Author Archives: Ruth Abusch Magder

Ruth Abusch Magder

About Ruth Abusch Magder

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be'chol Lashon and the editor of the blog Jewish&. A culinary historian and mother of 2, she lives and meditates in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @rabbiruth

Joy as an Answer to Death

tree-sky“How do I go on?”  I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?

Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.

In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.

On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”

Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.

I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.

Posted on September 18, 2013

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Give Up the Guilt: A Proposal for the New Year

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Here is a radical proposal for the New Year, forget the guilt, instead, lean into what you love to become the best possible version of yourself.

The liturgy for the Jewish New Year has us taking a long hard look at all the mistakes we have made over the previous twelve months. Soul searching is good, but for the most part if we are honest we already know where our faults lie and if we were able to change them with ease, we would have already done so.

This is not to say that we should forgo striving to be our best selves. On the Jewish calendar, the month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul in the Jewish calendar. One rabbinic interpretation of this name is that it is an acronym for the Hebrew Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. A lovely romantic notion, the rabbis also take it to be a tribute to God’s love for us. It is not accidental that the month leading up to the New Year is one that takes love as a main theme. Love can be a powerful force for change, easier to embrace and more satisfying than guilt.

There are many ways to use love as a means of encouraging yourself to its best self. Love exists on many planes, elevating any one of them improves the world. Here are three concrete suggestions that focus on love of self, love in relationships, and love as an element of community.

Make a list of the things you love about yourself. The list should have no less than 5 significant things on it. Take time to think about each of these attributes, why do you love this about yourself? Generosity? Creativity? Silliness? Ambition? Consider how each of these qualities helps you be a positive presence in the world. Think back to a time in your life when those elements of your self were being fully expressed. Are you making the most of these gifts right now? Ask yourself what you might do expand the impact of that strength in the world. If you are struggling to make a list, then ask for help from those around you to do so.

Part of the process of preparing for the New Year is repairing relationships. While I believe that apologies are important, taking time to focus on what works in relationships is important as well. Set aside time with those with whom you are close. Tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Give them examples of how this strength inspires you, or affirms something about the world. The more concrete the better. Knowing they are appreciated and truly seen for who they are will help them start the year in a better place and will strengthen your relationship. If there is repairing to be done, spelling out the love first will set the stage for positive engagement.

What do you love to do? Lean into your talents to make a difference in the community around you. Volunteering can be about need but it can also be about sharing a passion and capacity. Play sports? Then offer to coach little league. Bake? Then bring cookies to firefighters, bread to shut ins. Sing? Take your talent to the local hospital. Sure any of this takes time, but if you volunteer to do what you love you will get a great bang for your buck. The parts of you that you love will have a chance to shine and your passion will inspire others. Studies show those who give feel great. The world will be a better place.

When love takes center stage, we poise ourselves for success. When we feel strong about ourselves we are more capable of hearing the criticism that will undoubtedly come.  When we know we are loveable, loved and capable of sharing love then we can work toward making the New Year that Rosh Hashana ushers in, one of light, goodness and change.

Posted on August 22, 2013

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Where Children Pray

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Campers Praying at Camp Be’chol Lashon

“Why do we pray?” I asked before we entered our makeshift sanctuary. We had gathered at the cabins. Dressed in white, we walked along the road accompanying the Torah, the quiet solemn march was visually powerful. But even with this wonderful set up, part of me worried. I attend a great many Shabbat services in a variety of settings, formal and informal, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated. Far too often the young people have trouble engaging. They don’t sing along. They fidget. They talk. They don’t seem to pray.

So while the question was genuine, I was also hedging my bets. Trying to have the campers set up a framework that made sense to them and would allow them to find their own way into prayer. But I need not have worried. Kids pray at camp.

Throughout the summer, my social media networks –which admittedly have a strong clergy faction -have been filled with reports of inspiring prayer services at camps across the country. Early in the summer I had dinner with a woman in her 70s, who recalled the yearly ritual of a day spent in prayer each summer, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Over 50 years later, it remains one of the most powerful prayer experiences of her life. I can still recall sitting under the trees by the lake when I was not even ten years old and writing my own prayers. My pride at having my words included in our prayer book still resonates. I often hear adults mourn the really spiritual praying they were able to do at camp but eludes them as grown ups.

At Camp Be’chol Lashon where I work now, the campers lead the service. Some are very familiar with Jewish prayer while others are encountering it for the first time. In pairs or small groups they take their place in front of the community, explain, lead and engage. There is lots of music, some discussion, and tons of participation. It is a tight community. There is a sense of intimacy. The atmosphere is serious but relaxed. Campers easily offer up thing for which they are grateful, the names of those in their lives who are sick, the memories of those who have passed.

