When a Congregation Makes You Feel Like You Don’t Fit In

On forgiving (or not) a spiritual community that has judged you unfairly.  

At the High Holidays, we ask God for forgiveness, and we ask people in our lives for forgiveness. At this time of year, we may also consider if and how to forgive others who have wronged us — in word or in deed or by slight, advertently or inadvertently. Should a person forgive (and if so, how should they go about forgiving) a spiritual community that has made them feel “othered” — perhaps because of race, disability or gender identity — instead of an integral part of the community?

Our spiritual communities should be places of affirmation and validation. Yet when they miss the mark, they can manage to turn one’s search for fellowship and connection into a painful experience of alienation. Situations like these can present chances to do right by one another, as the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches, before seeking Divine atonement.

If a community has “othered” you unknowingly, you might choose to approach them directly. After all, if they do not know that they have hurt you, they certainly will not know how to right their behavior. They may think that Yom Kippur has helped them completely atone, not realizing they still had more interpersonal work to do. By sharing your negative experience directly, you could be facilitating a meaningful opportunity for them engage in teshuvah, returning to their best selves.

Alternately, you may not want, or be able, to become a “teacher,” expending precious emotional labor to help the offending community learn from its actions. Or perhaps the community has knowingly “othered” you. In such situations, “forgiveness” might entail a personal process of accepting their beliefs or actions for what they are, however painful, and permitting yourself not to associate with that community. Such “forgiveness” would thus manifest between you and yourself, or between you and the Divine, as you work to accept your feelings, your experiences, and your need to continue your spiritual search elsewhere.

However you proceed, know that you are not alone. There are spiritual communities that would welcome you, and that would welcome this type of feedback. At this time of renewal, may you have the strength to continue searching for a spiritual home that will welcome you for the fullness of who you are.

Rabbi Max Chaiken was ordained in 2018 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and he currently serves as the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.  He loves writing of all sorts — prose, poetry, and music, and enjoys taking long walks with his husband, Rabbi Danny Shapiro, and their dog, Oogie.

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