The internet is a place where, for better or worse, everyone is essentially free to claim whatever they want about anyone else. Some have thus claimed that people of Jewish descent who do not live in accordance with Torah values and teachings are no longer Jewish.

True, these Jewish critics obviously cherish their religious identity as a badge of honor and responsibility. Nevertheless, they are misinformed to go so far as to label others who might be less involved as no longer part of the Chosen People. No matter how far one might stray from the fold, a Jew remains Jewish.

There is a story attributed to Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, involving a Jewish boy who was raised in late 19th-century Ukraine. As the child grew older, he gained a reputation for mischief and unruliness. Losing patience, his teacher expelled him from the school, effectively ending the boy’s spiritual education. Tragically, this left the youth with an indelibly negative perception of Jewish orthodox life. From there, the boy eventually relocated to what was then known as Nikolayev in Southern Ukraine, where he began his induction into (and eventual rise, almost to the top of) the Bolshevik movement. But for losing a power struggle with his adversary Joseph Stalin, ending in his assassination, he might have gained the ultimate position of the party’s leadership. The boy’s name was Lev Bronstein, later known as Leon Trotsky.

Some years later, despite the school teacher’s best efforts, the Chofetz Chaim declined to grant him a private audience, indicating that had the teacher shown more love and patience for young Lev during his formative years, history might have taken a very different course.

Setting Trotsky aside for a moment, another character from the same time period and background is also worth mentioning:

In the late 1980s, Israel Singer, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe upon returning from the Soviet Union. Singer related that he had met with a longtime, stalwart member of the Communist Party, Lazar Kaganovich, who at that point was already in his 90s. Notably surprised to learn that he was still alive, the Rebbe commented that the old Politburo member must indeed be an “alter Yid” – an old Jew, before asking: “Is Kaganovich doing teshuva [repenting]?”

Singer’s perception was that there was no indication of this, to which the Rebbe responded by encouraging him to follow up with Kaganovich on his next visit, and tell him that as a Yid, he still had a chance to return. It is unclear whether Singer ever had any follow-up contact with the old Politburo member, nor is there any indication of the latter having returned to his roots. What is clear, however, is the Rebbe’s unequivocal recognition that Kaganovich was still a Jew.

The Rebbe was fully aware that the same Lazar Kaganovich had not only abandoned his Jewish identity decades earlier, but went on to become one of Stalin’s senior lieutenants. During the purges of the 1930s, he was one of “Uncle Joe’s” main organisers, whose enforcement played a direct and calamitous role in ensuring that the cruel, mass-murdering dictator’s vision became a reality. While less infamous than the Soviet ruler, Kaganovich is no less culpable.

In stark contrast, the Rebbe is credited with ensuring that Jewish education continued clandestinly throughout the USSR, despite the severe risk of imprisonment, or even death, from the anti-religious and anti-Semitic government. He was also all too familiar with the cruel methods employed by the regime, having seen the torture of his father-in-law and predecessor, the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, as well as his own father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, who was eventually exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died without ever seeing his children again. Would it be too far-fetched to speculate that Kaganovich might even have played a hand in what happened to the Rebbe’s family?

Clearly these men had little in common. One was a Chassidic leader whose mantra to perform “acts of goodness and kindness” continues to inspire millions. The other, a Stalinist myrmidon who—in the name of the Soviet cause and in order to further the dictator’s barbaric ambitions no matter the human cost—implemented acts of terror and destruction which left a terrible stain on the annals of human history. Yet despite being all too familiar with Kaganovich’s crimes, what is most striking is that the Rebbe never shied away from the one thing that connected them: their Jewishness. And the belief that it is never too late to do teshuvah.

A Jew is Jewish not because of any achievement prior to, during, or after his or her time in this world. A Jew who sins must rectify his or her sin. But that person stays Jewish, because G‑d Himself chose to gift that person a Jewish soul. Irrespective of their chosen path through life, that fundamental privilege means they will always be Jewish. That is not to say that an entirely spiritual entity such as the Jewish soul cannot be concealed by a lifetime of transgressions. But stripping away the layers of misdeeds and debasement will reveal, at the core, that the pure soul G‑d has put there retains its full potential to return to the fold through teshuvah and righting the wrongs it caused.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, prioritised raising the collective spirit of the downcast masses who had come to feel harshly judged by certain sectors of religious educators. He taught that when a Jew sees a fault in another Jew, it is G‑d’s way of holding up a mirror. The reflection thus reveals the critic’s own character flaws which still need to be improved or eliminated. It is also a subtle reminder that we should aim to find the more positive qualities in others. This will, in turn, bring out the best of who we are, both individually and collectively. In the process, both the onlooker and the scrutinised will benefit by further connecting with each other and with what we already know to be intrinsically precious: the G‑dly soul.

Combining the right education and good role models is likely to result in positive behavior. So if someone does not act appropriately, perhaps there is merit to highlighting their faults so that they can be corrected. However, if it is known that the person will not listen, or knows no better, a more effective approach would be:

a) Be grateful that you have been educated and lived in the correct way, and avoid the mistaken belief that one’s own level of knowledge and observance allows us to judge other Jews who may not have had the same guidance. Focus less on the maligned actions of others, especially considering how easily we can all be guilty of materially motivated actions. Instead, search more deeply for that which is aligned with the indestructible G‑dly essence that can be found in each of us.

b) Consider that with reprobation comes the risk of alienating the admonished person. Therefore, adopting a loving, tactful and patient approach to any necessary approbation, and demonstrating a genuine desire to perform “acts of good and kindness” for the censured party, is far more likely to yield a more positive impression of Judaism, with longer lasting results.

Returning to Trotsky, how things may have transpired were he to have led the USSR instead of Stalin has been widely speculated. Some might suggest it fortunate that we never found out, as there are some very ominous hints in his writings about how to deal with opponents of Bolshevism. We shall also never know whether more patience from his old school teacher might have changed the course of history.

In the case of Kaganovich, if the Lubavitcher Rebbe could still suggest with conviction that even he could do teshuva for his appalling crimes, how much more careful should we all be before taking the easy route of judging another Jew, whether unknown or famous!

As to the question of when is a Jew no longer Jewish? The answer is simple: Never. A Jew is a Jew, always. With His infinite wisdom, G‑d chose us as individuals and as a People. His desire is that we reveal and shine positive light into the world. The more spiritually attuned we become, the better chance we have of perceiving that G‑dly soul which intricately unites us.