You keep using that word…

…I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, here we go again, panicking about assimilation.

This time, it’s this item in The Forward that compares positions on the necessity of Jewish day school as a way of hedging against assimilation.

But it’s not assimilation that’s really the issue, at least, not as we usually think of the issue. Generally, we think assimilation means marrying someone not Jewish (or only accidentally marrying someone who is Jewish), taking on the trappings and identity of the broader secular society, and as a result not passing down a Jewish identity to the next generation of children. It’s Jewish engagement.

I don’t think we’re very good at figuring out how to do that; you can tell because we’re seeing a debate over whether to send your child to a dedicated Jewish school or to some other form of schooling, as though this is an all-or-nothing matter. (Try finding a Jewish day school that can really handle a child with serious autism, by the way.)

And I think that, in any event, we miss the point if we talk about this as an assimilation matter, because most American Jews look and live like other Americans. We are assimilated–even if we marry other Jews and raise Jewish children, most American Jews are assimilated. We mostly have ordinary jobs, live in ordinary neighborhoods, are members of ordinary organizations, and eat ordinary foods.

Do we maintain distinct cultural, social, ethical, spiritual, and (if you swing that way) organized religious identities that are recognizably Jewish? That’s really the question. And that’s a question of identity.

Jewish identity is a complicated thing, and identity is not merely a question of a mode of belief in the divine. In truth, for much of the Jewish world, Jewishness is about anything other than faith.

We need to start talking about Jewish identity and identification, and not assimilation. The public debate in Jewish organizations and synagogues needs to be about identity and identification, not assimilation. When we want to fight assimilation, we’ve started from a position of loss where all we seek to do is stanch the flow of blood. We don’t conceive of what we do as growing Jewish life or as a positive effort.

Do people want to pay for Jewish day school to allay their fears about the size of the American Jewish population? No. And if that’s the value proposition, most people won’t pay for that offering.

I think the continued existence of the bar/bat mitzvah phenomenon should tell us something, however–the parents of these children see some value in their own Jewish identity/ies. They don’t value traditional Jewish religious practice or belief–but they value Jewish identity and Jewish culture.

As Humanist Jews, we are particularly well situated to appeal to those interests–to make Jewish culture interesting and challenging, to make it attractive: to make Jewish identity something that shines in parents, so that the children see that value, too.