In this month’s Torah readings, we are ending our journey of 40 years in the desert. The Israelites had 40 extra years, initially as punishment, but also as an opportunity to transition from an enslaved people to a free people in our own homeland. This is one of many transitions we have been through as a people, and sometimes I think our longevity is due to our ability to adapt to a myriad of circumstances throughout time. Added to this are the variety of ways throughout time our people have practiced Judaism: Sadducees and Pharisees, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, and a bit later Reconstructionist and humanist.
Today, the majority of our people identify on surveys as “just Jewish,” or non-denominational. Our community institutions have also transitioned throughout time: judges and Moses’ court, the Temple and Sanhedrin, to many houses of study and worship. Today, we have a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms serving our community throughout the world. Yet we hear from surveys that a new transition is on the rise, one where people are not looking for Judaism within four walls or in a bowl of acronym soup.
How do people want to be Jewish? There are as many answers to this question as there are Jews, as well as people who may not be Jewish, but have joined us for a Jewish journey. If the much beloved adage “two Jews, three opinions” holds true, there are even more answers than that.
How do we, as a community, respond to that question: “How do people want to be Jewish?” and what can we do to make sure the needs of community members and their journeys are met? I invite us as a community to begin to ask each other this question: “How do you want to be Jewish?” and I would love to hear the many ways in which community members and fellow sojourners respond. Perhaps the responses will point to structures and programs already in place in our community and through our community concierges, we can connect people with ways to move along their journey they didn’t know existed.
Even more exciting to consider is that perhaps our community structures need to transition, as they have throughout time, to ensure that “lo bashamayim he,” our Torah, or Jewish teachings do not remain in heaven, but are an integral part of who we are in the material world, and who we will become as a Jewish people, as we transition to safeguard our vitality in an ever-changing world.
Rabbi Hannah Greenstein is vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas for Milwaukee Jewish Federation.