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Can you be Jewish without a community?

When the potential convert approached Shammai with an offer to convert if he could be taught all of Judaism “while standing on one foot,” Shammai violently turned him away.

Hillel, on the other hand, told the candidate: “what is hateful to you, do not do to our neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is its commentary. Go and learn.”

This is the “go-to” text of liberal Judaism when it comes to welcoming converts into the community. But what happens to a person who wishes to convert if they don’t live in a Jewish community? Can you be Jewish without a community?

A prospective convert approaches a rabbi. Their intention is sincere — they don’t want to stand on one foot. They are willing to study for years to achieve their goal — but they don’t live anywhere near a congregation or an organized Jewish community. Do we reject them out of hand, or accept their circumstances as one more challenge they will have after conversion?

Hillel never mentioned “community” as a prerequisite for conversion.

Most rabbis work in areas with multiple congregations and some form of community organization, and where the congregations can afford to pay them. But what of the towns and areas with only one rabbi, a rabbi who is the only professional practitioner — and serves as the guardian of Jewish tradition? Or what of the individual who, in these days of Zoom and Internet accessibility, has studied Judaism from a distance and wants to join?

Liberal Judaism has always leaned toward the idea of community as a most powerful force in our tradition. Mordechai Kaplan’s focus on community permeates through Conservative, Reform and even parts of Modern Orthodoxy. But is this insistence that community be a priority to Jewish identity preclude someone who wants to be Jewish and has no community to latch onto?

Hillel also taught, “Don’t separate yourself from the community,” but does that apply to someone who does not have a community to begin with?

I sometimes wonder if when Hillel taught “what is hateful to you do not do to others,” he was talking to the rabbis as well as the converts.

This is a current issue in the liberal rabbinate — where many will not consider a candidate who has no community for support. And yet I can’t find it in my heart to turn away someone who yearns for what I was born with. Should they be “punished” for their circumstance?

Because it is a punishment and I consider it so. Perhaps because I spent my adolescence in a city with only two rabbis and one congregation, and I know what it’s like to be isolated yet aware of wanting more. Perhaps because when I meet these candidates, I can feel their frustration and hear their need to be a part of a faith that beckons to their innermost feelings and yet eludes them.

And perhaps (if I am being honest), I am a bit fatigued on our emphasis on community to the point where we have little place for faith and belief.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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