On these days of holiday where we remember the liberation of God’s People, the thought did not leave me to wonder how many people with a former Jewish background now look at whether or not to take up their Jewishness again or seek refuge in Israel.
For months we could not go to the synagogue, but now we hear sounds again of people super keen to get everyone back to shul after all the lockdowns. The Covid time may have brought a great deal of pressure to bear on religious life. Several of our fellow-sufferers who do not use the Internet or modern media were completely isolated from their brothers and sisters in faith. For many, these times of lockdown were times of seclusion and being left to their own devices, which separated them from spiritual practices and brought them into solitude to practice the faith on their own. There are likely to be many people who could easily have drifted away as there was no contact at all with believing brethren, or for those who went on the internet, also getting lost, because online services are just not the same. Being physically present with others in the community, not to mention the singing, can never be adequately replaced with online gatherings.
On the other hand, the time of ‘impossibility to come together’ created a sense of necessity to be connected.
Compulsory segregation made many feel how lonely it could be to miss brothers and sisters and to be separated from fellow believers. This closeness clearly proved to be more important to many than one might at first think. But the obligatory seclusion also gave those who had not yet fully surrendered to the faith a strange feeling of ‘inadequacy’, while for some it even gave a sense of guilt. Guilt for not having fully surrendered to the true faith.
In recent months, several people have also been affected by a stronger confrontation with death, as they lost acquaintances or family members to Corona. Such a violent attack on the population has made many of us think even more about life and death. No one could fail to notice how everything hangs on a very fine thread. But this also gave many more to think about. The increased time spent at home also freed up time to think about one’s own life and one’s relationship with others. Especially, the relationship with the Elohim came under great questioning for many. This also raised for some the question of why they had not yet fully committed themselves to the faith or why they had not yet joined one or other Jewish community.
There are some people who think that the time has come for making it possible to come to collective conversions. Collective conversions have been performed multiple times before in Jewish history. There are people who find that the regular conversion system in Israel needs to be reformed and that this should be done within the Religious Zionist consensus. There are even those who are convinced that there must be a single mass conversion of most of the 450 000 Israelis who lack formal religious affiliation. There needs to be significant consensus building among Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox rabbis for such a singular historical event.
During and after the Second World War, many Jewish children were taken away from their Jewish homes and alienated from them. As a result, they did not learn Hebrew at all and many do not know Yiddish either, but only speak the language of the country or region where they, or now their grandparents and parents, were brought up. In several of these war children’s families there is a lack of knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish, but over the years there has been a growth in wanting to know more about the Jewish faith and in being able to be part of it again.
On the other hand, some people did stay connected after the war and gave those acquaintances opportunities to enter into a more intimate relationship with each other, with one of the partners feeling a greater affinity with the Jewish faith, which then made the other partner question whether or not to let that faith play a greater role in life.
Because not so many Jews were around to offer partnerships, many got married to non-Jews and then the question arises for their children. We also should be aware that there is the fact that a small population cannot sustain inbreeding for too many generations, human genetics needs variety to thrive. Furthermore, there is the question if people would welcome their children, and grandchildren, as ‘born’ Jews. Where do you draw the line? Technically they are ‘born’ Jews, but there are many who wouldn’t feel that way and others who came from a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother would be considered as being no Jew.
Over the past few months, the seclusion has reduced the possibility of exchanging views on faith. This meant that no questions could be asked of others about their faith. Those with many questions could only try to find reading material. Reading through the material, without any other converts around to ask seemingly silly questions, was for many sometimes very frustrating. Also being kosher all the time was of big concern for many, certainly when here in Belgium it is not so easy to find kosher shops far away from the main cities. For many, the question of how to keep to Jewish dietary law was now more on the tip of their lips by ordering food online.
We could feel like we had a time of plagues like our ancestors also had to face the ten plagues in Egypt. Today we in a certain way have also become slaves in a world full of Egyptians or people who do not want to recognise the Elohim Hashem Jehovah. Like in ancient times God’s people were made to sense something awesome that was about to happen, we too have come into a time when we have to recognise that there are certain signs we can not keep ignoring.
For years of doubt, the lockdown has brought more personal time to just think on his own about the path of faith to take. But the loneliness of isolation has also led to the question of whether the time has not finally come to make a choice of joining one religious group or another. Hasn’t the point now come to make the decision to join this or that religious community or synagogue?
From the Scrolls, we learn that they should be sufficient to form us and to draw us to the Highest Divine Creator of all things. In the mixt faith families, those writings may bring some light and get people to make decisions. In a way, it is very ironic that in the USA several Jews who did stop practising Judaism altogether according to a Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, consider themselves still part of the Jewish community. Like over here, less than half of those Americans, said they feel attached to Israel. You could say that this makes clear that the Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker. The obligatory seclusion by Corona, has given many an even greater need to incorporate certain customs or rites into daily life. We notice around us that there’s a lot about participating in traditional Jewish rituals and membership and that many questioned more than ever their Jewishness.
Now, the Corona crisis coming to an end, it looks like it is not going to be just about having Jewish affinity anymore, but many want to go a step further, wanting to have the feeling to belong to the Great Nation again. Some children who were raised as Jewish and another religion go on to identify, in adulthood, solely as Jewish and now, more than before Corona, want to become part of a Jewish community.
