I love New York: the hustle and bustle, the skyscrapers and sass, and of course the culture and community of Jews. But over sukkot break, I had the chance to experience Judaism under the force of a completely different culture, and it opened my eyes to the way that the Jewish community might be able to change for the better.
Firstly, I want to give credit where credit is due. Jewish communities in New York and in the United States are generally vibrant and well-intentioned. The abundance of kosher restaurants ensures that no one is left wanting better culinary options and the synagogues prepare charity funds to assist members in need. From shiurim to services, Jews in the United States live a good life with ample freedom of religion. I am only offering criticism because I believe most people want to make the American Jewish community better for everyone, and I see a problem: religious communities often come with a side of judgement, which can add unnecessary pressure to Jews who just want to lead a Torah lifestyle.
Jewish communities throughout the United States contain a superficial pressure and judgment that discounts spiritual connection to God through mitzvot. For example: giving someone the stink eye in synagogue because of her sleeve length, holding other sects of Judaism in contempt or as lesser than your own, and not seeing Judaism as one united people all striving in their mission of connecting to God, but instead as a competition to achieve a higher position in your community through putting people down.
Since Stern students come from such diverse backgrounds, several students agreed to share their feelings about the judgment they feel in their respective and widely differing Jewish communities. In Chassidic communities like Borough Park, Brooklyn, the judgment seems particularly intense. Molly Meisels, SCW ‘20, who grew up in Borough Park, says, “Judgment in the Jewish community leads to the death of individuality. The pressure of the judgment binds us in the shackles of conformity, with no way of escape.”
Elana Luban, SCW ‘19, from the Yeshivish community of South Bend, Indiana, agrees that the judgement stifles any sort of individuality: “There was no such thing as serving God in any other way than what [the community] perceived as the torah lifestyle. If you would do anything other sit in a kollel or help your husband sit in a kollel, you would be thought of as lesser.”
When reflecting on the judgement in her Modern Orthodox religious town of Cedarhurst, Racheli Moskowitz, SCW ‘19, reflects that her community judges physical attributes: “How you dress, where you go to school, how long your sleeves are, how fancy your clothes are…[these attributes] quickly place you into categories.” This type of attitude causes people to conform to the “accepted” mindset.
At the same time, not all communities experience the same pressure I describe. In Highland Park, New Jersey, Libbie Brooks, Syms ‘19, stresses, “I do not find much judgment. Highland Park is a special community.” Thus, the judgment in the Jewish community does not come as a tradeoff for practicing Torah—a community can be religious and judge minimally, which is something I experienced in Colombia.
The Latin American Jewish community in the country of Colombia embodies this value of judging minimally. The city of Bogota contains 3,000 Jews, which is just a fraction of the 1.8 million Jewish residents in New York State. Therefore, there is only one Sephardi shul that I was able to visit for the first days of Sukkot. By virtue of its small community, people of all different religious levels pray together and form a community whose members accept each other. Perhaps due to the more open nature of South American culture, everyone in Bogota feels comfortable with the rest of the people in their community, regardless of how the individuals practice their religion. This way of practicing religion inspired me; everyone in the community tries the best they can, while simultaneously providing love and respect to the rest of the community.
The diversity that exists at Stern allows most of us to understand different backgrounds, but I challenge any person reading this to go back to her community and practice celebrating the differences between people instead of judging them. In other words, I challenge people to look inwards instead of outwards. And perhaps one day the judgement will cease, and people will leave their Jewish communities with nothing but respect and love for all fellow Jews.