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The science of Jewish identity

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Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home, by Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor (Indiana University Press)

North American Jewish community leaders often wring their hands about precipitously declining levels of Jewish identity, especially in younger generations. Solutions to this problem, if they exist, may depend on research that identifies successful strategies for instilling Jewish pride and values in young people. Where do young Jews who have Jewish values acquire them? Is it in school, in synagogue, at summer camp, on an Israel program or in their own homes?

A new book by Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor, called Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home, offers interesting insights into this question, from the academic fields of education and sociology. Pomson, who held the Koschitzky family chair in Jewish education at York University until he made aliyah, is currently the managing director of Rosov Consulting, an educational consulting firm. Schnoor is a widely published sociologist who teaches at York’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

Jewish Family: Identity and Self-Formation at Home, by Alex Pomson and Randal F. Schnoor (Indiana University Press)

This is the second book that Pomson and Schnoor have written collaboratively. Ten years ago, in Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews, they analyzed the impact that the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School (DJDS) in Toronto had on the Jewish identities of the parents and students who attended it. That book concluded that “the families that we met at DJDS provide strong evidence of how schools can impart meaning to families.”

Pomson and Schnoor maintained their connection with this school and with the original families who took part in the study. This second book, based on recurring interviews with the same DJDS families over a period of 10 years, charts and analyzes changes in their Jewish identities over that period.

DJDS is not a typical Jewish day school. It is strongly committed to diversity, pluralism and other liberal values and has no connection to any Jewish denomination. It attracts parents who are, for the most part, not active in the formal institutions of Jewish life in Toronto. Analyzing the values and behaviour of its students and their families tells us little about other day schools (which often require synagogue membership as a condition of entrance).  But recall that most Jewish children in Canada do not go to day school at all, so the information gleaned from this study may help us understand other Jewish families that have some level of Jewish identity, but are not very involved in the community. As Back to School concludes, the family is “the best venue for being a Jew.”

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With only a tenuous association with Jewish communal institutions, a significant percentage of families in this study designed personalized bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children. They did not use the event as an opportunity to establish or strengthen their connection with an established synagogue.

“They took charge of the design of the event, in terms of its timing, location and content.… The family – working together with a specially recruited educator or rabbi – designed its own personalized ceremonial ritual in a location outside a synagogue or a conventional Jewish prayer space, relocating to a theatre or church hall, and holding the event at a time other than Shabbat morning.… This phenomenon is a fascinating indicator of the personalizing trend in Jewish religious life,” write Pomson and Schnoor.

When the younger generation leaves DJDS, does the increased Jewish identity of the families lead to deeper involvement with the broader Jewish community? Sometimes, but more often, it does not. One of the DJDS fathers whom Pomson and Schnoor interviewed said that, “It was very important to me to maintain my connection to my heritage, to my historical heritage. People died because they were Jewish. I can’t give up on that.”  Nevertheless, as Pomson and Schnoor summarize, “He is uncomfortable participating in Jewish life as a member of a group. He prefers to do his own thing.” This father was disappointed to notice “how much his family’s Jewish life … thinned out” after his child left DJDS and had his bar mitzvah, saying that he saw this change as “an unfortunate coincidence.” Despite the basic Jewish rituals practiced by this family, the researchers noted the family’s Christmas tree, which the authors saw on their last visit to the family’s home. “Among the stars and cards decorating the tree are Hanukkah dreidels that … (their son had) made in elementary school.”

Pomson and Schnoor conclude that the Jewish values of the teenagers whom they interviewed at the end of their study were surprisingly close to the values of their parents. But two important differences stood out: the younger generation who went to DJDS and who generally had more Jewish education than their parents were more comfortable than their parents with Jewish rituals, even feeling at ease having their non-Jewish friends around when performing such rituals. “These teens have experienced a more positive and more intensive Jewish education than most of their parents, they are more proud and less ambivalent about their Jewishness than their parents, and at the same time, they are less committed to a norm of Jewish endogamy (i.e., marrying a fellow Jew).” While many of the DJDS parents were committed to the idea of Jewish in-marriage, none of the DJDS teenagers were.

When Jewish identity is fostered through a liberal, pluralistic school that’s dedicated to diversity and is not connected to the organized Jewish community, is this surprising?