picture of Dawn says "mixed & matched: advice from dawn kepler

I’m tired of being judged on the ‘right way’ to be Jewish

I am a member of a Conservative synagogue that I love. We recently, as a movement, chose to welcome non-Jewish spouses as members of our synagogues. I worked hard for this and I believe it is the right thing to do. But I read an article in the Jewish press titled “Conservatives Welcome Non-Jews — But Will They Be Second-Class Citizens In Synagogue?” I am so sick of people finding fault with Conservative Judaism. No pat on the back, just a stab! Why do other Jews feel they have the truth with a capital “T” and everyone else is wrong? — Proud Conservative Jew

Dear Proud: Please allow me to congratulate you, your shul and your movement for making a thoughtful and considered decision. I have the honor of working with Conservative rabbis and synagogues, and I am well aware of how caring and loving you all are.

Sadly, you are correct: There are Jews who believe that they have the one and only way to do Jewish Right — with a capital “R.” Perhaps it is the part of the country in which I live and the fact that the Jewish population is dominated by non-traditional Jews, but I find that it is the majority, the so-called liberal Jews, who have the hardest time accepting that others are doing Jewish differently.

An Orthodox friend of mine made aliyah a few years ago and calls to speak with me frequently. He said, “When I lived in Oakland I met with all the diversity of the Jewish community. But here in Jerusalem, in my Orthodox community, we are very similar. I like to talk to you to be sure I’m staying in touch with how other Jews are thinking.”

That’s not something I’ve heard from any liberal-minded Jews. I hope that after writing this column, I will.

I believe a huge problem is that the less observant Jews are, the more vulnerable they are to being made to feel inauthentic by a more knowledgeable Jew. We are forever referring to people as “very Jewish,” “not that Jewish” or “barely Jewish.” Why do we need to do this? What is typically being referred to is the extent to which the person practices Judaism.

We are forever referring to people as ‘very Jewish,’ ‘not that Jewish’ or ‘barely Jewish.’ Why do we need to do this?

If I don’t do anything about being Jewish other than say, “I’m Jewish,” then when someone criticizes me, I feel stung. If, on the other hand, I practice my Judaism daily, someone else’s opinion is simply their opinion. Does the Modern Orthodox rabbi in Oakland feel inauthentic because his practice of kashrut differs from the Modern Orthodox rabbi in San Francisco? No, each knows on which halachic rulings they base their practice. Each can say, “What’s right for him doesn’t work for me. But for him, it’s fine.”

I rarely see Reform and even Conservative Jews who are willing to say, “I drive on Shabbat, but for my Orthodox friend, it is correct to walk.”

Please continue to be proud of the kind of Judaism you practice. When you see a headline like the one you cited, put the article aside; it is unlikely to be helpful to you. Please also be vocal about your acceptance of the choices that others make. If someone questions your choice, explain why you don’t eat pork or why you don’t carry money on Shabbat. It may help the other person open up and accept a new concept.

I am a Reform-affiliated observant Jew. My practices are not totally aligned with Reform policy. In many ways I am more observant than my fellow congregants. However, I do not try to change them, nor do I allow them to change me. So, Proud Conservative Jew, please join me in being a conduit among Jewish sects. Let’s point out the good in each movement to members of other movements.

We often hear the question, “Is it good for the Jews?” Infighting and criticism is not good for anyone, particularly small communities like ours.

Finally, I, too, saw that article and it made my heart sink. I suspect that to some extent it was an effort to write a catchy headline. Giving out good news isn’t as intriguing as spicing the story up with a potential problem. The news outlets get away with it because we all feed into it. Too bad the readers of that article didn’t write to the paper/website, saying: “Something good just happened, why can’t you focus on that?”

kepler-dawn-WEB
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.