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American Jews Proudly Affirming Their Identity

by | Mon, Nov 27 2023

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Since the Hamas attacks on Israel sparked the war in Gaza and a huge spike in global anti-Semitic hate crimes, many American Jews have been consciously hiding their racial identity, leaving their Star of David necklaces at home and removing mezuzahs from their doorposts. But many others believe the best response is to openly and proudly showcase who they are and support the state of Israel.

“Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism have awakened many American Jews to their semi-dormant Jewish identity — an understanding of self easily swallowed up by the overwhelming broader American culture of endless options,” Jewish history teacher Neil S. Rubin told Religion News Service (RNS).

Senior lecturer on the anthropology of Judaism at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, Rachel Werczberger, told RNS that in a show of religious or ethnic pride, thousands of American Jews who have never worn a Star of David or supported Israeli causes before, are doing so now. “Jews have been looking for external symbols to say ‘I’m Jewish and I’m not afraid to show it.’” she observed.

Ms. Werczberger noted that progressive Jews in particular “have felt betrayed by social justice coalitions and feminist groups that insist Jews are guilty of ‘white privilege’ and that Israelis are ‘colonisers.’ The refusal by many allies to acknowledge Jewish suffering after the Hamas massacre really pushed people back into their collective identity as Jews.”

That’s prompted some Jews to promote their identity such as using their Hebrew names in coffee shops that shout out their orders. Pennsylvania Reform rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr now gives her Hebrew name, Rivka, whenever she orders something at Starbucks: “Just hearing it said aloud in public feels like an act of defiance. It’s a small thing and yet it seems huge,” she explained, adding that affirming her Jewishness in everyday life, even when simply ordering a cup of coffee, “connects me with all Jews across all generations, with our ancestral homeland and with my most authentic self.”

Others are seeking comfort by participating in traditional Jewish rituals they’ve ignored for years, or decades. New Yorker Sarah Cohen told RNS she is “leaning in hard to Jewish joy and community” to cope with the trauma of war and anti-Semitism. “Going to shul (synagogue) on Fridays, making challah (Jewish bread), and lighting candles are things I’ve done anyway, but I signed up to do mitzvot (613 commandments) in the name of an IDF soldier. This weekend I went to early morning Torah study and ended up staying for services, which I don’t normally do on Saturdays. But it felt good,” she explained.

In the army, many secular soldiers are wearing tzizit, the square garment with ritual fringes that, according to the Torah, reminds Jews that God is always with them. “Studies have shown us just how much Jewish narrative there is even for secular Israeli Jews, but what is always there in the background comes to the front in times of crisis,” said Shlomo Guzmen-Carmeli, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University’s department of sociology and anthropology.

“While Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have very different life experiences and often disagree on religion-state issues and the best way to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these disagreements have faded into the background since the war started. There are still controversies over the way the Israeli government deals with non-Orthodox Jews, on the status of the Western Wall and judicial reform, but I think we’ve regained our ability to imagine ourselves as a united, whole and deeper culture,” he observed.