We are all on a journey throughout our lives.  We change and we grow, and our ideas change and grow as we do.  This applies to our sense of Jewish identity, and as one of our final projects in Judaic Studies at HDS, 5th grade students explore their identity as Jews.
This project is based on the book I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, which includes contributions by many, many people, each with his or her own perspective.  The book divides the responses into categories, although many answers could fit into more than one.  The categories are:  IDENTITY; HERITAGE; COVENANT, CHOSENNESS, AND FAITH; HUMANITY AND ETHNICITY; and TIKUN OLAM (REPAIRING THE WORLD) AND JUSTICE.

As a class, our students read excerpts from the book and gleaned important ideas from the essays.  They then used these ideas to determine which category or categories each contributor’s Jewish identity might fit into (again noting that many responses fit into more than one).  After this initial activity, students were sent off to do their own exploration of Jewish identity.

Each student used a list of questions to interview a parent about Jewish identity and then conducted an email interview with a local community member about Jewish identity.  We made a special effort to pair our students with community members who would offer different perspectives on being Jewish.  Students shared some of the comments made by their interview partners with one another, and thereby learned about the wonderful diversity that enriches our Jewish community here in Ann Arbor.

In the final stage of the project, students wrote their own essays about their Jewish identities at this point in their lives.  An e-book with all of the components of the project was emailed home and to the community-member partners.  Below are highlights from some of the students’ essays.

Eliana said, “I lead nature club every Friday.  I feel that what we do is Tikkun Olam…I feel that we have helped the earth a lot.”

Hannah reflected, “In first grade at school, I received a siddur with a cover that my mom and dad decorated.  That siddur has brought out my Jewish identity.  I try to use it as much as I can.”

Ilan said, “I think everybody has a little voice of God inside their head that tells them the right thing to do.”

Sam wrote, “I am…proud to be Jewish because the Jews waited and waited 2,000 years to have a country and they got through many hard times as a community and that means a lot to me.  Also, that the Jews never gave up on having their own land.”

Samantha wrote, “I love being Jewish every day when I wake up and every night when I go to sleep.  For me, Judaism has become a guideline for my whole life, whether it means living in Israel or helping our community.  Being Jewish has really helped turn me into me, and I couldn’t be happier with who I am.”

Charles concluded his essay saying, “…being Jewish gives me a whole lot of opportunities and I am honored to be a Jew.”

Levi wrote, “I…feel proud when I say that I’m a Jew because I know all that the Jews went through and I think that our ancestors would be proud to know that we can say we are Jewish.” He concluded his essay by saying, “I especially feel Jewish when I go to synagogue and when I help out around the community.  If I had to sum up being Jewish in one word, I would use the word “special.”

Yoel explained that the holidays are the most meaningful Jewish rituals for him “…because it doesn’t matter if you [have become] Bar Mitzvah or not, you can still participate equally.  Like in prayer, you don’t count for the minyan unless you [are] Bar Mitzvah.  But in Hanukah, anyone can light the candles, Bar Mitzvah or not.”  He also commented, “I did not choose to be Jewish; I was simply born with it.  But if I could choose, I would pick being Jewish every single time.”

While one of my primary goals in this project is to have students explore diverse ways of being Jewish, I am always moved by the stories I read in the interviews the students conduct.  This year, I was also particularly moved and impressed by the ideas in the students’ essays.  They gave their writing real thought and consideration, and the essays truly convey the students’ beliefs and thinking at this time in their lives.  Our HDS graduates proudly say, “I Am Jewish!”  May they go “from strength to strength!”