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Shaul Kelner

Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies
Director of Undergraduate Studies, Sociology
Affiliated Faculty, American Studies and European Studies

How are cultural and religious practices mobilized to shape political identities?

What happens when governments, non-governmental organizations, and other political actors apply a means-end approach to cultural practices for political ends? By focusing a research lens on the sociology of practice and cognition, I examine the contradictions and unintended consequences of attempts to treat culture mechanistically.

In my research, I examine modern Jewish politics from the 1960s to the present, focusing on ritual, philanthropy and tourism. I primarily examine major efforts to shape how Jewish Americans understood themselves in relation to the United States, Israel, and a transnational Jewish diaspora over time. During the latter half of the Cold War, how did an American movement for Soviet Jewish human rights take religious rituals out of the synagogues and into the streets, and what were the consequences of treating sacred practice as a political mobilization tactic? During the 1980s and 1990s, how did new forms of philanthropic organization attempt to create new understandings of Jewish peoplehood that emphasized private encounters with Jewish diversity over public demonstrations of Jewish unity? And today, as state-sponsored “Birthright Israel” trips have brought almost half-a-million diaspora Jews to Israel on free tours, how do the characteristics of tourism facilitate or undermine cooptation and shape diaspora Jewish political identities?