All One People?

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

After his re-election to the presidency Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama said that we are not just red states and blue states but that we are the United States of America. He asked for greater cooperation amongst the two major parties for the good of the American people.

This sparked my thoughts again about pluralism and partisanship. The lead-up to this election seemed much more divisive than any previous campaign. Folks seem much more attached to defending their position than they have before. But I am not convinced that most of America is so polarized. I think there are many more people who are in the moderate middle than is expressed in the media.

I’m not sure where the moderate middle is in Judaism. We, also, seem to have become more polarized as a people just as Americans were portrayed during this election season. I’ve been finding it difficult to feel that we are all one Jewish people when Anat Hoffman is arrested and detained by police during an Hadassah celebration at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles, says that the Anat Hoffman incident is a blip; that actually, pluralism is increasing in Israel at a slow and steady rate.

When I see Hasidic and other Orthodox Jewish women covered head to toe (wig or scarf, long sleeves, stockings, long skirts) and Hasidic men in fur-trimmed hats even in the high heat and humidity of summer, these don’t seem like my people.

 

The photo above is of a fenced community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Swan Lake, New York. My mother spent 10 summers of her childhood at her grandparents’ home in Swan Lake in the Catskill Mountains. I wanted to see this place, because I’d heard so many stories. The only Jews and synagogues I saw were ultra-Orthodox. These don’t seem like my people.

My teen children spent 3 weeks this past summer at a socialist Zionist youth camp in the Catskills (hence my mini tour of Swan Lake) near Liberty, New York. Other than what my teens brought to the programming, there was very little Judaica present. While the camp was filled with Jews (many of whom spoke Hebrew), it seemed like Judaism and Jewish culture were mostly absent. Are we still Jews without Judaism? I question whether these are my people, too.

Sometimes I feel that Orthodox and Liberal Jews have become like the Catholics and the Protestants. We started at the same place, with the same practices and beliefs, but we’ve diverged tremendously.

Many of my clients in my interfaith outreach work are on the fringes of the Jewish community. They have very little Jewish education, but they are spiritually searching. It is my honor to learn from them and to teach them as they prepare life cycle ceremonies for themselves, their families, and friends. My goal is to present Judaism in the most compelling, interesting, entertaining, and meaningful way so that they will want to be members of the Jewish community. I want them to be my people. (The photo below is of my colleague Rabbi Julia Weisz officiating at a wedding for 2 of my students.)

So, I’m searching for my people. I used to know that Reform Jews were my people. We stood for social justice, for being a light unto the nations, for making the world a better place for everyone. We weren’t so interested in mouthing prayers or doing meaningless rituals. We wanted ritual and spirituality with meaning, prayers that spoke to us in our language as a community in God’s image, good works in the world. I’m not sure this is the Reform movement today. We are in transition as a movement, in the midst of a paradigm shift that currently seems leaderless.

I’m still searching for my people.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles, specializing in interfaith weddings and outreach.

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