Pluralism, Dissonance, and Jewish Identity Formation

Originally published on 9/12/2012 

My introduction to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) opened in a very Jewish way: with a question. “How can we, as Jews, be a part of and apart from American culture? That’s a rhetorical question right now, but I want you to start today, and then work on answering it for the rest of your life.” We laughed, but the asker, Rabbi Tali Zelkowicz, Ph.D., was right. As Jewish professionals, the questions we ask ourselves come with answers that change over time. This is because identities, communities, and ideals are anything but static. Rabbi Zelkowicz taught us to stop saying “Jewish identity” but rather to say “Jewish Identity Formation,” because identity develops throughout our lives. We need to recognize the moments of change, and meet people where they’re at. “Identity works as a process, not a product, and educators do not ‘make’ Jews,” she said, (and quoting Hillel the elder) “The rest is commentary.”

I’m one of sixteen students in HUC-JIR’s graduate education certificate program, which focuses on teens and emerging adults. This one-year “hybrid” learning program combines online and in-person learning, and began with a three-day intensive that included the Jewish Identity Formation course. While I’m starting my fifth year as a Hillel professional and my third at Hillel at Stanford, the other students in my cohort all work with teens. At first, I was concerned that much of what we learned might be a stretch to apply to Hillel. I was also concerned that the Reform focus would not address the issues of pluralism that Hillel professionals face in our daily work, where our community members are all over the religious spectrum. At times, varying views on diverse topics like taking pictures on Shabbat or women’s prayer at the Western Wall can create acute conflict that contributes to an underlying tension within the Hillel community. However, I was pleased to find that I’ve already gained tools that are very applicable to these challenges.

The Jewish Identity Formation class provided an interesting perspective on the “dissonance,” or conflict, between American and Jewish cultures. In conversations about our personal identity formation, we quickly noticed that moments of dissonance often strengthened or deepened our understanding of our Jewish identities. While the conflict is painful in the moment, dissonance is necessary because it moves us to take action to discover our Jewish identity formation.

For example, one student had endured a painful conversation about intermarriage with her rabbi, who refused to officiate at her wedding to a patrilineal Jew. She decided that inclusivity was an important part of her Jewish life – more important than having a specific rabbi officiate her wedding – and she found another rabbi whose beliefs about intermarriage were more in line with her own. That student learned something about herself from this moment of dissonance: that what really mattered to her was raising a Jewish family with her partner’s support. As it turns out, internal dissonance can be a wonderful opportunity for Jewish identity formation and personal growth.

Identity formation intensifies during emerging adulthood. Our students are trying to define themselves on a personal level and on a community level. They have their first opportunities to design their own Jewish experience, away from their families’ Judaism. They get to decide how much they want to be apart from and a part of American culture, as American Jews. That instability can be terrifying for emerging adults, and Hillel professionals can help to support the students as they navigate this uncertainty. We can support our students in a way that validates every variation of their practice, but more importantly, we can create a safe space to challenge those variations, and to provoke those moments of dissonance and transition that lead to further identity formation and growth. For example, a Jewish student who wants a Star of David tattoo would benefit from discussing the decisions with a Hillel professional beforehand. We can provide this student with perspective about Halacha (Jewish law) and tattoos, and we can ask the student why they want to get a Jewish tattoo in the first place. It’s not up to us to persuade the student one way or the other, but Hillel professionals can ensure that the student is making an informed, intentional choice.

I always try to come back from conferences, institutes, and other learning opportunities with a few nuggets of wisdom or new ideas, and with a question for further discussion. This week, my question was inspired by our conversation about dissonance, as it applies to pluralism. We know now that personal dissonance is necessary for individual growth, but what about dissonance within the community? A student’s internal struggle about what it means to be Jewish often becomes an external conflict with another student who has a different perspective. Statements like “you’re not really Jewish” or “your Judaism is outdated and sexist” are incredibly hurtful to a student who is just beginning to develop his or her own Jewish practice. If we can help our students navigate their personal moments of dissonance, perhaps they will have more compassion toward each other when they externalize the conflict.

Furthermore, if internal dissonance fuels identity formation, is it possible that external conflict also provides an opportunity for growth? When conflicts arise between students who celebrate Judaism in different ways, how can we help our students see the positive learning opportunities within the nodes of dissonance? And although we may or may not work on answering this question for the rest of our lives, this time, it’s not rhetorical. Please share your thoughts, answers, and further questions by posting a comment below. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you!

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