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.
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.
What are yours?
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.
In 1850 two men found themselves standing under a tree near the famous Recoleta Cemetery in the center of Buenos Aires. Each man was carrying a small book and reading to himself. It was Yom Kippur and each man prayed silently to himself without saying a word, even though they each knew what the other was doing. After finishing their prayers they started to talk and they agreed to meet next year and to try to find some more Jews. The year after this story the first minyan took place for Yom Kippur and they decided to found the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, the first Jewish Institution in Argentina.
When I asked Rabbi Guido Cohen about the history of Jewish life in Argentina, this was the legend he shared, truth or fiction it is hard to say, but as he pointed out the tree is still there.
The roots of Jewish life in Argentina are relatively new, prior to the late 1800s there had been a small smattering of Sephardic Jews who had come to the country but the Inquisition followed and all signs of Jewish life disappeared. The eradication of the Inquisition in 1813 paved the way for the potential of Jewish life but it was not until the very end of the 19th century that large numbers of Jews began to settle in Argentina.
Today Argentina is the home to the world’s largest Spanish speaking Jewish community. There are over 250,000 Jews in Argentina, most living in Buenos Aires. The earliest European Jewish settlers, however, initially made their homes on the Pampas, the vast Argentinean plains, where it was common to find Jewish cowboys.
In many ways Jewish life in Buenos Aires bears a strong resemblance to Jewish life in any major North American city. There are a myriad of synagogues, Jewish organizations and schools. The arts scene is vibrant and there a Conservative Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, which like it’s American counterparts, trains rabbis. On a recent Friday, I attended a Shabbat Service in the center of the city. The tunes were a recognizable mix of contemporary liturgical music used in the United States.
But even as it is familiar, there is no mistaking Buenos Aires for Boston or Los Angeles. While visiting, Rabbi Cohen offered to take me to see a local synagogue, which he promised, would be quite special. Walking into the courtyard and then the sanctuary of Amijai, it was easy to understand what he was talking about. Set amidst greenery, the building is modern and rounded, the sanctuary made of Jerusalem stone and the acoustics state of the art.
But it was Cohen’s comment as we left that reminded us of exactly where we were, “not only is this the most beautiful shul in the city, it is also the safest.”
Concern for safety is real. In 1994, the Jewish Community Center was bombed and 85 people were killed and over 200 wounded. Moving around town with the World Union of Progressive Judaism we were never without our security team. Moreover, the economic instability that plagued the country in 2001 led to significant migration to Israel, the United States, Spain and Canada. As proud as Argentineans are, they have reasons to worry too.
Still Jewish life is vibrant and uniquely Latin American. Though concerns about safety abound, there are 1,500 students at the Tarbut Jewish school where Rabbi Cohen directs Jewish life and learning, and this is only one of many openly Jewish schools. Jewish children are educated to be multi lingual. Though not particularly religious –the numbers for intermarriage that I heard while there varied but were around 50% – people are proud to be Jewish. Recently, the city elected Rabbi Sergio Bergman to an important seat on the city council. Buenos Aires boasts more than a dozen kosher eateries including the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. The popular ten member Samaj band has a really local flavor. It plays a mix of Klezmer, Israeli and Latin music, that had us dancing for hours one night at our conference.
Today the Recoleta Cemetery is in the center of one of Buenos Aires’ most posh neighborhood which buzzes with life at all hours of the day and night. It is hard to imagine that it was ever a place where two Jews might find some quiet for reflection on Yom Kippur. Yet, if those fabled men were by some extraordinary means to come looking for Jewish life in Buenos Aires today they would be far from alone as they were just over a century and a half ago, instead they would be in the midst of the worlds most vibrant Jewish communities. The biggest question they would face would be choosing which synagogue to attend!
I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.
Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews, for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.
The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.
Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.
A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.
Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.
The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.
When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”
I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.
There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.
Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.
Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful
Jordan, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Ethiopian, has been Jewish for 12 years and involved with Judaism for more than half his of his life. But only recently he decided to publically come out of the closet about being gay.
Growing up in Baltimore, Jordon did not have a strong Black identity. His diverse group of friends and his interest in punk rock – he shaved his head and sported a Mohawk for a while- set him apart from other black kids. But even as a young kid others identified him as gay and bullied him. Yet as a teen, when he was drawn both to drag and to an observant life, he felt he had to choose between his identities. And so being gay was not officially part of the equation for many years. Ironically, as he became more observant and involved in the hassidic community, being black became more central to his sense of self. Eventually, however, hiding part of himself, meant that he felt less able to fully embrace the mitzvot that originally drew him to Judaism.
So for Jordan, coming out is a coming together of all of the elements of his self. Speaking by phone he explained, “Prioritizing identities, that’s a concept does that does not exist, I am never more one thing than another… now I am able to express myself fully.”
While there are those in the Orthodox world who have condemned him for coming out, the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Both the hip hop and Orthodox worlds have reputations for being homophobic but Jordan’s experience since coming out publically in Out Magazine suggests that the world is changing. Last week rap impresario Russell Simmons reached out and so did some prominent Orthodox rabbis. It makes him wish he had taken this step years ago.
