On Jewish identity


In his column in this week’s New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt weighs in on the recent stress between the Jewish Federations of North America and the two overseas partners of the Jewish federation system, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The background: The two overseas partners are perturbed by the declining dollars — somewhere around $130 million this year — that the federation system gives them for their core operating support. They split the money, which passes through the JFNA under a decades-old formula that gives 75 percent to the Jewish Agency and 25 percent to the JDC.

Over the past two years, the Jewish Agency, which is far more reliant on unrestricted federation dollars than the JDC, has had to slash its budget to make up for a cut of more than $25 million a year from the federation system.

As a result, the agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, is looking to reinvent and re-energize the organization. He wants to transform an organization that historically focused on building the State of Israel and bringing new immigrants into one that will stress building Jewish identity among Jews around the world.

Meanwhile, the JDC, which long has been unhappy with the 75/25 split, set off a maelstrom April 29 with its notification to board members outlining several suggestions for changing its fund-raising strategy — including several that could significantly impact the federation system.

Among the most significant of the 13 proposals: JDC should step up efforts to raise money directly from individual federations unless "a new and acceptable national agreement on overseas funding" is reached. This would include scrapping the 75/25 split and adopting the principle that "funds be allocated according to global Jewish needs."

If you read your Fundermentalist newsletter last night or this morning, you should be very well-informed of the situation, and should have all of the back-story here, the ins and outs, including some harsh reaction. (And if you haven’t yet, the newsletter should be in your inbox.)

The Jewish Agency has taken much of the heat over its desire to focus on Jewish identity. Much of that has come from the JDC, which is trying to make the case that as dollars shrink, the federations should feel obligated to fund programs that feed the poor in the former Soviet Union over Jewish identity projects.

But something seems to be continually forgotten here. The agency is not the only federation overseas partnered focused on building Jewish identity right now. Even as the JDC rails against the notion that federations might prioritize identity building, 80 percent of the dollars that the JDC raises come from donors who earmark their donations, nearly all them for projects other than feeding the hungry.

As we reported in October on this blog, the JDC has had a hard time convincing its own board that it should give money to feeding the hungry. The organization is very much involved in its own internal debate over whether it should be a social welfare organization or an organization that builds Jewish identity:

The JDC long has had something of a dual identity: By day it is the organization that is the 911 of the Jewish community, there to save Jews around the world in trouble and feed hungry Jews. By night it builds Jewish community around the globe. While many JDC leaders will say that both constitute vital parts of the organization’s mission, the funding mechanism for each of them is very different.

Over the past few decades, donors (including board members) have become much choosier about what they fund, with many eschewing giving to core budget items in favor of designated projects.

In the JDC’s case, 80 percent of its budget comes from donor-designated funding, generally used to cover community- and identity-building programs outside of the United States. Most of the other 20 percent comes in undesignated allocations from the federation system, which go to cover core budget items like the cost of keeping the lights on in JDC’s Manhattan offices and feeding hungry people in the former Soviet Union. 

(According to Schwager, the organization does collect money from private donors to feed the hungry, but usually they want to see their donations leveraged with matching money from the federation pool.)

Already, the JDC has seen a reduction in its feeding programs in the former Soviet Union. Three years ago the JDC was feeding as many as 250,000 poor Jews in the region; since then, the number has been reduced by 60,000, in part due to budget cuts (the organization sees an annual 5-percent drop in clients due to natural attrition).

Schwager says that, while designated funding from private donors is on target, funding for the core budget is down.

For now, despite the budgetary difficulties, Schwager says that the JDC remains committed to pursuing both halves of its mission.

"We asked ourselves: ‘Are we a welfare organization or are we a renewal organization or are we both?’" he said. "Welfare and renewal are linked together. When we do welfare, we build local instruments and they have boards who are the leaders of those communities. Everything we do is built around helping the poor, but we are building communities so eventually we don’t have to."

Rosenblatt’s piece in the N.Y. Jewish Week gives some good historical context for the recent riff between the overseas partners and the federation system. But he also makes an excellent point that “identity” is the buzzword now even for the Israeli government. He writes of Natan Sharansky’s move to refine the agency:

The chairman is not the only senior leader to place a strategic emphasis on Jewish identity at a time when studies show a steady decline in the attachment of young Jews to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a major speech at the annual Herzliya conference in February, chose as his theme the need to connect Israelis, and Jews everywhere, to the history, values and promise of the land of Israel.

Anticipating criticism for using the platform, usually devoted to security and the major issues of the day, to education and identity, Netanyahu said he knew that a few years ago, “Ariel Sharon spoke from this podium about disengagement,” but he himself wanted to emphasize engagement: “engagement with our heritage, with Zionism, with our past and with our future…” 

Netanyahu asserted that “the fate of the Jewish people is the fate of the Jewish state. There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state.”

He said “a people must know its past in order to ensure its future,” and advanced the case that in addition to depending on military, economic and entrepreneurial strength, Israel depends on education, culture and “our ability to explain the justness of our path and demonstrate our affinity for our land — first to ourselves and then to others.”

His talk drew mixed, and often puzzled, reviews in Israel. (Elsewhere it was most noted for Netanyahu’s call for a $100 million campaign to restore heritage sites, and especially Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, seen as a provocative move while attempting to re-start peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.)

