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Can religious Judaism and egalitarianism coexist?

While the Conservative movement may theoretically be a good fit for me, the way it is practiced today is not

It is quite a paradox that the same movement that turned me away from religious Judaism is now slowly reeling me back in.

Let’s start from the beginning. I grew up in a town where the only synagogue was Orthodox. While my family only attended services occasionally, there was always the discomfort of my mom and me being relegated to the balcony while my dad and my brothers could sit downstairs. Even though I was more interested in Judaism than my brothers, I was the one who had to go upstairs and listen to old women gossiping instead of the prayers. My family always emphasized that it was not our ideal service — it was the one available.

So, my Jewish identity came from culture and Zionism — not from religion. Even when I moved somewhere where we were able to attend a Conservative synagogue, while I appreciated that I could now  participate fully in the service, I remained apathetic to religious Judaism. I had been turned off a long time ago.

It took until college for me to rekindle the fire that had almost died out. The awakening was when I found myself attending classes and eating on Yom Kippur because I did not have any friends with whom I could attending services. I realized I needed to make a change, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the change I would make. Because my housing arrangements during my second year of college did not work out, I ended up moving into the Jewish house on campus. I felt apprehensive about moving in because I knew the majority of the residents were Orthodox and I was sure I wouldn’t fit in. But I needed a place to live.

I became friends with the other residents, but I was careful to keep my religious identity separate from theirs. We would hang out every day of the week, except for Saturday, when I would keep my door shut as I surfed the web or watched a movie. I felt the need to distance myself from them as they kept Shabbat. They did what they wanted and I did what I wanted.

It was not until my third semester of living in the house that things changed. Maybe it was because I could let my guard down more. One night I joined in as students sang songs after Shabbat dinner. I did not know the words; even when someone gave me a song book I did not want to sing along. But I would observe. Another time I attended one of their services during Shabbat. Suddenly I found myself becoming interested in what they were doing.

But it seemed so hard to even make a small change. I was jealous of how easily it all seemed to come for them. While it seemed they kept Shabbat without any  issues, I would instinctively check my phone before I went to bed on Friday night. Keeping kosher was also too hard. It meant I wouldn’t even be able to eat out at restaurants or at friends’ apartments. I assumed it was easy for my friends, since they could not miss what they had never done.

This summer I am learning at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. As I read the fundamental texts of my religion in a city whose holiness cannot be denied, I feel myself drawn to a more observant lifestyle. Perhaps it is because it is so much easier here. Every restaurant is kosher, and shops close for Shabbat. But these are not the things that I worry about the most.

As I ponder my religious identity, I am brought back to the same issue that I grappled with as a young adult: egalitarianism.

Relegated to the gallery. The Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem
Relegated to the gallery. The Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem (synagogue image via Shutterstock)

In a sad way I almost wish I had not been exposed to egalitarianism, because now I cannot take away what I once had. And this is what makes it hard for me. Just as I needed a community to keep Yom Kippur during my first year of college, I need a community now. At college, the only Saturday services are Orthodox. Will I have to attend them and compromise my desire for egalitarianism if I want to try keeping Shabbat? Or will I have to say no to keeping Shabbat and only attend services on Friday night?

While the Conservative movement may theoretically be a good fit for me, the way it is practiced today is not. Even at the Yeshiva, where the most committed Conservative Jews come to study, many people have no desire to keep Shabbat. I am looking for a community where I can explore Judaism, but I am afraid that there are very few such communities for me.

I tell myself that, perhaps, just as I slowly warmed up to my Orthodox friends’ practices, I will be able to feel comfortable with non-egalitarian Judaism. But I have a hard time believing this. I just cannot imagine that I will ever be able to tell my 12-year-old self that she belongs on the balcony.

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.