What was it like for our ancestors to say goodbye to the shtetl, to set out to discover new lives for themselves, along with all of the liberties the free world had to offer? At the dawn of the enlightenment, how did our parents adapt their Judaism to the developments of a modern age? And what can we learn from their struggles to connect deeply with our own Jewish identities?

This new course will give you the opportunity to make sense of your personal Jewishness; it will help you overcome perceived incompatibilities between Judaism and modern society; and it will provide you with the clarity and conviction to pass on a legacy of Jewish pride to the next generation.



Napoleon Bonaparte promised freedom from discrimination. The price? Allegiance to him and to France. Why are alternative allegiances a cause of concern for Jews? Just how deep does our Jewish identity run? And why is it that no matter what you do, you'll always be a Jew?


In 1790, after leading a revolution in the name of liberty, George Washington affirmed the divine and inviolable freedoms of America's tiny Jewish community. What is freedom? Is it indeed liberating to do as we please? Perhaps freedom is about something much deeper, more meaningful, and fulfilling!


The failed attempt to establish a chief rabbi in New York in the 1890s demonstrated the weakness of the modern Jewish community structure. This lesson explores how the lack of top-down organization in the Jewish community and new-world individualism combine to challenge and empower individuals to choose to participate in Jewish life.


In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant signed an order expelling all Jews from the area under his command. This became a defining issue in his 1868 presidential campaign. Are Jews obliged to vote as Jews? Can our concerns as Jews conflict with our duties to our Diaspora home? Where should our first allegiance lie?


In contemporary times, the power of antisemitism to form a bulwark against assimilation has declined. We face a paradox−a desire for complete acceptance of Jews within society, while at the same time hoping that younger Jews and coming generations do not choose to assimilate and instead commit to living a Jewish life. How is this to be accomplished?


In 1655, Menashe ben Israel shared a dream of redemption, moving Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England. What is our role as Jews to inspire the world with a vision of universal peace and goodness? This lesson moves beyond mere Jewish continuity, and presents the idealistic vision that Judaism has for all humanity.


Jeffrey S.
Gurock, PhD

Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History; Yeshiva University

"To Be a Jew" identifies central issues of Jewish survival in the modern world and will challenge students to contemplate the ways Jewish existence and continuity may be secured.

Gulie Ne'eman
Arad, PhD

Dept of Jewish History; Ben Gurion University

The encounter between freedom and Judaism has presented an ongoing challenge to modern Jewish life that this course is certain to elucidate. With the erudite input of Professor Jonathan Sarna it is sure to result in an eye-opener for many Jews about their past, present and future place in
the world.

William Pencak, PhD
Professor of American History; Penn State; Bert and Fanny Meisler Visiting Professor of History and Jewish Studies; University of South Alabama

"...A guide and inspiration for those who are worried about the future of Judaism and the world in general."

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. One side of the coin promised security, acceptance, and affluence with the escape from antisemitism and discrimination; while the other threatened assimilation, confusion of loyalties, and the possibility of disappearing as a nation.

In To Be a Jew in the Free World, we examine the personal and religious struggles that individuals and communities confronted as they faced the challenges of changing times: stories that provoke debate and shed insight into what it means to live as a Jew today.