Since moving to Israel in the summer of 1997, I cannot recall a time when I have uttered the following three words: “I am Jewish.” The most obvious reason for this is that here no one ever asks me: “Are you Jewish?” In America, I was frequently asked this question. I would respond in the affirmative. I sort of miss this verbal exchange. I was always happy to tell someone that I was Jewish. For one thing, I could answer the question with absolute certainty. Unlike the questions “are you religious?” or “are you Orthodox,” which before answering I felt compelled to launch into a short dissertation concerning how I defined religion and Orthodoxy, I felt no compunction in responding to the question of my Jewishness with a simple “yes.” But the main reason I miss this question is that I feel good about being Jewish and the question gave me an opportunity to verbally embrace my Jewishness.
Life in Israel has paradoxically removed Jewishness from the day-to-day template of my being. Of course, I know that I am still Jewish, but being Jewish in America was part of my front-brain consciousness, much like my being a man; now, however, my Jewishness has receded into the background. My Jewishness has become a fact of my life similar to such facts as my having ten toes and two eyes.
It can now be understood why those Jewish Israelis who are secular sometimes have extremely weak Jewish identities. In Israel, where one is almost never called upon to say “I am Jewish,” ethnic consciousness is intertwined with religious consciousness in a much stronger way than it is in the diaspora. And when there is no religious identity here, it can create an atmosphere where there is little Jewish identity. While it is a truism that only in Israel can secular Jews perpetuate themselves (whereas outside of Israel the next generation tends to assimilate into the majority culture), it does not follow that secular Israeli Jews necessarily have stronger Jewish identities than diaspora secular Jews.
The above discussion helps explain an interesting phenomenon concerning the hundreds of young secular Israelis who fan out across the globe each year to work in Jewish summer camps, schools, and community centers. These youngsters often report that in the diaspora they are given a precious gift: they experience their Jewishness for the first time in their lives. Once they are back in Israel, where no one will ask them “are you Jewish,” what they do with this gift is up to them. They might allow their Jewishness to recede into the backdrop of their lives or they might look toward an aspect of Jewish tradition to deepen it. But please just do me one favor: Make sure that they do indeed come back—we need them here in Israel.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.