American Jews

American Jews are a diverse group of people, with varying cultural and ethnic self-identification, degrees of religious adherence, and observances of Jewish holidays and customs. Despite the myriad ways in which one can be a Jew, however, there remains a common history, ethnocultural heritage, and, for many, a religious practice that unites this unique group. This entry introduces contemporary issues salient to understanding American Jews, including (a) the diversity of Jewish heritage and denominations, (b) Jewish identity, (c) psychological stressors for Jews, and (d) counseling issues with American Jewish clients.

Recent estimates of the number of American Jews range between 5 and 6 million, representing a substantial proportion of the estimated 12 to 17 million Jews worldwide. However, given the U.S. population has been estimated at nearly 300 million, Jews are clearly a numerical minority. Because more than one third of American Jews live in large urban centers concentrated in the Northeast and the East Coast (e.g., New York), as well as in California and Chicago, there may be a misperception concerning the actual number of American Jews. This might be especially noticeable in the three U.S. cities with the largest Jewish populations: New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Definitional Terms

Bicultural

The experience of American Jews might be best described as bicultural. That is, given that one’s cultural self-identification is context specific, American Jews are likely to see themselves as both Jewish and American; this dual identification provides them with two different lenses from which to view the world. In addition, there are many ways to be Jewish. All at once, Judaism is a culture, a religion, an ethnicity, and a set of traditions that is embedded in Jewish people’s expectations, belief systems, and family dynamics. As a result, Jews do not fit easily, if accurately at all, into the current demographic taxonomies; this may have contributed to the previous lack of attention to Jewish issues in counseling.

American Jews Versus Jewish Americans

The semantic categorization of racial and ethnic groups is often a matter of critical relevance for group members. American Jew has emerged within both the Jewish community and social science literature as the preferable term for individuals who identify as both Jews and citizens of the United States in that the term emphasizes the primacy of being Jewish through use of American as a descriptor of Jew. Furthermore, the term serves to acknowledge the nomadic heritage of Jews as a Diaspora people and the needs of Jews from many nations to flee those countries when oppression and antisemitism reached dangerous levels. Despite this trend, within-group differences certainly exist, and individuals whose nationality takes precedence over their Jewish heritage may be most comfortable with the use of the term Jewish American.

Diversity of Jewish Heritage

There is tremendous within-group variability among American Jews. For example, there are three main lineages for American Jews (i.e., Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrachim). The Ashkenazim are Jews who trace their family history to Eastern Europe, and they are the largest group (numerically) among American Jews. The Sephardim are Jews who trace their family history to the Iberian Peninsula (i.e., Spain and Portugal). Finally, the Mizrachim are Jews who trace their family history to Northern Africa and/or Western Asia. In addition to these three main lineages, there are also communities of Jews who have lived in China, India, and Ethiopia for centuries.

Diversity of Denominations

There are several active denominations among American Jews. The groups are presented in order from most to least adherent to Jewish Orthodoxy. It is important to note that most Jews omit the o in spelling G-d. This is done because Judaism prohibits erasing or destroying any Hebrew name of G-d. Finally, there are some Americans who identify as secular or cultural Jews; these people self-identify as Jewish without it having any religious connection.

Hasidic

Hasidic Jews are readily identifiable, as men wear black coats, pants, and hats, as well as peyos (i.e., side curls); women wear very modest clothing (e.g., long, conservative skirts), and some married women shave their heads and wear wigs. Yiddish is the first language, followed by Hebrew and then English. These Jews are totally immersed in Jewish life and traditions, and they strictly adhere to the three tenets of the Orthodox lifestyle: (a) keeping kosher (dietary practices), (b) observing the Sabbath (following prescribed religious traditions concerning behaviors on Shabbat, which occurs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), and (c) following family purity laws (which address sexual relations and ritual cleanliness). Secular culture is avoided; hence, Hasidic Jews live in self-contained communities. Men and women sit apart during religious services, and the Torah is believed to be the literal translation of G-d’s law.

Non-Hasidic Orthodox

The dress of these Jews is similar to most Americans, except that men wear a yarmulke (head covering) and women dress more modestly. Unlike the Hasidic Jews, secular culture is an important part of the lives of the non-Hasidic Orthodox. These Jews are similar to the Hasidim in their (a) adherence to the Orthodox lifestyle, (b) belief that the Torah is the word of G-d, and (c) having men and women sit separately during religious services (which are conducted entirely in Hebrew).

Conservative

This denomination was created as a response to Reform Judaism. Men and women sit together in religious services, which are performed mostly in Hebrew. These Jews are more likely to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath than are Reform Jews, but there are many Conservative Jews who do not adhere to the Orthodox lifestyle. Like the Reform Jews, Conservative Jews have a positive attitude toward and involvement with modern, secular culture and a non-fundamentalist teaching of Judaism.

