America’s marketplace of ideas has permeated to the Jewish world, resulting in the beautiful tapestry of American Jewry today. The diversity varying religious denominations within the Jewish framework permits individuals to relate to Judaism and their religious identity in a way that appeals to them and connects them to the community.
I may not feel a connection to Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism, but their existence helps keep the flock together.Growing up in the United States, my parents kept a traditional home: Shabbat was diligently (but not overzealously) observed, as were Kashrut and holidays. As children we went to a Conservative day school, a pluralistic summer camp and then a modern Orthodox high school in Boston.
After high school I came to Israel with Young Judaea, another pluralistic program that opened my eyes to the wonders of Israel and the diversity of the Jewish people. My peers were a kaleidoscope of varying types of Jewish observance, identity, and background.
Attending my brother’s wedding last weekend in Harrisburg, PA, I participated in Shabbat services at the Conservative synagogue his father-in-law leads.
Although the prayers were recited beautifully, the sanctuary was elegantly decorated and the rabbi and congregation’s devotion was uplifting, the experience was a glove a few sizes too small for my hand. Peppering the service with English passages and explanations felt out of place; egalitarian seating and praying felt right in principle but unfamiliar in practice. The congregants’ enthusiasm was touching, but it wasn’t for me.
Yet although I remain most comfortable with Orthodox prayers, American Judaism has many faces.
Israeli Judaism, by contrast, is far less diverse. While ethnic traditions abound, they all fall under the umbrella of Orthodoxy. Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel are far and few between, and their rabbis cannot perform weddings, burials or other religious ceremonies with government recognition.
Although having Orthodoxy as the predominant religious affiliation in Israel provides a common Jewish language for the majority of the populace, it limits the options of those who seek a different path. If an Israeli disagrees with Orthodoxy, and yet yearns for religious meaning, there are no viable options.
Without these alternatives, many Israelis go without Jewish tradition altogether, when if given the option they would have merely chosen a different religious affiliation. This lack of options only serves to further widen the secular-religious divide.
How many secular Israelis could be turned on to Judaism through alternative streams extant in the Diaspora? Those who shun or are oblivious to Jewish religion because of the singular association with Orthodoxy might prefer Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Judaism, but have never been introduced to them.
Many of my Israeli peers are wholly unfamiliar with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and consider them as foreign as knishes and Sundays (real Sundays).
The major obstacles to changing this singular Israeli approach to Judaism are the lack of education about Diaspora Jewry in Israeli schools and the monopoly the Orthodox Rabbinate holds in Israel.
Conservatism is a Diaspora-encrusted breed that reflects the ideals of the land that birthed and nurtured it. But that does not mean that if given an opportunity, it could not take root and flourish in Israel. The introduction of alternative approaches to Judaism could not only provide a salve for the growing rift between Israel’s religious and secular, but it could also give Israelis a better understanding of their brethren overseas.
As a country that prides itself as a safe haven for Jews, Israel must provide its citizens with religious options that reflect - not stifle - the diversity of its populace.