What Judaism, and specifically my Judaism, means to me has been something I’ve grappled with my entire life. I think it’s harder because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a culture and heritage too. You’re never just from a country as other people would define their heritage—i.e., I’m Polish. No, for us, it’s always more specific—”my grandparents were Polish Jews”—because being Polish and descending from Jews who lived in Poland are not nearly the same thing. So many Jews living in the U.S. today share this duality and I think it makes it harder to figure out for ourselves what an “observant Jew” looks or acts like.
To continue with “I’m Far from an Über Jew (Part 1): After we left the Conservative temple that I’d grown up in, we joined the Reform temple that was just around the corner. From the start, the kids loved the Hebrew school. I’d hated religious school as a kid, so we were already ahead of the game. Services were a completely foreign affair for me at first. The order of them was basically the same, but everything else—the words, the tunes, the ratio of Hebrew to English—was unfamiliar. A perfect summation of Conservative vs. Reform Judaism to me is this:
Conservative: They tried to kill us, they failed. Let’s eat.
Reform: They tried to kill us, they failed. Let’s eat, let’s sing, let’s dance! Let’s offer blessings that they see the error of their ways and come and eat and sing and dance with us!
Tunes that had been more like funeral dirges in my old temple were now full of happiness and hope. There was a piano and a choir! I thought I’d accidentally wandered into church the first time the choir stood up to sing, even though I could clearly see the Ark. It was strange, but a good kind of strange. Like discovering real, homemade ice cream after years of eating grocery store brands. They’re related, but nowhere near the same.
So what is Reform Judaism? The Union for Reform Judaism sums it up perfectly here. Reform Jews embrace inclusion, diversity, equality. We recognize that fluidity is required to adapt Judaism to modern times. And we espouse tikkun olam, one of my favorite things about Judaism. This translates to “repair the world”—and it recognizes that it is everybody’s responsibility to do what we can to make this world a better place.
Our Reform congregation consists of many “mixed” marriages where one spouse isn’t Jewish. Our rabbi has gone out of his way on several occasions to thank these spouses for being part of our congregation and to those of them who are parents, for helping to raise their children in the Jewish faith. We all recognize that it is not a decision to be made lightly. You’d have to live with your head in the sand to not know that Judaism is not the safest option when choosing religions.
What about my parents? At the end of Part 1, I stated that they left our old temple when we did. My mom participates in our women’s group with me and they both attended High Holy Day services for a few years at our temple, before deciding just this year to join. Services were a difficult change for them as well, but I think even my father appreciates the upbeat songs and general happiness of each and every Shabbat.
I’m sure it’s an adjustment for them though, just as it’s been an adjustment for me. I still find myself making mental remarks when people attend services in casual clothes like shorts and jeans, or when a man is on the bimah without a kipah on his head. In fact, I attended a recent Friday night service with my family and wore jeans because I just wasn’t in the mood to dress up, and the whole time I apologized to people that I was underdressed. Habits are, by definition, deeply ingrained in each of us. I was raised a certain way and it’s hard to shake those habits and expectations. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of doing things that aren’t just as true or meaningful.
I’m well aware of the fact that many Jews would consider me if not exactly “not Jewish,” at least “not Jewish enough” for their standards. Just as with any religion, there are different beliefs, traditions and viewpoints on what exactly it means to be a Jew. As with most things in life, I tend to stay away from what I personally view as the fanatical and the close-minded. Reform Judaism doesn’t force me to observe in any one “right” way and, instead, supports my journey in figuring out what it all means for me and where I fit in the scheme of things.
It’s taken me my entire life to reconcile just exactly what place religion has in my life and I think I’ve finally, or at least very nearly, gotten to a place of acceptance and internal peace. And, God, it’s a good place to be.
©2015 Rachel L. MacAulay. All Rights Reserved.