There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
I think about the nature and concept of forgiveness literally on a daily basis. As a lawyer, my practice consists solely of defending persons facing the death penalty; my clients are either facing the death penalty at trial or they have already been convicted and are in the state appeals process. Persons on the outside would be astonished to learn how much justice, forgiveness and peace color the many decisions my clients make that impact their future.
At some point after a death penalty trial is over, but before pronouncement of sentence, the accused have the right to make a statement; to allocate to the court, jury, and gallery. During these statements, I have never had a client asked to be spared. The lawyers ask for it, families weep for it, but my clients do not. For the first time in a long process they get to speak freely and they use this time to say, “I am so sorry.” They blame no one, and offer no excuses. They believe in their heart of hearts that Justice requires their life in return for the one(s) they have taken.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg once wrote that “the upshot of the Jewish teaching on what I owe my fellows: I owe them the right, the just, the equitable.” I represented a man who was implicated in a double homicide that occurred 25 prior to his arrest for it. He spent that time of his life in a haze of drugs and alcohol. But one thing he maintained was that if he did those things he deserved to die. For him, the only way he could atone was to give his life in return. He was one of many persons I have met that are willing to give their life in return for the one they took. In other words, they too strive to give what they believe they owe their fellows.
As we approach the Yom Kippur, this year as in previous years, I think about lessons learned from the people I encounter in my line of work, killers and victims alike. I recall a mother looking at my client and saying with conviction, “I forgive you,” and that client breaking down and saying over and over, “thank you”; I think about the father who looked at one client and said, “I pray every day to find a way to forgive you, but I’m not there yet” and that client nodding his head in understanding; I think about the mother who looks at yet another client and says, “ I will never forgive you”, and he flinched as if struck. For one man, the gift of forgiveness; for the other, the hope of forgiveness; for one the despair of forgiveness denied.
My clients have also displayed an amazing capacity to forgive. To forgive the mother for turning tricks in front of them, to forgive the father for brutal beatings, to forgive the rapes; the tortures; the things no child should have to endure. Those clients who look at me and say “what I did is not their fault”; “she is still my mother and I love her”; “she had it rough, I understand.”
I once asked my rabbi, “how can you tell when you have forgiven someone”? and he told me, “when you can begin repairing the relationship.” So, when I look around a court room and death as a sentence is on the table, I see mothers who have never been at the side of their child before this time—are now standing there beside them. They are standing there with full understanding that the world knows about their faults, their failures, their transgressions against their child; and yet, they are there. When they get a turn to speak, they ask for forgiveness: they turn to my client and ask for forgiveness; they turn to the victim’s family as ask for forgiveness; and they turn to the jury and ask for mercy. I see the transformative power of justice and forgiveness. When you have those two, peace is sure to follow.
I once met a man named Billy Moore. Billy spent 24 years on Georgia’s death row for a crime he freely admits to committing. Immediately after the murder during a robbery gone bad, Billy was so eaten up by remorse he confessed, led the police to the murder weapon, and the meager proceeds of the robbery. Despite his sincere regret and remorse, he was sentenced to death. While on death row, he wrote to his victim’s family expressing his sorrow and apologies. The family had compassion and forgave him; and they wrote each other for over 16 years. That family was instrumental in getting Billy’s death sentence commuted to life and ultimately led to his parole.
When I met Billy, I was struggling with my own inability to forgive a loved one’s bad decision that indirectly led to my grandson facing many years in prison. Billy told me something I will never forget. He said, “you have to remember forgiveness is not for the other person, it is for you. Forgiveness sets you free to find peace. You must not forever link your grandson to another’s failures. You must love him independent, look at him and see love, not another’s mistakes. When you look at him and see only him, you will know peace.”
So as I struggle, I remember a promise: “Insomuch as ye have come before me in judgment and departed from me in peace, I do reckon it unto you as if ye have been created anew.” I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet. Shalom.
Change is difficult. It can only happen when we reflect on the present and imagine different possibilities for going forward. In the ten days between the welcoming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition encourages to do just that. There are many prayers that serve as meditations on change. What follows is an adaptation of a traditional prayer meant to help focus our minds on the ways in which we might work to make the world a more tolerate of “others” and engage in the positive celebration of diversity. It wrote this piece with the assistance of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder and hope you will print out a copy and bring it with you to synagogue or share it as a conversation starter with friends. May we all be inspired to create a better and more inclusive world.
ASHAMNU: We have been guilty. In the past year, I discounted the contributions that people unlike me could make to my community. Next year, I will actively search for ways that those people can be involved, constructively, in our communal efforts.
BAGADNU: We have betrayed. In the past year, I have betrayed my commitment to the mitzvah, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Next year, I will work to love my own “differences” as well of those of my neighbor.
GAZALNU: We have stolen. In the past year, I said things that stole away from other’s sense of legitimacy. Next year, I will find ways to bolster other peoples’ respect and acceptance in my community.
