Strong Jewish identities will safeguard Israel's future

Our Common Destiny Project: Strengthening Jewish Identity

Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017 (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017
(photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
I have always maintained that the song “He Lives in You” from the Lion King is a most Jewish song. If you remember the Lion King, as Simba struggles with assuming responsibility for the Pridelands, he needs to remember who he is and that the leaders of the past live in him. Only then is he able to draw upon an internal reservoir of knowledge and strength and to see himself as part of the larger story of his kingdom. 
Yes, it’s from a Disney film, but it is a quintessentially Jewish message. We as Jews understand that our past lives in us, that we are part of something far bigger than ourselves, and that our place in that bigger story should influence the way we think and behave. That understanding is the foundation of Jewish identity, and without it, the Jewish people cannot survive. The work of strengthening Jewish identity must be the highest priority for ensuring the vibrancy of the Jewish world and Israel-Diaspora relations.
Jewish identity is rooted in peoplehood. It means feeling bonded to Jews around the world, and linked to the Jews of the past and the future. Those with powerful Jewish identities are comfortable prioritizing the needs of fellow Jews, whether across the street or across the globe, because they are members of our extended family; we can love all of humankind and still put family first. Jews with strong Jewish identities see their individual fate as tied to the fate of their fellow Jews and have a sense of responsibility for the entire Jewish people. Jewish identity is more than a vague notion of pride in being Jewish; it is an unfraying cord that connects us to fellow Jews across borders and through time. 


But a sense of peoplehood is not enough. Jewish continuity will only be secure if Jewish identity also encompasses literacy: a fluency with Jewish texts and traditions that nurtures a sense of shared ownership of Jewish heritage. Jewish literacy means feeling part of a millennia-old dialogue about what Judaism means. It is a passport into every Jewish space and conversation. It gives us the tools to passionately agree or vehemently disagree with the decisions, interpretations, rituals, and beliefs of the Jewish past and present. It creates a shared lexicon with which to build a Jewish future.
Dr. Laura Shaw Frank, National Director of AJC’s William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department (Photo: AJC)Dr. Laura Shaw Frank, National Director of AJC’s William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department (Photo: AJC)
Jews with strong Jewish identities will continue to safeguard the well-being and security of Israel and fellow Jews. They will take responsibility for one another. They will draw upon Jewish texts and traditions that will help us serve as a Light unto the Nations and work toward improvement of the world. We who have devoted our life’s work to cultivating the survival of the Jewish people must be tireless in ensuring that Jewish peoplehood and Jewish literacy flow through the veins and synapses of the next generation of Jews. Strengthening Jewish identity is the single most important value for us to prioritize in order to build a vibrant Jewish present and future. 

Dr. Laura Shaw Frank is the National Director of AJC’s William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department