My friend Noam (not his real name) is one of the best souls I have ever known. When I see his name on my caller ID, a smile comes to my face and I rush to answer because talking to him always makes my day better. His presence is infused with wisdom and thoughtfulness and kindness. If you asked him about me, I believe that he would say similar kind words — if for no other reason that the goodness within him allows him to see me in a more positive light than I probably deserve.
Yet, conventionally, our friendship is improbable. Noam is a self-identified Ultra-Orthodox Jew. Me? An intermarried Jew raised on Secular Judaism at Workman’s Circle who now identifies with the Reform Movement.
Last month, Pew Research Center came out with its most recent study of American Jewry. As a Sociology Ph.D. student, I am thrilled to be diving into the data and understanding who makes up our community.
But as a communal Jewish leader, I am frightened. Because studies such as Pew place labels on us, force us into binary choices and result in a seeming competition between the segments of Judaism, it can reinforce the idea that we are a divided, polarized community.
Are Noam and I adversaries? Should we wear our respective labels of denominational difference in every aspect of our friendship? Are we unknowingly at war, fighting for the future of American Judaism?
Well, that seems ridiculous. I honor Noam’s religiosity and commitment to Torah and halacha. I have been enriched by his Jewish outlook on the world. I am a better person and Jew because of our friendship. But, even as I constantly grow within my faith, I am who I am. I am not halachically observant. I drive on Shabbat. I love a good cheeseburger.
Pew asked the participants how much they have in common with Jews from the other denominations. When Orthodox Jews were asked about how much they had in common with Reform Jews, 50% responded "a lot" or "some"; 48% responded "not much" or "nothing at all." When the question was asked of Reform Jews, 39% said they had a lot/some in common with Orthodox Jews; 60% said they had not much/nothing at all in common.
At first, these numbers appalled me. As Jews, we definitionally have something in common with each other. But then I wondered, five years ago, before I became friends with Noam, how would I have answered? When I used to drive my kids past the yeshivot to drop them off at preschool at Temple Emanu-el, did I believe they had anything in common with their black-hatted contemporaries walking along Ten Mile Road? Did I draw lines through – this Jewish community versus that Jewish community – rather than around one diverse Jewish community?
While I am proponent of interfaith engagement, Pew shows we also need a commitment to intrafaith engagement. Within Judaism, there is a diversity of religious beliefs, religious practices, religious identities. How much richer would we be as a community if we could engage with each other? How much more resilient would we be if we felt that we shared commonality with each other?
This is not to overlook the real difficulties that can exist. Before the first time Noam had my family over for Shabbas lunch, he candidly shared his struggle with me.
“My children do not know that people like you exist.”
I was not offended; I was honored that I meant enough to him to warrant grappling with the challenge that introducing a family like ours entailed.
For my part, I struggle with the gender differentiation in Orthodox communities. I am uncomfortable praying in situations where a mechitza is present and bristle at the notion that I simply do not count in a minyan because of my gender.
But this would never stop me from standing in the room with the mechitza as I joyfully watched Noam’s son become a bar mitzvah. These challenges are not an impediment to our friendship; instead they have deepened our friendship.
Today, if someone were to ask me if I had something in common with Noam, of course I would say yes. But holding community together is not just about two people. Holding community together means that each of us has to learn to break down the labels that are placed on us and push past our comfort zones to meet Jews who experience Judaism in ways that we may have never imagined. It is through these interactions that we will continue to build a more vibrant, dynamic American Jewish community.