DIBARNU DOFI: We have been hypocritical. In the past year, I have held people unlike me to a standard to which I do not hold myself. Next year, I will work at equalizing those standards, either by raising my standards for myself, as well as relaxing them for others, or by relaxing my personal standards as well.
HE’EVINU: We have caused others to sin. In the past year, I have put up barriers to allowing others to participate fully in the Jewish community and tradition. Next year, I will help lower the barriers to participation in Jewish life.
V’HIRSHANU: And we have made others wicked. In the past year, I persuaded others, in my teaching and my speech, to shrink their boundaries. Next year, I will share messages of inclusion and expansiveness.
ZADNU: We have sinned intentionally. In the past year, I have behaved in ways that exclude others, knowing that what I was doing was exclusionary. Next year, I will listen to the whispering voice of my conscience and act on it, so that I do not exclude others.
CHAMASNU: We have been violent. In the past year, I have let the ends justify the means, ignoring the hurts that result from the methods I used to achieve my goals. Next year, I will pay attention to the process as well at the outcomes.
TAFALNU SHEKER: We have lied In the past year, I have ignored truths in order to maintain my social connections and status. Next year, I will speak truth and work to change opinions of those around me.
YATZNU RA: We have given bad advice. In the past year, I have not taken the time to give counsel those who really need my help. Next year, I will use the breadth of my experience to the best possible advantage.
KIZAVNU: We have been deceitful. In the past year, I lied to myself, saying that I was excluded for my differences, relying on my sense of exclusion, rather than relying on the ways that my actions contributed to difficulties. Next year, I will attempt to judge others favorably, giving them the benefit of the doubt, before placing all the blame on their shoulders.
LATZNU: We have mocked In the past year, I have laughed with discomfort, rather than engaging uncomfortable situations. Next year, I will venture into uncomfortable territory with curiosity, while having compassion on my own discomfort.
MARADNU: We have rebelled. In the past year, I have rebelled for the sake of rebelling, not always with an eye to the consequences of our actions. Next year, I will challenge myself to rebel constructively, in ways that enhance my community.
Growing up in a very Reform household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the bima for an honor.
Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.
The reason wasn’t religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald’s “God Squad” a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then-archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news—such as when he failed to annunciate “the victims of clergy sexual abuse” among those for whom he offered intentions.
I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.
And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shared my first name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.
Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.
Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.
Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. “Forgive me,” he said as he recognized each.
It was a moving moment, though not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma, nor keep it from continuing throughout the church today.
If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn’t the only time the service went off-script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn’t sound as the wafer was broken.
“Does that mean transubstantiation didn’t occur?” I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.
“It’s just for show,” he said with a wink—referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.
In that spirit I began to notice we too made mistakes in shul. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, Duluth’s Temple Israel is the warmest I’ve ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi—lovingly so—if he’s on the wrong page, or if the gabbai has passed someone by.
So it’s easy to stand on the bima now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and life.
My honor this year is calling the shofar sounds, and I’ll be thinking of those aspirations as I say tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.
I’ll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it’s no cardinal sin.
For many, Father’s Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.
When life gives my dad lemons, he isn’t the type to make the tried-and-true lemonade you can get anywhere. He’s the one who turns them into world-class lemon meringue pie. He’s always reaching for the next level, his motto being, “Above and beyond.” He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That’s how proud he was.
This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, “Hey, Alan!” Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father-in-law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry’s favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry’s face.
I am never more thankful for my dad’s army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, “We’re praying for you, Alan” replaced good-bye as the normal send off. I’m not certain that G-d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery’s toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, “Can you imagine the power of prayer?” Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.
It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother’s devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn’t able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post-operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.
I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad’s name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.
Because of my dad’s army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father’s day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who’s listening.
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Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be’chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King’s legacy means to them.
Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.
Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recounted Dr. King’s many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
My son was shaken. “Wasn’t Dr. King a good man?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why, then, was he in jail?”
Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G-d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.
I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.
As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.
Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, “he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful,” as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5’3,” but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.
Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King’s transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.
Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.
For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over-identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.
Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.
But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that’s King’s legacy: Because he didn’t get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.
Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be’chol Lashon’s first Birthright Israel trip.
I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it. Similarly, when the Torah insists “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue,” it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being. King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.
The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.
It is, after all, a question that does not (and probably should not) have a completely rational, logical answer. Religion is not like algebra; it’s not even some sort of complicated spiritual calculus. At the core of it, faith cannot be deduced from a set of rational principles; it requires a leap of the heart.
The problem was that I didn’t feel religious, not for a long time. I had spent years envying my friends who were confident in their Christian belief; I only had doubt to console me. And yet, I was also driven by some need, a quiet longing buried deep, like a song I could not quite hear, a desire for something greater than myself. I wanted to pray and feel like it mattered that I did.
Of course, I felt ridiculous for wanting these things; I felt that it was irrational to think I had any concern for God, or that God had any concern for me.
