Israel- The Only Place Where Just Being A Jew Isn’t Enough

I grew up in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood called Mt. Airy, a fairly diverse area with a significant population of Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. I went to middle and high school at schools where I was the only, or one of two or three Jews in the school. I went to Philadelphia Public schools, which but for a few exceptions, are fairly non-Jewish, with the exception maybe of the teachers. Everyone identified as something at my schools. They were Italian or Irish, Black or Hispanic, German or Scottish, Thai or Korean, Puerto Rican or Cuban. I was Jewish. At all the holiday assemblies, I was expected to go in front of the school and explain the Jewish holiday. For most of the people I went to middle and high school with, I was what a Jew was for them. It was enough to just say I was Jewish. Surely I was Jewish enough for them; I was Jewish enough to be harassed for it. Sadly, that’s not true for me anymore. I live in Israel now, I can’t just say “I am Jewish” and have people understand and go on my way anymore.

When I first moved to Israel, people would ask me about my Judaism, a fairly valid question, I guess, considering most Israelis don’t have a filter when it comes to asking about personal information. (I have gotten used to this) I would tell them I was a Conservative Jew, whose views were significantly impacted by the Reconstructionist Movement. Many times I got blank stares in response. Often that was followed by the question “Are you religious or secular?”

Before I came to Israel, I never really thought about that question, and here in Israel, it is truly the definition of a loaded question. I never thought of myself as religious, and I never thought of myself as secular. I was a Jew. When people first started asking me that question, I really had no idea of how to answer. My instinct was to try to explain my practice. I grew up going to synagogue, not every Shabbat, but often enough, I went to a Jewish Day school for several years, and then a Jewish school 10 hours a week once I left the day school. I had a Bar Mitzvah, I read Torah in front of the congregation on Shabbat from time to time. I blew the Shofar on the high holidays. I studied Jewish history and read Jewish author’s works. I was involved in United Synagogue Youth, first as a participant, then as staff. I spoke up for Israel. I said the Shmah morning and night. Some days I believe in God, and some days I don’t. I don’t keep kosher and I don’t keep Shabbat.

Usually this took about twenty minutes to explain, far longer than I ever spent explaining my religious practice to anyone in the States. More often than not I would get the response “So you’re secular?” which made no sense to me. Secular means the absence of religion. I never felt an absence of religion in my life. I felt firmly connected to Judaism throughout the generations. Every Pesach I truly think about what it was like when God saved US from slavery. I never felt like I was anything other than a part of Judaism. Until I came to Israel.

The conversation I just described took on different tones when I was talking to members of different Jewish communities here in Israel. When I would talk with Charadi friends and acquaintances, there would be a genuine curiosity. They wanted to know more about me and my Judaism, but usually at the end it came to trying to convince me that it was great that I had faith, and now I should come back to the true path, it was like they were talking to a child who just needed to be shown the correct way to do something.

When I talked to my modern Orthodox friends and acquaintances, it was a bit different. They knew about Conservative Jews. Theirs is not a curious conversation; it tended to be an insulting one. To illustrate I will share a story with you. I was complaining to one my close friends that I felt like I didn’t have a good Jewish community to be a part of here, one that is easy to get to and where I felt comfortable praying. She happens to be modern Orthodox and a wonderful person; so of course, she invited me to a Shabbat lunch she was going to. I was very happy to be invited and excitedly went for lunch. Shabbat lunches used to be one of my favorite things. There were about twelve people at the lunch and as we all sat down and began to eat, many of us didn’t know each other, so we went around the table, introduced, and told a little about ourselves.

At the time I was teaching history at Ramah Tichon Yerushalem, a wonderful program affiliated with Camp Ramah and the Conservative Movement that brings high school students from the States to Israel for a semester. They learn about Israeli history and culture in an attempt to foster a connection with Israel and Zionism. I introduced myself and explained where I worked. I happened not to say that I was a Conservative Jew myself for no particular reason. As I was explaining the program, one of the people at the table spoke up, “Conservative Jews, they are the ones who are Jewish…except on Shabbat?” A good laugh was had by all at the table. Throughout the meal, the jokes continued. “They aren’t as bad as the Reform though, at least they don’t have shrimp in their synagogues.” More laughs. The best was “What’s the difference between a Reform Jew and a public school teacher? The public school teacher doesn’t work on Shabbat.” Now I am a pretty outspoken person and would usually have risen to the bait and confronted these people, but I was aware I was a guest, an outsider, even if they didn’t know it. I was invited by a friend, and I didn’t want to embarrass her to her community. She knows me and throughout the meal, I could tell she was uncomfortable for me. I didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for her, so I swallowed hard and kept my mouth shut.

The problem is that this was not an exceptional experience, it was fairly normal. Let me be clear though, during my time here in Israel I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing, caring and accepting people of all streams of Judaism. I have Charadi friends who accept me just for who I am, same with modern Orthodox friends, people who believe that you are who you are, and if you are Jewish you are Jewish. In every group of people, you have good and bad, accepting and not accepting. The problem is that the dominant voice in Israeli religion is the not accepting voice.

I am not sure exactly when in the last four years I stopped referring to myself as a Conservative Jew and just began to refer to myself as secular, I just got so tired of the conversation. I am also not sure when my practice changed, but in practice I find I have moved more and more toward secular every day. I don’t go to Shul anymore; I haven’t read a book on Judaism in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I put on Tiffilin or said the Shmah. I have been turned off from the religion of Judaism. I am still a Jew, culturally, but I don’t think of myself as religious in any way anymore.

I am sure I will be getting a call from my Mother when she reads this. She will not be happy. My parents put a lot of time, money and energy into my religious education. I was raised with a Judaism that instilled a moral and ethical compass in me. I gave me a sense of community and continuity. It made me a better person. Israel has stripped it away.

It’s not only comments from people but the policies of the Government that have made me feel this way. I know that if I stay in Israel and meet someone who wants to marry me (I know, I know, it’s a long shot), I am going to have to leave the country to do it. I don’t want to be married by an Orthodox rabbi, I want to be married by my rabbi, who knows me and my Judaism, someone whom I have a connection to and who has a connection to me. I know that it will be much harder for me to find a Jewish community that fits my philosophy, because only Orthodox shuls and schools and rabbis receive government money and exposure. I can find an Orthodox shul on every corner, and I do mean every corner, but I have to travel to another city to find a Conservative shul, because it’s much more expensive to run a conservative shul here in Israel. I know that if I have a child who needs circumcision or when someone dies and needs burial, that it will be under the control of the Orthodox Rabbanut, which I have no connection with, that I feel alienated from. I know that whatever government minister next decides to demean and insult Jews that are not Orthodox will face no consequences and will keep his job. I know the State doesn’t care.

I have an immense amount of respect for religious people who strictly follow the rules of their religion, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim or anything else. Anyone who can show such devotion and commitment to God should be lauded. I don’t want to change their beliefs, and I am no threat to their practice, I just wish they respected my faith and practice, and didn’t try to belittle it or show me how I am wrong. I wish it was still enough for me to just say I am a Jew. Unfortunately, I think Israel is the only place on earth where just being a Jew isn’t enough.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
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