I have non-Jewish friends but few Reform ones

Interfaith work with other communities is important but how well do we know other Jews?


My Unorthodox Life: Season 1. Episode 5, Secular in the City. Pictured: Julia Haart c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

December 15, 2022 14:00

I’ve finally caught up with the two most Jewish shows currently on TV. The Patient is on Disney+, although if that channel conjures up images of doe-eyed princesses and fluff, this is as far away as you can get. It features Steve Carell as Dr Alan Strauss, a therapist who is kidnapped by a serial killer who wants intensive counselling. Locked in the patient’s basement, Strauss has ample time to think about his own family issues. He has not yet been able to say Kaddish for his deceased wife Beth, a cantor at a Progressive synagogue. Before she died, the couple were struggling to come to terms with their son Ezra’s decision to become strictly Orthodox.

Their relationship was full of tension, from Beth’s insistence on singing at Ezra’s wedding to his insistence on bringing Tupperwares full of food to his parents’ home. Alan’s clumsy attempt at reaching out — telling Ezra’s wife that she cooked “the best kosher steak” he’s ever tasted — causes offence.

The second programme features a religious journey in the opposite direction. My Unorthodox Life is a reality show following Julia Haart and three of her four kids, who left strictly Orthodox Monsey for secular New York City. Haart soon marries a non-Jewish billionaire, and their contentious divorce is the subject of the newly released second season.

The family is on the rebound from Orthodox Judaism, buying into the most vulgar, boundary-less version of a secular American lifestyle, that of internet influencers and reality stars. Julia’s strictly Orthodox sister and parents refuse to speak to her.

Meanwhile, the most sympathetic character on the show, Julia’s 16-year-old son Aron, wants to move to a more religious yeshivah and become a rebbe. Julia is aghast.

Together, these very different shows convey the fear, pain and familial rifts that are often provoked when a family member significantly changes their standards of religious observance.

It’s all here. Anxiety that the family dynamics are changing as family members adopt very different lifestyles and traditions are broken. Betrayal, hurt and anger as children are perceived to reject their parents’ values. Fear that the change will be perceived negatively by others in the community — and that the “rebellious” family members might influence others. Incomprehension and desperation that a family member is, variously, rejecting Torah or restricting their life opportunities.

Above all, there is the fear that a loved one is morphing into someone unrecognisable and unrelatable, and that a beloved son, daughter, sister or brother will be “lost” for ever.

It must be a common story, though perhaps not discussed often enough. The Pew Research Center published a survey in 2021 showing that denominational fluidity is common in America, with — for example — a quarter of adults in the Reform denomination raised in the Orthodox or Conservative movements. Among Jews with no denominational affiliation, 66 per cent were raised in other groups.

The UK data is older, from a 2013 survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. But this too shows the “traditional” centre ground losing around a third of its adherents as they became adults, with more movement towards progressive or secular positions than towards Orthodoxy.

Whichever the direction of travel, for many this is a path to happiness and fulfilment. Yet family members often cannot see this — or don’t care — because of the high barriers between our denominations. Suspicion, chauvinism and lack of understanding is rife.

As the joke goes, no matter where we are on the spectrum, those more religious than us are “crazy frummers” while those less religious than us are “one step away from total assimilation”.

Many Orthodox people have been in a Progressive synagogue only a handful of times, if ever. And how many times have Liberal Jews spent a Shabbat in a strictly Orthodox community?
Personally, I have more non-Jewish friends, through the workplace, than I do Progressive Jewish friends. I suspect that’s not unusual.

Our community understands the need for inter-faith dialogue. But what we really need is intra-faith dialogue; more opportunities for Liberal, Reform, Masorti, modern Orthodox and strictly Orthodox Jews to spend time with each other and talk in depth about our religious beliefs, lifestyles and values. No one has to accept or validate anyone else’s world view. But we need to increase understanding of each other and keep our doors open, if we’re to be one family — metaphorically and literally.

December 15, 2022 14:00

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