But all of this brings me back to a piece that Daniel Septimus, the CEO of MyJewishLearning.com, wrote for Jewcy.com and for 28days28ideas back in February.

The gist of it? Septimus writes: 

Programs aimed at "young Jews" are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.

Hillel "provides opportunities for Jewish students…to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers." Birthright Israel aims "to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity."

This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition

Read Septimus’ whole post here:


Over the last several years, I have read dozens of articles and listened to scores of conversations about the challenge of strengthening Jewish identity in America. Indeed, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey canonized Jewish American assimilation, an unprecedented amount of communal dollars and efforts have been poured into this endeavor.

Programs aimed at "young Jews" are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.

Hillel "provides opportunities for Jewish students…to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers." Birthright Israel aims "to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity."

This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition.

What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?

At The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, in a panel on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown noted that there are three components to identity formation: the cognitive (what we think), the behavioral (what we do), and the emotional (what we feel). In discussing some of the maladies plaguing the American Jewish community, Dr. Brown suggested an interesting diagnosis: when American Jews speak about Jewish identity they aggressively emphasize the emotional.

In other words, to too many American Jews, Jewish identity means feeling Jewish.

Dr. Brown’s insight articulated something I have been noticing for years and was, most recently, driven home during a conversation with a prominent Jewish philanthropist. As we spoke, this generous and committed Jewish leader extolled the virtues of Jewish education and lamented its current state. When I asked him what he wanted Jewish education to achieve-what its aim should be-his answer was simple: "I want Jewish kids to feel proud of being Jewish."

I, for my part, was stunned. Really? That’s it? That’s the goal of Jewish education, of all your philanthropic benevolence? A feeling of ethnic/religious/cultural pride?

This is merely one example, of course, but to appreciate the Jewish community’s excessive emotionalism-and its eschewal of the cognitive and behavioral aspects of identity formation-consider this: Could you imagine Birthright Israel’s mission statement asserting that it wanted to influence the thinking and behaviors of its participants? Surely, most American Jews would consider that paternalistic, if not creepy.

So what’s so bad about putting all of our eggs in the basket of emotional identity?

First, as Dr. Brown noted, it ignores the importance of "what we think" and "what we do."

Professor Steven M. Cohen has noted something similar. "In common parlance, ‘identity,’ has come to be understood as related primarily to intra-psychic feelings-the attitudes and sentiments felt within….But, in truth, Jewish identity extends (or ought to extend) beyond the affective. Being an ‘identified Jew’ is not just about feeling Jewish, but about expressing Jewish belonging and undertaking identifiably Jewish behaviors."

Secondly, valuing emotional identity as the fundamental aim of Jewish life is a recent phenomenon that has little precedent in Jewish tradition. It’s difficult for me to think of a single traditional Jewish text that discusses the importance of feeling Jewish. Not only is the centrality of emotional identity not rooted in Jewish tradition, it is likely an expression of our alienation from this tradition.

One might suggest as my friend Dr. Eliyahu Stern has that "identity is the language of those who have lost it." Or as Leon Wieseltier has written: "Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity the louder."

Now, I do not believe that all contemporary Jewish expressions must be rooted in the past, and I do believe there are contemporary values-Jewish and secular-that should trump traditional Jewish ones, but the emotionalism that guides American Jews is not one of them.

The idea I’m suggesting here, then, is that we abandon the rhetoric of identity, that we stop programming and funding the goal of strengthening Jewish identity. I am not, however, suggesting that we abandon all the programs that mention Jewish identity building as their aim. These programs can-and usually do-have other goals, even if they are not always front and center in their mission statements. Additionally, since I am tearing down one of the primary frameworks of contemporary Judaism, let me offer an alternative.

The second mishnah in Pirkei Avot reports the following: "Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: The world is sustained on three things: on Torah, on the Temple service [avodah], and on deeds of loving kindness [gemilut hasadim]."

What are these three pillars?

Torah, which includes education and study, the intellectual and cognitive aspects of Judaism.

Avodah, which in Pirke Avot refers to the service of God as conducted in the Temple, but can generally encompass the religious, spiritual, and ritual aspects of Jewish life.

Gemilut hasadim, which incorporates the ethical demands of Judaism-helping the poor, visiting the sick, fighting for the dignity of all.

I’d like to see the rhetoric of Jewish programming and funding guided by these three categories. Of course, there are other values that could be used as touchstones for Jewish priorities. The People of Israel and the Land of Israel are two that come to mind. But while I wouldn’t ignore the importance of Peoplehood and Israel, I believe Shimon’s pillars speak more directly to the human condition.

While Shimon’s framework is Jewish, I don’t think it’s incidental that he believed "the world" was sustained by these three items. One might argue that a full life-for individuals and communities-includes elements of these three categories: the intellectual, the spiritual, and the ethical.

If our goal is to raise a generation of Jews who feel Jewish, then our aspirations are, I fear, limited and foreign. Creating a Jewish community that is committed to study, ritual, and helping others seems like a nobler endeavor. And a more Jewish one at that.

Daniel Septimus is the Editor-in-Chief and CEO of MyJewishLearning.com.  Visit The Fundermentalist  to read "Idea #22: Passport for Service" and stay tuned to ejewishphilanthropy for Idea #24. You can also visit 28days28ideas.com for the full list of ideas as they progress.)

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