Jewish Journal

Jewish Identity Here and There

by Bob Goldfarb

June 30, 2011 | 1:00 am

Nachman Shai

Today’s Jerusalem Post reports these observations by Knesset member Nachman Shai (Kadima), head of the legislature’s Conversion Caucus:

“There are over 300,000 Israelis [mostly from the former Soviet Union] here who are Jewish in heart, in feeling and by their presence here, and we must take note of this.  These immigrants are Israelis, but not Jews, and we need to find solutions to let them live here equally with others. They are entitled to die for the State of Israel, but not to be buried here,” he said in reference to non-Jewish soldiers, who couldn’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

“Children are born, and most of the aliya from the FSU is currently non-Jewish. We are facing the creation of another community here of Israelis who are neither Muslims nor Christians, but who aren’t Jewish, either.”

In terms of Israeli law, Jewishness is a religious identity.  The only available way to recognize these immigrants’ Jewish identity officially is through conversion, specifically Orthodox conversion.  As MK Shai adds, “I don’t just side with the Orthodox attitude.  But I think we have a certain framework, and we need from within it to seek other mechanisms, other rabbis, who can spread the system all around the country, enabling more people to convert.”

In America, without such a central framework, Jewish identity can be defined in a lot of ways, including what people do and how they think of themselves.  Along those lines, the Jewish volunteer and service organization Repair the World issued a report last week on how young Jewish adults connect community service to being Jewish.  Among its findings:

● Only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10%, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations.
● Only 18% said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profit organizations.
● The vast majority, 78%, said it doesn’t matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish.
● Only 27% of respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values and only 10% strongly endorsed this statement.
● Jewish young adults with the highest levels of Jewish religious involvement, including but not restricted to Orthodox young adults, are the most likely to engage in volunteering, to do so regularly, and to volunteer under Jewish auspices.

Volunteering apparently is not an effective way of reinforcing Jewish identity, since the great majority do not see it as based on Jewish values.  Yet the Jews who are likeliest to volunteer are those who are involved with religion, suggesting that the strongest impulse to enact Jewish values comes from a religious framework. 

Americans and Israelis might learn from each other about what it can mean to be Jewish.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also blogs regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy.com.


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Bob Goldfarb has been president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, since 2007.  Before getting involved with the Jewish...

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