JTS head: Improve Jewish identity in U.S. to improve connection with Israel

Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said that there are “no quick fixes” to the problem of declining Jewish identity in America.

March 31, 2019 01:04
3 minute read.
Prof. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York

Prof. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. (photo credit: ITAI NADAV)


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Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said it is imperative to connect American Jews to the Jewish people and Judaism in order for them to feel connected to Israel.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post this week, Eisen talked of the challenges in generating this connection and whether or not it would be more effective in focusing on Jewish identity in the US than the current troubles in the relationship between American Jews with Israel.

“The less you feel part of the Jewish people and the less you feel connected to Judaism, the less you are going to feel connected to Israel,” said Eisen, who was speaking ahead of a conference at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on Wednesday on commonalities and differences between Israeli and North American Jews.

Eisen noted that following the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jews barely needed a particular connection to Judaism as a religion to feel Jewish “because history was impinging on you,” but said that in today’s generation the intensity of those historical events is less keenly felt, and so too the connection to the Jewish people is weaker.

Eisen observed that for growing numbers of Jews in the US, Judaism is only a matter of religion and not of peoplehood or identification with the nation state of the Jews, Israel, to the extent that many American Jews do not feel that such national identities are desirable or even legitimate any longer.

“Peoplehood seems strange to them and even chauvinistic or racist, and that’s a problem,” he said, noting that many American Jews do not live in a particularly Jewish environment and typically have many close friends who are not Jewish.

“It’s a fiction to them. It seems not only wrong in principle but untrue in terms of their experience that they should feel a stronger connection to other Jews than they should to the people around them.”

Eisen also noted that because of the prevalence of intermarriage, the children of such marriages can feel even less likely to identify specifically with the cultural and national heritage of one parent over another.

“If you’re married to someone non-Jewish or a child of a non-Jew, why should you be more connected to Jews than non-Jews? It’s not intuitively correct.”

Eisen said that there are “no quick fixes” to the problem of declining Jewish identity in America, but said that providing Jews with Jewish experiences in day schools and summer camps is key, especially for those for whom Judaism is “in the periphery” of their lives.

“You need to create a close connection to other Jews through community. You need to get Jews involved in Jewish education, culture, music, art, Jewish spirituality and social justice,” he said.

Given the serious problems of Jewish interfaith marriages in the US, assimilation and declining Jewish identity, it has been suggested that efforts be made to address these problems in particular, before trying to improve the connection of US Jews to Israel.

Eisen said however that this would be a mistake and wasted opportunity, given the historic privilege renewed Jewish sovereignty has conferred on the Jewish people, including what he described as the opportunity to fulfill Jewish ideals of justice.

“It’s a waste not to take advantage of the opportunities to be Jew in the US, and equally to take advantage of the connection to the State of Israel, which is the single most important project the Jewish people has on the ground in the 21st century,” he said.

“Now you have a state which gives you the opportunity to move mitzvah from the private sphere to the public sphere for the first time in 2,000 years, and increase justice and compassion in the world. I want Jews to understand this and take part in it. Having Israel changes Jewish existence in the 21st century, and not to make it part of Jewish education and Jewish identity is a wasted opportunity.”

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