A couple of months ago, I was invited to participate in a think tank on bridging divides within Jewish communities. There are so many groups and factions that form the fabric of Jewish Peoplehood. How can we all deeply connect with – not just recognize – one another?
A tall order, many would argue.
The room was filled with all types: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal; men and women; advocates for LGBTQ Jews and other marginalized identities; pro-Israel leaders, self-proclaimed anti-Zionists, Rabbis, lay leaders, white Jews, black Jews, brown Jews – and many others.
We were formed into smaller groups: a young educator and entrepreneur from Brooklyn’s Syrian community; an older man and researcher, a self-described “secular and liberal Jew;” and me, a Sephardic, Hasidic woman. As requested by the moderator (a Reform Rabbi), we each shared our personal stories of acceptance and estrangement within our respective Jewish community.
The conversation flowed effortlessly, each one of us revealing another layer of identity, aspiration – and even pain. Did we feel like we belonged to the greater Jewish community? To our own? Why? Why not? How were we each challenging the status quo within our communities – and what did we assume to be true about others?
This felt like a unique opportunity, a certain raw energy in the air. I was moved to respectfully ask the older gentlemen, the “most Orthodox, secular Jew you’ll ever meet,” what he thought of me, a Hasidic woman from an insular community.
I took a deep breath.
“Do you imagine I am oppressed, repressed, stuck inside archaic rules that are no longer relevant?”
He paused, looked at me in the eye and asked, “As a Reform Jew, do you believe my practice is flawed?”
A moment of truth.
Perhaps this is what is means to cross the divide.
There are things we think, beliefs we hold, that are rarely expressed to those for whom it matters most. And in that moment, I only cared to be honest – fully transparent.
And what ensued was a respectful dialogue in which we both shared: his thoughts on particular laws toward women he finds oppressive; my thoughts on the eternal relevance of halacha and G-d’s need (so to say) for each of us, in the individual way we serve Him, “your mission is just as unique, just as valuable, as mine.”
The most powerful moment in our exchange was this aha moment we shared together: we each assumed the other held a bias toward us– and we each communicated to the other through that perceived bias. But in essence, as our conversation revealed, that bias did not exist. Our assumptions were wrong.
We assume that others in the broader Jewish community judge us, so we act like we’re being judged.
Yes, I am a Hasidic, Sephardic woman. Because of my work and personal passions (education reform across the spectrum of Jewish communities) I very regularly meet and connect with Jews of all types. And the story I tell myself is that all they see when they look at me is how different I am from them. How my work, my beliefs, my community, my people – and our pain – are less relevant to them than their own. How there is no room in the “progressive” community for Hasidic beliefs, passions and communal aspirations.
Perhaps I am wrong?
What could happen if we were to assume no biases and truly connect to one another? Communicate, heart to heart? Stop projecting our stories and be authentic?
What could transpire if we let go of assumptions and unite?
What could happen if, as the gentleman stated, we stop “waiting for the other side to do teshuvah“?
So much. So, so much.
Yet what could, and should, bring us together beyond the negation of perceived biases?
Letting go of assumptions is not enough.
We attempt to unite Jews over shared culture, values, identity or ritual. Yet today, many Jews share none of that. North American Jewry is divided, subdivided and further divided into communities of different beliefs, practice, and customs (and now, more than ever, politics).
What do we have in common, anyway? (Even shared victimhood is harder to achieve.) How do we define our sense of Peoplehood? In an age and culture that values the individual over the collective, is that notion even relevant?
And in a world seemingly absent of Soul, what’s the point of Peoplehood, anyway?
We live in a fragmented world of artificial barriers: between our hearts and minds; our inner world and public persona; the ‘mundane’ and ‘holy.’ Classic Jewish texts explain that the mission of each Jew and our people collectively is to create wholeness within the world, our community and ourselves.
Our job is to show that fragmentation is not real.
I’m ready to drop the labels. Let go of the stories. Speak authentically, show curiosity, and throw bias to the wind.
I’m ready to reach for your soul.
We are one People, united by a deep sense of purpose that speaks to an underlying, spiritual bond — that surpasses any divide.