Growing a Global Jewish People

I love listening to the voice of my son Jonah practicing his Torah trope, ancient lyrics that he sings with a new, rich voice, adding another dimension to his repertoire of Jewish skills. He is proud of himself and is looking forward to becoming a bar mitzvah, an important moment when he will affirm his Jewish identity—one of many identities he embodies.

As an African American transracial adoptee, I do not want Jonah to have to choose between his racial and religious identities. It is important to me that my son experience Judaism in ways that are positive and resonate with him on many levels. As Jonah navigates his multiple identities throughout his life, I hope he will always feel at home in the Jewish community.

Many racially and ethnically diverse Jews feel like outsiders. Too often they do not see themselves reflected in Jewish life. Our research shows that diverse Jews have complex needs: They want to connect with other Jews of the same ethnicity or race; they want programs that explore the multicultural richness of Jewish life; and above all, they want to participate in mainstream Jewish life without having to explain themselves.

Although race presents itself as the most “visible” identity, the reality is that everybody has multiple identities. The challenges we face in attracting ethnically and racially diverse Jews apply to all Jews. Previous generations of Jewish immigrants sacrificed everything to give their children a life free from persecution. We successfully assimilated into a new culture and became Americans. Now we are worried that we are too assimilated. In response, our conflict-ridden history has taught us to close ranks to try to stave off further attrition. While synagogues, day schools, camps and trips to Israel are important when it comes to strengthening Jewish identity, they are not a panacea. We face new challenges that require new approaches.

Younger generations live in an increasingly fast-paced global world and the specter of the fear-based ghettoized Judaism of the past has no relevance to them. NYU sociologist Dalton Conley has written of a “network nation,” in which social networks like Facebook create “crosscutting social groups” with new, flexible identities. Younger Jews belong to larger friend circles and are exposed to more cultural and ethnic diversity. They want the Jewish community to reflect the world in which they live.

Globalization and technology expand both our range of choices and ways of identifying ourselves. As a result, many people may choose to organize around religious identities outside of current institutional structures in ways that are more self-defined. These new identities may be “fluid” as people experiment, test and move in and out.

How do we engage seekers, switchers and mixers, both those born Jewish and those who may wander into Jewish life? The Pew Research Center refers to the “marketplace” of religions in which Americans are seen as shopping around for the religious theologies, practices and communities that suit them. Do we have enough confidence to become part of the intrinsically competitive marketplace of world religions? While there is fear, compounded from both a history of persecution and engendered by accelerated world change, we must face the unknown, ask the tough questions and listen to the answers. Despite the echo of past persecution, the values and benefits of Judaism still motivate individuals to join the Jewish people.

Jews are an historically global people. Coming from diverse geographies and countries, Jews and others want to feel part of something less insular and more accepting of difference, the essence of being part of a global community. In order for Judaism to thrive we need more pluralistic and multicultural expressions of Judaism as well as innovative interpretations of community. Fostering a welcoming Jewish community means meeting people wherever they are on their life path and creating opportunities to experience Judaism in fresh ways. It’s up to us to make Judaism compelling and to open it up in ways that attract everyone. I certainly hope that when my son Jonah is called to the Torah, he will further deepen his Jewish identity, an identity that is just one part of his multifaceted, 21st century self.