Showing posts with label jonathan Krasner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jonathan Krasner. Show all posts

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Persistence of “Identity”

I have been struggling with writing. I read in Heschel recently "Words have become pretexts in the technique of evading the necessity of honest and genuine expression."  (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 17.) So I have been trying to carefully consider my use of words. I will write again very soon. Until then I want to share something published by the Mandel Center at Brandeis University and picked up today by eJewishPhilanthropy. It was written by Jonathan Krasner, an outstanding teacher with whom I have been fortunate to learn on a few occasions. I think it is fabulous. Discuss it over Shabbat dinner!

The intro was written by of the Mandel Center. The original posting is here.

Jonathan Krasner
This guest post is by Jonathan Krasner of Hebrew Union College. He is a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center this year; next year, we will welcome him to Brandeis as the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Education Research.

In 1994 Leon Wieseltier declared in the New Republic that identity was “an idea whose time has gone.” Twenty years later the Jewish identity industry is still going strong.

I recently had occasion to reread Wieseltier’s article in preparation for a conference on “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education” at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Listening to the various panel presentations and the vigorous discussions that ensued, it was clear to me that Wieseltier underestimated the enduring power of identity as a concept, particularly within the North American Jewish community. As the opening conference statement made clear, “With the possible exception of ‘continuity,’ identity (and the attendant fears of its disappearance or weakening) has driven more philanthropic initiatives and educational policy than any other single concept.”

With funders and community leaders eager to shore up the Jewish identities of millennials and their younger siblings, there is plenty of money to be had and made in the Jewish identity industry. Hence my quip at the conference that “Jewish identity has basically become the crack cocaine of the Jewish educational world.” Everyone from Birthright trip venders to Jewish boutique camp directors is fishing for a piece of the action. And who can blame them? Many of these good folks are incubating innovative and potentially transformative initiatives. If wrapping themselves in the banner of Jewish identity enrichment can win them dollars in a time of otherwise dwindling resources, where is the harm in shopping their products as Jewish aphrodisiacs that will encourage endogamy and result in lots of Jewish babies?

ID block quoteBut let’s return to Wieseltier. Before we chuckle at his obtuseness we should pause to revisit his reasoning. By 1994 it was clear to Wieseltier and others, including the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall and sociologist Herbert Gans, that longstanding assumptions about identity were outmoded, particularly in western societies. It turned out that identity was fluid rather than stable, transient rather than enduring, hybrid and overlapping rather than distinct and impermeable. Moreover, individuals inhabited multiple identities and often treated ethnic identity symbolically. Decisions about which one(s) to emphasize were provisional, situational and circumstantial in nature. Wieseltier, who was by no means sanguine about these revelations, logically reasoned that if developmental psychologist Erik Erikson was correct that “identity formation begins where the usefulness of multiple identification ends,” than identity as a concept was past its expiration date.

Erikson introduced identity in the 1950s as an antidote to anomie and alienation, the scourges of modern civilization. But if the self turns out to be protean rather than fixed, then why has identity endured? Part of the answer is supplied by Wieseltier himself: Even if identity is a fiction, it is a useful fiction. In describing the modern condition he pointed out that “we are unprecedentedly dispersed and unprecedentedly distracted.” This is even truer today than it was twenty years ago, as a result of globalization and advances in information technology. Even memory, “which confers a sense of continuity … is disappearing beneath the assault of associations. We are carrying too much. We are falling out of our hands. We need a basket. The name of the basket is identity.” Wieseltier is providing an important insight into why much of the contemporary discourse on identity has been patently ignored by Jewish educators on the front lines. Parents, educators, communal leaders and funders want to believe, and even need to believe in the basket called Jewish identity. The alternative is too messy, too overwhelming, too threatening.

As much as some of us, including myself, chafe at the persistence of identity and the simplistic way that it often conceptualized by stakeholders within the Jewish community, we ignore its continued allure at our peril. The price of abandoning identity discourse may be our irrelevance, that is, the continued chasm between the academy and the street. We can try to influence that discourse in ways that seek to educate practitioners, funders, community leaders and others.

Perhaps the message we should be driving home is that in the post-modern world, when identity can be merely symbolic and momentary, identity becomes a poor substitute for lived experience, for practice. Measuring people’s feelings might have been an important corrective for sociologists whose survey instruments measured identity purely in relation to ritual practices and friendship patterns. But people’s feelings do not get us very far. The vast majority of North American Jews have positive feelings about their Jewishness. But that does not mean that Jewishness plays an important or even meaningful role in their lives. As Wieseltier writes, “An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is Jewish Education Broken?

