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It is a choice to embrace ritual over leisure, a sacrifice of freedom in behavior, diet, and dress for an ancient set of rules.
On its face, this seems like a generation-defying choice.
It takes particular chutzpah to choose Orthodoxy in the context of what one might call the “deep diaspora”—places like Houston, Texas, which has a long-standing and vibrant Jewish community but also sits squarely in the Bible Belt.
In large, coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, Jewish life is ambient and available; a slide toward ritual may well help young people fit in with a cultural community.
This is part of “the conservative, with a small ‘c,’ nature of Houston,” she said; people tend to gravitate toward the institutions they’re used to. The group meets in various people’s houses on Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat, the songs and prayers that formally welcome in the Sabbath.
It’s a lay-led, egalitarian group, meaning there’s no rabbi, women and men sit together, and women are allowed to lead the prayers.
These Jews exist in a diaspora that’s not just geographical, but cultural: Their religious commitments put them fundamentally at odds with the values and habits of their generational peers.
This difference is somewhat embedded within the term baal teshuva itself, which suggests that traditional observance is the only way of being with God.
Roughly a third of Jews born after 1980 think of their Judaism as a matter of identity or ancestry, rather than as a religion, according to Pew.
A lot of Jewish life in Houston is mediated through institutions, particularly when it comes to programs for young people: The Jewish Community Center runs Mishpacha & Me, a program for families with small children; Houston Hillel, which serves multiple college campuses and hosts city-wide events, runs a program called “Jewston,” which coordinates social outings for 20-somethings.
There aren’t a lot of grassroots, independent groups, especially not for prayer, said Elise Passy, who until recently was the coordinator of an organization called Big Tent Judaism.
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