Who Decides Who is a Jew?

“Who is a Jew?” is one of those big questions without a clear-cut answer. But throughout history, defining someone as Jewish or not has come with high stakes — as high as the difference between life and death. To some Jews, their Jewish identity is their entire world; others don’t even think about it. So, who gets to decide whether someone else is a Jew and what does Jewish identity even mean? After watching the video, use the prompts below to learn more and get your students thinking.

These videos were created in partnership with the Z3 Project, an initiative of the Oshman Family JCC.

  1. What year was Israel’s Law of Return first passed?
    • 1948
    • 1970
    • 1950
    • 1967
  2. How does Halakha (Jewish law) define a Jew?
    • Child of a Jewish parent
    • Patrilineal descent
    • Matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion
    • Through self-identifying as Jewish
  3. In 1970, the Law of Return extended immigration rights to:
    • All Jews
    • Anyone with a Jewish grandparent
    • Anyone with a Jewish parent
    • Any convert to Judaism
  4. Fill in the blanks of this old Jewish joke: “Anyone who is less religious than me isn’t _________ and anyone who is more religious is just _________.
  1. Each video in this series makes the claim that it is the most important Jewish priority. Based on the video and your own thoughts, make a compelling case for why Jewish identity should be the most important priority within the Jewish world.
  2. The question of Jewish identity is national as much as it is personal. Since the inception of the State of Israel, there’s been much debate over the identity of the Jewish State. Some Jewish leaders believe that a Jewish state should mean a country with a Jewish majority, some believe that the country should be inspired by Jewish culture and tradition and some even believe that Israel should be governed by Jewish law. What do you think it should mean to be a “Jewish state”?
  3. There’s a famous Jewish joke that says that “anyone who’s less religious than me… well they’re not really Jewish. And anyone who’s more religious than me… well they’re just crazy.” If this is how many Jews think, then what is it that connects a Hassidic Jew in Brooklyn, New York with a secular Jew living in Tel Aviv? What are the commonalities held by all Jews?
  4. Through Israel’s Law of Return, anybody with a Jewish grandparent is eligible to make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen. Because of this law, thousands of people have immigrated to Israel who are not Jewish according to Traditional Halakha (of a Jewish mother or converted through conversion). How do you think Israel should define a Jew? Do you think Israel should be defining who is Jewish at all?
  5. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that throughout Jewish history, the more Jews suffered, the more they prayed, studied and kept the commandments. He writes that “the paradox is that the danger to Jewish continuity has been not slavery and suffering, but affluence and freedom.” Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? How do you be proactively Jewish if you’re not afflicted in any way?
  6. Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim argued that there should be a 614th commandment (in addition to the 613 mitzvot) not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. He wrote:

We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”

Whereas, during the Holocaust, the physical survival of the Jewish people was at stake, today there are different threats to Jewish continuity. What do you think is the biggest threat to the future of the Jewish people and how can we fight this threat?

  1. Watch this video from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. After watching, ask your students to create their own videos using the flipgrid app with their answer to the question “why I am a Jew.”
  2. The Definition Challenge: There is so much disagreement amongst the Jewish people when it comes to describing Jewish identity with different groups using different criteria to determine who is a Jew (Halakha, cultural, self-identification etc). In small groups, ask your students to create one size fits all definitions of Judaism that incorporate all Jews. Ask each group to then share and discuss their various definitions.
  3. Together with your students, brainstorm different descriptive words for what Judaism is (ie. religion, nationality, ethnicity, culture and community). After developing the list, paste the words around the room and ask your students to stand next to the word that best represents their Jewish identity. Then open the conversation to the whole group so students can explain their stances. Students may change where they stand based on the conversation.
  4. Give your students our Kahoot on Jewish identity!
  1. List the various aspects that make up your identity in order of importance to you (ie. gender, ethnicity, nationality, political views, family, sports, religion). Where does your Jewish identity rank on the list? Explain.
  2. Rank the following aspects of Jewish identity in order of importance for your life. Feel free to add more while you’re working on it.
    1. Torah and ritual observance
    2. Israel
    3. Humor
    4. Jewish denomination
    5. Jewish culture
    6. Values
    7. Food
    8. Social justice
    9. Language (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino etc)
    10. Family history
  3. Describe a moment in your life when you felt “most Jewish”? Describe a moment in your life when you felt “least Jewish”?
  4. If you were introducing somebody to Judaism for the first time, what kind of experiences would you expose them to?
  5. The Kotzker Rebbe famously said “if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!” What lesson does this quote teach us about Jewish identity?
  1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Why I Am a Jew
  2. Pew Research Center, “A Closer Look at Jewish Identity in Israel and the US
  3. I24 News, “Jewish Identity Versus Israeli Identity: A New Generation
  4. Ze’ev Maghen, “John Lennon and the Jews”

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