"Is Jewish Education Broken?" is the title of a panel debate being held in New York in two weeks. It looks like it will be a really interesting and valuable evening. Sadly I will not be able to attend. I would like to recommend that you do if you are available. Details are below.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Gary Greene saw the session title and took issue with it. He said "...knowing what so many colleagues are doing to improve Jewish Education, I have come dislike rhetorical titles like 'Is Jewish Education Broken?' It's like asking 'Do you still beat your wife?'  I find that title self-defeating prophecy to which the answer has to be yes...Why not focus on the exciting innovations going on in Jewish Education?  ...I think a better title could be "How might we meet the challenges of Jewish Education today?"

You go, Gary. Amen Selah. I agree. Now go to the session if you can!



Five Leading Scholars Discuss New Visions

For Jewish Schools at a Free Event on December 13

NEW YORK, N.Y. … “Is Jewish Education Broken?,” debates new visions for liberal Jewish schools in the 21st century. This free event takes place on Thursday, December 13 at 7pm and is hosted by the 14th Street Y. “Is Jewish Education Broken?” is presented by Speakers’ Lab, a new public programming initiative of the Posen Foundation, with Tablet Magazine and The New School for Public Engagement, Jewish Cultural Studies Program.

As enrollment declines in liberal Jewish schools, scholars and educators are asking critical questions about the relevance of Jewish education to today’s students. “Is Jewish Education Broken?” will explore current models and challenges facing liberal Jewish education, and propose new curricula and educational models for teachers and administrators for the future. Concerns and topics will include:
  • The discrepancy between 20th century Jewish educational models and 21st century perspectives on Jewish life.
  • The teaching of Jewish culture as ahistorical and disconnected from contemporary life.
  • The role of Jewish schooling in Jewish continuity.
  • Concerns about using the American school model to teach Jewish culture.
  • The rise of new and informal Jewish educational models.
  • The challenges of teaching minority education in America.
To discuss these issues and more, this panel brings together five forward-thinking scholars including: Zvi Bekerman, Director of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education, School of Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Benjamin Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Education and Jewish Studies, New York University; Jonathan Krasner, Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; and Tali Zelkowicz, Assistant Professor of Education, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. The discussion will be moderated by Bethamie Horowitz, Research Assistant Professor, New York University.

This is Speakers’ Lab’s second program. The next public program will take place in the Spring of 2013.

Admission to “Is Jewish Education Broken?” is free. Seating is limited and pre-registration is encouraged. Sign-up at or by calling 212-564-6711 x 305.

Event and Venue Info:
The Theater at the 14th Street Y

344 East 14th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
New York, NY 10003

Posen Foundation (
The Posen Foundation’s mission is rooted in the belief that Jewish education can make a meaningful difference in Jewish life and should be available to all who are interested. To this end, the Foundation works internationally to promote Jewish learning, support academic research in Jewish history and culture, and encourage participation in Jewish cultural life.

As part of this effort, in 2012 the Posen Foundation launched its new public programming initiative, Speakers’ Lab (, which is dedicated to exploring new perspectives on Jewish culture and identity. Based in New York City, Speakers’ Lab presents debates, arts performances, and panel discussions in collaboration with other organizations and venues. In 2012, Speakers’ Lab is presenting two events, one in the spring and one in the fall.
The New School (
The New School is a legendary, progressive university comprising seven schools bound by a common, unusual intent: to prepare and inspire its more than 10,500 undergraduate and graduate students to bring actual, positive change to the world. From its Greenwich Village campus, The New School launches economists and actors, fashion designers and urban planners, dancers and anthropologists, orchestra conductors, filmmakers, political scientists, organizational experts, jazz musicians, scholars, psychologists, historians, journalists, and above all, world citizens-individuals whose ideas and innovations forge new paths of progress in the arts, design, humanities, public policy, and the social sciences. In addition to its 92 graduate and undergraduate degree-granting programs, the university offers certificate programs and more than 650 continuing education courses to 5,619 adult learners every year.

Tablet Magazine ( Magazine, at, is the daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.

14th Street Y (
The 14th Street Y, a Jewish community center in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, is a vital neighborhood resource that welcomes people of all backgrounds. We offer programs with a distinctive downtown point of view, emphasizing excellence, innovation, creativity, and a questioning spirit.