Away from camp, young people pray –but mostly it is a private affair- when the personal needs strikes. Judaism encourages communal prayer but outside of camp the tone is different, the sense of empowerment and fun can be lacking.

Spaces where children take the center stage for prayer are less common. Schools come with the baggage of expectations and evaluation. Youth group gathering are few. Most sanctuaries are dominated by adults and even on the occasion of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service when a child is welcomed into their growing role in the community, the adults, their rules, their seriousness and tunes dominate.

The campers at Camp Be’chol Lashon easily provided answers to my “why pray” query. “To talk with God.” “To let our wishes be known.” “To give voice to our hopes.” As I facilitated the short conversation, which also touched on the fact that one need not believe to participate, their answers reminded me that young people understand prayer in the abstract. The inspiring service that followed, was proof positive that given the tools, freedom and encouragement, young people can and do pray.

 

 

Posted on July 29, 2013

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The Middle School Prayer

Middle school Middle school is hard. Bodies betray young people as they lurch uncertainly towards adulthood. Emotions rear up and overtake sensibility and perspective. Desire for the other surprises, delights and overwhelms.

The result: drama, drama and more drama.

On the sports field or in the locker rooms, by text or by chat, during class or at camp, intentionally and more often without intention little actions, and sometimes big ones, are hurtful, or perceived hurtfully, or are downright idiotic. Seriously–insert eye roll.

And to make it worse everyone is talking about you. You are not just imaging it. They are. Everyone is looking to the left and the right, watching to see what exactly is the right move, the wrong move, the way forward.

The thing about middle schoolers is that they are just working to figure it out. Adults know, there are no simple answers. But middle schoolers are just emerging from that precious time of life when they held on the notions of perfect solutions, the right and wrong way to do things, heroes and happy endings. Middle schoolers are lost in a sea of unclear possibilities without the tools or power to contend with the complexity of the increasing challenging world that they are discovering. Wisdom will likely come but it has not yet arrived.

These were some of the thoughts that were swishing about in my brain as I recently came to the end of the central silent prayer at an evening service. It is one of my favorites. I don’t remember when it became so beloved but as I read it, it dawned on me that it may have been during middle school. It ought to be renamed The Middle School Prayer.

It pleads with a personal God, after all being in middle school is all about “me, me, me.” Ultimately it is when everything is about me that things inevitably start to go wrong. It asks for help with stopping all those things that are on the tip of our tongue from actually tumbling out. It asks for help figuring out how to do the right thing and to foil the plans of those who scheme against us. But ultimately it moves beyond the personal, to remind God, that this help is needed for the sake of the whole community. Every little bit less crazy talk and nastiness make it all better. It ends with a fervent plea to “Save with Your power, and answer me,” because ultimately that is what we are hoping for, to find the answers, to be saved from ourselves and the people around us.

I think that it is still one of my favorite prayers because for me, as for many of us, the bewilderment of middle school never entirely disappears. As adults we are blessed with frontal cortexes that are more fully developed and often the patience, perspective and wisdom that goes with aging. But still. We still say the wrong thing. We still have people talking behind our backs. We confront situations that put us at a loss. So what to do? For me The Middle School Prayer (officially know as Elohai N’tzor) continues to resonate. I think of it as my moral compass, reminding me what I am continually striving for.

Read it in a translation of the original. If it feels too Jewy, feel free to substitute “Your Wisdom” for “Your Torah” “Your vision” for “Your mitzvot” –it still works.

Let me know what you think and whether it resonates for you.

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.

Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.

Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.

As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.

Act for Your own sake, for the sake of Your Power,

for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah,

so that Your loved ones may be rescued.

Save with Your power, and answer me.

Posted on May 30, 2013

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The Jewish World At My Door

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Journalist Simone Weichselbach Winner of the 2013 Be’chol Lashon Media Award

I love the idea of the global nature of the Jewish world a lot. I love the reality even more.  For one weekend each year, the international community with whom I normally connect via Skype, email, and Facebook materializes in person. Each spring, Be’chol Lashon—the organization where I serve as the Rabbi-in-Residence—convenes a Think Tank in San Francisco. A small group of leaders are invited to come together to study, connect and learn. Each year we focus on a different topic and bring together those whose experience and knowledge can help us move the conversation about the global nature of Jewish life and the diversity of our community.

