Sunday, March 2, 2014

What is Your Jewish Identity Story?

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash

Second semester of senior year presents some well-documented educational challenges. But instead of surrendering to senioritis, SAR High School utilizes the freedom of this post-college acceptance/pre-graduation stage by offering seniors the opportunity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and experientially. One way we do this is through our innovative Jewish Identity course, a staple of second semester senior life at SAR High School.

Jewish Identity is comprised of two curricular pieces. The Modern Jewish History class, taught by our outstanding History teachers, examines the Holocaust and the advent of the State of Israel, with an eye towards how these events shape who we are as Jews living in America today. The Jewish Identity curriculum, developed by Mr. Simon Fleischer and taught by Limmudei Kodesh and General Studies faculty, consists of readings and discussions around several topics central to what it means to be a college-age Modern Orthodox Jew in the world today. These topics include: Chosenness and its implications for interactions with non-Jews, Torah Mi-Sinai and Biblical criticism, how to relate to Jews across the religious and denominational spectrum, and feminism and Orthodoxy, among others. The readings encourage thoughtful discussion about each of these topics and are usually followed by a written component which helps students summarize their own thoughts on each unit.

This year, our Jewish Identity class has engaged in a new and meaningful ritual: personal Jewish Identity moments. During readings or discussions, students or teachers may share their family's Jewish Identity story. During a discussion about philosophical Modern Orthodoxy vs. behavioral Modern Orthodoxy, one student began telling the story of his great grandmother in communist Russia who ate fowl once a year when her family had the opportunity and fortitude to perform ritual slaughter in private. The student related how this family story shaped his parents’ decision to live by their ideals and become more observant Jews in America. While reading about different views on what the Jews actually received at Sinai, we encountered the perspective of R’ Mendel of Rymanov, a Hasidic master who also happens to be the great, great, great grandfather of one of the students in the class. To help students understand the shift in denominational numbers, I shared with students some of the obstacles my father faced as a young Orthodox Rabbi in Houston, Texas in the 1970’s and added details of his upbringing in Danville, VA in the 50’s as contrasted with my mother's youth in Scranton, PA.

These personal narratives have added a powerful dimension to our Jewish Identity class. In addition to empowering students to navigate the issues they will confront in the future on college campuses and beyond, students are capable of looking back at their own family lore to see how these narratives have shaped their own Jewish identity. 

There are additional benefits for students who share their family narratives. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of families developing strong narratives. Several studies have shown that families who develop these narratives by sharing even the "hard-to-tell" stories are much more likely to develop more resilient children as well as closer bonds with each other. See several research papers here: For an excellent summary, see: the-family-stories-that-bind-us-.

These Jewish Identity student narratives have also reinforced for me what makes the Seder and the telling and re-telling of the great national Jewish story such an important, and compelling ritual. The Seder represents the great oscillating narrative of the Jewish People, with moments of ignominy alternating with moments of triumph and joy which together, help perpetuate our Jewish identity. 

So whether you are a parent of a senior about to graduate or of an 8th grader about to embark on the high school journey, reflect on, and share with your loved ones, your family's Jewish Identity story: What family events and values brought you to this particular moment and how can these narratives inspire you and your loved ones to lead lives suffused with meaning and mission?


  1. Great post! One question, what do you do when the family narrative is too painful or negative?

  2. Thanks for reading and for posing an excellent question.
    Every family situation is unique and requires thinking through the potential impact of sharing stories. Here is one response to this question which I found helpful:
    Shmuel Hain


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