Redefinition of ‘Jews by choice’ is vital

BY ESTHER D. KUSTANOWITZ

I just came back from Israel, which seems to be experiencing “conference season.” During June and July, there were conferences held by the Hebrew University Board of Governors, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the ROI Global Summit for Jewish Innovators. I was at the summit as part of the PR and media team. As I left, a conference organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute was examining “challenges faced by Diaspora Jewish communities.”

According to Ynet, Jewish American student activist Rachel Fish told attendees at the planning institute conference that “the new generation of American Jews see themselves as ‘Jews by choice'” — a term that in the past has referred to converts who became Jewish because of their personal choice. Fish explained that “due to their wish to be citizens of the world,” they [or, I guess, “we”] place Jewish identity in a list of other identities.

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“The notion of Klal Yisrael” — Jewish solidarity and peoplehood — “has become empty,” Fish told the conference. “Young Jews do not have a collective identity. In the age of multiculturalism, young Jewish adults do not wish to carry the burden of Jewish history. My generation and future generations are removed from historical events. Palestinianism is the cause celebre on campuses. Zionism is no longer relevant to young Jews in the 21st century.”

Fish went on to say that “Jewish nationalism must be reclaimed. We must not wait for others to protect our identity and values.” She said redemption was possible, but that birthright israel and other “one-time” experiences were not sufficient.

As someone who often writes about Jewish youth culture and Jewish innovation, at first I took exception to Fish’s comments. While I do agree that birthright alone in an educational vacuum isn’t the best plan for long-term Jewish continuity, it is one very important tool in a greater arsenal. I felt provoked by her statement that today’s EveryJew is a Jew by choice, and felt it was a cheapening of the term of choice for the original “Jews by choice,” converts who have chosen to align their destinies with the Jewish people.

But after hearing Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League say “there have always been Jews by choice” and that we have “always survived because there has been a tenth committed to continuity,” I reconsidered the strength of my reaction.

Let’s talk about that tenth. The reason I was in Israel this time — actually the reason I’ve been to Israel the last three times — was because I have the honor of being involved with several ongoing initiatives that are designed to accommodate the philosophical, cultural, technological and spiritual makeup of the contemporary 20-something and 30-something Jew. (Two of them, the ROI Summit and the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism, were profiled recently by the JTA.)

In Israel, I saw both initiatives in action, and my completely biased opinion is that the people and organizations involved in these initiatives are changing the face of tomorrow’s global Jewish life.

You only had to attend the Israel Advocacy panel at the ROI Summit, which was filled with hasbarah representatives from a dozen countries, many of whom were birthright alumni and former madrichim (counselors), or ask the PresenTense Institute fellows what they’re up to, to know that Zionism is still relevant; it’s just morphing somewhat from the Zionism our ancestors would have recognized into something that’s totally 21st century.

The new, creative Zionism builds on a present that the early pioneers could never have foreseen: In our world, we can easily mobilize international networks of people in service of the Jewish future, and share ideas and expertise in real time, creating an intellectual, emotional, organizational kibbutz for the modern age. If we are “Jews by choice,” those who choose Jewish are doing so committedly, with powerful voices, innovative ideas, great conviction and contagious enthusiasm.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a freelance writer and senior editor of PresenTense Magazine. She has two blogs of her own, My Urban Kvetch and Jdaters Anonymous, and is a regular contributor to Jewlicious and Beliefnet’s Idol Chatter blog. Esther is also the author of The Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Teens Who Hid From the Nazis (Rosen Publishing, 1999), and has contributed to and edited several other books.