We will begin tomorrow night, much as we always do, with welcoming Shabbat together. The tunes will be Ugandan, Sephardic, American and European Ashkenazi. Rabbis will sit with poets, scholars with activists, secular with religious, Spanish speakers with Anglophones.  Old friends will be reunited and new connections will be made. At the service on Shabbat morning, there will be many rabbis but no single leader. Throughout, the energy is bound to be tremendous.

To state the obvious, those who come together are a diverse group. There is no single vision of what Judaism is, no agreement on how we express our Jewish identities and as a result there are challenges as well. There is no easy agreement on how we pray or even if we should pray at all. Each of must confront the assumptions we make about Jewish community and identity.

Last year when our focus was Latin America, I sat up late into the night with two rabbis, both Argentinean born one serving a community in Mexico the other in Panama. We discussed the complex issue of what is meant by the term Latino. Our understandings differed greatly based on geography and reading of history. I was sharing that in the context of American life, those coming from south of the border, rightly or wrongly, are seen as part of the broadly based Latino community. To my colleagues this was absurd, they see themselves as no different than me—a Jew of European decent, not Latino at all. For several hours we pulled apart the nuances of language, geography and history. It was a productive conversation, helping me to understand how much our context shapes our assumptions and complicates communication.

At Be’chol Lashon, we embrace our differences seeing the core of the flexibility that has allowed Judaism to flourish over the generations in so many different environments.

This year our theme this year is leadership. Throughout the year we work in partnership with UJA/Federation in New York City, for example, to identify and nurture the leadership of Jewish groups that are outside the Woody Allen/Al Jolson mold. Building on our experience and expertise, we will be taking time throughout the Think Tank to talk about models of leadership and to learn together about ways to strengthen our abilities. During Shabbat we will study biblical models of leadership. On Saturday night we will celebrate 5 young leaders, musicians, artists, activists and journalists whose work exemplifies the best of what the growing multicultural Jewish community has on offer. On Sunday, we will be hearing learning how our own stories hold the key to our success.

For those who lead small communities, the opportunity to participate brings many blessings. Participating in the Be’chol Lashon Think Tank  gives all leaders the opportunity to acquire new skills. They get to take time to reflect  and strengthen their ability to succeed. But for those, like the leaders of the tiny Adat Israel Reform community in Guatemala City,  for whom it is a life line. They are deeply knowledgable –on a recent trip we spoke for hours about the value of Reform approaches to halakah. But much of their learning is from books or online. They do not  have ongoing interaction with other Jewish leaders. The opportunity to connect with other Jews is the essential antidote to religious and cultural isolation. To share their own experiences validates and strengthens their sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

For all in attendance, being together in one place challenges and shapes our understanding of K’lal Yisrael, the totality that is the complex diverse global people of Israel. To learn from the strength of others and also from their challenges is a unique opportunity. Each year my sense of what is Jewish is stretched. Jewish leaders are always talking about the need to open ourselves to the complex modern reality, to question business as usual and to look to the future. The Be’chol Lashon Think Tank is a wonderful model.

 

Posted on May 2, 2013

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Let Your Kids Forget Their Lunch

The other day my son called just as I was getting ready to lock the front door. He had forgotten the camera he needed for photography class, would I be willing to bring it to his school on my way to work?

I am usually the last one to leave the house in the morning. This means that if a pair of cleats or a lunch is left behind, I see it. Usually I sigh. Sometimes after having reminded and reminded, I seethe. Rarely do I do anything about it.

Call me mean. Call me crazy.

Just know this, my kids don’t think of me that way.

Here is what they know. They know they have to be responsible partners in their own lives. They know I trust them to figure it out –even if I don’t know what the “it” is. They know how to solve problems of all sorts.

Sure, sometimes they go a little hungry or have to sit out or wear something entirely inappropriate for the activity –it is true shorts are much better than jeans when playing basketball, but so it goes. None of these things is life threatening. Unfortunate or uncomfortable sure, but dangerous –not at all.

My children know that small problems are really not a reason to give up, stop trying, or sit out and are by no means the end of the earth.

When the people of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained often about how terrible things were. Each time God threatened a not so natural consequence. Moses was there to defend them, to put things right. Not surprisingly, when Moses, disappeared for 40 days, and they got anxious. They were used to having someone resolve their problems for them. They did not have faith that they could endure the discomfort. So they made a stupid choice –yes there are times when there is no way around acknowledging stupidity. God threatened annihilation. And Moses, like a typical helicopter parent, swooped in defending and excusing their behavior.

It is not surprising that it took forty years for the Israelites to grow up and move on.

