The Diversity of Jewish Life

Every community is composed of individuals and subgroups, each with diverse, and often contradictory, ideas about the world. Conflicting views can sometimes rip a community apart if one group is set on imposing its views over the others. However, conflict is for the most part, productive, leading to new ideas and adaptations, and new ways of interacting with the world. In the Jewish community today, for example, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements offer distinct ways of understanding and interpreting Jewish religious laws and practices. Further, there is difference and variability even within each of these groups. The debate created by these differing views adds to the richness and strength of the Jewish community.

Contrary to the common view today, the Eastern European Jewish community was pluralistic. Throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, individuals within the community found diverse ways to cope with internal conflicts and external changes. Sometimes there was tension between differing ideologies, but often even these tensions were productive and not destructive, each influencing the others. If nothing else, each ideology acted as a spark to the others, provoking responses as issues were addressed and that the other ideologies brought to the fore. Although in difficult times people put aside their differences to stand in solidarity with their fellow Jews, the Jewish world of Eastern Europe was heterogeneous, complex, and very rich in perspectives, ideas, and goals. Throughout all the variations, each group was concerned about Jewish survival. Each responded to things were felt to be of Jewish interest, with relevance and importance to daily life. Many perspectives, especially among the more contemporary ideologies of the 20th century, implied a positive solution for changing the larger political world in which Jews found themselves.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hasidic rebbes offered new spiritual solutions to the difficulties and challenges faced by Eastern European Jews. Although at first they met great resistance from the traditional Mitnagdim, the Hasidim and Mitnagdim later banded together to face the Maskilim, who sought new ways of blending Judaism and modernity. This ideological conflict is an interesting illustration of the internal changes, development, and solutions proposed by groups holding variable ideologies within the Jewish world.

By the 19th and 20th centuries, diverse political parties advocated a wide range of responses to the political and social hardships faced by Eastern European Jews. Solutions offered ranged from assimilation (the disappearance of Jews as a distinct national/religious group) to the complete overhaul of European society. Aside from the Assimilationists, who represented a small minority, parties included the Zionists, Bundists, Territorialists, and Traditionalists. Debate raged among proponents of these ideologies, particularly in cities like Lodz, Lublin, Odessa, Vilna, and Warsaw, played out in various meeting places, as well as newspapers and conferences. Each party created schools and youth groups to help spread its particular views. If you visit our Voices page, you can get a glimpse into the diversity of everyday Jewish life by reading the autobiographical writings of Jewish teenagers and young adults living in Poland between World War I and World War II.

During and after the Holocaust, Jews of all opinions and ideologies came together to fight the common enemy and to rebuild their devastated communities. It was often necessary to pool the limited resources available in those difficult times in order to begin anew.

As you explore this tour within the website, consider how the religious and ideological differences among Jews were expressed. What options did each ideology offer? What were the implications for daily life if you belonged to one ideological group or another? When and how did people come together despite their differences?

How is diversity reflected in your community today? How do these tensions add to, or detract from, community life? Is diversity a positive thing or a negative one? At what point do differences become too great for the community to bear?