The aim of this activity is to focus the students’ thoughts upon specific kinds of Jews who are different from each other and examine what it means to live a Jewish life. How do the students see these figures? In their opinion(s), are they all living Jewish lives? What criteria do they employ for deciding these matters? Try to get the students moving towards a philosophical position on the question of the character of the Jewish collective.

  • Here is a group of portraits of different kinds of contemporary Jews. Choose some or all of these and put them on separate cards. Make a number of copies of each card, according to the number of groups into which you wish to divide the students.


Jewish businessman from England. Feels very warm about being Jewish. Not exactly religious, but enjoys synagogue whenever he can go. Does not travel or touch money on Shabbat, but watches television and turns on lights, etc. Has a kosher home. Has two children who have made aliyah. He was not keen on their going because it broke up the family, but he visits them once a year. Makes an annual financial donation to Israel and to many Jewish charities.


Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jew. Married with six children. Lives in the Me’ah Shearim district of Jerusalem (the most religious area). His family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. He is a member of an extreme group which does not recognize the State of Israel, seeing it as a product of human effort rather than a state created by God and one, moreover, that is not run according to . In his everyday life, he speaks Yiddish believing that Hebrew is the language that should be reserved for communication between people and God. He studies for several hours every day and gives money for tzedaka within his community.


Born in Warsaw to a fairly assimilated family. Lived in the Warsaw Ghetto until 1942; she then escaped and lived in a monastery until the end of the war. She then went to live in Lodz, where she still lives today. There she married a non-Jew from whom she has since been divorced. Has very little contact with the other Jews who live in Lodz. She believes that being Jewish has only brought her bad things in life.


A doctor living in Zagreb, Croatia. Her parents were active in the Resistance and her father was high up in the Communist party. She received no Jewish education but, about ten years ago, began to become very interested in Jewish culture and history. Spends much time cataloguing the Jewish graves of Zagreb. Volunteers for a few hours every week in the Jewish old-age home.


Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Grew up in a Zionist youth movement and made aliyah three years ago because of his strong Jewish commitment. Joined a new kibbutz in the north of Israel and is helping to build it up. Works very hard and is enthusiastic about the future of his kibbutz. He enjoys the hagim (festivals) programs on the kibbutz that the cultural committee prepares. However, if the committee did not prepare them he would not notice that the hagim were passing him by. He is consciously improving his Hebrew all the time.


Born to wealthy Jewish parents in New York. She belongs to a Jewish sports club. Married to a non-Jewish lawyer. She felt uneasy about it but felt that in this world ‘love conquers all.’ She wants to bring up her future children as Jews because she felt that she enjoyed her childhood. Says that, when she has children, she will light candles on Friday nights because she thinks that it is a pretty tradition. For herself, she does not feel particularly Jewish. She does not light candles now.

  • Divide the students into sub-groups. Explain that you are going to give each group a number of contemporary Jewish portraits, and that you want them to discuss each one and examine the Jewish character of the life that each leads. To what extent do the members of the group think that each of these figures is living a Jewish life? Emphasize that the question is not “How Jewish are the figures?”: they are all one hundred per cent Jewish. Neither does the question relate to their respective ethical characters: for the purpose of the exercise they are each considered completely ethical. The question relates only to the students’ opinion of the Jewish character of the life that they are leading.
  • Let each group try to put the figures in order, according to the degree of Jewish life they lead.
  • Now discuss with the group the choices that they have made. The two crucial questions in this exercise are:
      1. Is it possible to rank Jews according to the degree of a Jewish life that they lead? If not, in the view of the group or individuals within the group, why is it not possible for them to do so?
      2. If it is possible, what are the criteria according to which such a choice can be made?

This is by no means an easy set of questions. The question of judging others is extremely controversial today for many young people. Nevertheless they should be pushed to do this. If they feel that they cannot, then they should be pushed to justify this as a philosophical position. Offer them extreme examples (‘Jews for Jesus’; ‘Jews who acted against their people and became informers in the ghettos of World War II’, etc.) to test their position. Are such people still living Jewish lives according to those in the group who may feel that it is impossible to take a stand on the question of living a Jewish life?

The question that we are trying to get to is whether it is possible to define what living a Jewish life actually means for the members of the group. What criteria do they believe to be central in the contemporary world for defining ‘a Jewish life’? There are many possible criteria that they may raise. If they do not raise them, you - the educator - may wish to do so yourself. We suggest that it is not the educator’s task to impose a pre-ordained set of criteria on the group, but rather to examine their perspective on the question, by raising issues that make them sharpen and rationalize their ideas.

Here are a number of possible criteria that you or they may wish to consider as elements of living a Jewish life:

Halachic. The more a person lives a life of Halacha, the more Jewish that life is.
Theological. The more elements of traditional belief in a Jewish concept of God there are in a person’s life, the more…
Zionist. The more a person lives a life connected to Israel, the more…
Social. The more a person lives a life surrounded by and interacting with Jewish people, the more…
Cultural. The more elements of Jewish culture there are in a person’s life, regardless of religious belief or practice, the more…
Service. The more a person contributes to the Jewish community in which she or he lives, the more…
Inclusion. The more a person welcomes all other Jews as legitimate and tries to connect with other Jews, the more…
Continuity. The more a person tries to pass down Jewishness to another generation, the more…
Subjective Feeling. The more a person identifies with Jews and feels him-/herself to be Jewish, the more…
Learning. The more Jewish knowledge a person has in his/her life, the more…

It is certainly possible to add other criteria to this list of ten. The aim of the discussion is to encourage the development of a consistent philosophical position on an individual basis.






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10 Dec 2006 / 19 Kislev 5767 0