Reform

Reform Jews see Judaism as an evolving entity. This denomination was developed as a reaction to Orthodoxy to modernize Judaism during the European Enlightenment. Men and women sit together during religious services, which are conducted in both Hebrew and English. Reform Jews believe that not only the Torah but also individual conscience and informed choice guide decision making. In addition, most Reform Jews do not follow the Orthodox lifestyle. This was the first denomination to ordain women as rabbis.

Reconstruction

Reconstructionist Jews see Judaism as an evolving tradition, with three primal elements: G-d, Torah, and the People of Israel. These Jews accept and interact with modern culture. Although the religious services and rituals are traditional, the group ideology is very progressive. For example, one’s personal autonomy supersedes traditional Jewish law. Finally, this was the first denomination to hold a Bat Mitzvah ceremony for Jewish girls.

American Jewish Identity

Multidimensional Construct

American Jewish identity is a term used to designate those uniquely Jewish attributes shared among group members. Such attributes may include religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, as well as the customs, attitudes, values, and cultural practices that reflect the characteristics of Jews as an ethnic group. However, neither ethnicity nor religion alone adequately captures the complexity of what it is to be a Jew.

The term Jewish identity also has been used to reflect one’s national heritage, language (e.g., Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish), culture, and, historically, race. Mordecai Kaplan’s conceptualization of Judaism as a civilization included ethics and philosophies, in addition to knowledge, skills, literature, tools, arts, and laws, as critical elements that help shape the identity of American Jews. This list of shared attributes has been expanded to include those who identify with the political elements of Judaism arising from one’s relationship with the State of Israel and opposition to antisemitism. Clearly, neither a single construct nor a set combination of them goes far enough to encompass Jewish identity.

Historical events and geography provide additional context for understanding American Jewish identity. The processes of immigration and acculturation have shaped the American experience for Jews, as have the unique sociopolitical, historical, and economic realities in their new country. Though many Jews have prospered in the United States, Jewish identity cannot be understood without consideration of how Jews have been affected by the forces of oppression and discrimination.

Dynamic Construct

Jewish identity may best be viewed as a dynamic construct in which Jews continually engage in a process of discovery and self-definition. Although the term Jewish identity may be used to capture common attributes of the Jewish people as a collective group, it is also used to express the way in which the individual, as a member of the Jewish community, reflects such attributes. That is to say, the identification of commonalities attributed to the Jewish people is not meant to imply that all Jews have the same relationship to being Jewish. Each American Jew may choose to express his or her sense of Jewish identity with behaviors or beliefs that either converge or diverge from the collective in a variety of contexts. Additionally, although it would be much simpler to understand Jewish identity as a static or fixed construct, many individuals experience significant changes related to their Jewish identity over time. As one develops personally and professionally, the importance of being Jewish may fluctuate. Moreover, the way that one expresses his or her Jewish identity may also fluctuate throughout one’s life.

Core Jews

Such complexities have made the scientific study of American Jews challenging in that there is no consensus as to the specific inclusion or exclusion criteria for this group. One approach to providing such criteria is the construct of core Jews, a term which has been used in social science research to account for Jewish identification. These criteria, centered in one’s own subjective sense of identity, include (a) all those born Jewish and who identify Judaism as their religion, (b) secular-ethnic Jews who do not report any other religion, and (c) those who have converted to Judaism. Exclusion criteria include individuals who were born Jewish and have formally adopted another religion and those who do not acknowledge being Jewish.

Empirical Research

Research that has explored Jewish identity may be divided into three levels, each aiming to explore the relationship of American Jewish individuals to perceived group attributes. The three levels are (1) cognitive, which includes one’s perceptions of Jewish attributes and the salience of them in one’s life; (2) affective, which is one’s feelings regarding such attributes; and (3) behavioral, which is the extent to which one’s actions are consistent with one’s conceptualization of being Jewish. Furthermore, it is important to note that in addition to measuring the consistency of one’s behavior to one’s own conceptualization of being Jewish, behavioral assessments commonly measure one’s actions in accordance with traditional standards (e.g., observing holidays).

Although observing and measuring the numerous ways that American Jews are capable of expressing their Jewish identity is clearly a worthwhile pursuit, it fails to provide a complete picture of the identity of American Jews. In modern society, one’s identity may be defined not only in terms of religion or ethnicity but also in terms of one’s gender, social class, sexual orientation, career, nationality, and numerous other collective identities. Rather than ignoring these other dimensions, research has begun to consider their relative, and sometimes competing, importance in relation to one’s Jewish identity.

