by Marjorie Dove Kent
In his article “Enough Identity Already”, Jon A. Levisohn makes excellent points about the primacy given to “Jewish identity” programming in the Jewish education world, and the pitfalls that come with this privileging. His words ring just as true in the Jewish social justice field, wherein Jewish nonprofit organizations doing a variety of excellent work throughout the country are pressed to demonstrate the “Jewish identity building” they accomplish for their constituencies. At Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), we are often pressed by funders to prove how our grassroots community organizing, leadership development programs, and creative arts and culture work “strengthen Jewish identity.” The truth is: they just do. Year after year, the common refrain we hear from JFREJ members is, “I never really identified as Jewish before I joined JFREJ.” As necessary and meaningful as it is for us to be able to support Jewish activists in developing their Jewish identity, we agree with Levisohn when we say: that’s not the ultimate goal.
Interestingly, similar to the Lakewood Yeshiva described by Noah Feldman in Levisohn’s article, we at JFREJ ‘privilege ideas and thought over identity” (though we would add “action” to the privileged modalities). In doing so, we also “proudly [stake] out a position of genuine durability.” JFREJ is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and it is our rigor, focus, vision, and exuberance that have led us this far. Like Levisohn, we believe that “strengthening Jewish identity” is a valuable and important project, but it is not sufficient to inform a vision of a community. Indeed, when we hear this phrase, we often ask, “strengthening Jewish identity for what?” At JFREJ, we know what it is we are garnering our strength for. We have a vision of the just world that we are working towards, and a transformative role for Jews to play in realizing that vision. We work to strengthen the Jewish identify of our members to empower them to achieve the capacities to make this work successful.
Levisohn asks the questions we wish more Jewish institutions, and indeed Jewish funders, would ask, about what our vision is of an engaged Jewish community, what we want our Jewish communities to be able to accomplish, and what it means to pursue justice. Just as the “notion of identity is insufficient for educational purposes,” so is it for the pursual of justice. Funders of Jewish social justice efforts should stop asking organizations how we are strengthening Jewish identity, and start asking us what our vision is for the world, and how we are strengthening the Jewish community to be able to realize it.
Marjorie Dove Kent is Executive Director at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.