By Saundra Sterling Epstein
“Are you really Orthodox? But you are an advocate for LGBTQ Jews. You are active regarding women’s issues and rights. You’re president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council. An Orthodox person would not do those things, right?”
Yes, this conversation is part of my life.
For several years about two decades ago, my family was in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit for our three daughters. During that time, we went to the Bat Mitzvah of a dear friend’s daughter in Connecticut. The ceremony was beautiful, and the shul experience was precisely as I remembered my own upbringing with complete davening, a full reading of the Torah portion and educated, committed Jews coming together to pray and observe a celebratory moment in a family’s life.
I came back and reported my experience to my mother. After I shared our experience, she asked how I identified myself, as we were clearly brought up as being part of the halachically observant community (in a somewhat natural and relaxed manner, characteristic of the time) and this experience was in a Conservative synagogue, part of a movement that was no longer recognizable to me, even as a loyal alumna of United Synagogue Youth.
I answered that as a Shomeret Mitzvot (one who observed the laws and dictates of daily Jewish living) who believed in the value of our historical experience and being part of the world and addressing its injustices and challenges, I would still consider myself a Conservadox-Orthoprax Jew but no one else did. Everyone considered me Orthodox given the optics of my level of Kashrut observance, the way I dress, honor Shabbat, etc. That’s funny, my mom replied, because I still consider myself an Orthodox Jew even though no one else does.
Who I was in the late ’60s through the mid-’70s as a Shomeret Mitzvot Jew was not questioned. Whether we went to Conservative or Orthodox shuls, we were all observant, part of the world and concerned about social issues, and our level of adherence to ritual law did not preclude our being part of the larger world.
In those days, one could find sound amplification systems in Orthodox shuls and mechitzot in Conservative-identified synagogues. Making special arrangements for classes missed in college due to days of observance, eating at the Hillel dining hall, explaining why I could or could not participate in various events, observing Shabbat, etc., were just part of who I was, notwithstanding a few rebellious years.
A few years ago, a friend told me my upbringing was “not frum” because I did not go to Jewish day school. Some rabbis in the Orthodox world claim that I can’t be observant because I am an advocate for LGBTQ inclusion (and specifically so in the Orthodox Jewish world), active in Jewish learning and scholarship and work in interfaith learning, dialogue and relations and so on.
I have had to justify myself both on personal and professional levels throughout the years due to the fact that who I am defies the descriptions that are available today in our color-blocked and limited understanding of what it means to be who we are. If we do not squarely fit into the proper box politically, socially, culturally or religiously, we are considered persona non gratis.
As a result, I have suffered both personally and professionally in choosing the Philadelphia area as my home, but I have not wavered. Sending my children to the “wrong” Jewish day schools, allowing them to socialize with boys and girls together and so on … criteria that were never part of my experience as a halachically observant Jewish child.
So now we have Open Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, Centrist Orthodoxy, Traditional Orthodoxy, etc., and it is no longer enough to say one is a Jew, or identified with an ideological stance. Now one has to qualify what they mean with even more nuanced and narrow descriptors. Trying to discern all of this can be exhausting.
All I know is we have brought our children up in a Shomer Mitzvot home with the full scope of Jewish ritual practices, observances and celebrations, Jewish education, camp, frequent experiences in Israel and, most important, the foundational values and core standards of what it means to be a practicing Jew.
So, you tell me, what kind of Jew do you think I am? Further, does it matter? After all, this is all between Ribbonu shel Olam and me, is it not?
Educator Saundra Sterling Epstein is president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council.