You Are What You Eat

By Rabbi Daniel S. Horwitz

There’s lots of talk these days about “Jewish identity building” for millenials. While “Jewish identity” is itself a buzzword, assuming that the eJP readership is already familiar with / well versed on why Jewish identity development is deemed critical for the continuity and wellbeing of the Jewish people, I’d like to make an observation. I think it’s safe to say that one of the ways Jewish organizations strive to help non-Orthodox millenials develop their Jewish identities is by encouraging them to view their lives and experiences through a Jewish lens. For some, this actually means helping Jewish millenials view their existing routines and activities as reflections of their Jewish selves.

For example, Repair The World in its June 2011 report titled “Volunteering and Values” shared that they found a need to frame volunteering as a Jewish act, because according to their research, many Jewish millenials are drawn to service “through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity.” Thus, the rationale goes like this: if millenials are already doing service work, there is an opportunity to help them view that work through a Jewish lens and as an expression of their Jewish selves, and as a result, enhance their Jewish identities.

While the jury is admittedly still out on the success of such an approach, the question I’m left with is this: using Repair The World as an example, how often are Jewish millenials actually engaging in service work? Once a week? Once or twice a quarter? Short of those enrolled in immersive programs, it’s probably safe to say that such identity building is not taking place on a daily basis.

Which makes me wonder: if the potential is there to help develop the Jewish identities of millenials by helping them view activities they’re already undertaking as expressions of their Jewish selves, and if it’s a safe assumption that more frequent Jewish identity-building experiences will lead to a stronger Jewish identity, then why not focus our efforts on the daily experiences of millenials, and strive to frame such experiences through a Jewish lens?

Where am I going with this?

There is one thing that I can say with near absolute confidence about the overwhelming majority of Jewish millenials in this country: they eat at least 3 times each day.

And thus, it’s time for a large-scale movement emphasizing framing food consumption through a Jewish lens.

Now I recognize that we Jews are pretty passionate about our diets and such a proposal may not be particularly welcomed. I’ve always been amazed that while over 95% of Jewish baby males are circumcised in this country, only about 20% of Jews observe any kind of kosher dietary laws (the rationale given in the Torah for both is quite similar: because God said so). So, ritualistic, archaic genital slicing – no second thought. But passing on the shrimp? Not going to happen. Go figure.

While the Reform Movement did away with the traditional kosher dietary laws in the late 19th Century, they also did away with yarmulkahs and prayer shawls – both of which have made a significant comeback in most of the movement’s North American congregations.

It’s time for Jewish intentional eating to make a comeback as well.

I’m not advocating necessarily for the observance of traditional kosher laws (although I would wager that those who observe traditional kosher laws – even if only in the home – score higher on “Jewish identity” scorecards than those who don’t due to the added consciousness of a Jewish nature embedded into their lives on a daily basis when eating, grocery shopping, etc.). I firmly believe that in addition to or instead of a kosher-based diet, options such as Eco-Kashrutv and other Jewish Food Ethic options can serve a similar purpose. It’s important to state that this may even include consuming foods that are specifically not kosher traditionally! For example, if one intentionally lives by a Jewish food ethic and strives to consume only those products which are sustainably farmed, seeking out and consuming sustainably farmed scallops as an expression of one’s Jewish food ethic could very well help enhance and meaningfully impact an individual’s Jewish identity. I also don’t think that the movement needs to be justice and/or sustainability-centric, which is the focus of existing organizations like Hazon.

I can’t think of a better or more regular way to provide an opportunity to enhance Jewish identity without having to resort to significant behavioral changes (such as praying 3x/day) than focusing on food consumption. At least three times a day, most millenials are already eating. How do we help frame that experience through a specifically Jewish lens, and in turn, help enhance their Jewish identities?

What does the large-scale movement encouraging intentional Jewish food consumption, for millenials and for the rest of us, look like?

Rabbi Daniel S. Horwitz is the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, MI and the Senior Jewish Educator for Michigan State University Hillel and the Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan. You can find him online at www.rabbidanh.com