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The faces of Judaism

The majority of Jews today are descendants of the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) or the Sephardi (Spanish). Within these two main cultural groups, there are several religious branches, which have developed over a period of time to meet the demands of contemporary life. The branches of Judaism differ in the strength of their beliefs, ranging from extreme Orthodox to those adopting a more liberal approach to life and religion. But because Judaism is more than just a faith, various customs and traditions have developed in the communities that exist around the world. For example, there is a considerable difference between the Jews of Ethiopia and those of Yemen. Essentially, what all Jews share is a common history and language, no matter what beliefs and customs they follow.


Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) (above) was the driving force behind the Conservative movement. Known as Masorti (meaning “tradition”) in Israel, Conservative Jews take the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.


The movement known as Reform Judaism began in Germany during the 19th century. Reform Jews believe that the Torah and Talmud do not contain the literal words of God, but were written by people who were inspired by God. This means they can adapt their faith to suit modern life, such as improving the status of Jewish women. Reform Judaism is also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism. This is the largest group of Jews in the US.


Orthodox Jews follow their traditional practices and faith closely. The majority of Jews who live in Europe are Orthodox. But ultra-Orthodox Jews are one of the fastest-growing groups. Uncompromising in their religious beliefs, these Jews tend to live in separate communities with their own schools and courts of law. Generally, they feel it is wrong to mix with the outside world, even with less observant Jews. Within the ultra-Orthodox movement, there are various sects, each with their own leadership, such as the Lubavitch sect in the US.


The Samaritan community in Israel can be traced back to the 7th century BCE. Although they do not consider themselves to be Jews, they practice a form of Judaism. Samaritans accept the authority of the Five Books of Moses, observe the Shabbat, and perform circumcision. Today, the Samaritan community living in Israel numbers up to 500 people.


Israel is home to over 4 million Jews, the second-largest community outside the US. The Law of Return, which was passed by the Israeli government in 1950, allowed thousands of Jews to become citizens. Jews from countries throughout the world were all welcomed. At the same time, the immigrant communities in Israel have maintained the traditions of their country of origin. Today, a majority of Israelis consider themselves secular (nonreligious) Jews.


The origin of Jews from Ethiopia, known as Beta Israel (“House of Israel”), is a source of debate. Some Ethiopian Jews believe that they are the descendants of the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Others believe that they belong to a lost tribe of Israel. Whatever their origins, the existence of Ethiopian Jews only came to light during the 1850s. To escape the famine in war-torn Ethiopia, almost the entire Jewish population was airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s.


The Jewish community of India is thought to have been founded over 2,000 years ago. There were three distinct groups: Bene Israel (“Jews of Israel”), the Cochin Jews, and those from European countries such as Spain. All groups followed Sephardi practices and had their own synagogues. Today, there are only a few thousand Indian Jews.


There is evidence of Jews living in Yemen from the 1st century ce. Yemenite Jews have a very strong scholarly tradition and their own prayer book, called the tiklal. Most now live in Israel or the US, though a small number remain in Yemen.