Branches of Judaism


The religious Jewish community in Michigan is divided among five major groups: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Humanist. Each group has its own approach to traditional Jewish practice. All are committed to Sabbath and holiday worship, to love of learning and to the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another.

Boy at bimah

The Synagogue

The Jewish house of worship is referred to as a synagogue, temple or shul (Yiddish). Each synagogue offers various educational and social programs, as well as religious services. There are educational programs for all ages and social groups, such as Brotherhood (for men), Sisterhood (for women), and youth groups. These social groups hold regular meetings and conduct many activities, such as luncheons, dinners, Sunday morning breakfasts, Chanukah parties, dances and community service projects. They provide a means of meeting and socializing with other Jewish people in a combined religious and social setting. In most synagogues, Jewish dietary laws are observed, requiring separation of dairy and meat products and prohibition of certain foods, such as pork products and shellfish.

Attire: When attending religious services, men should wear suits or sports jackets with ties. In Conservative, Orthodox and some Reform synagogues, men cover their heads with a kippah (also called a yarmulke), or skullcap. These usually are available at the entrance to the sanctuary. At Conservative and Reform synagogues, women may wear dresses or pants and should have their shoulders covered. At Orthodox synagogues, women must wear modest knee-length dresses with their elbows covered, married women should cover their heads with a hat, scarf or wig, and they do not carry a purse on the Sabbath.

Religious Services: Services are conducted by a rabbi or a lay leader of the congregation, with chanting being led by the cantor. Worship in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues is almost entirely in Hebrew, while Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Humanist services have a greater portion in English. Men and women sit separately in Orthodox congregations. In addition to covering their heads during services, traditional Jewish men wear a tallit (prayer shawl) for some prayer services.

Sanctuary: The focal point of the sanctuary is the ark, which contains the Torah scrolls. The Torah is a parchment scroll containing the Five Books of Moses written in Hebrew. A portion of the Torah is read each week during prayer services. A Bar Mitzvah (boy) or Bat Mitzvah (girl) ceremony celebrates a young person’s reading of a portion of the Torah for the first time.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism rests on the traditional teaching of Jewish law, consisting of the Written Law contained in the Hebrew Bible, and the Oral Law represented by the Talmud, Responsa, Codes and Commentary. Orthodox Jews accept the doctrine of revelation: that the Law, both Written and Oral, was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai and is, therefore, the everlasting and only true guide of Jewish life and conduct. Orthodoxy advocates unswerving loyalty to Jewish traditions and adherence to Jewish law as it has been interpreted by recognized authorities in each generation.

For more information: Orthodox Union

Conservative Judaism

Like Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative Movement holds Jewish laws to be sacred. However, they may be changed and adapted, if necessary, to modern conditions of Jewish life, though not discarded. This can be done only by proper scholars and authoritative bodies. The Conservative movement has tried to “conserve” and to protect Jewish faith and culture, and maintains that the Jews are not only a religious group, but a people with a distinct culture, historic language and a holy land.

For more information: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism stresses the importance of adapting religious life to the spirit and mood of the modern age. Reform Jews believe that the Torah was written by people through divine inspiration, not by literal revelation. Therefore, every generation has the right to accept only those laws and practices that it considers essential. Reform Judaism emphasizes the belief that the Jewish people were destined to fulfill a great mission among the nations of the earth: to teach the belief in God and the ethical ideals of fellowship, justice and peace.

For more information: Union for Reform Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism

Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the 20th century, Reconstructionist Judaism sees Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, embracing religion, peoplehood, history, tradition, liturgy, music, literature and art. As such, Reconstructionist Judaism emphasizes understanding, observing and celebrating Jewish culture, tradition and heritage.

For more information: Jewish Reconstructionist Federation

Secular-Humanist Judaism

Humanist Judaism, based in Detroit, views Judaism as a living culture and a way of life rather than as a religion. It is a voice for Jews who value their Jewish identity and who seek an alternative to conventional (traditional) Judaism. It provides modern ways to practice Jewish commitment, Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, Jewish experience and Jewish history without belief in a deity. Secular-Humanist Judaism believes in human reason and integrity and affirms the right of individuals to shape their own lives. It recognizes the importance and meaningfulness of change.

For more information: Society for Humanistic Judaism

Adapted from material produced by Jewish Experiences For Families and from The Jewish Home, A Guide for Jewish Living by Rabbi Daniel B. Syme.