we focused on two thoughtful pieces by Jewish scholar and NYU professor Bethamie Horowitz. She did a phenomenal job as part of the PEW study panel discussion held at 6 and I and facilitated brilliantly by Rabbi Shira Stutman. We read her commentary on the PEW study, as well a piece from 1998 that dug into her Connections and Journeys study. It was incredible how applicable the 1998 piece was to the PEW study, even though Horowitz was reacting to the previous demographic study, NJPS (which the Minyan of Thinkers pilot cohort explored a few years ago).
It was a breath of fresh air to study Horowitz’s perspective because her work is methodologically innovative in exploring Jewish identity. Her unit of analysis is the individual, and she cares about the multiple and overlapping Jewish and secular identities included in the same person. She acknowledges that Jewish identity is multi-faceted and often evolves over time depending on changing environments both within and outside of the Jewish community. Her connections and journeys study consisted of in-depth interviews, focus groups, and a subsequent survey.
Horowitz’s pieces resonated very much with the minyan members. We talked about how Jewish identity doesn’t operate in a vacuum, but rather interacts with the environment and with our identity as Americans. Given the openness of American society to different cultures and people, being Jewish and being American are less dichotomous than for previous generations. Several minyan members also talked about moving from places where they were one of the only Jews to an area like DC where they were one of innumerable Jews. I want to continue to explore this more- how do your secular and Jewish environments shape your Jewish identity?
Here are a few other major points that my mind will be chewing on for a while:
1) Ideological boundaries of being Jewish- are there any? Do you need to believe in God, or a higher power? Can you believe in Jesus? Can you be ethnically or culturally Jewish but religiously or ideologically Christian? For our group Jesus as the Messiah seemed to be a strong ideological line that fell outside of what some of us considered Jewish. But I’m not sure we came to full resolution on the issue yet. More generally, what defines a Jew? Is it up to the individual person to define it for themselves? If so, what makes someone Jewish as opposed to any other identity?
2) Defining ourselves in relation to the Holocaust- To what extent are we defining our Jewish selves based on the Holocaust? Is this appropriate or antiquated? How can we use our connection to the Holocaust to shape us into positive change agents in the world without being motivated to be or act Jewish out of fear or guilt?
3) The outsider piece of our identity- We talked about how part of being Jewish involves being an outsider in some way- religiously, ethnically, culturally, etc. That outsider mentality has helped shape us in powerful ways. For example, it has allowed us to identify with peoples and groups oppressed today, because we have a historical narrative that involves being oppressed and being the underdog. What does it mean then, to be Jewish and also part of the multi-cultural American mainstream?
Looking ahead, we hope to grapple with a few more scholarly perspectives on Jewish identity and formulate our own reflection pieces on the topic that flesh out our individual perspectives. If you’re interested in connecting with the minyan or sharing your thoughts, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t wait to hear from you!