In the late 20th century, American Jewry and Israel were embroiled in a fierce debate over the question of “Who is a Jew?” That was largely due to Israel’s Law of Return and the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent.

But for Jews today, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer suggests that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. Instead of wrangling over boundaries, Jews need to consider what exactly lies within those parameters, he says.

On Sunday night, Oct. 22, Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, spoke to an audience of approximately 300 at the American Visionary Art Museum about “What is a Jew? American Jewish Identity in Transition.”

The program was sponsored by the Beth Am, Beth El, Beth Israel and Chizuk Amuno congregations. Following the talk, a lively discussion was moderated by longtime local radio talk show host Marc Steiner, who is president of the Center for Emerging Media.

In his talk, the New York-based Kurtzer promised to offer more questions than answers, and indeed he never truly got around to defining what a Jew is. But in a wide-ranging discussion touching on intermarriage, generational conflicts and Jewish institutional decline, he offered some ideas about how to live a Jewish life in today’s world.

Kurtzer noted that 95 percent of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center study on Jewish identity and attitudes. But myriad responses to all the other survey questions show very little agreement regarding what they are proud of.

Jews who are involved or affiliated with the organized community tend to look down on definitions of Jewishness held by others who are not as engaged, said Kurtzer. He said the affiliated are also those who are most anxious about Jewish identity and continuity.

With trends such as dwindling synagogue membership, decreasing practice of Jewish rituals and rising intermarriage, Kurtzer said it is easy to envision the inevitable decline of American Judaism.

Moderator Marc Steiner (left) and guest speaker Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America share a laugh at the “What is a Jew? American Jewish Identity in Transition” program at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

But all is not gloom and doom, Kurtzer advised. For example, while Jewish institutions are struggling, public Jewishness is at its height. Jews feel more comfortable being openly Jewish than ever before.

Instead of lamenting the current situation and trying to reverse it, Kurtzer proposed accepting the realities of today’s Jewish scene and building on them. For example, he said blended families should not be viewed as an aberration but rather a normative aspect of being Jewish. Many people born into interfaith families want to honor both parts of their heritage, he noted.

“They want to claim a hybrid identity that [Jewish] tradition doesn’t recognize,” he said.

Kurtzer discussed four “shortcuts” to Jewish identity that were relatively successful in the past but don’t necessarily work anymore. The first, he said, is simply to say that Jewishness is an essential part of one’s being, a permanent marker — a “stain” that doesn’t go away. The second is a sense of “otherness.”

“The easiest shortcut to Jewish identity is when there’s anti-Semitism,” he noted. But Kurtzer said Jews are no l onger “the other” in America today.

The third shortcut, the strategy of segregating the Jewish community – as many Orthodox communities do — will not work for those who want to be active and engaged members of the larger society, he said. Finally, Jews have used “affiliation” as a way to gain a sense of identity: joining a synagogue, performing key rituals, “behaving” Jewishly. This, of course, is the strategy that currently seems to be in retreat.

Because most American Jews enjoy relative comfort and security, Kurtzer said creative thinking is required for continuity. “Our opportunity is to how to figure out how to be proudly Jewish and proudly American at the same time,” he said. He sketched out two alternative approaches.

Kurtzer said Jewish education should be less about battling intermarriage and more about giving meaning and relevance to the tradition in ways that the younger generation can relate to. Second, he said, is simply a matter of confidence. Jews must be “proudly Jewish in the public square.” As an example, he cited the Chabad movement, which interacts with the world in ways that are unapologetically and overtly Jewish. The imperative, he said, is to articulate a strong sense of self.

For those concerned about the findings from the Pew study, Kurtzer said that being defensive or disillusioned is not the answer. The question is how to take the realities of modern life to construct a Judaism for today. Jews who live authentically Jewish lives — however they choose to define what that means — will ensure Jewish survival, he concluded.

Deborah R. Weiner is co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore,” to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She served for many years as research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. She is currently working on a book on the history of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.

Top Photo of Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer by Steve Ruark


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