Here I am, sitting silently amongst the tension. I watch in awe, somewhere in the middle or off center-left, as my new friends defend their various Jewish backgrounds on a casual Saturday night in Tzfat, Israel.
“My father, an Orthodox rabbi, would never officiate at a wedding for an intermarried couple, unless, of course, the spouse had converted. Halacha, or Jewish law, must always come first,” says a modern Orthodox girl on my left.
“But my mother, a Catholic, never converted,” argues a liberal Reform Jew to my right. “In my Reform community, I am still considered Jewish despite the intermarriage between my parents! In fact, without an intermarriage, I would not even be here today.”
Just six months ago, I never would have imagined that I’d somehow be struggling with the question of interfaith and its impact on Judaism with all different kinds of Jews surrounding me. In a pluralistic setting that we, twenty-six American Jewish teenagers, had created over the summer in Israel, it suddenly felt acceptable to cross the sensitive boundaries that divided us in our individual walks of faith. Will we allow our separate denominations, I wonder, to expunge our newly formed friendships? Will our different community affiliations destroy the sacred space we’ve created for spiritual growth?
One year earlier, the world of Jewish pluralism had barely entered my realm of thinking. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish sheltered bubble through both synagogue and Camp Ramah, I never considered the idea that the “other” Jews who existed around the world particularly cared about what I believed. I simply believed, like many American Jews today, that sects of Judaism were structured into a scale with Orthodoxy titled as the “most religious” and Reform as the “least Jewish” of them all, for reasons that I can no longer understand today. For years, I secured my place on this scale of American Judaism with the ignorant awareness that some denominations were placed at higher and lower levels, but I refused to ever explore these other communities. Besides, if non-Conservative Jews distanced themselves from my lifestyle, then what could I possibly learn from them?
It was during my last summer at Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, GA, when I learned about the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a Jewish high school program that would later open my eyes to the perspectives of other Jewish denominations and shape my pluralistic view of Judaism. In early June 2011, a friend in my age group had drowned while we were rafting down the Ocoee River in Southern Tennessee. He was rushed to a local hospital where he passed away that afternoon, leaving my entire camp and community in a shock and utter grief. This tragedy inspired me to question theology and Conservative ideologies beyond the mandatory lectures throughout the week. Unsettled by the limited opportunities for spiritual introspection during the day, I attempted to explore my faith at night alongside my friends, who, understandably, wanted no involvement. It seemed sensible that, after overcoming a ten-day mourning period at camp, my friends did not need to hear phrases such as “How could God let this happen?” or “the Conservative movement has struggled with death and dying for years” anymore. My curiosity toward Judaism, text studying, and spiritual growth only burgeoned as the summer continued, but my social circle was taking a faith break. As a result, I was nicknamed “little rabbi” and “super Jew,” names that seemed to justify my constant desire to debate God’s omniscience with the first person I saw. I wondered if I would ever be fortunate enough to find a community of Jewish seekers with whom I could explore my own Jewish path. Throughout the emotional whirlwind of a summer, I simply wanted to unravel the rudiments of my Judaism and analyze their every aspect.
During my last week of camp, a counselor pulled me aside and provided me with information that marked a new direction to my post-Ramah junior year. She simply looked at me and said, “There are people out there who are like you. They’re applying to a program called the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, a five-week program in Israel next summer. You really should check it out.”
Weeks later, the Bronfman website became my most frequently visited computer page. Unfamiliar terms such as “Jewish pluralism,” “Ma’aseh,” and “Edgar Bronfman” entered my daily realm of thinking. As the days progressed, I continued to learn more about this once nebulous yet intriguing Jewish program. This organization could somehow amalgamate twenty-six high school students from across the Jewish spectrum to learn together? Five weeks in Israel will be spent learning from some non-Conservative teachers? Fascinated by the idea of exploring Judaism through new perspectives, I felt motivated to expand my sheltered Jewish bubble. Three months into my academic year, I opened the summer application, realizing that I had found my future community.
Seven months, five essays, and two interviews later, I packed my suitcase and joined the twenty-sixth Bronfman class for five life-changing weeks in Israel. Would these random people be interested in starting vehement theological discussions at any hour of the night? Will any of them enjoy being challenged and passionate about their beliefs this summer? I anxiously (and perhaps creepily, too) eyed the circle of unique thinkers from across the country. Little did I know, these twenty-five other individuals would inspire nights of deep, endless conversations, reconstruct my view of Jewish denominationalism, and sharpen my faith with the experiences of their own.
While I had traveled to Israel with Jewish groups in the past, this journey was unique in infinite ways. I never imagined that I would find the opportunity to debate God’s omniscience while overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, learn Torah from acclaimed professors and rabbis while wearing Bedouin pants and a T-shirt, and become more comfortable with the idea of pluralism, a phrase that I had begun introducing to my Jewish vocabulary---all within the first week there. Once the first Shabbat as a community approached, I couldn’t help wondering if there was any scientific force on earth that could even attempt to drag me down back to reality.
As the weeks progressed, however, I faced some of the religious issues that our faculty had warned us to expect. Shabbat observances, levels of kashrut, and forms of modesty were tense topics that inspired hours of heated debate. A term like “more religious,” originally so common in my pre-Bronfman life, suddenly made me cringe when it was used to categorize the twenty-six of us rather than unite us. We defended our separate denominations in an attempt to secure the only Judaism we each knew, rather than looking at the incredible Jewish influences that surrounded us: each other. Striving to create a pluralistic community, we, in a sense, embodied both the strengths and flaws of our own denominations, allowing these titles to box us into different categories. Ultimately, that is how most Jews identify themselves today—through the offered boxes left for us to “check.” I learned over the course of five weeks in Israel, however, that the boxes themselves have become the issue in American Judaism today.
Unlike the radical thinkers who endorse the concept of post-denominational Judaism or “Judaism with no prefix,” I have come to value different Jewish denominations, the communities that ensue from them, and the traditions that make each one unique. Since post-denominational Judaism has evolved into a denomination of its own, I believe in the idea of “experimental” Judaism instead, a Judaism that encourages others to explore all denominations and integrate themselves into different communities. People, myself once included, have the tendency to commit to one community both physically and mentally, almost entirely for security. This association, however, prevents us from exploring and experimenting with our individual walks of Jewish life and ultimately creating pluralism. This summer, our pluralism was not a reflection of our agreements and shared conclusions, but rather our willingness to grow from every perspective and opinion we encountered. Our pluralism was defined by our ability to unite, talk, struggle, and laugh together despite our different walks of life that diverge Jewish communities on a daily basis. Most importantly, however, our pluralism marked an incredible feat in our generation of American Judaism: we, teens, jettisoned the walls of ignorance and fear that our ancestors built to insulate us. We embraced our differences and discovered beautiful commonalities through our experiments with the faith that divides so many people. to We live in a world where too many focus on the direct destinations of their Jewish life, rather than on the journeys themselves. There is myriad knowledge and warmth we can gain by visiting the synagogues or communities that emphasize different ways of being Jewish than what we’re accustomed to practicing.
From my one summer in Israel, I learned that it is truly impossible to experiment with faith unless you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Denominations are necessary in order to strengthen communities; however, tolerance and the ability to explore these denominations, is the most vital step to creating Jewish pluralism. From the countless conversations I witnessed among my Bronfman friends, I realized that pluralistic Judaism could exist. And through the friendships we created based on understanding and faith exploration, I realized something more: pluralism can thrive.