Psychological Stressors

The relative socioeconomic success that some Jews have attained in America, compared with other oppressed groups, may lead to the erroneous conclusion that American Jews have been fully embraced by the dominant culture. Antisemitism still operates currently, and the effects from past antisemitic atrocities, most notably the Shoah (i.e., the Jewish Holocaust), are still carried by many Jews. The psychological stress that results from being oppressed and marginalized is of central importance for understanding the reality of many American Jews.

Acts of Oppression

While the construct of Jewish identity has been defined largely by American Jews, antisemitic views propagated by those critical of group members have had a major impact on the Jewish people and beyond. Antisemitism includes the oppression, condemnation, and systematic discrimination of Jews. Throughout history, antisemitic acts of hatred against Jews have been directed at the religious, cultural, and intellectual heritage of the Jewish community. The impact of such actions include the stereotypes held both inside and outside the Jewish community that devalue Jewish people, as well as the negative ways Jews themselves have internalized such negative images. Contrary to beliefs that antisemitic activity disappeared with the Shoah, indications exist that Jews may be increasingly vulnerable to being viewed negatively and to being victims of antisemitic crimes of hate.

The Self-Hating Jew

In attempting to conceptualize the psychological impact of acts of oppression directed toward Jews, the concept of the self-hating or self-loathing Jew has emerged. Consistent with the initial stage of racial and ethnic identity development models, such terms have been used in reference to the internalization of antisemitic views held toward Jews by the dominant group and the experience of being marginalized or devalued within society. The presence or perception of antisemitism in society is therefore a precondition of developing such a negative view of oneself and entails the incompatibility of being oppressed by dominant standards while at the same time being unable to achieve them. This process reflects the acceptance of the dominant culture’s belief of Jewish inferiority as one’s own. Identity rejection has been observed to result most typically in feelings of anger, embarrassment, and guilt. The experience of shame has been documented as an additional response to antisemitism, reflecting feelings of inferiority, alienation, and indignity.

Antisemitism and Fear

Another observed result of antisemitism is the experience of fear. A desire to remain out of public view and, in some cases, be “invisible” are the consequences of this fear. Practically, this means avoiding the use of wearing or carrying Jewish symbols in public and keeping one’s Jewish identity a secret from outsiders. Consequently, voicing concern regarding Jewish issues is not an option. Although non-Jews might conceptualize this behavior as paranoia, the historical reality of being persecuted based solely on being Jewish has conditioned this behavior within the American Jewish community. In other words, past experience has provided unfortunate empirical sup-port for retaining this pessimistic view. Given the relative position of privilege that many Jews have attained in America, the theoretical risk of losing these privileges is simply not worth calling attention to oneself for many of Jewish descent.

The Shoah

While a history of Jewish culture is beyond the scope of this entry, it is essential to understand the contextual forces that gave rise to and sustain antisemitism both at home and abroad. The Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe) refers to the genocide of approximately 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany. The Shoah is a critical incident to understand, as the majority of Jews in Europe (approximately 65%) and over one in three Jews throughout the world were killed. Although the precise psychological impact of this catastrophic event may never be known, potential consequences include beliefs that the world is dangerous for all Jews and that being Jewish is inextricably tied to suffering. These and other issues may be particularly relevant for the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Shoah. While the Shoah is, without question, the most devastating event for Jews in modernity, antisemitic acts of violence and oppression extend throughout history. It is precisely this history that has made Jews in America sensitive to any act conveying antisemitic intent. For this reason, it is the perception of antisemitism, and not any set of objectively defined acts, that becomes relevant when conceptualizing the psychological implications of oppression for the American Jew.

Numerical Minority

Another relevant contextual factor for understanding the psychological experience of the American Jew is the religious makeup of the United States. Currently, Jews comprise less than 2% of the national population. Compared to the presence of Christians (approximately 84% of the population), those identifying as non-Christian are without question a numerical minority. Furthermore, non-Christians living in the United States often experience the impact of living in the predominantly Christian society based on assumptions made as to one’s practices and beliefs and the strong Christian influence in national politics. Consequently, Jewish clients may feel as though their issues and identity hold little value in the dominant culture.

Privilege and Passing

The fact that many Jews can, to some degree, make choices regarding their visibility may itself be considered a privilege. This differs from racial minorities (including many Jews) with phenotypes clearly distinguishable from the dominant group, making the option of “passing” as White not available. For many Jews of European descent, however, this may well be possible. Whereas until the 1940s Jews were considered a separate and inferior race in America, a redefinition of “Whiteness” now allows for the potential of Jews gaining equal access to becoming members of the privileged class. Many Jews in America now possess the choice of whether or not to renounce being Jewish. Despite the potential benefits of gaining access to this privileged status, the psychological toll of hiding one’s identity may come with a cost. Underlying this decision may be a shame, terror, and embarrassment of one’s Jewish identity and oneself.

