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So You're Jewish ...

So what does it mean to be Jewish anyway? It sounds like a simple question, all right, but it's not one that will get you a simple answer. In fact, it will most likely get you "several answers." The easiest place to begin is the classification of Jews into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Orthodox Judaism, according to leaders in the local Jewish community, is the original expression of the religion, and sets forth strict laws for its adherents. One of those is the separation of the genders. Women and men refrain from socializing with each other out of a strong sense of modesty. Another feature is observance of the sabbath, which means that you do no work, and perform no acts of creation, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. This commemorates God's day of rest as described in the "Torah". (Non Jews know the "Torah" as the first five books of the "Old Testament".) For some, that might translate into not burning lights or running cars as well. This is why, according to Mike Pousman of the Jewish Community Center on Wheeler Road: Until recently, having light meant making a fire, which constituted an act of creation. And using a vehicle meant putting an animal to work. Animals also get a day of rest. The rules also govern who is considered Jewish. Orthodox Jews believe a child can be born into the community only if its mother is Jewish. Otherwise, it will have to convert. Conservative Judaism also requires that the mother be Jewish. Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, of Adas Yeshurun, says that's because there can be no question of who the mother is. But Reform Judaism will accept patrilineal descent. There have been many hard feelings over this question of just who is and who isn't Jewish, according to Greenbaum. "As a rabbi I can only marry two Jews," he says. Imagine growing up Jewish and then having your identity questioned only after you've found someone to marry. Of course, Greenbaum says, the partner in question may choose to officially convert, but may be so insulted that the couple simply finds someone else to perform the ceremony. Does this happen often? "Oh, it happens more and more and more," he says.Conversion is not an easy process. According to tradition, Greenbaum says, a potential convert is to be turned away three times, in order to weed out anyone whose feelings are too casual. But, he says, for those who have grown up culturally Jewish, he would not require the entire process of living life for a year as a Jew and learning the ropes, so to speak. He and Rabbi Jordan Parr of Congregation Children of Israel -- who is a Reform Jew -- agree that, for the most part, converts should spend at least a year on the process. Parr says it's so that they can experience an entire cycle of holidays. He says some study four or five years before they decide they're ready; some decide Judaism is not for them after all, but leave enriched for having had the experience. Those who decide they're ready are interviewed by a panel of rabbis or learned Jews. Then they are immersed in a body of water -- the precursor to baptism, Parr says. Males have a drop of blood taken from their finger, as a symbolic circumcision. That doesn't exactly answer the question: What does it mean to be Jewish? Pousman acknowledges that there are many aspects of Judaism: cultural as separate from religious, for instance. To him, Judaism is a philosophy, a way of life. He says Judaism means a strong sense of responsibility to the community. Man is needed as an activist, he says, to continue the work that God began. He says this belief draws Jews into the helping professions, like education, medicine and law. Jews are required to take care of the less fortunate, even if they are not so fortunate themselves. They are required to respect animals as well, which is where kosher dining comes into play. Kosher dining comes from a passage in the "Torah" that forbids cooking a calf in its mother's milk, out of respect for those who lose their lives so that we may eat. A kosher kitchen is one in which meat and dairy never come in contact. Utensils for one are never used with the other. Only food prepared in a kosher manner is used. This means, in part, that animals are butchered in a certain way, so that they will experience the least amount of pain possible. It also means that preparation is supervised by a rabbi or some other qualified person to make sure it is done correctly all the way through. This respect is not to be taken lightly. "This is all God's creation," Pousman says. "You have to watch what you do." He says it is possible to be culturally Jewish, even if you don't believe in God.Greenbaum says Judaism is part of everything one does, but that it doesn't necessarily require one to be religious. He says some feel it is more important to act than to believe, more important to act responsibly as part of a community. To the question about whether being Jewish requires belief in God, he says, "I don't know any atheist Jews," adding that he does think once you're a Jew, you will always be a Jew, even if you convert to another religion. There are many secular Jews, those who are part of the culture, but not part of the synagogue. There is no proof, however, of a Jewish "race," he says of the ethnic aspect.Rabbi Parr doesn't completely agree. "It's belief," he says, although he does agree that Judaism encompasses much more than just belief. He does think there is an ethnic aspect to being Jewish. "All the cultural markers are there," he says, naming food, dialect and music. "It's not just bagels and lox." He also feels that it is not really possible to discontinue being Jewish, though one can choose not to be part of the community. He doesn't think the concept of an atheist Jew works at all. "I don't understand ... How can a Jew be a Jew and not believe in God?" Along those same lines, I asked Parr what he thinks about Messianic Jews, who have been called "Jews for Jesus," for their belief that Christ fulfills the Jewish prophesy of a messiah. "Contradiction in terms, yes," was his reply. "You can't be Jewish and worship Jesus. People who call themselves Messianic Jews are frauds. They're perverting Judaism and perverting Christianity. They are trying to convert Jews to Christianity. I wish they would be up-front about it." After all, he says, a belief in Jesus Christ is the very definition of a Christian.The question of just who is and is not Jewish from time to time takes a political turn, as it has recently with Jewish leaders in Israel striving to strip Conservative and Reform rabbis of their powers to perform conversions and marriages in Israel. Parr says that he and his congregation would still be Jewish, even if that did come to pass. "It would be sad more than anything," he said. "We're Jewish. We're going to stay that way. ... They're the ones trying to delegitimize us." "Most people are hopeful that will not happen," Greenbaum said. "The implications would be devastating."

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