Who is a Jew in Israel?

This week’s participant blog post comes from one of the Yahel Social Change Program participants, Ben Sousa. Every week, we feature the reflections from the YSCP participants. The views expressed in this blog belong to the author.

When asked, “How do you practice Judaism?” I always joke that I cross between the different sects of Judaism. I belong to a Reform temple, I went to a Conservative day school through senior year of high school, and when I was little, most of my friends were Orthodox. I lived my life my own way, arguing with my Judaic teachers over interpretations and their applications. In America, there is really no one way to be an observant Jew.

This week's blogger, Ben (far right), with the rest of the Yahel Social Change Program group in Jerusalem.
This week’s blogger, Ben (far right), with the rest of the Yahel Social Change Program group in Jerusalem.

One of the issues I struggle to reconcile with my observations and what I learned is that Israel is the Jewish State, but there is only one legal way to practice the religion. If Israel is a country for all Jews, then why can you count the number of non-Orthodox rabbis officially recognized by the state on only one hand? It is troublesome, especially for a country that claims to be a home for all Jews, not just Israeli Jews. But as Tevye would say, on the other hand, what right do I have to come and tell Israel that they are doing it wrong? They are the Jewish state and even if it’s not perfect, neither is the world. As an American Jew, I should support Israel because it IS a Jewish state, and it is the only Jewish state.

And on the other hand…the argument continues. There is little more than a month left in the program. I know I will be returning home rather than staying and making Aaliyah. So I must ask myself, what is my responsibility as an American Jew in helping to steer the course Israel will take?

During our seminar in Jerusalem, we spoke with Steven Beck, who works for IRAC – Israel Religious Action Center. I was aware of what that acronym meant without the I in front. In high school, my youth group would go annually to the RAC in Washington DC and learn about the Reform movement’s stance on political issues (How could I forget them? Even now they still flood my inbox and mailbox with calls to action). He talked with us about how IRAC strives to challenge the Orthodox hegemony on the rabbinate as well as working to prevent the state sponsoring things like modesty laws in Haredi neighborhoods. They’ve fought to have women recognized as rabbis, to have non-Orthodox rabbis be able to perform state roles, and other campaigns that try to challenge the perception that there are only two ways to practice Judaism is Israel – secular or religious.

The group meeting with Steven Beck from IRAC
The group meeting with Steven Beck from IRAC

While Israel is not short on pressing issues that need to be addressed, this lack of recognition for different paths of Judaism is one that bothers me the most. It is crazy that one can be Jewish enough to receive citizenship, but then be denied the right to marry inside the country because they don’t qualify for the Rabbinate. It is crazy that Israel is using laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire when it comes to handling religion. Times have changed; the laws need to change as well.

Growing up, I learned that I should support Israel, nearly unconditionally. I would hear people talk about how Israel needed our support because they were our family and as Jews, we had to look out for each other. What’s more, I don’t wish to see the Diaspora Jewish community turn away from Israel as this tension between Orthodox and non-Orthodox grows wider. Times have changed. It never hurts to look a little closer at where your support goes.

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