As an Orthodox Jew, there have been many times in my life where I have felt unwelcome in the wider Jewish community. This feeling of discomfort has arisen in a wide variety of circumstances: from being unable to attend certain programs at my local JCC in middle school due to programs which violated Shabbat, to being laughed at by my counselors and friends at Camp Ramah when I did not want to eat meat during the “Nine Days.”
The honest truth is that I really do not mind this attitude. I understand that as an Orthodox Jew, I am simply seen as weird to those not from, not living in, or not familiar with the Orthodox community. Planning my daily schedule around and leading a life largely based on an old text containing various random laws is a bit eccentric, so if someone wants to chuckle once or twice, I can, by all means, take it.
However, what does upset me is the double standard and hypocrisy that I frequently see within the wider Jewish community. Many sectors of the Jewish community pride themselves on being completely open, non-denominational and welcoming to everyone regardless of gender, color, religion, etc. However, in attempting to make everyone feel comfortable, they also often thereby ignore the needs and beliefs of the Orthodox community.
I felt this hypocrisy firsthand last Wednesday night as I attended a dinner for Jewish World Watch (JWW), a Jewish organization that is committed to fighting genocide across the world. Upon arriving at the JWW Gala, I was told that the food was kosher by a waiter, who I now understand had no idea of exactly what that involves and what I was asking. About to take some food, I was quickly told that the food had actually been ordered from a non-kosher restaurant in Culver City. As I watched the community gather to fight against injustices — a value central to Orthodox Judaism — I could not help but feel unwelcome in the conversation.
As I sat off to the side, I first noticed that all the plates and cutlery were made out of an eco-friendly, wood-like material. Of course, JWW would not want to upset attendees who were very concerned with the environment. Then came the array of food for vegetarians (of course, it’s always important to have food for them!). Even vegans were able to partake in the fun with a few trays of food set aside for them (and no, vegan does not equal kosher). Suddenly, four Greek Orthodox Christians walked by, dressed head to toe in their traditional garb, and a thought came into my mind: If we imagined for a minute that Christians had a law such as kashrut, would there be any question in anyone’s mind that JWW would make sure that they were comfortable? Better yet, imagine if JWW had invited Muslim imams to their event — I have no doubt that there would be special arrangements set up for them. The special needs of these demographics should be catered to. But so should the special needs of the Orthodox community, especially at a Jewish event.
I really do not mind having to go hungry for a few meals. That is not the issue. I do what I do, and I am the way I am — an Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher — because of what I believe in and hold to be the right way to act. I am not so because I want special attention from the wider community but because I aspire to be the one whom I believe is my best self.
I would like to get one more point across: Non-denominational should not mean that in order to obtain some sort of objectivity, we ignore the needs of some communities. Non-denominational should mean that everyone, from all denominations, feels welcomed. In this particular case, that means providing kosher food at a Jewish communal event. In other cases, that means not having flights leave on Shabbat during various Hillel trips. And yes, overall, that means that while the Jewish community should remain focused on improving the world — fighting issues like sexism, racism and genocide — it should understand that it must also work to improve itself from within.