Exploration of Jewish Ethnic Identity

By Altman, AbN.; Inman, Arpana G. et al. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Exploration of Jewish Ethnic Identity


Altman, AbN., Inman, Arpana G., Fine, Stephanie G., Ritter, Hollie A., Howard, Erin E., Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


As an invisible minority, individuals with Jewish identities have been relatively ignored in the multicultural equation (Schlosser, 2006). Because Jews are classified as White and are seen as highly assimilated, the identities and history that place Jewish ethnicity outside the mainstream White American culture have typically been overlooked (Langman, 1999). For instance, Greenberg (1998) noted that Jews are "simultaneously insiders and outsiders, both victims of and members of a privileged class" (p. 82), with Jewish identity complicated by the need for Jewish people to adapt to the demands of their environments in the form of antisemitism, conditions of contemporary Jewish life (e.g., warfare), and opinions held by the majority group (London & Frank, 1987). These forms of Jewish oppression and multiculturalism do not fit into currently established analyses of racism and economic oppression (i.e., underrepresented minorities, people of color). Furthermore, to define Jews solely as members of a religion is a misapprehension of what it means to be a Jew, because a Jewish identity constitutes a religious group, a people, an ethnicity, a culture, and a civilization (Langman, 1999). Thus, Jewish identity needs to be redefined to include the different issues involved with this unique population. The purpose of this study was to understand what one group of Americans who identify as Conservative Jews define as essential components of their Jewish identity.

* Denominations of Judaism

There are three main denominations of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Orthodox refers to a form of Judaism that follows all of the commandments and regulations of traditional Jewish scripture, including the rules of holiday and Sabbath observances and dietary laws (e.g., keeping kosher). The Conservative denomination generally accepts traditional Judaism, while absorbing aspects of the predominant culture and accepting modernization through their belief in gender equality and driving to synagogue on the Sabbath. Reform Judaism emphasizes the importance of individual decisions about commandments and observances and the need for continuing change and revision of practice and belief over time (Langman, 1999; Schlosser, 2006). It seems that a focus on Conservative Jews may provide the most comprehensive information on the Jewish minority because this denomination attempts to strike a balance between Orthodox Judaism and the demands of the modern world. Furthermore, a study by Friedman, Friedlander, and Blustein (2005) found that Conservative Jews were open to and capable of discussing their Jewish identity, therefore reinforcing their applicability for this study. Among those who belong to a synagogue, 33% of American Jews identify as Conservative (National Jewish Population Survey, 2001) by birth and/or through religious practice.

* Jewish Identity

To date, the literature on Jewish identity has used multifaceted definitions and different approaches (e.g., Geismar, 1954; Naumburg, 2007; Rosen, 2006; Safirstein, 2002) to define the construct, with little consensus on what aligns Jews as an ethnic group (Isajiw, 1990). For example, authors (Segalman, 1966; Shapiro, 1961) examining Jewish identity have focused on measuring affiliation with Jewish characteristics or behaviors (e.g., being charitable, honest). Extolled in many Jewish texts and within Jewish history, or by Jewish experts, rabbis, and community leaders, these qualities were believed to be those of a good Jewish person (Shapiro, 1961). However, this method was limited in defining essential elements of the Jewish identity construct because it retreated from viewing Jewry as a culture and ethnicity. Furthermore, one could receive high scores regardless of level of religiosity. To counter these issues, authors (Janov, 1960; Lazerwitz, 1974) developed surveys of Jewish identification with questions assessing characteristic Jewish behaviors related to factors such as religious and community involvement.

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