I don’t have 40 years. My children will leave my home at 18 and while I will always be there to help when a serious crisis occurs, I won’t be there to bring them their lunch or forgotten homework, or take away discomfort. When the day comes, I need them to walk out my front door knowing that they can go wandering in the desert on their own and find their own path to their destination, even though there will be bumps or moments of disappointment along the way.

Most of us learn this eventually, it is what makes us successful and empowered as adults. But by letting my children cope with lack of cleats or lunch bags, I am giving them opportunities to grow and experience incrementally and appropriately, making this process less shocking.

When my son called that morning, I had just that week come back from two weeks travelling. During my absence his father had been away for a few days as well. Our teen had been in the house on his own for 5 nights. There had been no panicked phone calls, no angry emails, even though as he had reported there were moments of loneliness and doubt. I was confident in his capacity to navigate on his own. So I hesitated not a moment and told him I would glad to bring him his camera.

Posted on March 7, 2013

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Let’s Get Real About Marriage and Parenting

“Being a diplomat is no career for a woman who wants to have a family,” said the consul.

“By the time you’re ready to get married he’ll be married,” said my mother.

“Don’t put off having children,” said the prominent professor.

David and Oren Pride

Proud of my family, aware of my choices.

Jane Eisner’s recent editorial Marriage Agenda brought back me to the 80s and 90s. As I finished high school, made my way through college and began graduate school, my elders were filled with advice about family planning. In the Jewish community, where concerns of assimilation reached a fever pitch, there was a very strong chorus that promoted marriage and childbearing. Eisner’s piece, which laments the high rates of intermarriage, the delaying of marriage, or even choosing not getting married sounded eerily like a retro recording of days gone by.

As a young woman, I followed the wisdom I received. I was married by 25 and had my first child in my twenties and my second by 32. I did miscarry but I was young and healthy and conception followed with ease. In my 40s, I have healthy older children and a strong marriage.

But to suggest that this has been an easy path or one that comes without costs is foolish. I was still very much figuring out who I wanted to be when I met the man I married. Instead of going off to Israel and entering rabbinical school, I stayed in the United States. Coming to understand myself in relationship to him would mean nearly a decade before I realized my desire to go to rabbinic school. And realizing that dream –while raising two small children-took a toll on our marriage. Having our children before our careers were launched was financially challenging. Studies have shown that delaying childbearing for educated professionals correlates with significantly higher lifetime earning potential. As we face paying for college this is something I worry about. I do not regret my choices but am realistic about the trade offs. It is too simplistic to recommend that we encourage marriage and early childbearing. Continue reading

Posted on January 10, 2013

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Intermarriage and Multicultural Families

Like it or not, intermarriage is a fact in Jewish life.

Sarah and Kirk Spencer: A Modern Jewish Family

And for the most part the Jewish community has learned to live with it. Sure, different movements deal with it differently. Sure, some congregations are more adept and accommodating. But from Renewal to Orthodox we no longer assume that a Jew by birth will marry another Jew by birth.

But as demographics shift in the United States, the nature of intermarriage is changing too. And the Jewish community will need to adapt if it hopes to continue to create spaces for these new Jewish families.

In particular, my concern is with multiracial and multicultural families. There is nothing new about Jews from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews in Ethiopia centuries before there were Jews in Poland and Jews in India before there were Jews in Spain. Jewish institutional life in the United States, however, has largely been built on the presumption that Jews are white. And our welcome to interfaith couples has similarly assumed that intermarriages between one white Jew and one white non-Jew.

But interracial marriages are at an all time high in the Unites States, a trend that is expected to continue as the population becomes increasingly more diverse. And Jewish households are clearly part of this trend.

We will need to change our language and approach in order to live up to the welcoming image we have of ourselves. Having become accustomed to Jews who have blond hair and blue eyes or wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, we need to be open to those with dreadlocks or who celebrate Cinco de Mayo.  Because these new members of our extended community come from many different backgrounds, we cannot make assumptions about how they understand religion, community, or family. We will have to personalize our approach. We need to meet others who see Jews not just as a religious minority but as part of the white establishment. We need to broaden our own learning, so that we understand and appreciate the cultural challenges and gifts that they bring.

In the last year I’ve attended several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that exemplify the power of embracing multiracial, multicultural Jewish families. At one service, the boy chanted from the Torah while wearing a Korean hanbok. Blessings were said in English and Korean as well as the traditional Hebrew. At another the bar mitzvah spoke of being half Japanese, half Australian and fully Jewish in a synagogue decorated with origami chains for the occasion. At another, the bat mitzvah took the occasion to also take on a traditional Japanese name sharing her multiple new identities with the congregation.  In each case conversations had to be had about how to bring together multiple elements of identity into what is so clearly a Jewish setting. In each case, thought and respect were evident throughout.

