First, a little background. I was raised a Reform Jew and have been involved in the community since I was a young child. I served on my Temple’s youth group board, was on the NFTY-MAR Social Justice Committee, traveled with Kesher to Argentina, led my college’s Reform Chavurah, and represented my movement as part of my Federation’s dialogue program with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth. I’ve led services in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv. I’ve visited Reform communities in at least eight different countries. And I believe that social justice and tikkun olam should be integral parts of Jewish practice.
In addition to my ongoing involvement in the Reform world, I am also a member of an Orthodox synagogue and have on various occasions over the past six months prayed regularly at three different Modern Orthodox synagogues. I’ve been to Orthodox weddings. I’ve davvened with Hasidim in Bnei Brak. I’ve wandered the Haredi bookstores of Me’ah She’arim and Crown Heights and done Sukkot with a Chabad family in Montreal. I’ve visited the ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp and eaten gefilte fish in a Satmar restaurant in Williamsburg. I’ve spent countless Shabbats eating and laughing and counting on my Orthodox friends to both provide joy in my life, and to be there for them when they needed a sympathetic ear. These are deep relationships I’ve developed and am proud to have, including with Modern Orthodox rabbis who I’m out of the closet to as a gay man. I’m a member of Eshel, an amazing organization of LGBTQ+ Jews who’ve spent (or spend) time in Orthodox spaces.
I find myself in the unique position of loving both communities and finding something beautiful in each space. Theologically I still define myself as a Reform Jew, albeit one whose practices lean more traditional than the average member of our communities. And I think both communities, often at loggerheads and in political conflict in Israel and around the world, should learn from one another.
Let’s start with the concept of community. Orthodox Jews are brilliant community builders. Study after study shows that if you want to make friends, you need to see them regularly, organically, and often spontaneously. Last Shabbat I went to synagogue for kiddush and without even asking, a friend invited me to lunch, where I happened to be joined by a new member of the congregation who I had been talking with on WhatsApp for months answering his questions. He’s new to town and until Saturday, I had never even met him face-to-face. I didn’t even view it as a favor, I just felt it was part of the ethos of my community. Countless people had stepped up and included me in their lives, I would of course do the same for a new member of the synagogue. Warmth, kindness, and inclusion of new members is interwoven organically into the fabric of the Orthodox communities I’m a part of. It’s not a special initiative or program- it’s an integral part of the lifestyle.
When you add to this mix the fact that many Orthodox Jews feel an obligation to regularly go to synagogue, it is a potent way to build links between people. I know that any given week, without having to make plans, I will see most of my friends in the same two or three synagogues. And sometimes more than once a week if there are weddings, additional holidays, and sometimes even Shrek viewings! There’s a tightknittedness that one rarely sees in the modern world. And leads to a rich spiritual, social, and communal life.
In short, consistent obligation creates community in a way that progressive synagogues have rarely succeeded in doing.
So what, then, can Orthodox Jews learn from their Reform brethren? A few things. One, that tightknittedness need not come at the expense of concern for the “other”. In a world that is increasingly polarized and in which we are witnessing political cruelty at the highest levels, Jews cannot remain silent. Even if it does not always directly affect “us”. In other words, it requires great effort to ensure that communal solidarity and tightknittedness doesn’t come at the expense of caring for those not in the community. Reform Jews are incredible at tikkun olam and social justice work that ensures that Judaism is also part of a broader societal “we”. Politics is often hushed in Orthodox communities that I’ve been a part of, and while this can be a reprieve from the news cycle, I believe religion is inherently political. Being quiet for the sake of internal cohesion can come at the expense of speaking out on the issues of the day like the Prophets of old. We come from a tradition of speaking in the here and now. While respecting diversity of opinion within the Jewish community is important, so is mobilizing to protect the rights of others.
Another thing Orthodox Jews could learn from Reform Jews is to let go of some of the guilt they feel for making non-halachic decisions. In other words, because Orthodox Judaism views Jewish law as binding, when individuals (inevitably) make personal decisions about the nature of their religious observance, it is often accompanied by a sense of feeling “less” observant than their peers. With accompanying guilt, or a sense of inhabiting a lower spiritual plane. Reform Jews, precisely because they celebrate rational, educated choice as the gateway to religious practice, don’t feel as much guilt about not keeping the same “level” of kashrut or traditional Sabbath observance. For Reform Jews, Judaism is an evolving tradition. So if we accept that even the most strictly Orthodox Jews make individual decisions about religious practice, perhaps it’d be beneficial to simply label this as “difference” rather than “levels” of observance. You are not more or less Jewish than someone else simply because of the time of night you light Shabbat candles. Rather, it’s because of the light you feel from their warmth in your heart, inspiring acts of kindness.
Reform Jews could use some more religious obligation, ritual, and communal warmth. Orthodox Jews could use less guilt, more openness to change, and more concern for people outside their community’s borders.
And we could all use a deep breath. There are enough crazy people in the world who are happy to persecute us for being Jewish, for being different. Do we really need to add to the masses of fanatics by hating each other too? After all, it’s hardly as if anti-Semites are clamoring to persecute only one kind of Jew. Kindness is the path forward for the Jewish community- both internally and our relationship with the rest of the world.