Israel has been in the news recently for public officials’ comments that Reform Jews aren’t real Jews. Unfortunately, downplaying Reform Judaism is not only an Israeli problem — it’s also haunted me throughout my experience at my campus Hillel. And at Hillel, it’s not coming from public official thousands of miles away. It’s in my home.
Hillels all over the country are different, and serve different communities. I can only speak about the Hillel at my university, Stanford. And though I love our Jewish community dearly, I have also encountered understandings of Reform Judaism and pluralism that are deeply flawed.
Growing up Reform, I only knew one Conservative Jew and I knew nothing of Modern Orthodoxy. I enjoyed many cheeseburgers without guilt and if I had a dance class that conflicted with Friday night services, my primary commitment was always to the class. I considered myself Jewish, without thinking about the denomination. My friends were spread out on the observance spectrum, from the ones who wanted to be rabbis to the ones who only showed up for High Holiday services. I never thought about which were “more Jewish” than the others.
When I started school at Stanford three years ago, I gravitated towards the Jewish community as a quick and familiar social circle. I soon encountered students who kept kosher and didn’t use electronics on Saturdays. My new friends ducked their heads in embarrassment when I offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand the first time I met him. Shortly afterwards they explained to me that he is shomer negiyah, meaning he doesn’t touch women who aren’t his wife.
At first, I was just happy to be part of a community, and to finally have close friends — I didn’t care that they came from different Jewish backgrounds than I did. But as I grew more invested in the Jewish community at Stanford, I started to feel like those friends couldn’t completely understand my connection to Judaism. None of them knew the same songs as me, and no one wanted to come listen to the beautiful guitar music at Reform Shabbat services. Some had a hard time relating to my mother not being Jewish. People told me that an Orthodox service “would count” for me — though of course it wouldn’t work the other way around. I took a class with the Chabad rabbi and he told me that I should convert to Judaism.
Hillels are set up to be pluralistic environments on college campuses, but the trend that I have seen in our Hillel tends to favor Orthodoxy. The unspoken understanding is that the people with more restrictions have more needs. This is, in some ways, true — I can eat in the dining halls while my friends rely on the Kosher Dining program, which only offers food four nights of the week. I do not need to wait for 10 men to show up at a service to start praying, while my friends sometimes can’t have Friday night services because they don’t reach a minyan. Nevertheless, equating restrictions with needs is a slippery slope that doesn’t bode well for Reform Jews.
This model is like a staircase, in which each denomination is its own step. It’s organized based on how many restrictions each group is bound by, with Orthodoxy at the top of the staircase. One of the goals of a pluralistic institution like Hillel is to make sure that even the people at the top of the staircase — the ones who often have the hardest time living on a college campus like Stanford — have their needs met. Ideally, we would climb up all the stairs to get to that top step, meeting the needs of every denomination as we went. But in practice that’s not how it works: Instead, we jump to the top step and then look down, assuming that if we are already up there, everyone below us must also be happy.
This is a flawed way of looking at pluralism. It ignores the different doctrines that guide each denomination, and it ignores the histories of each group. “Reform” is not just a term for disconnected or lazy Jews. Instead, Reform Judaism is a movement that developed as a very conscious reaction to Orthodox Judaism. The relationship between dominations is not a linear progression of observance. If anything, the model of these relationships should be a Venn diagram, recognizing some overlapping values and customs, but also recognizes the individual beliefs and needs of each denomination.
Once I graduate from college, it would be possible for me to almost never brush up against another Orthodox Jew again. I could join a Reform synagogue and send my kids to Reform camp and they could find out for themselves in college that different types of Jews exist. But I don’t want that to be the solution to this frustration. Retreating into my own denomination, though more comfortable, would deny me a lot of opportunities to learn and challenge myself. Being part of a pluralistic community has forced me to confront my Jewish identity and think critically about my beliefs and practices.
I’ve learned a lot from my more observant friends, but they have a lot to learn from Reform Judaism, too. Reform Judaism is its own complicated, beautiful movement that deserves recognition and respect, and we cannot let the needs of Reform Jews be treated as less important than any other group’s. It’s time to focus on the parts of the denomination Venn diagram that don’t overlap, and ask ourselves why those exist and why they’re important.
Emma Neiman is a rising senior at Stanford University, where she is currently the president of the Jewish Student Association.