by Kari Tuling
Like all Jewish professionals, I read the recent Pew study with great interest: what does it have to say about our Jewish future? What can we do to ensure continuity?
I also read it, however, in the context of my own life history. At the age of sixteen, I was deeply involved in my church and the president of my church youth group. At the age of seventeen, I left the church for good, vehemently disavowing anything having to do with religion.
What happened? What caused such a shift in attitude? And what insights might we gain from this experience, particularly as they relate to the Pew study?
Like many children, I had a best friend at school and we were inseparable. When we were eleven, just before my sixth-grade school year, her brother accused us of being lesbian lovers. I say ‘accused’ because this was a conservative community in the mid-eighties. There was, in that context, no worse crime to be committed.
We were of course much too young to be lovers in any sense of the term, so in retrospect it’s odd that anyone listened to him, much less believed him. But he had hit upon a partial truth: my friend was in fact a nascent lesbian. His mother panicked in response to his ‘outing’ of his sister and pulled her from our public school. She also forbade her from ever seeing me again, as if that would change anything (it didn’t).
Not only was I left to face the school year alone, bereft of my best friend, but also her mother’s rash actions only seemed to confirm the rumor. Scandalized, my fellow classmates pretended I didn’t exist. I was suddenly, inexplicably rendered completely invisible to my peers for an entire school year. They would ignore my speech, walk into me in the hallways, talk past me in the classroom. I was utterly, absolutely, completely invisible. I cannot even begin to convey the loneliness of that year.
That year, however, I did have two places of refuge: my family and my church. The teachers and youth group advisors would not let that behavior continue within the confines of our classrooms and lounge. There I was fully visible and known. There I could escape the choking loneliness of my school experiences.
Eventually, when our elementary school fed into the larger junior high school, the ban against talking to me was lifted and I made some new friends. By the time I was sixteen, I was ready to try and talk about my experiences in theological terms. I started asking questions in confirmation class – the pesky questions of a brainy and intense teen. I started looking for answers, and challenging some of the things that my pastor told me.
I suppose that, in my pastor’s defense, he probably did not know what had happened. I suppose that, in his defense, he was not aware of how hollow his theology sounded.
Regardless, his answers came up short, far short. He thought that it was fine to revile homosexuals, as they were sinners. They deserved what they got. And there were other issues as well: he didn’t seem to take my theological questions seriously. Or, for that matter, he didn’t seem take any females seriously. He spoke of infinite love – but then make it clear that this love was only available if you were the right kind of person. I didn’t dare tell him that I had been accused of being a homosexual. I didn’t dare tell him I found that accusation itself really confusing, as I didn’t think it was true. I didn’t dare tell him that I couldn’t see why it was such a problem if it were to be true. I just gave him a wan smile and looked for the door. Get me out of here.
Why did I have such a negative reaction to his answers? His worldview didn’t give me room to exist on my own terms. I had lost my best friend and become persona non grata, yet he seemed to think that such collateral losses were acceptable – necessary, even. I either had to reject what he was saying or reject my own life-experience. I chose to renounce my religion rather than renounce my life.
Eventually, I made my way to Judaism, to find a Reform congregation that was clearly committed to equality and compassion. I found a community that I could trust. I found a home. I found a community that would acknowledge that sometimes life goes wildly differently than expected, that would understand how trauma could haunt you, and that would affirm that life was worth living nonetheless. And eventually I was able to heal.
How does my story relate to the results of the Pew study? When congregants, religious school parents, and students make excuses and talk about how things like soccer practice or tap lessons keep them too busy to participate in the synagogue, they might not be telling the whole truth. It might not be that the programs or services are boring or inconvenient or any of the other excuses that are given.
What they might really be saying is: you are not talking to me about my real life and my real concerns. You want to teach me about ritual and dogma without explaining how it relieves my existential loneliness, or helps me find my way back to my family, or addresses my fear of dying without having found a guiding purpose for my life. And you appear to be blind to the ways in which your theology harms those who are marginalized.
Perhaps we might scoff and say, ‘there is no way that this family is thinking in those terms’ – but are we really, wholly certain we are taking them seriously? It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ concern. It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ Jew. If so, that’s our weakness, and not theirs. We should listen for the question within the question, the hidden assumption, and the closeted fears.
What I am suggesting here is something more than relational Judaism. Yes, relationships are a key part: whole-hearted participation in a community takes place in the context of trust, and trust presupposes a relationship.
But it’s not enough that the congregants know each other’s names – though that is indeed a good start. The synagogue needs to be a place of profound trust, where it is possible to talk about the really important parts of life: the difficulties and the triumphs alike.
In other words: the issues we face won’t be resolved through programs and initiatives. What we need is to focus on the core questions: Why are we here? What is asked of us? And before whom do we stand?
Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD, serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches Jewish studies courses at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh campus. She converted to Judaism in 1994 and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. She received her PhD in Jewish Thought from HUC-JIR in 2013. She lives in Plattsburgh with her husband and her son.