Once when I was small, I left a plastic purse behind in a restaurant. My grandma patiently took me back, and we found the purse still sitting on the floor where I had left it. Happy to have it back, I told her how lucky I was to have found it. She shook her head: “No, God was watching out for you.”
My grandma’s response sounded reasonable at the time. But as I grew in experience, I slowly came to the realization that God doesn’t rearrange his schedule around my convenience. God doesn’t even let me choose at which times these things will work out to my advantage. And so I prayed: O God, I wouldn’t mind losing now and then, if only I could choose when I win!
When I first started the process of conversion, I really didn’t think that I would ever become a Jew. It was inconceivable to me. As a friend of mine once exclaimed when I told her I was converting “you can’t become Jewish; that’s like saying ‘I want to be Italian” — you can’t just wake up one day and decide to become Italian.” But the truth is, I didn’ t just wake up one day and decide to become Jewish. It was a gradual process that took several years.
I would have to say the day I first considered converting to Judaism was the first time I saw a page of the Talmud. I was talking with my boyfriend (now my ex-husband) about my reason for disliking religion (it’s one of those conversations college students are bound to have) and I told him that I didn’t like the emphasis in religion on having faith in a certain set of beliefs. I felt that my church had not let me have room to doubt or to argue or to disagree. He said that Judaism did not insist on a set of beliefs; in fact, arguing was part of the tradition. I didn’t believe him, so he took me down to a bookstore, pulled out one of the volumes of the Talmud (the illustrated gift set, stored next to the presentation bibles). He was quite proud of himself: “See, this here in the middle is the text, and round the sides are the commentary. They’re arguing about the meaning of the text.” I was immediately intrigued. I could like a people who would write their arguments along the margins of the text.
That day, I started quietly reading about Judaism, hiding the books under my bed. Years later, my husband insisted that I buy just one Jewish book at a time. I was lucky, actually, because I was able to find what I was looking for: a warm religious community at Temple Beth El, and educational opportunities like an Introduction to Judaism, the Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, and the weekly Torah study. Maybe my grandma was right after all: God was watching out for me.
The question is sometimes also asked: Could I have found what I was looking for if I had stayed a Christian? The answer probably would have been yes. But it’s a moot point now. To paraphrase Robert Frost: I have taken the road less traveled, and for me that has made all the difference. Even so, I recognize that conversion is not the answer for everyone. It is a process a person goes through for their own reasons in their own time. It is, after all, a private choice, probably the most private choice of all. No one can make that decision for you.
So, to answer the question, why did I convert: I converted to Judaism because it provided me a way to answer the longing that I felt. Or to put it more poetically: I changed my name to Israel because I was wrestling with God.
If you’re exploring conversion or know people who are, we recommend Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for the Family and Friends.
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Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.
As part of a gap year between high school and college, I spent six months in Santiago, Chile. I was there partly to improve my Spanish, and partly to study music. I wasn’t expecting to meet any other Jews while in Santiago, Chile—the country is predominantly Catholic, and the Jewish population is vanishingly small compared to that of the US. Through a stroke of luck (and some of those Jewish connections that pop up where you least expect them), I ended up finding a home stay with a Jewish family in Santiago just a few weeks before arriving in Chile – and of course I immediately took the opportunity.
Just a few days after arriving in Chile, I went to my first Shabbat services with my host family, not really knowing what to expect. For Adon Olam the Rabbi sang a mariachi tune (complete with sombreros and guitars), which was by far the weirdest yet most entertaining rendition of Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard. I was fully prepared to accept this as Chilean Judaism, but, as I eventually figured out through my garbled Spanish, the mariachi was just a pre-Purim special. (In general services were much more similar to what I was used to from home, but now I’m starting to wish that home had a special pre-Purim Adon Olam performance too).
Before going to Chile, I’d only ever been a part of the Jewish community that I grew up in, so I can only guess which parts of my experience were uniquely Chilean and which were just a part of Judaism I had yet to see. For example, I suspect that there are not very many Jewish wedding receptions with all-night dancing outside of Chile. (My host mom told me ahead of time that it would be rude to leave much earlier than 3 am). I may be wrong about that, though, since the only other Jewish weddings I’ve been to were as a little kid. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, since I already found out that Hashkiveinu is not in fact a lullaby unique to Chile. (Imagine my surprise showing up at the my first Shabbat in college only to hear them singing a Chilean melody!)
Having already found this unexpected connection between Judaism in Chile and at home, I’m hopeful I’ll rediscover many of my Jewish experiences from Chile: meeting new friends at every Shabbat dinner; accompanying Shabbat melodies on my violin; celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut el Estadio Israelita (think Chilean JCC); going to the spunky, 100% student-run Chilean branch of Hashomer Hatzair. It’s a fantastic thing to have a thread of shared experience that connects me to others living in a country halfway across the globe, and I’m still discovering just how deep the connection goes.