Who’s a Jew? A novel answer for a hot-button issue

A prayer in the daily Shmona Esrei (Silent Prayer) calling for the rebuilding of Jerusalem

The debate over who is a Jew has been carried out for centuries, long before there was a State of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that the Jewish birthright is passed on from mother to child and anyone born to a non-Jewish mother is not considered a Jew. Orthodox sects take this seriously and hold their community to that standard. It is important for them, as someone who is not ‘halachically’ Jewish cannot perform certain rituals, like being called to bless the Torah or lead the prayers for the congregation.

There are those who believe that someone who has only a Jewish father is also a Jew, while the State of Israel uses a more progressive interpretation, allowing anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate. The varied practices have led to enormous confusion and has caused much pain and anguish for thousands who believe they are Jewish, but are not accepted as such. Truth is, outside of strict religious practice it is not important which one of your parents or grandparents were Jewish for you to feel and live Jewish.

There are also divisions amongst the various Jewish communities as to what constitutes a legal conversion to Judaism. Jews, for the most part, are not a missionary people, the religious do not seek to bring non-Jews into the fold. However, there are groups with focused outreach to unaffiliated Jews, that is children of Jewish parents or grandparents who want to embrace that side of them. However, even in these cases, if the individual’s mother was not Jewish, there are conversion processes to follow, and depending upon which sect is leading it, it can be an arduous and long journey. Once complete though, the individual still might not find acceptance in communities outside the one which converted them.

The amusing part of the debate over what constitutes a Jew is the obvious elephant in the Bible, Ruth. The woman whose descendants eventually become the ruling family in Israel and for over a millennium have been celebrated in song and prayer, was not born a Jew. The inspirational story of love, devotion and affection of a daughter-in-law to her dead husband’s mother and her faith is iconic in both secular Jewish lore and religious practices. The story of Ruth is read aloud during Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah and yet, had she converted today in the manner the story describes, a good portion of Jews would not respect her Jewishness. It is easy to see why the debate has raged on. One can explore the all scriptures and the vast library of commentary and still not understand, and it is my belief that it is because everyone is looking for the wrong thing.

We think of Judaism as being a religion, and yes, today it is. The level of observance may vary and the rituals and prayers might differ from one sect and culture to another. Yet, the core remains constant throughout all of them though, a love of God and through that a respect and kindness for all man. It sounds beautiful and ideal, but is seldom the practice as seen in the images of Haredim spitting on soldiers in Israel or the Israeli Prime Minister denigrating and vilifying half of his country because they are more liberal in their views. I believe in a different interpretation of Judaism, born of my own experiences and my own connection to my heritage, and it has angered many. Judaism is the religion of the Children of Israel, and that would make the Jews not a religious group, but a family, a nation.

The Torah begins with the book of Genesis where the story of creation and the origins of the Nation of Israel are told. Abraham, is tested over and again in brutally agonizing ways, suffering to prove his obedience to God by being asked to slaughter his son. The prize for a lifetime of challenges and difficult emotional decisions was that a great nation will grow from his genes, and they will inherit the land we know today as Israel. The next 500 years or so of the Bible is the tale of the challenge ridden quest to get to the land.

The Prophets begin with the fight to take over and settle the land. It documents the building of Jerusalem and the formation of the Kingdoms and forecasts the trials and fate that lie ahead of Israel. To move on to the later kingdom and post-Second Temple strengthens this argument, as the prayers Jews of all sects say variations of today were written during those times and revolve around Israel and returning the people to it.

At the heart of the Jewish story there is one constant, this land called Israel, and for me, the most important requirement to be a Jew, is to have that in your heart. A Jew who works to undermine the State of Israel, is in my mind not a Jew.

I am in no way suggesting that every Jew must show blind loyalty to the Israeli government or agree with every policy it makes. Israel is filled with Jews who have many opinions on the choices and actions of the government and the Military. The current election fiasco is an example of how split ideologically this country is, and yet, through the nasty campaign ads and political backstabbing, one thing is common across the country – Israel is home, and when it comes to the existence and survival of Israel, the country is united in solidarity.

To identify as a Jew and support efforts to delegitimize Israel; to create foundations and groups meant to advocate for the Boycott and even dissolution of Israel is contrary to everything Jews are taught from birth. If you have a problem with Israeli policies, work to affect change in the democratic country. To call for the country’s destruction or advocate for harm to befall it is not the actions of a Jew, but of one who seeks to destroy what it is at the heart of the Jewish story.

About the Author
Jay Engelmayer is a husband and father of four. Professionally his focus has been digital marketing and business development for commercial products. A proud and unapologetic American-Israeli Zionist, he enjoys cooking and yelling at television screens. Some consider him argumentative in nature, although he prefers the term "purposeful cynic" when describing his disposition. Living in Israel, he hails from New York City and is glad he left before it became the 1970's redux it is today.
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