“What kind of Jewish are you?” El Al Security encounters Grassroots Jews, by Debbie Danon


“What kind of Jewish are you?”

El Al encounters Grassroots Jews

Debbie Danon, GRJ Co-ordinator

I had just spent a week in Jerusalem on ROI Summit – surrounded by 149 young Jewish activists, community workers and social entrepreneurs. Over five days together, we explored at length how to relate to traditional Jewish organisations, while experimenting with other ways of authentically expressing Jewish values and traditions. I was especially inspired to meet Rabbi Lizzie of Mishkan Chicago, an incredible outfit that gave me hope for the future of Grass Roots Jews as a values-led independent community. One that works with complexity and welcomes people as they are…

I left feeling elated and validated. What a fabulously diverse global community we are, with such diversity and richness…

I was brought back to earth with a bump at Ben Gurion airport. Having established I was Jewish (I often dread to think how non-Jewish visitors to Israel experience the El Al security process), the trainee security official rattled off the usual questions designed to determine your threat level to the flight. His female supervisor stood menacingly over his shoulder.

“Were you visiting family…? What are their names? What is their address…?”

So far so standard.

“Are you a member of a syngagogue…?”


“What kind of Jewish are you…?”

This last question – though clearly an unfortunate consequence of bad English – struck a particular dischord with me after my week at ROI. Now we all know this poor guy was not really interested in the content of my answers, but my tone and body language that might betray nervousness or deception. On the other hand, I felt  irritated at this assessment of my authenticity by a set of criteria with which I profoundly disagree.

This February, I shared my personal journey to Grassroots Jews in a TED- style talk with 50 European activists at an ROI gathering in Berlin. Writing my story made me appreciate how lucky we are to have the choice to engage spiritually with our tradition, without having to give our “Jewish credentials.” It renewed my admiration for the mission in which GRJ and other minyanim play a small part: to provide safe spaces for Jews of all backgrounds to explore authentically Jewish, engaged spiritual practice. Not to coerce them into observance, not to advance a particular school of thought. But to provide a forum for what Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, co-founder of Mechon Hadar in NYC, calls “Empowered Judaism” – providing Jews with consistent opportunities to make sense of the Jewish liturgical and spiritual tradition, in such a way that reflects their values. There are synagogues too, of course, that recognise the need to infuse Jewish prayer with kavanah (intention), and to engage seriously with the spiritual aspects of our tradition. But I am also grateful that there exist non- and post-denominational chavurot, minyanim and circles through which Jewish people – even those who’ve had no or negative experiences of institutional Judaism – can explore, learn and belong.

So what did I say to our El Al friend? Well he asked, didn’t he? So I gave it to him straight. I told him all about Grassroots Jews. The fact I hop between Orthodox and Progressive minyanim in different people’s houses. That I do “Torah & Tea” afternoons on some Shabbatot with friends, but not every week. I quoted one of my favourite Jewish works “New Jews” by Caryn Aviv & David Schneer at him, but stopped short of taking it from my bag to read him an extract. The poor guy looked like I’d released a swarm of bees around his head. I know he was just doing his job, and he wasn’t really trying to make judgements about the Jewish people. But in the moment I refused to let him pop my ROI/GRJ bubble. Contemporary Jewish affiliation can’t really be summarised with a one-word answer.

So when Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur come around, come as you are. More than ever, Hannah, the Team and I look forward to welcoming you to Grassroots Jews, a community where we never ask members “What kind of Jew(ish) are you?” By contributing to the community with your voice, your thoughts and intentions, and even food for pot-luck lunch, you’ll be showing us with more than words. If our auspices appeal to you, we will do our best to make you welcome, and hope that you will play a part in welcoming others too. We aim for our activities to foster an intimacy and vulnerability that might lead you to share your journey to the tent with another Grass Roots Jew.

Registration goes live soon. Meanwhile look out for the many ways you can help shape the experience.

Can’t wait to see you there…


Post Script: My post on Facebook about my El Al experience  got 87 likes and 31 comments to date. It seems I’m not the only one…

For some it became an unexpected support forum for terrible experiences of Jewish/non-Jewish profiling on El Al flights! Others used it to share hilarious tales of expressing their minyan affiliations and complex Jewish lives to security guards. There’s probably a book in this, maybe we should write it…?

Favourite comment: from Rav Yossi Chajes, a GRJ founder, chazzan and spiritual mentor: “You probably shouldn’t have told them about how explosive the dovening is….”

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