These are the success stories, families who feel fully welcome, fully empowered.  They are passing on Jewish traditions even as they expand them. They shine of an example of that to which we can all aspire.

Posted on December 13, 2012

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Wrong Blessing. Right.

Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.

Automatically I offered the blessing, Blessed are you Adonai, creator of the universe who has commanded us to wash our hands. To which she offered a heartfelt AMEN!

The moment could not have been more perfect.

Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.

Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.

In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.

Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.

I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.

Posted on November 15, 2012

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Why Choose Judaism?

But why would they choose Judaism?

This is a question I hear often. In my work helping to celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that is endemic to the Jewish community, I also have the privilege of connecting with many people who have chosen to become Jewish. In Jewish tradition, when someone becomes Jewish the community is meant to accept them as they are, not to dwell on their status as a convert. Yet often, converts are met with curiosity or worse, suspicion. From Jews by choice, I hear that this can often feel like personal rejection.

Rabbinic Beit Din meets with converts in Santa Marta, Columbia, photo by Peter Svarzbein

Whenever I am asked about why people choose Judaism, I recall late night dorm conversations I had as a college student. A good friend was studying to be a cantor. He had grown up in Europe, in a country without a strong Jewish past, in a family that had no Jewish past. A chance encounter with Jews on Purim pulled him into the Jewish orbit and eventually he made the choice to make Judaism his own. We spent many hours talking about Judaism, I did not for a minute doubt his commitment or his place in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, time and again, I repeatedly returned to ask him why he had chosen Judaism.

At the time, I was struggling. I had not chosen Judaism and it felt like a burden that I could not escape. While I went through the motions of observance and community, I was pained by so much in our tradition particularly as it related to women’s roles, hierarchy and power. Israel, which had once been the idealized center of my Jewish identity, had given way to the complex realities of adult understanding. My awareness of the legacy of anti-Semitism robbed me of the ability to imagine true security. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose the very thing that on some level I wished I could escape?

There is nothing more that I love about being a rabbi, than hearing those who choose Judaism explain their choice –which they do as part of the conversion process. Jews by choice come to Judaism without the baggage that Jews from birth carry. Time and again, I hear that the ambiguities of Judaism, the very thing that was so challenging for me as young woman, are among the things that newcomers value in Judaism. Just like Jews by birth, they struggle with difficult issues like women’s rights or the State of Israel, but they feel confident that whatever struggles they have fit into the flexible but enduring Jewish framework. Among Jews by birth, I often hear that learning Hebrew was the bane of Jewish childhood. And yet as the member of a conversion board, I’ve heard grown men wax eloquently about the power of learning an ancient language and unlocking timeless wisdom by studying it in the original. In Uganda, where Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has officiated at hundreds of conversions, it is the magic of Shabbat- which allows people to stop work, come together with other, focus on the finer things- which is the most powerful draw. Those choosing Judaism see joy and possibilities. They accept the complexities as part of the beauty of the system they are entering into. Judaism through their eyes never fails to inspire me.

I know that for some portion of the Jewish by birth population it is hard to accept that a person from Scandinavia, the mountains in Peru, or plains of Africa- who does not know about gefilte fish, did not have ancestors forced to leave a homeland, and knows not from Woody Allen- can or should be part of the Jewish people. And this is highly problematic. But often, I think that the questions to converts or to me, as a rabbi who often has the privilege of working with individual converts as well as communities of converts, speak to deep seated ambivalence and struggles, even shame about our own Jewishness. I did in the end emerge from my struggles and find my own answers, but not before I inflicted my own ambivalence and doubt on my friend. Our own challenges and doubts need to be addressed, but not at the cost of making newcomers feel unwelcome.

This summer I had a conversation with a group of sixth grade students at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires. Discussing diversity of Jews  around the world, they fixed on the concept of conversion. They wanted to know what conversations rabbis have with a conversion student when they sit at the biet din, “court” for conversion.I explained that each conversation is unique but then turned the question back at them. Forced to consider what they might say, they came up with some pretty compelling answers: peoplehood, ritual, customs, Israel. But more important than the content was the realization that they had answers for themselves. Ultimately, no matter how inspiring, someone else’s answer about why they have chosen Judaism will never take the place of each Jew finding his or her own reasons to be Jewish.

Joy and celebration in Santa Marta, Columbia after conversions are complete, picture by Peter Svarzbein

What are yours?

 

Posted on October 18, 2012

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