Measuring Jewish Identity

We have been so process-driven as an organized Jewish community that we have not demanded more in terms of outcomes.

by Dr. Misha Galperin and Dr. Aviva Zubida Zeltzer

We very much appreciated Jon Levisohn’s recent reflections in eJewishPhilanthropy on rethinking Jewish identity. These came out of a conference on Jewish identity and education and the concern that he expressed about the way the Jewish community talks – or does not talk – about notions of Jewish identity and assumptions that get made about it in the world of education. Levisohn posits that some scholars don’t discuss identity at all, or as much as we should, because it is too hard to measure. Although he offers a number of other reasons, I would like to share our thoughts on how we measure Jewish identity, at least how we are planning to measure it here at The Jewish Agency, where identity building is a core and foundational aspect of our shared work.

Identity is largely about self-understanding: who I think I am in the world, and the narrative that I have created about myself.

But when it comes to collective identity, self-understanding becomes much more complex because the “self” in question is diverse, contradictory, immense, deep and old. Who can claim to shape that identity? Levisohn asks: “If Jewish education is not about strengthening Jewish identity, then what it is about? How can we articulate the desired outcomes of Jewish educational projects and programs without resorting to claims about identity?”

These are fair and important questions that make us more convinced than ever that we need to create some shared language around measurement and assessment. For that, we put on the hats of a clinical psychologist and a sociologist, our professions before joining the world of Jewish communal service. Identity, in our professional understanding, is about the affective, behavioral and cognitive aspects of self (the ABC’s) that together constitute human life. In other words, how we feel, how we act and what we think and know forms our core categories that make up the understanding of selfhood. These are difficult things to measure, but not impossible.

Impact MatrixAfter a process of consultations with researches, practitioners and funders in the world of building Jewish identity over the past two years, we developed an impact matrix utilizing these three foundational aspects of self and we would like to share the prism or lens by which Jewish identity in this construct is devised and then evaluated. We wanted to understand Jewish commitment through one’s attitudes and relationship to Israel, to Jewish heritage, to the Jewish community and to Jewish peoplehood – the values underlying our mission and our programs. We felt that all were central to Jewish self-definition and some, naturally, would be more prominent in the thinking and behavior than others. For example, many see their Jewish identity wrapped up in Israel but care little for their local Jewish community. Others see their identity measure in ritual observance but not in feelings about peoplehood.

When we create programs, we need to evaluate their impact in terms of affect, behavior and cognition. We might survey participants in long and short-term immersive experience and ask – after an Israel program, let’s say, “Do you feel more connected to Israel and Israelis? Do you have a personal opinion about the situation in Israel? Behaviorally, we want to know if you follow news about Israel or participate in Israel-related events? Would you visit Israel again or give to a cause that supports Israel? On the cognition front, we might inquire if someone is more curious or has researched Israel history and society, culture or ways to get involved with Israel.

The same might be true on the Jewish community front. Emotionally, does this program/offering help individuals become more personally invested in the community and have an opinion about its current and future direction? Having an opinion shows a new level of ownership that is qualitatively different from mere participation. And that’s what matters in this “business” – moving people from one level of commitment and cognition to the next. Are we doing that? Not intentionally enough, we believe.

Levisohn asks: “So next time you hear someone using the term, ask yourself: What do they mean by it?” We know what we mean by it at The Jewish Agency, and it’s not a passing phrase that we give lip service to. We have invested too much money and too many years to leave evaluation up to chance. It is time that we all start measuring the impact of what we do in more concrete terms. Are we moving people? Are we changing them? If not, why not? If so, how?

We have been so process-driven as an organized Jewish community that we have not demanded more in terms of outcomes. Outcomes depend on understanding the impact of our work. It’s time. And for my next question I turn back in time to the great sage Hillel: If not now, when?

Misha Galperin is the President and CEO of International Development at The Jewish Agency.

Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida is Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Agency.