Among all of the deeply rewarding elements of the pulpit rabbinate, none has been as meaning-filled, for me personally and on a broader communal level, as guiding the study and rituals of those who choose Judaism and the Jewish people as their own.
Each of the individuals who have invited me to join them -- at whatever stage of the journey they find themselves when we meet here through our little Reconstructionist community in Ottawa, or when I served a JRF affiliate in Baltimore -- has sparked awe in me.
To see Judaism through their eyes, as each grapples with the ideas, the holidays, the approach to life cycle rituals and to prayer, always provides me with new appreciation for our tradition, and for the privilege of being “a Teacher in Israel,” as my ordination certificate reads.
As we grapple together with the material of our studies, each ger tzedek is inevitably confronted with the need to make choices about how they will live their Jewish lives.
They decide, in effect, how they will Jew.
When, and how, do Jews from birth typically get to answer the question – how do you Jew?
I hear from many of you that your childhood Jewish learning, most often supplementary, was less than inspiring. “Adult Jew School” for liberal Jews has often meant considering rabbinical school, which for me and many of my colleagues did indeed represent our first or only option for concentrated grown-up Jewish study.
Between “bricks-and-mortar” studies and a wealth of materials and study platforms on line, there are definitely more portals of entry for meaningful Jewish learning these days. Jewish Federations, their agencies, and a host of umbrella organizations have been re-aligning their institutional priorities in order to more effectively engage Jews at their most significant and concentrated points of emerging need, finding and funding innovation in learning. Yet there remains this impulse to gather, with other Jews, in the framework of synagogue life.
So, despite the fact that there are many secular and social resources available to reinforce this yearning to “do” Judaism that are accessible to individuals, does belonging to a congregation help you Jew?
Rabbis, it is said, should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. If you are comfortable with what you do through, or know about, Judaism, then those of us sustaining the pulpit paradigm with our Jew-leading are not rabbi-ing well enough.
This is not a call towards someone’s hoary hierarchy of Jewish observance. That path is always there. Where one stands, how you practice, or when one steps in to Jewish life is not the issue. Hearkening to my experience with gerim, it’s been a particular blessing for me to affirm the practices of those whose choices land them in a more traditionally-framed approach to mitzvot, particularly Shabbat observance, kashrut, and prayer, than my own.
So, now that you’ve “joined,” and whatever the status or quality of your commitment to the wider Jewish world, consider the questions: How do you Jew? How shall we Jew?