"What is a Jew?" the teacher asked the class.

I was at a conference in Los Angeles. Every type of Jew could attend and any attendee could present. This was my first class. The stout, casual looking man teaching it introduced himself as a non-affiliated Jew and let the class lead the discussion.

His question got me thinking. I had a definition ready: A Jew is someone who is born of a Jewish mother or who converted. However, it was not a definitive answer. It answered "who" but not "what" we are.

It answered "who" but not "what" we areThe teacher had written down a bunch of words on a piece of paper for us to consider.

The first definition was the most obvious: "religion"

Judaism is a religion we agreed. After all, we've identified it as such our entire lives. However, that wasn't satisfactory.

A Jewish person is still Jewish whether or not he believes or practices Judaism. The BuJew, the atheist, Reform Jew, and Orthodox Jew are all equally Jewish. What religion, or lack thereof, someone practices is not definitive of whether or not they can be considered a Jew.

We crossed religion off the list. Every Jew can not be classified as someone of the faith.

The next word on the list was "race". I raised my hand.

"We are not a race," I said with confidence.

This classification, in my mind, was responsible for the Holocaust.

I explained that there are Jews of every race. Those whose skin is darker than my pale, white Ashkenazi skin. Asian Jews. Blond haired blue eyed Jews. And they are just as Jewish as me. Plus, converts can be of any race. Everyone agreed.

"Are we a culture?" the teacher pressed, moving on.

We agreed that there is a Jewish culture. A Yiddish or Hebrew word shared between two Jews can spark an understanding smile. "Gefilte fish", "knishes" and "cholent" can make a meal "Jewish".

Jewish culture makes us "feel Jewish". However, it's an effect of being Jewish and not the cause. Doing things because they are "tradition" is nice but meaningless if those rituals are arbitrary. Furthermore, many things that are "Jewish" are really ethnic elements found in the countries of where Jews lived. Jews existed long before bagels and lox. Therefore, this was not our answer either.

Next on the list were the words "nation" and "people".

The Zionists in the room argued for these words. People conceded that we are often called a "nation". But there's a problem with this definition too. People of certain nationalities tend to only hold onto their ties to that land but their children don't usually feel that way. Jews have been in the Diaspora for many years and still feel tied to the nation of Israel. Why? What does it mean to be G‑d's "chosen" nation? What are we chosen for?

Next were the words "Hebrews" and "Israelites". Everyone agreed those were just synonyms for "Jew" and therefore, not the answer either.

We were at the end of the list. We were tired. We just wanted the definition.

"Don't you have an answer?" I challenged the teacher.

"It's open for discussion," he said curtly.

I realized he did not. I hoped someone in the class could come up with something.

I felt torn. I strongly identified as a Jew but, I realized, I didn't really know what that meant. That was a big problem for me because I wanted to know who I was and what I stood for.

Finally, an Orthodox man raised his hand. He stood out from the mostly Reform and Conservative crowd. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts. He wore a black hat, suit, and tzitzit.

I strongly identified as a Jew but, I realized, I didn't really know what that meant "Being a Jew is a job description," he said knowingly.

A woman with brown hair and blue jeans looked at him and winced.

"Are you saying I'm not doing my job?" she chastised. She introduced herself as Reform.

The man was silent. It was a loaded question.

I liked his answer. Jews are people who were given a job to do. Some were born into that line of work (Jewish from birth) and others decided they wanted to take it on (converts). Our birthright is to be leaders in the pursuit of tikkun olam, repairing the world, by studying the Torah and doing the commandments as prescribed by the Torah. That is a unique job description that no other person has. It is not the actual fulfillment of the commandments that makes one Jewish, but having that destiny, having that special bond with our Creator and job-description of doing the mitzvot, that defines our identity as Jews. Whether we choose to embrace it or not is our choice.

From the most secular to the most observant Jew, I think, intrinsic to our being is a desire to improve the world. Jews have been at the forefront of most world revolutions. For the most part, they have not been religious. However, I believe, Jewish observance is an enormous tool to help us cultivate that inner spark. There is a part of every Jew who yearns for change. A Jew who does not act on that feeling is not living up to his full potential.

Of course, some would argue, that non-Jews also feel this desire. I don't doubt it. But, it seems to me that Jews outnumber everyone else percentage wise in their pursuit of it. No matter what situation we are in, good or bad, we are always creating and innovating. The word "Jew" is a verb. Who we are is defined by what we "do".

The other definitions on the paper weren't incorrect. Those characteristics are aspects of who we are but don't define us. They are only the shallow essence of our existence. They are the "ish" of Jewish. Our fundamental nature is something deeper.

I felt empowered by the Orthodox man's definition. It gave me a sense of purpose. It colored all the other definitions with rich meaning. Individually and collectively we are a striving people.

Pondering the piece of paper, sometime later, I noted that the teacher had forgotten to reference the Bible for an answer to the question. I decided to check it out. Ironically, I realized that struggling over who a Jew is was quite Jewish.

Ironically, I realized that struggling over who a Jew is was quite JewishJacob was named "Israel" because he wrestled. Jews aren't content with the status quo. We strive for improvement and wrestle with how to bring about change.

But our wrestling has an even deeper purpose. A Jew is supposed to be "a light unto the nations". We are meant to bring sparks of light in the form of loving kindness, justice, and meaning to a world that can get stuck in the darkness of immorality and selfishness. Light gives direction when all seems lost. Light leads you out of the darkness. A flame, no matter which way you turn the candle, will always rise up. Whether we do it or not, our job is to elevate the world through giving it values.

If we do not have an understanding of who we are, we won't be able to actualize our potential. We are also in danger of becoming what other people want us to be which is not always beneficial for us. We must realize that our job is a gift. Like the miracle of Hannukah, if we just tap into that little bit of light inside of us, it will burn longer and brighter than we ever thought possible and maybe, just maybe illuminate the entire world.