JTA, my onetime employer (I used to joke that they were going to call it the Jewish Associated Press, but the acronym was too problematic), has a fascinating article today about Alex Oscar, Bulgaria’s Jewish community president.
Oscar, 32, can’t be called to the Torah at any synagogue in his country, because his mother isn’t Jewish.
Not surprisingly, he’s calling for a greater diversity of Jewish options:
“The challenge today is how to bring Judaism more to the people of the community,” Oscar told JTA in an interview in Bulgaria’s capital city. “What I mean is, 99 percent of the members of the community are non-Orthodox; they are Liberal. Unfortunately, there is only one way of belonging to the synagogue, which is the Orthodox way. And now the challenge is how we make the community more pluralistic and open.
“We have a bunch of people, let’s say 10-12 people, observing all the mitzvot. Let’s say they are Orthodox,” Oscar said. “The rest of the people, they are really searching for a meaningful Jewish way which is different from the traditional Orthodox way.”
How sad that this guy who is pounding the pavement (and eschewing many perks other European Jewish community leaders apparently get) for Bulgarian Jews isn’t welcome on any local bima.
Yes, I can anticipate the Orthodox responses. 1) Oscar could solve his problem by undergoing an Orthodox conversion. 2) There is no meaningful Jewish way that is “different from the traditional Orthodox way” — Orthodoxy is the only authentic, legitimate way of being Jewish. 3) Hey, quit complaining: at least the guy is allowed to serve as community president even though he’s not "really" Jewish.
Not surprisingly, I (a card-carrying member of a Reform temple) disagree that Orthodoxy is the only authentic, legitimate way of approaching Judaism. And I think it would be disingenuous for Oscar to undergo an Orthodox conversion, especially as the Orthodox conversion requirements (at least in Israel) seem to be steadily growing.
But even if one just takes a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach, the fact is that Orthodox Judaism is never going to appeal to the vast majority of the world’s Jews. Do Orthodox and traditional Jews, particularly in Europe where the Jewish population is already small, really wish to be alone in the world and deprive themselves of the leadership, talents, camaraderie, contributions and perspectives of liberal Jews?
There are many people like Oscar who seek Jewish community, wisdom and culture — and have much to contribute — even if the “wrong” parent is Jewish. I hope we can find a way of not only including them, but listening to them and embracing them.