Jews and the Origins of Counseling

In an effort to contextualize the experience of American Jews, it bears mentioning that Jews played a prominent role in the origins of counseling. Many scholars erroneously contend that the majority of counseling theories are products of White dominant culture. In fact, the origins of counseling can be traced to Freud and his colleagues in Europe, who were assimilated Ashkenazi Jews. Although these Jews had white skin, they were culturally dissimilar from the dominant group of White Christians. Since Freud’s time, a multitude of Jews have had a lasting impact on the field. The continued inattention regarding Jewish contributions to the counseling profession reflects the perceived invisibility of Jews and the unfortunate persistence of antisemitism.

Counseling Issues with American Jewish Clients

Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills

It is important for all counselors, both Jewish and Gentile, to engage in a self-assessment regarding their thoughts and feelings about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture. This way, any negative stereotypes or beliefs regarding American Jews can be dealt with via education, supervision, and/or personal counseling. Because there are many ways to be Jewish, Jewish counselors must not assume that their American Jewish clients have the same beliefs and practices where Judaism is concerned. As such, these counselors need to understand the client’s thoughts and feelings about his or her own Jewishness. The Jewish counselor must also be cognizant that internalized antisemitism could play a role in the therapeutic process, either in oneself or in the client. When a non-Jewish counselor is working with an American Jewish client, the issues are different. The main issue would be for the non-Jewish counselor to be knowledgeable about Judaism. For example, these counselors should understand that Judaism is more than a religion and that Jewish identity is quite complex.

Disclosure and Identification

Some American Jews will not openly identify as Jews unless they perceive the environment to be safe. This is because identifying oneself as Jewish can be perceived as potentially hazardous due to the long history of antisemitism. Complicating matters here is the client’s level of awareness and insight. The client might think it implausible that her or his Jewish identity has relevance to the presenting problem. In this way, counselors need to tread cautiously when inquiring about religious and ethnic background. The counselor should follow the client’s lead with regard to the level of disclosure about the client’s Jewishness, while also creating a safe environment for the discussion of these issues. Once a client’s Jewish identity has been confirmed, counselors might inquire about the client’s adherence to the practice of Judaism, including identification with a particular denomination. Of course some will define themselves as secular or cultural Jews; that is, they will not practice any of the religious aspects of Judaism, yet they will self-identify as Jews.

Therapeutic Relationship

Establishing a good rapport and a positive working alliance is central to the beginning of treatment with American Jews. Some ways the counselor can succeed at this task are by knowing about the history and present experiences of Jews, including antisemitism and stereotypes. At the same time, it is important for counselors not to let assumptions guide their treatment plan. Thus, being Jewish should not be the only factor in understanding the client.

Healthy Paranoia

Another skill for counselors concerns the ability to discern clinical paranoia from healthy paranoia or cultural mistrust in American Jews. This is important because American Jews, like other oppressed cultural groups, might be appropriately mistrustful of outsiders (in this case, non-Jews). Hence, counselors should be cautious not to misinterpret the actions of American Jewish clients. Survivors of the Shoah and their descendants bring an additional dynamic with them to counseling. These American Jews may view the world as a dangerous place because of overprotective parents who were traumatized during the Shoah.

Identity Issues

Counselors working with American Jews also need to understand Jewish identity, which can be a difficult task given the complexity of the issues. As previously stated, there are both religious and secular/cultural aspects to Jewish identity, and Jewish identity is both multifaceted and context specific. Hence, to provide culturally competent care, counselors need to understand the client’s perspectives on his or her own Jewish identity.

Importance of Family

For American Jews, the family is often the primary social structure, and there are emotional consequences for going against the wishes of the family. It is important to remember that because American Jews are bicultural, they may experience value conflicts between individualistic American culture and the more collectivistic nature of Jewish culture. Hence, counselors need to attend to family issues and the bicultural identity of American Jews.

Presenting Concerns

Scholars have theorized the following common presenting concerns for American Jewish clients: (a) Jewish identity issues, (b) body image and gender identity, (c) child rearing practices, (d) interfaith or interdenominational couples, (e) issues surrounding conversion to or from Judaism, (f) sexual orientation and religion, and (g) antisemitism-related experiences. Of course, American Jews may seek counseling for personal growth and development, as well as to receive treatment for any psychological disorders.

Conclusion

In conclusion, American Jews are a small yet culturally distinct group in the United States. Despite stereotypes of widespread financial success and the appearance of fitting into the dominant culture, antisemitism persists and grows. This perpetuation of antisemitism contributes to potential biases in counseling, especially when there is a lack of information and a reliance on stereotypes. By learning about Jews and Jewish culture, counselors can provide culturally competent treatment for their American Jewish clients.

References:

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