At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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Where is this rabbi?
What is the rabbi wearing?
What is this rabbi doing?
And finally… was that rabbi you pictured a man, or a woman?
When I asked this series of questions at a Sisterhood Shabbat service a few weeks ago in Mississippi, more than half the congregants said they pictured a male rabbi. This was not surprising to me. Men filled this role for hundreds of years, and the idea of a male rabbi is part of our tradition. But it is also important for us to consider the role women have in leading our communities and embrace them as leaders. I will go ahead and tell you right now that I am especially invested in this conversation, because I plan to enroll in rabbinical school and hope to serve as a congregational rabbi.
When I spoke on this topic at Sisterhood Shabbat, I called on the congregation to empower women as leaders in the Jewish community. I was especially adamant that women rabbis receive equal pay, which is not yet a reality. These sentiments were mostly well-received, as I believe they would be in many congregations I visit. Most people have adjusted to the idea that women can be rabbis and that they should be treated with respect, but some communities are not quite sure how to do that.
In my travels across the South I have come across some interesting questions related to the role of women as rabbis. One thing I have found very interesting is the Name Question. As in, should rabbis be addressed as “Rabbi (last name)?” “Rabbi (first name)?” Just by a first name? I have met rabbis who employ each of these combinations and their reasons for doing so are compelling. Those who choose to go by their first names do so because it creates a closer relationship and allows them to do more sincere pastoral care. At the same time, calling clergy by their title and last name is a tradition which many people feel is a necessary sign of respect. I think there is an added layer of nuance for female rabbis, who might struggle to command an appropriate level of respect and who might choose to go by their last names to help with this issue.
Speaking of what to call someone, people in the communities I visit are often riveted by the question of what to call a woman rabbi’s husband in place of “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish word used for a rabbi’s wife. Some suggestions I have gathered include rebbetz-bro, rebbetz-him, rebbetz-sir, and “the luckiest man in the world.” These questions and related suggestions are funny, but they also show that the concept of a woman rabbi is still relatively fresh, and we still have some details to work out.
Being an ISJL Education Fellow has prepared me for some of the challenges I expect to face as a young female rabbi. You might be shocked to learn that teachers, directors, and congregants are not always excited to take advice or direction from a 23-year-old. I have been learning to present myself in a dynamic, professional way that convinces these people to take me seriously despite my age. I expect the strategies I have learned to cope with this issue will be useful as I go forward. Being a Fellow has also confirmed for me how much I love to help Jewish communities grow to their fullest potential and how much I do, in fact, want to be a rabbi.
When I close my eyes, I can even picture it.
 According to a study published by the CCAR, women head rabbis receive, on average, as little as 80%-93% as much pay as their male counterparts.
 Thanks to the HUC Rabbinical School in Israel class of 2007 for the first two suggestions.