Looking Beyond the Labels

As a Jewish woman who grew up in a totally non-observant household and now lives almost completely within the Orthodox Jewish world, labels bother me.

When I first got married and became observant, I joked that I was “reform-adox,” using a made-up term to make light of the fact that truly I defied all labels. Don’t we all?

I was concerned about what my children would experience, or not experience, growing up firmly grounded in the Orthodox community. Would they be friends with people who were unlike them? Would they experience the beauty of living in a diverse, global world, or would they strive to fit neatly into the boxes that were presented to them as the “norm” in the schools and synagogues that they attended?

To be honest, I find my own Ashkenazic heritage to be somewhat obsessed with labels — you are Orthodox or Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist. And, more recently, we have gone even further — Yeshivish, ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, open Orthodox, Conservadox, Traditional, neo-chassidic. It seems that the more labels we create, the harder it is to figure out where we fit in, and the more isolated we feel from other Jews, most of whom are really not so different from ourselves!

It is probably no surprise, then, that I chose to send my children to a school founded upon the Sephardic values of inclusion, tolerance, and respect for every individual. Historically, there were no subdivisions in the Sephardic world. The laws of observance and modes of practice were unequivocal — the rules were the rules. What was different about this approach, however, were the ways in which the community interacted within these parameters. Someone is a Jew whether or not they observe the laws of Shabbat, of kashrut, of niddah. Sephardim didn’t label them as Orthodox if they walked to synagogue and Reform if they drove. No matter how they arrived, or what rules they followed outside the synagogue walls, they were invited in to pray.

These are the values I want my children to experience, both at home and at school. I want them to know that no matter what they do, or don’t do, Hashem loves them; we, their parents, love them; their community loves them. And they are always invited in to connect with Hashem in the most meaningful of ways.
So, how then do I begin to reconcile these concepts with those of division, exclusion, and intolerance that recently have surfaced in the Sephardic world?
Just last month, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, considered by many as the top Sephardic rabbi in the UK, gave an unprecedented public speech about the LGBTQ community and its members’ inclusion in the Torah-observant Jewish world. This speech was, in my mind, completely in line with everything that I had learned about Sephardic Judaism. It was steadfast concerning the actual laws as laid out in the Torah, and at the same time embracing toward individual people in the most tolerant and loving of ways.

The message was twofold: there are laws (about many, many things well beyond the realm of homosexuality) that the Torah tells us to follow, and there are human beings, created in the image of God, who choose either to observe these laws or not to observe them. Each and every one is loved by Hashem and should be embraced by the community.

How much simpler can you get? And why on earth would this be controversial? Since when do we ask which rules people follow before inviting them into our homes? Our schools? Our places of worship? Since when do we, as humans, get to pass judgment on our fellow Jews and make decisions about whether they are worthy of community and connection?

Rabbi Dweck said, “‘Should we put them [homosexual men] up to the Torah?’ What kind of a stupid question. You know how many people we should not put up to the Torah if we start that kind of scrutiny? You won’t be able to fill a minyan, you won’t be able to fill the synagogue, you won’t be able to read the Torah if that’s the kind of scrutiny you’ll start making.”

In a world where Jews and Israel are being targeted by hatred and anti-Semitism more than ever, and where we are struggling to keep people connected — to keep them Jewish — why would we push anyone away? How many subdivisions and labels can we possibly create before no two Jews can feel that we are a part of the same chosen people who received the Torah at Mount Sinai?

In the words of John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” Please, let us take the most beautiful parts of our heritage — and especially of the collective Sephardic heritage — to strengthen our people.

In a world so filled with hate, we must find every opportunity to love one another so that we can create a stronger Israel, a more loving global Jewish community, and a kinder human race.

About the Author
Cheryl Rosenberg lives in Englewood, NJ where she is a councilmember representing Ward 1 and a member of Kehilat Kesher Synagogue. Cheryl is the senior director of marketing and communications for Prizmah: Center for Jewish day Schools and is the immediate past president of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. She is an executive board member of Teach NJS, a leadership councilmember of the Jewish New Teach Project, a recent graduate of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, and a long-time activist in the areas of civil liberties, equality, and women’s rights.
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