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Funny, You Don't Look Jewish: Panel Considers New Faces in the Crowd

May 29, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman
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Participating in a talk at the National Museum of American Jewish History are (from left) Rabbi Jon Konheim, a member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Reform Movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis; Hannah Lau, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania; Danielle Selber, an undergraduate student at Gratz College; and Andre Key, a graduate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought, and Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University.

As the product of intermarriage, Hannah Lau jokingly referred to herself as "Jewnese" or "Chinish" -- although she added that she's never felt Jewish or Chinese enough to fit into either corner.

"Children of intermarried families don't necessarily feel less Jewish," speculated the recent University of Pennsylvania graduate. "It just takes them more time to figure out what [being Jewish] entails."

Lau's words were delivered last week in a forum titled "Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century and Beyond," held at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

These days, many congregations find themselves hosting more and more intermarried families, with many coming not just from Christian backgrounds, but from cultures outside of the stereotypical upper-middle class Caucasian milieu that for years seemed to comprise the idea of Jewish communities in America. In light of this fact, the recent forum was dedicated to discussions of race and Jewish identity, as well as finding ways for all Jews to take a seat at the table while still maintaining their individual identities.

Moderated by Temple University associate professor Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, the forum featured four panelists: Lau, Rabbi Jon Konheim, Gratz College student Danielle Selber and Andre Key, who helped develop the nation's first undergraduate course on the history of Africana Jews and Judaism at Temple University.

Key, who is African-American, added another dimension to the discussion by touching on the conflict between diversity and assimilation. He called himself equally black and Jewish, though he said many in his community preferred the terms Israelite or Hebrew because of "the presumption of Jewish whiteness."

Key said that the Jewish community had, even in the recent past, always been diverse, citing the once vast numbers of Spanish-speaking Jews.

"I think it's important to take the veil off of the many Jewish communities hidden in plain sight," he said.

Konheim, who leads the Conservative congregation at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, spoke about his converting a number of African-American families over the past several years. He said that the experience had not only brought in new faces to his synagogue, but also new backgrounds since some of these new congregants came from lower economic strata than the majority of the members.

At the Core

After making individual presentations, the panel took questions, including debating what constitutes the core of Judaism that every Jew needs to embrace.

Konheim made the case that the Jewish narrative was what created the sense of unity among Jews from diverse backgrounds and cultures, citing that all Jews could identify and relate to the stories of Mount Sinai, the covenant and the Diaspora.

"The things we all relate to are what helps keep the community together," he noted.

While Key agreed that a "common folk narrative" bound different communities together, Lau countered that the "universally accepted values between all Jewish communities" formed Judaism's core.

Another issue they tackled concerned the declining numbers of practicing Jews (and those who self-identify as Jewish), as well as the failures of some Jewish institutions and community centers.

Despite those declines, Konheim said that many young Jews were now identifying themselves through Shabbat.

"There's something about the schedule of living" that attracts people to that, he said, though he was quick to point out that he was unsure if Shabbat qualified as an institution.

After a question was asked concerning culture clashes between differing sects of Judaism, Selber summarized what she believed was driving some of these clashes: that "by losing some of the things that have kept Judaism together for thousands of years, the fear is that we'll lose it all."

But, Alpert said, injecting a bit of lightheartedness into the debate, "one of our most important narratives, as a culture, is to worry."

After the panel concluded, the crowd of 50 or so split off into smaller groups for discussion on topics the panel had (or had not) touched upon, including new ways of creating Jewish connections and identifying as Jewish (including Web sites like JDate and Jewish groups on Facebook), conflicting senses of identity within cultures, and continuing the discussion of what constitutes Judaism's core.

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