Jewish identity and being Jewish in the modern world will be the topic of a conference at Drew University in Madison on Sunday afternoon, April 18. Panelists will include Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals; Rabbi Dr. Allen Nadler, professor of religion and director of Jewish studies at Drew; and Dr. Jonathan Golden, associate director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, associate professor of religion and anthropology, and director of the Drew Hillel.
NJJN spoke with Golden, who lives in Florham Park and is a member of the independent minyan Chavurat Lamdeinu in Madison.
NJJN: Why hold a conference now on Jewish identity?
Golden: Many of our youngest students are grappling with questions of Jewish identity, and they are engaging with that question in some interesting ways.
One of the main themes I have been encouraging the Hillel students to think about all year — it was the subject of our seder discussion — is how they intend to someday pass their Jewish identity and values on to their own future families. So, I’d say: It is critical to first understand what Jewish identity means today if we are to strengthen it in this next generation of young adults.
NJJN: Why this conference at Drew?
Golden: This is our Pincus Lecture. Each year, we do a major lecture and invite the community to our campus…. Although the university is small, we have an active Hillel and a vibrant Jewish studies program. Drew often gets overlooked, but we have a very active Jewish community and we like to see ourselves as part of the broader Jewish community [15-20 percent of the student population is Jewish].
NJJN: Are the issues confronting young people today significantly different from those their parents faced?
Golden: Absolutely. This generation has so many different questions. They are growing up in a totally different social and cultural environment. Their grandparents and parents were still reeling from the Holocaust [and] came into the world when anti-Semitism was a frightening and pervasive force. There’s not a lot of anti-Semitism on campus today. It’s a pluralistic, respectful environment. Hillel has excellent relations with the Muslim students — in fact, we recently held a joint kosher/halal cooking workshop.
As far as other issues go, students travel abroad and encounter Jewish communities around the world, and that yields plenty of questions; there are also questions about Israel. There’s no denying that students are liberal-leaning and have a love for Israel, but struggle with the current situation. In fact, on other campuses, students sometimes say they stay away from joining Hillel because it has toxic relationships with other groups on campus; we’re fortunate at Drew not to have that.
This generation also confronts a whole different set of issues [in terms of observance]. They see themselves as Jewish culturally, but where is spirituality? This is something they are looking to develop.
NJJN: Elie Kaunfer, cofounder of a popular independent minyan in Manhattan and Mechon Hadar, a new full time coed yeshiva, was quoted this week as saying the big issue facing Jews today is not continuity, the issue often raised by institutional leaders, but rather finding meaningful ways to engage in Judaism. Do you agree?
Golden: It’s true. This week we had an awards ceremony and a family told us their son was not interested in Judaism but were astounded at how involved in Hillel he was. There are a number of students coming from families where Jewish identity is part of their identity but they don’t practice. They are increasingly coming to Hillel, and they seem to have a thirst for more engagement. Students without a strong background are also gravitating toward Jewish studies.
NJJN: You study conversos and other groups that claim to come from Jewish tradition but aren’t necessarily embraced by the normative Jewish community. Do you see models for how to manage the question of who is a Jew?
Golden: These questions do fascinate me; there are so many stories about conversos in Latin America and even in the American Southwest who say they feel Jewish and want to return to Judaism. When they are told, ‘Here’s how to convert,’ they find it very insulting. This also happens with the Abayudaya Jews in Uganda and the Bene Israel community in India. The Bene Israel and the Falash Mura of Ethiopia have had real trouble going to Israel and making aliya. From a rabbinic point of view, maybe there are important halachic questions to answer, but my point of view is that someone coming and saying they want to be part of the Jewish people — that they feel they are already part of the Jewish people — we should do everything we can to welcome them. We should bend over backward, especially given the history of assimilation of the contemporary Jewish community.