The turnover into a new year brings with it the passage to a clean slate, a way to start fresh. This usually involves resolutions of things we hope to accomplish in the new year. Some resolutions take the form of promises we wish to keep to ourselves, while others involve actions we wish to take in making ourselves better people. Perhaps one of the greatest resolutions that we can make this year is improving the way in which we interact not only with those in our direct community, but also those communities around us, specifically Jewish communities whose way of practicing religion may differ from our own. In order to make ourselves a stronger people, we need to bridge the divide that typically separates the Orthodox community from Jews of other denominations.

Being religious is about following a way of life that is guided by religious values.

One of the places to start bridging the gap is by changing the way we talk about the how other Jews practice. We need to acknowledge that the way we practice may not be the way another person feels comfortable practicing, but that person should not be judged for their differences. Frequently in conversations about the way one observes Judaism, the term “religious” becomes synonymous with “more observant.” The reality is, that the way someone observes does not define how “religious” they are. What defines how “religious” someone may be are the ways in which that person allows religion to play a role in his or her life.

Being religious is about following a way of life that is guided by religious values. It is here where the definition of religious can differ from person to person. For example, a person can be religious and find a spiritual connection through acts of chessed, but may feel uncomfortable in a prayer space. This doesn’t make them any less of a religious person, it just means that their way of finding a connection to G-d is different. A person who feels the most kavana, concentration, in an egalitarian minyan is no less religious than the person who davens in an Orthodox setting. It just means that their way of davening may differ from our own, and that’s okay. Our job, as a people, is to embrace these differences, not separate ourselves from those whose way of practicing differs from our own.

Part of how I’ve begun understanding this is through a reflection on my own Jewish journey. I grew up in a Conservative shul where I was able to do things such as leading davening with a special nusach that my family has used for generations. My father would not have been able to pass this nusach on to me and my sisters in a different kind of shul. Throughout high school and into my first year of college, I began davening in a minyan with a mechitzah, something that my twelve-year-old self could never conceive of feeling comfortable doing. Before being introduced to the idea of Orthodox feminism, I saw mechitzot as something that put women in an inferior position.

Before being introduced to the idea of Orthodox feminism, I saw mechitzot as something that put women in an inferior position.

As time went on, my slightly older young-adult self began feeling comfortable with a mechitzah. With this change, I also began taking on certain mitzvot that I had either not taken on, or had not been as diligent in keeping up with as I am now. These changes did not make me a more religious person, as I have always felt a deep connection with my faith. Rather,  I would venture to say that my change was to that of a more observant lifestyle in which, I, as defined by Merriam-Webster, became more “careful in observing rites, laws, or customs.” However, in this case, “more observant” should only be viewed as a self-reflective term to describe how my own actions have changed over time, rather than a way of measuring how my practices may differ from the practices of other Jews.

Growing up with one way of practice and making the choice to practice differently was a way for me to feel a new type of spiritual connection, but it does not make me better than anyone else.

If you have a conversation with me about how I practice Judaism, you’ll probably notice that, in talking about the ways that I have changed, I never say that I am more religious than I used to be or than my family is. Saying something like that would be devaluing the ways in which others practice. Growing up with one way of practice and making the choice to practice differently was a way for me to feel a new type of spiritual connection, but it does not make me better than anyone else; rather it is a way for me to live my life in a way that makes me feel like the best version of myself.

I haven’t always been as careful as I am now about how I talk about religiosity and the differences in practice between varying movements within Judaism, but in both my study of religion at school, as well as through navigating my own Jewish journey, the need to choose my words carefully with regard to types of religious practice has become clearer. More importantly, it has shifted the way I see religious practice. I know that my selection of words is only a small detail in the larger picture of pluralism, but I hope that in this new year, others take similar steps in helping to make our people a more unified nation.

Leora Lupkin is a sophomore at Barnard College studying religion. 

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