Jewish Cultural Identity

More than half of American Jews define themselves as secular

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To those who would question the findings' applicability, arguing that the Bay Area study is local in scope and that its respondents are primarily Reform or unaffiliated, Tobin says that "they should pay attention to what's happening in the Bay Area, as do scholars, politicians, and economists. Trends go east."

And also west. In a June 2000 report to UJA Federation of New York's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, a moving picture was presented by social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz, entitled Connections and Journeys: Assessing Critical Opportunities for Enhancing Jewish Identity, of how being Jewish evolved over the course of the lifetimes of New York-area Jews. A pattern of Jewish engagement emerged which is "perhaps the most distinctly American" and in which Jewishness is described "as a set of values and historical people-consciousness rather than as a mode of observance."

Engaging the Next Generation of Jews

The evidence is that Jewish cultural identity does not lead to assimilation or "bagels and lox" type of Jews. "While we assimilate American culture, America is assimilating Jewish culture," Tobin contends. "McDonald's serves ham and cheese on bagels… Jewish culture enriches the cultural fabric of America. A great deal of Jewish culture takes place in non-Jewish venues. If there's a Holocaust movie at a theater, it becomes a sacred space."

Roger Bennett, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, says, "We have a lot to learn about the use of culture as a means to an end, especially in terms of engaging the next generation of Jews. Outside of the Jewish community one can witness the success of the Tibetan Freedom concert, the  Christian Rock Music Industry, or the Vagina Monologues to see how cultural mechanisms can be a powerful tool to communicate values, set agendas and organize constituencies."

"I'd like to see the consciousness of communal organizations expand to include culture," Tobin says. "I suspect that in 20 years, Jewish culture's rightful place will be more recognizable."

Tobin's comments echo those of Egon Mayer who, in a 1992 panel discussion organized by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture at the General Assembly of Council of Jewish Federations, suggests that the path to Jewish identity and continuity lays through a "fourth door, the general culture that is not specifically religious, that is not specifically directive and instructional, and that is not necessarily geared to defending ourselves or raising more dollars."

Perhaps the fourth door is better described as a Golden Gate...

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