Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Defining ‘Jewishness’

Various recent survey results attempting to ascertain the number of American Jews illustrated several discrepancies stemming from problems with defining “Jewishness”. Depending on how an individual defined Judaism, the numbers varied by nearly a million.

“We live in a world where you ask all these questions about how you identify yourself,” Kavannah Progressive Jewish Voice co-President Julie Wietz said.

According to one survey conducted by Dr. Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, figures ranged from 6.1 million to 7.3 million.


On campus, Hillel member Jamie Berman estimated the Jewish population to be about 5,000 individuals, making up almost 10 percent of the University of Wisconsin’s student body.

Berman broke that number down into three groups: those who consider themselves traditional, conservative or reformed Jews.

Hillel, an organization dedicated to building and sustaining Jewish life and community on campus, holds separate services for each group on Friday evenings.

“There’s about 75 to 100 at the reform service, 50 to 75 at the conservative service and 25 at the traditional; but that’s a rough estimate,” Berman said.

When attempting to define an individual as a member of the Jewish faith, many potential definitional standards exist. Traditionally, according to Jewish law, people are only Jewish if their biological mothers are Jewish.

“Strict orthodox terms trace the religion through lineage; one’s Jewish if their mother is,” Israel Coalition co-founder Dana Levin said. The Israel Coalition, based out of UW’s Hillel branch, focuses on unifying all the different Jewish groups on campus.

Some UW students use only this classification, while others adhere to a more liberal view of Judaism.

Wietz, who heads the Progressive Jewish Voice organization that focuses on fostering dialogue among Jewish people who believe in the existence of the state of Israel, said the traditional definition is too strict.

“There’s those who sincerely identify themselves as a Jew, for whatever reason,” she said. “They claim it, and that should make it legit.”

Other students believed the Jewish culture is more important than the actual faith.

“I feel that it’s more a culture thing,” UW senior Dan Marakis said. “The food, how you speak and a certain sensibility you carry.”

Determining where all the different definitions come from is not easy. Historical events and social change can alter classifications.

Hillel fellow Matt Lowe said the transition from more traditional views to liberal views, “started developing through Jewish assimilation into mainstream society. There’s unique characteristics and certain things accepted today to allow somebody to be Jewish.”

Furthermore, if one abides strictly by Jewish law, a significant amount of the Jewish population would be considered invalid. Similarly, if one says anyone identifying with Judaism is Jewish, no census could determine exactly who is Jewish and who is not. This problem has led some to argue that some type of structural definition needs to be created.

“It’s definitely not a black-and-white issue,” Lowe said. “But to a certain degree, there needs to be structure.”

Even though distinct structural standards have not been created, many campus organizations exist as a result of the strong Jewish presence at UW.

The Israel Coalition, housed in Hillel, aims to bring cohesiveness to all the Jewish-related groups at UW.

“[The Coalition] is a non-partisan group projecting a pro-Israel image through education of activities happening in Israel besides the war,” Wietz said.

Other Jewish-based organizations are the Wisconsin Environmental Jewish Initiative and MAD-PAC, a local chapter of the national American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish theater, a Jewish magazine called The Voice and a co-op called OFEC.

“The Jewish community does have a strong religious identity,” Hillel program associate and UW alum Matt Canter said. “Socialization outside the campus is high. People are involved in things like Greek system, ASM and co-ops.”

Rather than force the Jewish ideals or faith upon people, these organizations focus on education of issues, Hillel members said. The organizations set up panel discussion, debates and conferences including both students and faculty.

“We hold debates between students and professors,” Levin said.

The Jewish culture is also felt academically throughout campus. Hillel, along with UW, offers many Judaism courses.

Canter said Judaism-related classes are popular.

“It’s a way to channel their faith academically,” he said.

UW’s Jewish Studies major is only three years old. Its formation is the result of the influential Jewish culture on campus.

“There’s a strong Jewish presence academically,” Levin said.

As illustrated by the solid on-campus community, groups and academics, clear-cut definitions of “Jewishness” are obviously not needed for UW’s thriving Jewish population.

“There’s a lot of people really into Judaism, however it’s defined,” Wietz said.

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