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What it means to be Jewish

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

What being Jewish means is different for different people

What being Jewish means is different for different people

A hotly debated subject in the Jewish world is what it means to be Jewish. Different segments of the Jewish world would offer different answers, and even within a single congregation you are likely to find vast diversity in the answer to that question.

It’s not a question anyone can answer once and for all, and certainly not within a few paragraphs. But I can give you an idea of some of the things people use to define their own Jewishness.

Study and learning

Among Jews who consider themselves to be Orthodox, having extensive, deep knowledge of Jewish laws, traditions and historical practices would be one of the most important aspects of being Jewish.

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Orthodox men (and to a lesser extent, women) will spend years studying ancient Hebrew texts and mastering complex commentaries, attempting to understand the nuances of each word, or even each letter in the holy books.

Jews who are not Orthodox might also study the ancient texts, but in general that study is not the core of what it means to be Jewish to them. Being Jewish can be be everything from celebrating Jewish culture in your home – with Jewish toys and Jewish artwork – to observing the Jewish religion in the community and in temple.

Following commandments

For many Jews, following the commandments (mitzvot) set forth in the Torah is how they experience Judaism in their life. According to trusted commentators, there are 613 commandments contained within the Torah, and as far as possible, Jews are required to observe them all.

Some Jews experience what it is to be Jewish through detailed observance of most of these rules (some are limited to just men or just women, or require the Temple, so no one can observe all 613).  Other people find their Jewish experience in picking a few commandments which are meaningful to them, and incorporating those mitzvot into their lives.

Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam literally means to heal the world.  For many Jews, this obligation to make this world better and more whole is how they experience Judaism.

This aspect of Judaism can take many forms, from working to save the environment to feeding the homeless to working to end discrimination, war or poverty.


Joining a synagogue or Jewish Community Center, participating in Jewish social action groups or socializing within Jewish groups are other ways to experience Judaism.

Even people who don’t find traditional study or mitzvot observance meaningful may find value in associating with groups where they feel a sense of Jewish community. This can be especially important when children are born, a loved one passes away or when the holidays roll around, and it seems like everyone else in town is decorating a Christmas tree or hunting for Easter eggs.
Religious services

Many Jews find comfort and connection in attending weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) services and seasonal holiday services. Some prefer traditional prayers and melodies, while others find their inspiration in new forms of prayer and contemporary music.

Either way, coming together with like-minded Jews on a regular basis can be an uplifting and spiritual experience.

Jewish culture

For some Jews, religious participation or observance doesn’t work.  But many still remain cultural Jews, reinforcing their family history and identity through the foods they cook, the movies they watch, the ethics they live by, or the books they read.

Genealogy or Jew by Choice

A person can be a Jew by birth (through the mother in Orthodox circles, and through the mother or father in Reform or Reconstructionist communities), but still never do anything to build on that. .

For some Jews, what it means to be Jewish is simply a matter of genealogy. They may never join a temple, attend a service or pick up a Jewish text.  And while some may move into a more active role once children come along, some choose to remain Jews in name only.

Some people who were not born Jewish experience Judaism as a calling or a spiritual home. Most will go through a conversion ceremony, after which they experience a different aspect of what it means to be Jewish. According to friends who have converted, it means coming home to where they always belonged.

The Truth is…

These are only a few of the option. There are as many answers to the question of what it mean to be Jewish as there are Jews.  And when it comes down to it, that’s exactly how it should be.


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