Culture, Identity, Politics

New report tackles Jewish identity through culture

Kudos to the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for releasing (yes, another but markedly different) report on Jewish identity and affiliation–this time, with a more nuanced approach that disrupts the typical dichotomy and definition of affiliated and unaffiliated, and that values culture as an integral part of Jewish life. The report, “Cultural Events & Jewish Identities” was written by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman.
Rather than perpetuating the idea of young Jews as unafilliated because of not attending traditional Jewish institutions, this report moves away from stagnant reporting practices to understand, acknowledge and honor that young Jews are incredibly engaged–visiting and interviewing many at Jewish cultural events throughout New York City.
The report is long for sure, but filled with lots of interesting and compelling information including a first-ever cultural analysis of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, as well as a breakdown of the “functions” of Jewish cultural engagement.
The report was commissioned by the UJA-Federation of NY, which is also launching a fellowship program for Jewish artists. One of the implications for a report of this kind, at its best, will also mean potentially an increase of funding to support Jewish arts. As one who does not believe in art for arts sake either, what particularly interests me, and one of the reasons I appreciate NFJC’s work, is that they believe in tying Jewish artists to community education, change and to have art that speaks to criticial issues impacting Jewish communities today.
Some interesting tidbits inside:

Resisting an agenda: “No” to events for Jewish singles and other

The articulation of norms by institutional leaders constitutes an “agenda” in contemporary parlance, a term connoting a generally unwelcome attempt by those in some sort of position of authority or influence, to control an encounter or others’ behavior.
Complementary to synagogue involvement, but not a substitute
Most of the informants seemed to understand these Jewish cultural events as augmenting, and in no way replacing, synagogue prayer and other forms of religious involvement.
Non-Jews at Jewish events
These younger Jews in 2005 find that their Jewishness actually emerges in the company of non-Jews, and they seek out integrated environments in order to express their Jewishness. They are seeking Jewish lives that put Jewishness in conversation with other cultures, and Jewish individuals in conversation with other people. In fact, in some instances, their Jewishness actually emerged in the interaction with the other.

A symposium on the study is tentatively planned for September 18, 2006, to be convened by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, in association with UJA-Federation of New York.
Here’s my question though, and here’s where I am still unclear with how all of this gets talked about–this coding in using the term “diversity”. It is really unclear to me in many of these reports exactly how diversity is being defined, and what parameters are used to evaluate this. Valuing diversity, and something actually being “diverse” are two very separate things–and usually diversity ends up being watered down to the point where I can’t tell if what some might mean by diverse is that there are Jewish men and women there (with a disclaimer that I’m not saying this necessarily in relation to this report). Seriously. I’ve gone to events that are said to be diverse, to be one of two visibly queer people in the room (not surprising), to see maybe one or two people of color in the audience (again, not surprising), to see _fill in the blank_.
So if I show up at your door, do I help you fill your quota slot for being a “diverse” event? Well, here’s where my eyes start rolling, and I, with no shame give a “hell no”. But yet, I know this to be true for many, and it’s tiring.
So here’s my question, and challenge to the Jewschool readership–what does this mean to you? Many of the events listed in this report are ones that overlap with Matzat projects, and I have a feeling people are familiar with at least one of them–so what would you say to this issue of “diversity”?

9 thoughts on “New report tackles Jewish identity through culture

  1. This is all really interesting. I think that the study probably frames diversity in a similar way as, say, my liberal arts school did: through(among other things) race, class, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. I, at least, was trained through the public school system and then my left-wing artsy fartsy college, to understand what Jewish identity means through these lenses as well. Therefore, the only way to live out a Jewishness defined so much by its differences was to seek out the non-Jews with which you can contrast your own identity. I filled the empty spaces this sort of Jewish identity provoked by becoming a cultural literate Jew. I knew what a Jew wasn’t – so I was curious as to what it was. What’s the class background or history of Jewish America? What race are Jewish Americans? How did a Jewish-American ethnicity come to be, if it even exists? Does being a Jewish woman make you different from a Jewish man? Vice-versa? What does it mean to be a Jew that can’t fit into the gender binary through which most events in Jewish history are recorded? Is their a history of gay Jewry? By funding Jewish artists, intellectuals, these questions can be answered through creative production rather than by only existing communal institutions. The only way would be to create more communal institutions to engage in a survival of the fittest sorta thing – an only the strong survive ethic one can count among Americans in general. So I think this report is dead on in many ways.

  2. “By funding Jewish artists, intellectuals, these questions can be answered through creative production rather than by only existing communal institutions.”
    I couldn’t agree more eli

  3. Great and interesting report. Question: why is it ‘news’ when the date in the report is February 2005 – more than a year ago?

  4. I got an advance copy a few months ago and the findings were not surprising. The only thing that surprised me was the level to which arts and culture programming is a complimentary rather than substitute for institutional affiliation. Either its the spoonful of sugar for the medicine or that it creates a more wholistic approach to Jewish life… Either way, it seems to be about appealing to aesthetic sensibilities and thus creating a sense of ownership (or maybe lack of ownership by institutions).
    It pretty much validated everything I’d been saying and doing for the last four years through KFAR. But the question is, how does the study change things? The answer is that only if these studies are read, excerpted and put into the hands and heads of those who are capable of making substantial financial donations is this information actionable. Otherwise, we’re all just preaching to the choir.

  5. Cole, I’m asking more deeply, even though there might not be an answer…. why is a report dated 2/05 on the inside when it was released on 5/06? Just curious…. is that normal for this sort of thing? Anyone know?

  6. Its process oriented. I believe the study itself was completed in Feb of last year, while the writing, editing, vetting and publishing of the report didn’t take place until just after Purim. When I met with Richie Siegel last June, he told me about the recently completed study and its initial findings. But he said it wouldn’t be published for months.

  7. What I find weak about the C and W article is found in this throwaway statistic: “The total size of allocations to Israel dropped on an inflation-adjusted basis of almost two-thirds.” That’s because in the period they write about, Jewish federations made a very conscious effort to change the domestic-global split to keep more of the money at home for domestic giving– schools, identity-building programs, family services, the local needy — local agency stuff. But C and W have decided, arbitrarily and even mischievously IMHO, to dismiss this kind of giving as individualistic, as opposed to Israel-giving, which they define as an expression of “peoplehood.” So in their discussion of of UJC’s stated priorities, they regard money raised for the care of the Jewish poor, elderly Jews in the FSU, and Jews in need of scholarships for schools and “special programs” as “thousands of otherwise disparate but needy individuals in the here and now.” Why is giving money to the JAFI bureaucracy to assist them in assisting a Jew in need in Hadera considered “peoplehood”, but doing the same thing for the Jew who lives down the block “symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self-respect”?
    I also think they are romanticizing a very distinct, and perhaps sui generis, moment in Jewish history — actually, American Jewish history — when that “we are one” stuff could be said with a straight face. The history of Jewish philanthropy before the Holocaust was a lot of individual kehillot taking care of their OWN poor, hungry, indigent, raising money for a local scholar or two to attend yeshiva, and perhaps giving a few kopeks to the guy coming thru to collect money for Eretz Yisrael. Before the rise of federated giving, did Jews really think of themselves as “a single collective whose religious civilization must be nurtured,whose cultual institutions merit constant support”? Befoe Herzl got the Zionists together in Basel, did they act upon it?
    Posted by: andy

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