Defining Judaism

Is the Jewish community moving towards a redefinition of Judaism? When I was growing up, there seemed to be only three movements – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. One conservative or Orthodox congregation might have been more traditional or liberal than another, but they all fell under their distinct denominations. Now there are denominations that fill the gaps between. There is Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, and Humanistic. Surely there are still people who feel like these don’t adequately define their Judaism. Are we entering a post-denominational period of the Jewish story?

Probably not, but there are a growing number of people who think we should. Writing in the JTA recently, Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (a group we have been working with over the last couple of years), believes that “we need a new language to talk about ourselves, an overlay on top of categorization by denomination, one that promotes greater collective action and reduces the polarization that often results when we analyze events exclusively through a denominational lens.”

He argues for new terminology, definitions that explain “our orientation toward the Jewish, general, and global communities of which we are a part.” Using the terms “tribal,” “covenantal,” and “personal,” he believes that the “reshuffling of Jews into broader categories” can help us focus more on our relationship to the community and less on religious differences. He writes:

Thinking in these new terms can provide another lens through which we can analyze issues, expand opportunities for working together and relate to one another with greater appreciation and respect for what we can each offer the other in the coming new year.

It’s an interesting idea, and if it were to ever happen, how would the community change definitions that generations of Jews have grown up with? One option is in Jewish day schools. The New York Jewish Week writes that many Jewish day schools once affiliated with a particular movement are now becoming “community schools” with no denominational affiliation. These schools “reflect one of the most telling trends in Jewish life today: the drift, especially by young people, away from the designations Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Those who identify themselves as ‘Just Jewish’ are the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community, according to census data.”

Many now see Jewish day schools as more of a community center where all Jews are welcome to study. Howard Haas, principal of my alma mater, the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, KS, said that synagogues aren’t the center of religious life anymore, especially in the Kansas City suburbs with a Jewish population of only 20,000. The school fills that role. “The community day school is designed for outsiders to be part of the community,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. These schools give Jewish children an education in identity, rather than an education in ideology.

Chances are denominational definitions are not going anywhere any time soon, and we don’t advocate for a complete overhaul of the system. As we said in our recent op-ed: “In identifying so vigorously with a set of beliefs, each movement in Judaism has the ability to speak to a part of the community and their concerns.” The end result should be more respect between denominations. Principal Haas in Kansas City put it best when he said Jewish education should be more about community. “My kids who are Orthodox with stay Orthodox, but will have a better understanding of others,” he said. “And Lord knows, we need understanding.”

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