I think Jewish Atlanta is struggling with what it is to be a Modern Jew, so I thought I’d throw out a definition to get the conversation started. I have sat in on platforms, meetings and conversations about how best to react to the lack of traditional engagement of the Jewish people.  There is a movement away from engagement through membership at Temples and Synagogues and other traditional outlets, and a movement towards engaging and connecting in new ways.  I’m learning that we all have different definitions of what it is to be a Jew.  According to many Jews, heritage (or conversion), not traditional practice or Torah study, is what makes a Jew a Jew.  Jews can believe in Jesus.  Jews can dislike Israel.  If you’re Orthodox, the definition is different than if you are Reform.  Some Orthodox Jews don’t even think Reform Jews are Jews. If your spouse is of another faith, your definition of being a Jew is different.

Increasingly Jews are having interfaith marriages at very high rates.  My family alone is responsible for converting or bringing in 4 from the outside into the tribe, so I get that the blending of different religions and how that evolves and changes the definition.  You don’t want a definition that adds distance between you and the ones you love.  Also, as we evolve our thoughts on equality of all people, definitions continue to evolve.  My Jewish religion is one that treats all people equal, standing at a wall or at the Bimah. You may have a different Jewish definition.  The closer my definition is to yours, the more connected I feel to you.

And why do we need to agree to a definition? Because without it, we have no identity and become diluted.   Also, the purpose of being Jewish is ultimately about connecting to each other and connection to something bigger and passing that down to the next generation.  If our definitions are different, we don’t connect just by saying we are Jewish.  Our definitions must be similar to truly connect.  When I say I’m Jewish, a Modern Reform Jew, I mean these values are important to me:  Social Justice, Inner Development, Community, and a Sprinkle of Jewish Tradition.  It doesn’t mean I study the Torah weekly, attend services frequently or fast on Yom Kippur and agree that women shouldn’t have equal rights at the wall.  I celebrate Easter and Christmas from a cultural perspective with my kids since my late husband grew up Christian.  However, I’ve never felt so Jewish in my life.  Why?  Because I started focusing on Social Justice, Inner Development, my community and evolved Tradition to the sprinkle that most reflects me.  It’s who I am and values that are important to me, and a way of life that I want to pass down to my kids.

If you think about the rising outlets for Jewish engagement over the last few years, they support my definition:

  1. One Table, a Jewish platform that empowers 20 somethings to get groups together to have a Shabbat dinner together all over the country, allows people to interpret their version of a Jewish Tradition, the Shabbat Dinner.
  2. Creating Connected Communities and The Packaged Good offer communal giving and Tikkun Olam opportunities for families and youth.  Marcus Jewish Community Center and In the City Camps offer more and more Tikkun Olam opportunities each year.  Thousands of people engage per year through giving back to their community.  There is a rise in demand for hands on volunteering.
  3. Reform Temples and Synagogues are engaging the Modern Reform Jew by adding meditation classes and increasing their focus on Social Justice.
  4. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, how you want them and when you want them – outside, in Paris, standing on a cliff on a mountain, with 9 other people at the same time, at age 50.  To each their own sprinkle of Jewish Tradition.
  5. How about my brothers’ favorite Jewish activity – Jewish basketball at The MJCCA?  In addition to dominating the court, they also like to connect with Jewish brotherhood, their community of Jewish ballers.

My prediction is that more outlets will pop up around this definition in the future because that’s how Modern Jews want to engage.   Play time and social gatherings will be at temples and Bar Mitzvahs at parks.  Instead of traditional Friday night services, people will serve others.  Instead of the writings in the Torah, it will be one’s own writing and self-reflection.  Traditions will be a blend of many religions and stories and become a woven blanket of celebration and community.  Traditional outlets will evolve to modern ones.

I think it’s time to define what is a Jew and start creating platforms and services that support those definitions.  There’s no longer one size fits all Jew.

Do you agree? Do you disagree?  What’s your definition?  Let’s start the conversation.