Staking Claim: What I Learned From All This Jabber about the Pew study
A few months after I started working at the Jewish Women’s Archive, I was taking the last bus home from a raucous karaoke night on the other side of town. Being from the Midwest originally (read: overly friendly), it was only natural that I strike up a conversation with the bus driver. As our conversation roamed from the weather to current labor issues in the MBTA, I shared a story with him about Rose Schneiderman, a Jewish woman labor activist who had I had been researching for a work-related project. The conversation was so lively I missed my stop and had to walk four extra blocks home.
When I think about that night, I remember the pride that I felt about sharing part of Jewish history with this guy, and how grateful I was that my Jewish identity was giving me a lens through which to connect with others (even non-Jews!) and understand complicated issues in my community.
Last Thursday I listened in on a panel discussion hosted by the Jewish Education Project about the implications of the recent Pew study on Jewish Education. Many of us (Jewish educators) had questions about how to improve, how to do our jobs better, and how to serve American Jews more fully.
During the discussion we bemoaned the fact that there will always be a problem with some aspect of Judaism for everyone. Whether it’s God, synagogue, Israel, inclusion/exclusion—there was a sense that American Judaism can never be all things to all Jews. Now, as I sit here in my office, the whir of the florescent light is following my thoughts to a new idea: Judaism can be all things to all Jews, but only if we let it.
Jewish educators, and really the Jewish community as a whole, have a tendency to structure Judaism around who we can claim: non-affiliated Jews, pro-Israel Jews, observant Jews, etc. I propose a new approach; one where we stop trying to claim each other and instead encourage one another to simply claim Judaism for ourselves. Perhaps even more importantly than creating space for the opportunity to claim Judaism, we also must strive to let what others claim be acceptable to us. Other people’s Judaism must be “Jewish enough,” no matter how wacky, weird, or wrong it may seem.
Let me say this in a slightly different way. What if the end goals of Jewish education were not that every Jew knows how to recite the Sh’ma, celebrate Passover, love Israel, and remember the Holocaust, but instead our goals were that every Jew wants to be Jewish, wants to own that part of their identity, and wants live Jewishly in a way that feels personally meaningful? What if our goal was that Judaism would provide a lens through which we build relationships, make decisions, and take action within our communities?
Our work as educators becomes significantly less fraught when we define Jewish literacy as: an understanding of one’s own beliefs and identity within a Jewish context and a curiosity that fosters exploration of and connection to others’ Jewish stories. Jewish identification, involvement, and education become expansive when we look at one another’s lives as texts from which to learn, in addition to the texts of our tradition and the rich historical legacy that is our birthright.
Like pretty much everyone else, I am struggling to find an action item in the Pew study, scrounging for a directive. After all, as a Jewish education professional, the “future of the Jews” is both my passion and my work. I know there has been a lot of panic and a lot of interpretation around the findings in this research, but I for one have found some clarity about my purpose and my role. I will continue to encourage Jewish educators and their students to explore historical stories and search for the relevance and connection of those stories to their own lives. I will strive to meet new, uncomfortable ideas about my faith and my tradition with curiosity and courage.
There is one thing that the Pew study has made absolutely clear: American Jews must rise to this occasion and really begin to wrestle with the task of claiming our Judaism and using it to move us forward, as individuals and as a community.