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Boundaries and Identity: Discussing Where We Stand and Who We Are

By: Rabbi Richard Hirsh

To address the challenging issues of Jewish identity in the contest of principles, policies and practices for Reconstructionist congregational schools is to run the risk of tangling any number of issues, each of which on its own terms generates passion as well as posturing.

I divide my remarks into two parts: HOW we have the discussion and WHAT is under discussion.

HOW do we have the discussion?

In the recommended book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (D. Stone, et al.; Penguin Group Inc., 2000), the authors note that difficult conversations happen on three levels: the content/topic, the emotional reactions generated by the topic, and issues of identity that are related to the topic.

So, for example, the question “Should children have to be Jewish to be enrolled in the shul school?” could be addressed on any of these 3 levels.

On the first level we address the underlying issues: what is the purpose of the synagogue, and by extension of the school of the synagogue? From there, we turn to how “being Jewish” is determined.

Related to this level of discussion is the issue of “identity” vs. “status.”* in this time and place, any parent or family can assign identity“ to a child (”My/Our child is Jewish“), but the community, here in the form of the synagogue, retains the right to confirm the status of a Jewish identity (”We're sorry, but our congregational policies do not recognize your child as being a Jew“).

We must ask not only who is a Jew, but also how the synagogue determines the criteria for confirming that status, who communicates the policy, and how it gets communicated to current and prospective members.

The second level of the discussion is the emotional. We need to be alert to the fact that any general or abstract policy takes on emotional freight and weight once it is applied to a specific child and their family. We must be prepared for questions such as 'What do you mean my child is not recognized as Jewish?” and “What do you mean my child cannot be in this school just because she is also attending church school?”

There will be children/families that do not fall within the parameters of a policy, whose personal situation conflicts with positions at which a synagogue legitimately arrives. The synagogue need not fold, nor feel guilty, for not being able to accommodate every situation.

The third level of discussion is identity. If we have already discussed the identity of the person or people directly affected by policies, we next turn to the identity of the synagogue or the community. We ask, if the policy is X, or if this child, who does/is Y, then what does that say about us as a (Reconstructionist) synagogue? What does what we decide say about me, as an individual or as a leader (rabbi, board member, educator) of this community? And could I live with being a member or leader of a congregation that does or does not hold such a position?

“Our policy is...” discussions take place at the level of content, the first level. Discussing our boundaries as a community, our policies, prepares us for the harder questions of the second level. With this discussion we prepare ourselves, as a community, to know both where we stand and why we stand there.

“Our child is…” discussions are more often second-level emotional discussions. The first-level discussions can prepare us, to some extent, for the second level; to the degree that they can it is important to take advantage of them. Knowing where we stand and why we stand there on a given issue can help us to stand there in the face of emotion.

”Our congregational policy is…” discussions are often third-level discussions of group and, by extension, individual identity.

It is important to remember, however, that all three levels of discussion often operate simultaneously, and the key is to have all the parties disengage them so that they can be addressed appropriately in an individual manner. Content, feelings and identity are all important dimensions.

WHAT are we discussing?

The current rhetoric of Reconstructionism – warm, welcoming, inclusive, participatory, democratic, egalitarian communities – often runs counter to the necessary language by which communities define themselves and affirm their identities as having both substance and meaning. Such language goes precisely to boundaries, exclusion, and non-acceptance, with the perception of being judgmental thrown in as well.

Of course we will be challenged by interfaith families to make accommodations for all sorts of imprecise variations on Jewish identity – we put out the word that all are welcome, so we should not be surprised that we are taken at our word.

But a movement that affirms peoplehood, ethnicity and belonging as primary, and that roots Jewish identity at least in part in affirmation of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), in history and in our own time, needs to be BOTH welcoming AND affirmative about drawing lines around some common understanding of non-negotiables that help shape a wide but nonetheless clearly-bounded synagogue community. As one author puts it, “if an individual has difficulty with the, positions a community takes, it is the individual and not the community that has the problem” (Manfred Vogel, “Some Reflections on the Question of Jewish Identity” in Journal of Reform Judaism, Winter 1983).

So it seems to me self-evident that Reconstructionist congregations in principle ought to have clear policies about membership and school enrollment, and in practice such policies should conform to understandings of Jewish identity that correlate with the purpose and caring inherent in a synagogue.

I also take as a given that a synagogue school is premised on the students being Jewish, that students are not simply, being introduced to some Jewish stuff to see if a) “s/he likes it” or b) so that “s/he gets to know something about it” or, c) that ”s/he can use the class to help him/her decide if s/he wants to be Jewish or... A synagogue school where the teacher cannot say “we” and “us” is already in serious trouble, as would be a synagogue that cannot affirm similar language.

Since the minimal purpose and meaning inherent in a synagogue ought to be, no less than a commitment to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, and to the perpetuation of both, a reasonable policy might took like this:

  • Children whose sole religious identity is Jewish may be enrolled in Reconstructionist congregational schools.

 

For this purpose, Jewish identity is indicated by:

  1. Affirmation by the parent(s) that the child is Jewish, with at least one Jewish parent.
     
  2. Absence of disconfirming evidence of Jewish identity; for example, the child is not identified as “half-Jewish,” or “Jewish-Christian”, nor is the child enrolled in a program of religious education in another religious tradition (e.g., a church school).
     
  3. Simple attendance by a Jewish child at religious services/rituals where a non-Jewish parent or grandparent is active need not imply that the child is identified with other religion.

 

  • Because of the complex and sensitive situations that arise in the contemporary Jewish community, it is in the mutual best interests of both families and synagogues to clarify issues in advance in order to avoid future complications. Therefore, interfaith families considering enrollment of children in a Reconstructionist congregational school should consult in advance with the rabbi and/or education director.
     
  • Since every principle and policy only takes on life in application to real people, it ought always to be stressed that sensitivity, respect and care should be operative in any discussion of synagogue policies.

* See Seth Goldstein, Identity, Status and Rabbinic Leadership in Contemporary Judaism, The Reconstructionist, 66:1 Fall 2001.

Type: Article