From Orthodox to Reform: an Introduction to American Judaism

Changing gears, here is a post exploring Judaism in America.


From Orthodox to Reform: an Introduction to American Judaism

Exploring the Basics of Judaism in the United States

 September 6th, 2013
Growing up in Nebraska I knew almost nothing about Jewish cultures — even after taking a full year of Hebrew/Jewish history as part of my history major at the University of Nebraska. It took a 2005 move to Midwood, Brooklyn and a concerted effort on my part to discover and appreciate the enormous diversity in Jewish life, diversity most gentiles never explore. In the news, all Jews (ethnic and/or religious) are portrayed as the same. But in fact, there is at least as much diversity in Jewish life as there is Christian life, if not more so. There are Jews who live by very strict guidelines set by their denominations and Jews whose religious lives (or lack thereof) have absolutely no correlation with their heritage — and everything in between.To further enhance my understanding of my neighbors, I took time out in 2010 to regularly attend services at Temple Beth Emeth located only a few blocks away from the Church Avenue Station on the Brighton line (B/Q trains). Here are a few things I learned along the way:

  • Dietary rules vary greatly across Jewish denominations. The secular Jews I know usually eat no different than others in mixed Jewish/gentile groups. At Beth Emeth, the Reform Jews I met ranged across the dietary gambit from absolutely strict kosher to non-kosher. By contrast, the most orthodox and conservative congregations tend to practice a kosher diet.
  • Gender segregation, while common in orthodox congregations, is not practiced in reform congregations. At this time, I have not located definitive information one way or another concerning segregation or a lack of segregation among conservative congregations.
  • While there are certain cultural and core theological ideas across the gambit of Jewish congregations, how these ideas manifest greatly depends on both the denomination of Judaismand the specifics of an individual congregation.


Jewish Congregations tend to fall in one of three categories: orthodox and ultra-orthodox sit at the most traditional end of the spectrum. In the middle are conservative congregations that retain many of the ideas and practices of the orthodox, but not all of them. At the most liberal end of the spectrum are reform congregations like Beth Emeth. The European equivalent of “reform” Judaism is called “progressive.”


Not surprisingly, conservative and reform Judaism are both more popular in the United States than orthodox.


In day to day life, these differences can be dramatic. In orthodox Judaism, the rules for living can be very exacting and detailed, especially during shabbat or during a particular holiday like Yom Kipper. So as you might expect with anyone whose life experience centers on interacting with people of the same cultural and religious background, I noticed it was difficult for my orthodox neighbors to understand why I would, for example, go off to catch the train on a Saturday — or even take the train to go to Temple.In reform congregations, there is no problem with driving or taking public transportation during shabbat. So no one blinked an eye when I took the B train to get to services. Under orthodox Judaism, it is not allowed to travel by train or bus during shabbat; orthodox Jews tend to walk to services.

These sorts of rules are probably one of many reasons why American Jews often prefer conservative and reform temples.

Fortunately there is a lot more to Jewish life an culture than just rules and theology. In my five years in Brooklyn, I discovered the many beauties of this culture — along with delicious cuisine that all gentiles should really give a try to.

For some reason, Jewish culture and Judaism remain mysterious among gentiles. I would like to suggest to you that it is time for that to change. Regardless your opinion about the particulars of one denomination of Judaism or another, the wonderful truth is that Jewish culture is beautiful and precious, its food delicious, and its holidays of value to all cultures around the world. As we enter the high holiday days that fill September, I wish you peace, joy, and enlightenment.

Shalom! May you have peace.
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2 thoughts on “From Orthodox to Reform: an Introduction to American Judaism

  1. Love the post! Just to give some insight into Orthodox Judaism. “Orthodox” Judaism is actually the original, traditional faith as it was practiced for thousands of years. The other movements are off shoots of it. So while Orthodox Jews are smaller than the other movements, overall, in Judaism, it can’t be discredited as a movement, because it is effectively the root of the tree…

    In regards to halacha (Jewish law), it was in place long before we had buses, cars, trains and planes. So for the Orthodox, Jewish law doesn’t change just because technology does. Without getting into all of the specific issues with traveling on Shabbat, one key issue is that Orthodox Jews do not carry anything from the public domain to the private domain on Shabbat. Carrying is seen as a prohibited task on Shabbat. Normally, you can’t even carry your house key from your home if you choose to leave it (your private domain). However, if an eruv is built around a neighborhood, the entire thing becomes “private domain”. This allows you to carry…within its borders. So now, you can take your house key, and more importantly your infant/toddler children with you to synagogue!

    So it’s not that Orthodox Jews can’t understand non-Orthodox Jewish practice. They just see it as ignoring Jewish law. For them, the law to observe Shabbat (required) is paramount to going to synagogue (not required). However for non-Orthodox Jews who do not see halacha as mandatory, the ability to congregate with fellow Jews on Shabbat is a very important part of their Jewish identity.

    Different strokes for different folks! 🙂

    • Thank you for that B.R. I agree with you on most points — except the “thousands of years” which implies to me you want to extend that well before the common era. While I respect that my orthodox friends believe that genuinely and have heard this many times, on strictly historical and social science grounds, that is quite unlikely. In “A Matter of Faith” which I publish as part of “The Great Succession Crisis – Extended Edition” I go into the deeper history where the goddess was the central part of Hebrew religious life. For example, are you aware that a menorah, constructed precisely in accord with Torah, is a GODDESS SYMBOL?

      Now yes, to someone of orthodox tradition, acknowledging the Hebrew goddess Asherah as Queen of Heaven, as she was called in antiquity, and creatrix of the universe (worship of Asherah actually pre-dates YHWH) is heresy. But think about the politics of the end of the last millenium before the common era — after Assyrian, Persian, and Greek conquests. These cultures were far more patriarchal than Hebrew society. Those wishing to attain power and wealth in those societies conformed to that patriarchy. Which is why the earliest Biblical documents date to the 3rd century BCE — after Greek conquest. To survive, Asherah was demonized — just as the same time Hebrew women lost their civil rights.

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