What Kind Of Jew Are You?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Posted by: Rabbi Jill Levy

What Kind of Jew Are You?

When I was a hospital chaplain, a patient once asked me, “what kind of Jew are you?” I responded, “hopefully one who is compassionate, kind, and caring.” He responded, “no, no, no that isn’t what I meant…Reform, Orthodox, or what?” He needed to understand my religious values and thought that affiliation would give him the information that he was seeking. But, the truth is that even though I am a JTS ordained “Conservative” rabbi I have never really had an answer to this question. In my family we have a deliberate and thoughtful Shabbat practice, which is informed by halacha (Jewish law), family values, and spirituality but is not solely dictated by Jewish law. We observe kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), but eat out vegetarian in restaurants and have meat-heckshered and dairy non-heckshered dishes in our home. I work at the J, belong to a Conservative synagogue, and send my kids to Reform day school and religious school. I often feel there is no single space for me in organized Jewish life. At the same time, I believe we are forging a path that will keep our family Jewishly connected and fulfilled for the long-term.

Then it dawned on me, perhaps many of us feel outside of our own normative communities, at least some of the time. For example, these three Jewish headlines caught my eye last week:

  1. Pew survey: 57% of US Jews eat pork, Torah study grows 
  2. With resolution against hiring women rabbis, RCA votes for confrontation
  3. Bronfman to Reform Jews, Take Back Birthright from Chabad 

Pork-eating Jews have an interest in learning Torah. Kids who grew up in the Reform movement are willing & eager to go to Israel with ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders. Orthodox men and women remain steadfast in their commitment to female clergy when their own rabbinic association will not support it.

Putting the politics of the individual stories aside, each headline underscores what I understand to be a very exciting trend in Jewish living today. Namely, individuals are moving from patterned denominationalism into fluid movement across boundaries and expectation. I know many people who defy the norms of their own denominational circles. I have a friend who is against circumcision but observes Shabbat. An Orthodox friend who is considered so “radical” that he cannot gain membership into his local shul. I know many non-Jewish spouses of Conservative Jewish partners who serve on parent committees of their children’s Hebrew school.

We have heard the calls of Jewish gloom and doom: rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations, and more. But now, more than ever, I feel optimistic about the Jewish future. Perhaps if we agree that we all “fit in” then what lies ahead is a vibrant Judaism filled with deep connections to Jewish practice and serious soul seeking. Plus, we are in good company as Judaism is and always has been an evolving and non-stagnant tradition. To learn more read Dr. Melissa Weininger’s blog.

Rosh Chodesh Kislev

This week, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the beginning of the Jewish month which contains the celebration of Hanukkah. On the holiday we light candles each night, going from one the first night to eight on the last. The message of the holiday is clear; one small light ignites another, which lights the next until the world is filled with brightness. Each one of us has a Jewish spark. All we have to do is ignite a small part inside ourselves and more light will follow. When we create a community that embraces the light we each bring to the world, Jewish living will flourish.

Changing the Questions

We used to say that we need to meet people where they are “at” in hopes that we can bring them somewhere else. Instead, we need to recognize that people tend to take their spiritual, moral and religious lives seriously. We cannot continue centering our community conversations on old measures of Jewish engagement. I believe that our population surveys need to change the questions they are asking.  Instead of are you intermarried, let’s ask – what do you do in your house that makes you feel Jewish? Instead of what is your denominational affiliation, let’s ask - what Jewish practices most speak to you? Instead of how many Jewish babies are in your house, let’s ask - what can we do to put the next generation on a path of Jewish inquiry?The questions we ask should acknowledge that many of us are already Jewishly engaged, and teach people to recognize it as such. The questions we ask should acknowledge that many of us are already Jewishly engaged, and teach people to recognize it as such.

What kind of Jew am I? One who takes the commitment to Jewish living and learning very seriously but is not willing to compromise my Jewish connection because of fear of what others will think. Let’s commit to celebrating our Jewish choices together.

Tell me what kind of Jew are you? I look forward to hearing your story. 


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