Being a religious Jew has different meanings to different people. Jews can generally be divided between three main streams: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Even within a group, there are different shades. Things get further complicated since some Jews are not practicing, others inter-marry, yet others are removed by generational gaps from the essence of being Jewish. Most uniformity can be found the more observant and orthodox the community, whereas divergence and fluidity are visible within the reform movement.
The religious landscape in America is vast and every imaginable variation seems to exist, and all co-exist with one another. Yet, it is quite difficult being "Jewish" in America today. The difficulty arises from anti-Semitism, more prevalent today than in decades and centuries past, and on the rise.
Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles observes that despite differences within the Jewish community in the USA, every Jewish person, regardless of affiliation, seems to find something "Israel" to which they relate. He further notes that political orientation is not indicative of Israel position -- a liberal is no less emotionally attached to Israel than a politically conservative person.
Dr. Phillips' research leads me to conclude that there is something unique that unites us, a magical thread related to our connection to our modern yet ancient land that makes us all equal, despite our outer appearance of disagreement at times.
Labels evoke very strong feelings. Like clothes, they are rendered meaningless when a person is soaking wet. A lesson learned when standing at a city fifteen seconds from rockets launch in Gaza. A person on the "right" and another on the "left" are equal targets to the enemy.
Yet, when it comes to our daily lives, we give enormous weight to labels. A Democrat is revolted by the beliefs of a Republican. Rarely would a person from the Left listen to a "right wing extremist" (although would be ever so quick to assign this label). It boils down to the simple fact we have zero or little tolerance toward others. We do not want to hear differing views. We are entrenched in our positions and will not waiver.
Thinking there is only one way, "my way," extends to the local divide between Jewish "types." Orthodox Jews often do not recognize Reform Jews as Jews, or at the very minimum this is what the latter think. A reform synagogue led by a female rabbi is something unheard of in traditional Judaism and a basis for immediate dismissal of the congregants by other more "orthodox," exclaiming: "They are not Jewish."
A woman wearing a Kippa (yarmulke) is unacceptable to more conservative Jews. Yet, reform Jews see themselves no less Jewish than their more observant counterparts.
The Jewish community has managed to exist for some two centuries in the United States with the different streams seemingly in productive and meaningful co-existence. See and do not tell, or see and ignore? I am not certain which.In Israel, though, the situation is vastly different.
Judaism in Israel
While Israel shows tolerance toward other religions, acceptance that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, Israelis are quite intolerant toward variations of their own.
If I were to generalize, Israeli society is primarily made up of a majority of secular Jews. They are not religious, but by being in Israel they are very close to Judaism. They breathe and live it with little or no effort. They are immersed in it. To a large extent they associate with it as their own.
The religious Jews in Israel are all (with very few exceptions) Orthodox. They can generally be divided into two: the "mainstream" who do not serve in the military, men who study at religious seminaries (called Yeshiva in singular or Yeshivot in plural) and women who are urged to marry at a young age and raise children rather than serve in national service. They live on state social security monthly payments, and the more children they have, the greater the allowance they receive. [There is no discrimination in Israel: Arabs receive the very same entitlements per child.]
There is a consensus among secular Jews that religious Jews are therefore parasites. It is far from being true. The Jewish State is based on Judaism, and those who study the Torah, the words and instructions of the Almighty, are also considered constructive builders of Israel.
There is also a smaller portion of religious (Orthodox) Jews, generally known as "Knitted Yarmulke" (denoting the type of head cover they wear) who believe in G-d and Country, and thus will fulfill all the obligations of a religious Jew, including studying the Torah and raising families, but will equally pay their debt to the country and society and serve in the military or in national service.
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