The latest Pew report says: “U.S. Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and value than religious observance.”
What is culture? How does it help define who we are?
The first obvious answer could be that culture and ethnic or religious identity are defined by where we live. We live and behave similar to the people we live among, and that defines our culture.
As American Jews we would be American, but then again as American Jews what is our ethnic or religious identity made of? What keeps us American is greater than what keeps us Jewish. So what is the place of our Jewish culture in our lives as American Jews?
Some say religious practice keeps us connected to our Jewish culture but as the Pew survey states, religious practice is in decline so what could possibly replace that decline? Where would the other parts of Jewish culture, come from? Does our American Jewish ethnic or religious identity involve the State of Israel?
I think it does. We are Americans who try to keep our connections to our ancient heritage so far from the Middle East.
Looking at the global Jewish community, the Pew survey says Israel and the United States are home to more than four-fifths of the world’s Jews. In our ancient past, two large Jewish centers — Babylon and Israel — existed, and they shared a Jewish culture. That shared culture, in turn, developed a beautiful piece of Jewish literature called the Talmud, which is based upon the common study of the Mishna at that time.
Can we see this opportunity again to sync the cultures of two large Jewish centers? Many Jewish communities in the United States, looking for just such an opportunity, have decided that investing in Israeli culture is a good place to start. The rest of us are hoping that keeping a close connection with our P2K communities is enough Israeli culture for now. As an Israeli living here, though, someone who’s married to an American Jew and raising American Jewish children, I question whether that is enough.
Today, the connection between American Jewry and Israel is delivered mostly through American philanthropy, which has a large influence through the civic society in Israel. Israelis, in return, cannot reciprocate this type of connection. They are no match for the American civic society, so this connection, no matter how big a blessing to Israeli democracy, leaves open the question of what Israelis can give back to American Jews that would address their needs in cultural identity?
The answer is plenty. Israel, beyond being a start-up country, is a melting pot for many ethnic groups that strive to express themselves through art, music, drama and fashion. Israelis are blessed with excellent musicians, actors, writers and great designers.
Israel teen trips are the most important and effective aspect of building Jewish identity. And what these teens take home, besides memories of the land and new friendships, is the introduction to a young culture and the language, both of which are alive and poignant.
The language and the experience of the culture can stay and be reinforced back in the states. The language, the art and the music can be enjoyed over many more years and keep them connected to the culture of Israel. Israeli music and language can also keep these young adults connected in times when difficult political differences occur and could possibly compensate for some people the sense of alienation from the Israeli leaders.
Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has brought Israeli artists here sporadically throughout the years; the last major Israeli music concert was five years ago. Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia have ongoing programs to bring artists and musicians to their cities every year, while Pittsburghers must fly or drive for hours to enjoy these performances.
Adult and teen Hebrew classes have been in decline across the city, and if we do not infuse interest with excitement and culture, we are missing the cultural identity that cannot be retained for those who do not keep going back to Israel. This year, Yom Ha’atzmaut will not host the Spirit of Israel cultural arts delegation. Perhaps this is the right time for this community to rethink its Jewish cultural investment and look for new ways to spike its connection to the people and culture of Israel as well as the land.
As an immigrant to this country I understand from firsthand knowledge how watching an American movie — understanding its language, getting its jokes, hearing its soundtrack — can give the viewer an instant sense of belonging. That is exactly what it means to be culturally connected, and that is exactly what is missing in our cultural relationship and understanding of Israel. If we do not foster this in our community, we risk never having this deep cultural identity shared with the other Jewish center across the globe.
(Nitsa Bucritz Ford is the director of development of the Agency for Jewish Learning.)