A Member of the Tribe?

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As the METNY Kehilla Relationship Manager (KRM) at USCJ, I was recently asked to give the D’var Torah (word of Torah) at the Inclusion Shabbat for one of my synagogues. The Torah portion was Shelach Lecha and it tells the story of the spies sent by Moses to survey the land of Canaan in preparation for its conquest. Moses chose twelve men, one from each tribe, to do the surveying. Their mission was to go throughout Canaan and find out how the Canaanites acted, how large the population was, how strong their defenses were, and whether it was a good land for farming. The spies came back and gave two very different reports to the people. Clearly the spies did not see the same thing.

Like the conflicting reports in the Torah portion, we cannot always recognize or fully understand what we can’t comprehend or what we are fearful of.

Historically, inclusion was about people with visible differences. We are now beginning to understand that we need a much broader definition that must include physical, mental, interfaith, LBGTQ, or in my case, inter-movement differences. I grew up in a Reform community and am now an active member of a Conservative congregation.

The new tagline at USCJ is “Seek Meaning Together.” Using Rabbi Mike Uram's language from his book Next Generation Judaism, it is our goal to help both “empowerment” Jews (those with a long Jewish resume) and “engagement” Jews (those with less of a Jewish background and connection) work together to create a more diverse and engaged community where everyone can seek, and find, meaning together.

Today I would like to share my story: what it feels like to be an outsider in our Jewish world. My husband and I grew up at Temple Emanuel in East Meadow, New York. I like to call it a Reformative congregation; very traditional in its leanings but certainly not Conservative. Religious school consisted of one Holocaust movie after another. My parents decided that I would not have a bat mitzvah so I did not attend Hebrew school.

When my husband and I moved to Roslyn, New York, we both felt the local Reform congregations were not right for us, so we joined a very warm and welcoming Conservative community. I also joined Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization, which in our neighborhood consisted mostly of Conservative Jews who became our friends. Our Conservative circle began to expand and become our life.

Since we began our journey to a more observant life, there have been countless situations where Conservative Jews wrongly assumed I had the same level of Jewish knowledge and competency as them. There are very few transliterated prayers in our siddurim (prayer books), infrequent calling of page numbers at services, and, although Hebrew phrases and Halacha (laws) are frequently referenced, many are not known to all.

Recently, I met my sister to say Kaddish for my dad at a Conservative synagogue halfway between our homes. This congregation uses the Orthodox weekday prayer book Art Scroll for services and it doesn’t include a transliteration of the mourners Kaddish, not even glued to an inside cover. For me, an adult bat mitzvah who has studied Hebrew for four years, it was fine, but for my sister it was a less than welcoming and inclusive experience. Did anyone realize that, other than myself? Probably not. Would we ever go back there? Most likely not. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Conservative movement had let my sister down because she left feeling she was somehow inadequate because she could not read Hebrew. Like my sister, in the 10 years before I began my Conservative Jewish journey, I was filled with shame and the fear of being found out. Unlike others, I had the interest and forged ahead with my education.

In my experience of visiting congregations as a KRM, I have found that they often have different melodies, fonts, and prayer books, so walking into a Shabbat service doesn’t always mean I will be comfortable. When I so diligently sent my children to a Conservative religious school and Junior Congregation so that they could become “synagogue literate” I didn’t realize that those small differences could be stumbling blocks for them as well.

I am not advocating for the dumbing down or watering down of what it means to be a Conservative Jew; just the acknowledgement that we are a diverse community and need to be more aware and sensitive to who is part of or enters into our community. We could learn a lot from our USYers who make no assumptions about knowledge as they welcome new teens.

To be truly inclusive means tapping people from different groups to include in conversations, taskforces, and committees. Listening hard to those conversations, acting on those conversations, and following up on those conversations.

Through my less than traditional story, I hope to have given some insights as we continue on our quest to be a more inclusive community. It is impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the case of the spies, we learned that we have our own frame of reference for the colors what we see. Ten of those spies were intimidated by what they saw, so much so that they let it paralyze them and keep them from crossing into the Israel.

Sometimes, depending on how a community presents or teaches it, Hebrew and Jewish tradition can intimidate, so as Conservative Jews, we must be sensitive. We don’t want anyone thinking our beautiful tradition is in any way inaccessible so that someone like my sister feels uncomfortable and excluded.

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