Over the wekend, an African-American friend on Facebook complained that once again a white person had told him that he understood the black experience, with no further explanation needed. I commiserated with my friend. Jews-by-choice receive the same kind of identity-silencing assumptions from Jews-by-birth all the time.
A major issue that divides we Jews somewhat acrimoniously into our denominational silos is how to define a Jew. Depending on the denom in which you daven, for the purposes of peoplehood, you’re always Jewish if you have a Jewish mother, you may be Jewish if you have a Jewish father, and you may be Jewish depending on the rabbi who converted you and the rituals which you performed. We argue over all of that.
And then of course there’s the religious definition of a Jew. Some denominations don’t count women towards the minimum number required for a kosher prayer service (10 Jews), while some do. And some ignore the need for a minyan entirely. So when you’re talking about identity in Judaism, from the beginning you’re on shifting ground.
I think that may be why majority members of a Jewish congregation can be so myopic in terms of how individual Jews define themselves within the community they all share. Once inside a community that shares more or less common religious norms, it’s easy to assume that significant differences don’t exist.
Of course, that isn’t the case. Regular readers know that at my shul last year, speaking from the bimah on Yom Kippur our rabbi emeritus left converts out of the definition of who is a Jew, and later told me he did it on purpose because “a Jew is a Jew” so converts shouldn’t think of themselves as converts.
I’ve also had discussions with Jews-by-birth who feel insulted when converts talk about their unique identity, asking, “Aren’t we all Jews-by-choice these days?” Growing up in strict Jewish homes–or completely non-religious ones–some Jews reject Judaism until later in life, at which time they adopt religious practice and join a shul. That happens across all denominations and is a wonderful thing.
But choosing to come back to the faith community into which you were born–no matter how tenuously you were born into it–does not make you a Jew-by-choice. The assumptions, prejudices, and cultural and religious understandings of a Jewish family no matter how far removed from Judaism are not in any way the same as those carried around by a non-Jewish family. Choosing Judaism from a starting point of no Judaism whatsoever is a unique and precious thing. So, no, we definitely are not all Jews-by-choice these days.
So why so often do liberal Jews still assume that everyone will–or will even want to–fall in line with the congregational status quo, and become so defensive when they learn that when it comes to JBCs, that’s a pretty baseless assumption? Of course, it’s not just a JBC problem. The main reason I distanced myself from my synagogue this year was more than three years of watching it be lukewarm not just on JBC identity but on the needs and desires of Jews of all stripes without children.
Why the leadership of any shul would assume that single and childless Jews would be attracted by worship and holiday events based primarily around neutered religious themes aimed solely at children–and wouldn’t seek to change that kind of status quo–is beyond my ken. (As a childless Jew-by-choice, these things have carried no meaning for me in my own synagogue, but no one ever listens to me when I say this.)
But that’s what happens. Maybe as a people we’ve become so used to surviving instead of actually living that we think the best we can–or should bother–to do once we end up in a common community is to shut up, suck up our differences, and muddle on, happy that at least no one is trying to kill us at the present moment.
I would actually bet money that’s why Jewish identity politics are the way they are.
Anyone who reads other Jew-by-choice blogs already knows that we JBCs tend to move from congregation to congregation, looking for the open-minded welcome and actively listening ear about our needs and religious and personal self-definitions that should be the mark of anyone’s long-term spiritual home. For a long time, I wondered why so many fellow JBC bloggers had such a hard time finding a synagogue. And then, of course, this year I took my blinders off about my own shul and realized how badly misunderstood–or perhaps more properly, ignored and willfully redefined–the needs and desires of non-status quo members are there.
I still believe in the welcoming, diverse, open-minded platform of Reform Judaism. But I sure wish the denomination more reliably lived up to its own press. It’s not enough to ask diverse Jews to tell you who they are.
You also have to listen to them when they do.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.