Cultural Judaism vs Strict Judaism: A Case Study into Myself

December 16, 2022
Jason Calderon

Springfield, New Jersey, United States

Class of 2023

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When I sit down to eat a festive meal for Rosh Hashanah, I say the typical “happy and healthy” to my grandparents who come over and enjoy the day off from school. But I don’t treat that day as my new year. I fast for Yom Kippur but don’t feel the suffering of my Jewish ancestors. And I think that the same can be said about many modern Jews. I find myself in a growing group of American Jews that might consider themselves more culturally Jewish rather than strictly following the religion. I don’t know if this can be attributed to simply the progression of time and evolution of the conept, the rise in mixed marriage rates, or simply a result of cultural norms. And perhaps being in a pluralistic organization like BBYO has helped me come to terms with the fact that I don’t need to follow the strict interpretation of a Jew that comes out of the Torah to be a proud Jew.

Perhaps it comes from a sense of wanting to be a part of something; a temple congregation and its sense of community or BBYO and its global connections to fellow Jewish teens. Maybe it comes from the fact that Jewish people are a dying population and there is a sense of responsibility to carry the family line, especially since the Holocaust.

The bottomline that I am trying to convey is that there is no strict definition of Judaism. Based on my experience, most Jewish adults will say that never forgetting the Holocaust, living a moral life, and working for equality in society are essential to what it means to them to be Jewish. Not that religion means nothing to them, but that the important Jewish religious teachings boil down to the aforementioned rules. Especially being raised as a reformed Jew, I haven’t experienced as many people in my life that live by strict Jewish law. And perhaps for me it was this lack of exposure that has led me to consider myself more of a cultural Jew than a religious one. I don’t live my life by the 613 but I do feel a responsibility to quash any misconceptions about Jews. I am not a fierce believer in God yet I do feel a connection to Israel and my ancestors. And I don’t feel a duty to write a Torah but I did become a bar mitzvah.

Now let’s speak on semantics. I don’t believe that referring to Jews as a “race” is acceptable either - people can convert to Judaism or convert from Judaism. This misconception led to the rise of a social unity against “the Jewish race.” Rather, I think of Judaism as more of an identity. And I think of one random Latin phrase my eighth grade English teacher once drilled into my mind - suum cuique - to each their own. My grandfather who has friends and parents with firsthand experiences in the Holocaust believes differently from my mother who attended a reformed synagogue for most of her life believes differently from me who perhaps doesn’t attend synagogue as much but still feels connected to the religion. And yet, under the Jewish umbrella, we are all prideful to be Jewish.

And the great thing about BBYO is that everyone falls in different places on this spectrum but everyone is in the same umbrella. Everyone has familial influences that have led them to believe a certain way, and exposure to people from all over the spectrum will allow them to come up with their own definition of what Judaism means to them. Perhaps without BBYO my definition of Judaism would be more religious rather than a sense of community. Perhaps without BBYO I would have no sense of Judaism at all. But I will forever be thankful to BBYO for the experiences that have enabled me to form my own definition of Judaism.

Jason is an Aleph living in Springfield, New Jersey who loves cheese sticks.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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