For interfaith families it has become an even more serious question, now they have felt more the importance of gathering and being part of a community. Though others, we must confess, had lesser problems, and found themselves freer, not having to think where to go for prayers, or to stop doing other things to go to a prayer house (church or synagogue). In the bigger cities, that problem does not rise so much, because people do not have to go far away from home, but in smaller places, the distance and time people have to spend going to a community makes them more lenient to staying at home.
Many now feel that they have to come into favour by God again and therefore wonder which way they have to go and by which Jewish community they should go. During the lockdown, lots of people had a period of intensive introspection, clarifying life’s goals, and coming closer to God. Now, coming out of lockdown steps have to be taken. We have had time enough now to set up a balance sheet, listing the things we have done well and the areas where we “missed” the mark, and now the seven days of remembrance of the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt, should have us think about our liberation as well.
When not living in Antwerp, Brussels, Gent or Oostende, people have not much choice between different Jewish denominations. Though one could say that having so few options in your habitat that would make it a very easy choice. When living in a bigger city with many congregations it might be more difficult to choose.
Those having Jewish great-grandparents but being brought up in another environment, should check if it should be really necessary to throw away the knowledge in which one was brought up. For example, when one learned about Jesus the Messiah, one should know the Jeshuaists offer the possibility to keep believing in Jesus, the son of God at the same time, like him, being Jewish. One also has to be aware that it is not always so easy to have access to kosher food easily, and that there are some Jewish communities that therefore allow more liberty, the same as Jeshuaists offer a much easier way of life, still in accordance with Scripture.
Also, one has to be conscious that certain Jewish groups see converts as lesser Jews, and then it might not be such a nice feeling for you to be considered an ‘outcast’, stranger or not a ‘true Jew’.
We also should know that there is an increasing schism in Orthodox Judaism and a trend by Haredi or Charedim Jews (Ultra-Orthodox) rabbis not to recognize conversions performed by many Modern Orthodox rabbis. This is already full-blown in Israel where Haredi rabbis refuse to recognize conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Many consider the Israeli organization the supreme religious authority whose decisions bind all those under its jurisdiction. It has two chief rabbis, one representing the Sephardic (Spanish-rite) community, the other the Ashkenazi (German- rite) Jews. Its chief responsibility, first granted in 1921 under British rule, is to handle all cases of personal status (marriage, divorce).
Many people living in our region have Ashkenazim as family members, coming from those Jewish families who were already persecuted in the 17th-century in eastern Europe and with large numbers resettled in western Europe, where they assimilated, as they had done in eastern Europe, with other Jewish communities.
When large numbers of Diaspora Jews migrated to Israel after 1948 personal status (marriage, divorce) and recognition of Jewishness seemed to bring a lot of complications. Since they had lived in foreign lands for many generations, it was not clear that they had observed rabbinic laws regarding marriage and divorce. Their right, therefore, to marry any Jew of their choice was called into question. In 1964 all such Jews were, as a group, recognized as true Jews, but the chief rabbinate still retained the right to decide the legitimacy of individual marriages.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate nowadays has increasingly been dominated by Haredi rabbis who do not recognize the conversions performed by Modern Orthodox rabbis. In Israel approximately 95% of Modern Orthodox rabbis support the new government’s conversion reform which is intended to actively encourage the country’s 500 000 non-Jewish citizens of Jewish ancestry to convert to Judaism. This is intended to safeguard the country’s Jewish character and prevent assimilation in Israel. The conversion reform is vehemently opposed by Haredi rabbis and by some among Hardal (Chardal) or Nationalist Haredi rabbis of the Religious Zionist Jewish community in Israel, the Haredi-leaning wing of Modern Orthodoxy and who are more strict in certain religious observances, and more ideologically driven by the thought of Zvi Yehuda Kook (son of Abraham Isaac Kook).
Here in the West, there is more openness or liberty. You can think of the Liberal Jews in Brussels to be the total opposite of the Hardalic Yeshivat Har Hamor, the Religious Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem, founded in 1997 as an offshoot of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.
Haredim are united in their rejection of non-Haredi conversions to Judaism. Conversions by non-Orthodox streams of Rabbinic Judaism are generally not recognized as valid by Orthodox rabbis except in cases where converts to the non-Orthodox Conservative Judaism become observant Orthodox Jews.
While religious reasons in terms of Jewish religious law (halakha) are cited to justify the stringency, it is the concern for Jewish long-term survival which determines the views of Orthodox rabbis vis-a-vis prospective converts to Judaism. There is an understanding among Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora that the descendants of non-Orthodox rabbinic Jews will not remain Jewish as they will inevitably intermarry and assimilate. The reason many conversions to Judaism are not recognized by Orthodox rabbis is to prevent Orthodox Jews from marrying non-observant converts, something which would eventually lead to assimilation in the Orthodox community as well.
But those people who are accepted as Jew by the office of rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain England have come to be recognized as equivalent to that of a chief rabbi for that country. Those people living in France may fall under the directives of the consistories devised by Napoleon in 1807, but the grand rabbin is no longer under government control. Germany followed the pattern of France to some extent, but without a central authority, which makes it perhaps easier to have people being accepted in one or another Jewish denomination.
For those who feel Jewish and have accepted the Jew Jeshua as their Messiah, they can become member of the small Jeshuaist communities, which keep to the God-given commandments, but allow members to marry with people of another faith, because there are not enough Jewish partners to find, the congregation is convinced that in any case inbreeding should be avoided. In Belgium those Jeshuaist communities may be more liberal than in Holland where the Jesjoeanen or Jesjoeaansen are more conservative and sticter or more stringent in certain matters.
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