Come As You Are – Not As We Think You Should Be

“tshirt” - My friend’s  t-shirt company,
“tshirt” – My friend’s t-shirt company,

By Margalit C. Rosenthal

If we want to empower young adults to claim their place in the Jewish community, we can’t measure them with the same old definitions of Jewish identity. Lighting Shabbat candles, dating Jews, going to synagogue, wanting to go back to Israel, wanting to raise our children Jewish. Is this all there is to Jewish identity? As a person who is all of those things, I find them to be underwhelming and un-compelling when it comes to my sense of self.

Over the Summer, eJP posted numerous articles on changing Jewish identity and measuring identity. From Ari Y. Kelman’s call to shifting away from what we think “Jewish identity” is, to Misha Galperin’s sociological and psychological explanation of what identity is in reference to one’s self in the world.

There is a significant challenge to measuring “affect, behavior, and cognitive” reactions, particularly in Jewish young adults. For many, any reaction may not develop for months and years following an interaction with a program. Additionally, despite our perceived “adulthood,” many of us are caught in arrested development, living the life of a 22 year old at age 32. But one of the major barriers to measuring Jewish identity in this demographic is that the behavioral metrics the Jewish community uses are irrelevant for most people we encounter.

Kelman is certainly right: Jewish identity isn’t what it used to be. But more importantly, Jewish expression isn’t what it used to be. We are still measuring the success of our programs through behavior related to Jewish ritual and mitzvot when we should be measuring a change in how an individual expresses their Jewish-ness. For the very large percentage of Birthrighters, summer camp alumni, [insert experiential program here], who we know are not expressing Jewish-ness through religion or their choice of romantic partners, how and what should we measure?

In a recent meeting of colleagues from around the country discussing participant survey data from an Israel experience, I asked how the survey captured different means of Jewish expression. The immediate response was, “like ritual?” No, not ritual. And then I uttered that singular, blasphemous word that makes stereotypical Jewish mothers cry and grandparents fume: tattoos.

Spencer Ela, Birthright Israel LA Way Winter 2013/2014, chamsa to remind to him to persevere like his grandfather, who escaped a concentration camp and eventually had to start over in LA
Spencer Ela, Birthright Israel LA Way Winter 2013/2014, chamsa to remind to him to persevere like his grandfather, who escaped a concentration camp and eventually had to start over in LA

We need to systematically shift how we measure expression of Jewish identity. This must include tattoos. It includes Jewish-themed jewelry, social media activity, entertainment and dining choices. I’m calling for a shift away from only measuring the type of Jewish activity that must be done with others (dating, marriage, family, holidays) to also measuring what can be done alone: self-expression.

Countless participants of Birthright Israel return home proud of their heritage, and their immediate reaction may not be to attend a “big Jew party” or Shabbat dinner; their reaction could be to permanently mark their body with a chamsa or Hebrew lettering. One participant out of Los Angeles took a Hebrew name for himself on his trip and became a Bar Mitzvah; he came back to Los Angeles and put that Hebrew name as his middle name, publicly, on his Facebook profile.

How often are young Jews sharing posts online with Jewish content, serious or not? How often did they do this prior to their experience, how often after? Natalie wore a heart necklace every day, until she went on Birthright Israel and bought a silver Jewish star, which she now never takes off. Dylan and Sam click on a BuzzFeed of “10 Questions People Ask You When You’re the Only Jew in the Room” and share it with all their friends. Patrick never tried Mediterranean food prior to Israel, now he goes to the Pita Pit once a week and posts on Instagram. #missingIsrael #hummusNOThammas #Birthright2012

This is how we express our Jewish-ness. This is what our community must attempt to measure. Does any of this ensure that we will one day raise Jewish children, join a synagogue and donate to a major Jewish organization? Absolutely not. But neither does “he reports a desire to marry someone Jewish” without any action or expression to back it up. These forms of self-expression may seem silly, but they are serious to us. They are our brand, our image, which is one of the most important pieces of who we are as a generation. These forms of expression demonstrate pride, the actions and minor behaviors are anchors to the meaningful experience we had. Behavioral and attitudinal shifts, especially those that may be nearly 180 degrees from origin, need to start somewhere. Most people don’t come back from Birthright Israel and start having Shabbat dinner every week or break up with their non-Jewish partner (though yes, some do); I would argue that most return with a new fondness for authentic hummus on challah and a new appreciation of that feeling you get when you’re around a bunch of Jews. Instead of only measuring what we can see in public Jewish settings, our community needs to measure, and nurture, what people do privately. We need to give these minor behaviors their own space to grow and mature into something larger and possibly more serious.

And to be completely blasphemous to illustrate how serious I am: Just as we are instructed “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead… You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” (Dvarim 6:8-9) so do young Jews bind jewelry, mark their bodies, choose food and entertainment, and hang art as reminders of who they are, where they have been, and who they want to be.

It’s not what we’re used to seeing, but that is exactly the point. We have to start seriously considering and measuring what we’re not seeing, and open our eyes to what we have been overlooking.

Margalit C. Rosenthal is the Senior Director, Birthright Israel Experience at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @MargaLittle.