What Is a Jew? Good Question

A large audience listens to Shalom
Hartman Institute president Yehuda Kurtzer and broadcaster Marc Steiner discuss “What is a Jew?”

Around 230 people gathered in the American Visionary Art Museum Sunday to hear Yehuda Kurtzer and Marc Steiner discuss Jewish identity in contemporary America and answer the program’s titular question: “What is a Jew?” The program featured a presentation — with study materials — by Shalom Hartman Institute president Kurtzer and an audience question-and-answer session led by broadcaster Steiner, who heads the Center for Emerging Media.

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder, director and principal curator, told the packed room when she introduced Kurtzer: “Never let shul get in the way of your study as a Jew.”

It’s a complicated question to tackle, or it should be, Kurtzer said. He drew on a recent Pew Foundation study that found 95 percent of people who identified as Jewish said they were proud to be Jewish. At the same time, however, membership in traditional Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and community centers, is dwindling. Kurtzer outlined four Jewish identity “shortcuts” for the audience and discussed their limitations in defining Judaism. The question of Jewish identity “assumes there’s a boundary, it can be found, and there are ways to legislate it,” Kurtzer said. “But what happens,” he asked, “when there is no boundary?”

Jewish identity is in flux, Kurtzer claimed, in part because of successful integration into American culture. American Jews vote not as a bloc but as both Republicans and Democrats. This is indicative of success, Kurtzer says, because “partisanship makes them good Americans.”

Whereas Jewish people once identified themselves as “others” in society, they no longer truly can, Kurtzer claimed, and used as an example the first appearance of Jewish family members in the White House. “No matter who won the last election, there would have been Jewish grandchildren in the White House,” he said. But this milestone was scarcely commented upon or considered an outlier.

Integration has also resulted from intermarriage, Kurtzer said, citing an intermarriage rate ranging between 50 and 75 percent in America. “People are blending and mixing: it’s the default state” in a pluralist society, Kurtzer said. “Intermarriage is the consummate American story.” Because of this, he posited, the idea of being “half-Jewish” has come into being because “it’s not negating their Judaism but claiming the other half of their heritage.”

Steiner asked Kurtzer if the loss of membership in traditional Jewish organizations was a crisis or opportunity. “It’s always the same thing,” Kurtzer said. He said the younger generation has had a different cultural experience growing up Jewish than their grandparents, and even their parents. “I don’t know if it’s a substance or marketing problem,” said Kurtzer. “But if Judaism is a choice, it’s our responsibility to create a Jewish experience they want to choose. Instead of asking: ‘Why are you failing to adopt these?’ Instead, we could provide community, purpose and meaning … and have the humility to give them what they need.”

According to Rabbi Eric Gurvis, the Shalom Hartman Institute’s East Coast manager, Kurtzer spent the morning speaking with leaders from the four conservative synagogues that sponsored the program: Beth Israel Congregation, Beth Am Synagogue, Beth El Congregation and Chizuk Amuno Congregation and schools. The experience was valuable enough to all involved, said Gurvis, to continue. Their discussion will evolve into a series for congregation staff and board members of monthly, two-hour webinars with other Hartman scholars. Thus far, they’ve planned three more months of learning. Although specific topics haven’t been chosen yet, Gurvis said Shalom Hartman scholars Christine Hayes, Shaul Magid and Mijal Bitton would likely participate.

Gurvis credited Beth Am’s Rabbi Daniel Burg for his push to bring these teachers to Baltimore. And the timing is right, Gurvis said, because the Shalom Hartman Institute is ready to meet Baltimore’s needs. The institute has recently “exploded” in growth, evolving the “depth and reach of its programming … to bring Israel to local communities.”

“Yesterday was [the Shalom Hartman Institute’s] first foray into Baltimore,” said Gurvis. And with 230 diverse participants, Gurvis felt the program “crossed all boundaries of Baltimore’s Jewish community.” It was a success “beyond our expectations,” he said.

Did the group succeed in defining Jewish identity? Not exactly. “The job is not simple,” Kurtzer told the group. “to be fully Jewish, and fully American at the same time.” Nevertheless, it’s a good question to ask, said Kurtzer, and the two identities are not mutually exclusive. But, Kurtzer claimed, maybe the point of religious education is to “ask better questions, rather than find answers.”

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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