Y-Love has long been a role model for Jews of color, advocating for diversity in the Jewish community. Now he has added the LGBTQ community to the list of those he seeks to motivate and strengthen. “I’ve heard from a trans woman who says I’ve inspired her to continue studying towards conversion to Judaism and from other rappers who say they wish they had my courage to come out,” says Jordan clearly gratified that his choice to come out is inspiring others.
Not in a million years would I have imagined that becoming a rabbi would lead to this.
Hora and rabbis go together to be certain, but in conjunction with mariachi? Seriously? But in this setting, nothing could have been more fitting than the juxtaposition of castanets and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
We were in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the closing gala of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL). The music, the food, and the setting –the historic courtyard of city hall- were a perfect fit.
For the most part American Jews, and by this I really mean Jews living in the United States, rarely if ever think of Jewish life south the border. If we are to go by size, this oversight might be forgiven. There are only 40,000 Jews in Mexico and in Guadalajara a mere 500. But as our 5 days in Guadalajara proved, size is by no means the only measure when it comes to Jewish life.
All the communities that belong to the UJCL are small; at 180 members the Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara is no exception. Yet, the community put their heart and soul into opening up their home to us and to showcasing what it means to be Mexican Jews and they succeeded.
I was met at the airport (at the very delayed hour of 1am) by Louis and Roxanne. As we drove to the hotel, I learned that every Friday night the entire community comes together to share Shabbat dinner, the sense of belonging is real. There is no Jewish school in the city, but the children are very engaged in congregational life, getting up for minyan weekly. Indeed, when we came to the synagogue on for services all but one part of the Torah reading was done by teens. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen that in any community in the United States. Moreover, the 180 members of the community absorbed nearly their number of guests inviting us into their homes for dinner on Friday night.
The members of Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara are also very proud of their Mexican heritage. In addition to the sessions on Jewish life in Central America and the Torah learning, we experienced some of the cultural sights and sounds of the area with visit not only to the historic city hall but also the Cabañas Cultural Institute – a Unesco World Heritage site, with extraordinary murals and architecture. Like the Mariachi music to which we were treated, the tequila is a local specialty. The town of Tequila is located near the edge of this bustling city.
The Jews of Guadalajara are deeply connected to both their Jewish and Mexican roots, proud of both elements of their heritage. Ahead of Cinco de Mayo, I asked Rabbi Joshua Kullock the rabbi of Comunidad Judia about this dual identity and how he sees it in his community. “Take a look at the video we made singing the Hatikvah,” he suggested. I did, and recommend you do too. Young and old, singers and crooners, with accents that belie their Spanish mother tongue, these Jews remind us of how communities can come together, bringing together multiple identities to help create and share meaning.
This Cinco de Mayo, I’ll raise a glass tequila to my friends in Guadajara and thank God for a rabbinate that includes this.
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
A few years back, the son of friends wore a green shirt to school on St. Patrick’s Day that said “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” The response from his teachers, “You’re not Irish, you’re Jewish.”
To many people it might seem odd to think of Jews celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. But for Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler and many other Irish Jews or Jews of Irish decent, nothing seems more natural. Rabbi O’Donell Adler goes out of her way each year on St. Patrick’s Day to dress in green and wish everyone a happy holiday. Not a big fan of pubs or of corned beef (she is a vegetarian) she makes sure to call family members, send cards and share the luck of the Irish on this special day. O’Donell Adler was raised Jewish but her father was Irish Catholic. While she did not adopt his religion she is proud of her ethnic heritage. When she married Jeremy Adler, she could have dropped the O’Donnell and all the questions that come with it, but chose not too. On the contrary, she fought long and hard to make sure that the entire name was displayed prominently on her ID badge at the University of Michigan Hospitals where she is a chaplain. Does it cause confusion or negative comments? “No,” laughs O’Donnell Adler, on the contrary it is frequent positive conversation starter.
The Irish American longing for Ireland, is something that resonates strongly with Michal Morris Camille of Marin CA. Morris Camille was born in Israel but her father was born in Belfast. As a diplomat representing the government of Israel, the family lived all over the world but always saw Israel as home. Even as a representative of the Israeli government he was still seen as Irish and called on to sit in the grandstand at St. Patrick’s Day parades or judge Irish beauty contests.
In many ways, the American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day fits easily with Jewish life. Though it’s origins are clearly religious, St. Patrick’s Day as it is celebrated in the United States is a largely ethnic diasporic holiday, which helps those living at a distance affirm a commitment to homeland, that may exist only in realm of longing not in the realm of experience. The ability to gather and celebrate a common heritage, to recall the place from which one originates, is common to both Jews and Irish living outside their homelands. The broadening out of this particularistic ethnic celebration into the mainstream of American life provides a model for Jews as we continue to integrate into American life. So whether or not your roots lie in the Emerald Isle or elsewhere, happy St. Patrick’s Day.