Educating the Post-Denominational Post-Ashkenazi/Sephardi Jew

According to a number of recent population studies of American Jewish cities, the fastest growing segment of the our Jewish community is not Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative. The largest increase is “just Jewish”. While some view this with trepidation, others, myself included, see this as a positive thing for the Jewish people. In either case, it is a reality that the Jewish community needs to address.

Distinctions like denominational movements or the differences among sub-communities, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Edot HaMizrach, have always existed among the Jewish people. In biblical times, the distinctions were often based on identification with the tribes that made up the people Israel. Those differences sometimes resulted in separate governments, competing holy sites and even outright civil wars. In the early post-biblical era, there was disagreement on how Judaism needed to organize itself, with Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and many smaller groups each believing that it should lead the Jewish people into the future. Even when the Pharisees captured public opinion, the approaches of HIllel and Shammai resulted in groupings with distinctive practices.

With the dispersion of Israelites into lands across Europe, Asia and Africa, each land had its own communal norms, which became grouped as Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Edot HaMizrach (eastern communities). Later, we saw among European Jewry the gap caused by the birth of the Hasidic movement, which was met by a response of people who called themselves mitnagdim, opponents. The categorization resulted in excommunications at one point in history. In my Chicago childhood, I remember vividly hearing of one congregation in which the question of following Hasidic or non-Hasidic customs on a Pesach (Passover) night resulted in an actual fistfight in one congregation.

Modern times saw the rise of denominations — Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox — based on theology. Another set of distinctions, prominent in the early 20th century, was the conflict between Zionist and anti-Zionist forces.

What the “just Jewish” respondants to population studies are saying is: the categories of Jews that have served to give individuals a sense of group identity and affliliation within our Jewish communities no longer works. There are a number of forces that have led to this situation:

  • The religious movements are increasingly diverse. There is less and less uniformity of beliefs and practices among congregations even within an individual movement. Want a Reform temple where most people wear kippot and tallitot, and in which kashrut is observed? Looking for an Orthodox congregation in which the Artscroll prayer book is used, men and women sit separately, and both men and women may read Torah?  I can find those communities for you.
  • Israel in general, and the Israeli Army in particular, has brought about a merger of backgrounds. Unlike the first generation of Israelis, the young generation socializes and marries across different countries of origin, bringing all the different customs (and foods) to the table. The army even distributes a siddur (prayer book) that is an amalgam of the texts of different Jewish communities.
  • Communications today, including the internet and social media, have given Jews access to knowledge of each others’ practices. The result, in a democratic, individualistic society, is that each Jew feels empowered to reach beyond his/her subgroup to build a Judaism that meets his/her needs.
  • Jews do not identify as much with their earlier countries and communities of origin. America’s and Israel’s Jews are more American or Israeli than they are Eastern European or North African or Yemenite. So the Ashkenazi / Sephardi / Edot HaMizrach designations have faded somewhat.
  • Growing numbers of people have joined the Jewish people as naturalized Jews (some prefer the term “converts”). To them, the distinctions that are based on where one’s ancestors originated are irrelevant.

Given all of the above, we need to educate the new generation of young Jews for a different type of future, one in which the groupings of the past will matter far less, and quite possibly one in which different groupings may emerge. Some thoughts:

  1. Educate towards k’lal Yisrael, the inclusive people Israel. Greater emphasis should be on the commonalities among the groupings, rather than the distinctions.
  2. Encourage flexibility among approaches. Back in the day, you were required to take off your kippah when entering a Reform temple. Thankfully, those days are long over (see above about the flexibility within movements). We also need to move away from insisting on people following each and every local custom that originated in the “old country”, and work towards more of a consensus model of Jewish practice.
  3. Teach a Judaism that lowers barriers to participation and inclusion.
  4. Give our learners, of all ages, the problem solving, community building and critical thinking skills needed to shape a Jewish world that will look markedly different than ours. And recognize that they may, in the process of shaping that Jewish world, end up creating new distinctions and subgroups of Jews, but based on contemporary considerations, rather than on historical ones.

What are your thoughts?  Would love to hear ideas from colleagues as well as from the overall Jewish community.

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5 responses

  1. Excellent, Rabbi.

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  2. Nice! If you say it’s true “Jews do not identify as much with their earlier countries and communities of origin,” that would make me quite sad. Some are nostalgic for the culture of their countries of origin. (I am!) What do you think of encouraging distinctions by educating and supporting our communities to learn more about their parents/ grandparents’ history and bringing their perspectives, traditions, and culture to the greater Jewish community. I believe in distinctions when they are identified by the people, not the “grass tops.” What would happen if people self-organized by creating study groups on say “Life in Lithuania in the 19th century” for example: language, thinkers etc… and tried to bring these ideas to contemporary society.

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  3. I hear you, Irene. I’m thinking that there is a primary identification that a person carries and a lot of secondary ones. As a family is in a current country for several generations, that primary identification shifts. We have seen that with Israeli and Russian Jews who have moved to America. After a few generations, they are American Jews first, and, while honoring their family’s roots, the countries of origin become secondary. Maybe the idea of multiple identities is what’s needed. In any case, the denominational and even the Sephardi-Ashkenazi disctinctions seem to be fading, IMHO. But that’s just my observation.

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  4. I’m hoping that the self-identification as “just Jews” has traction. What do “just Jews” look like? What are their lives like? What do they do? How do “just Jews” differ from “nones”? What is the venue through which we reach them? Who do they trust as authorities? Lots of question

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  5. Very interesting post. My children were raised in a synagogue that was not affiliated with a movement while they were growing up. We were Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Havurah all co-existing, mostly peacefully, in the same shul. For many years, the congregation had a rabbi from the Conservative movement and Cantor from the Reform Movement. When my children went off to college, the two who went to small schools where the Hillel wasn’t separated by movement had a better experience than the one who went to a school with a more established Hillel that was neatly separated into movements. I am sure they would say that there is room for everyone, but that is not entirely the case. I wonder when the millenials are ready to join congregations how they are going (and if they are going) to find congregations they want to call home.

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