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By Jared David Berezin
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:
Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.
My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.
Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.
I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:
After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”
My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.
Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.
Finding a Meaningful Practice
Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.
As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.
While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:
By Gretchen Rachel Hammond
Throughout my life, I was a person in search of a religion to call my own. Born in the United Kingdom to a non-practicing Hindu father and a non-practicing Church of England mother, I never received any kind of religious upbringing beyond weddings and the hymns I was forced to sing in grammar school—words that were as meaningless to me as the tunes were depressing.
From an early age, I began to discover my identity. I was a teenager in 1980s England. The word ‘transgender’ was never used. All I knew was that the horrific bullying and abuse I suffered growing up had to be because God didn’t care for me very much.
When I was 18, I fled England for the United States. Without the internet or any U.S. history taught beyond “Oh and, by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies,” my education about the United States revolved entirely around Dallas, Dynasty, Starsky & Hutch and Quincy, M.E.
However, my history professor did at least provide some education about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. While naturally horrified, I was drawn immediately to the nobility of the Jewish people. I also obsessively watched and re-watched the miniseries Masada with Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. (It told the story of the historic Roman attack on a Jewish citadel and its leader Eleazar, and the Jews’ mass suicide as the Romans advanced.)
I believed America was where anything could happen and anyone was free to be whomever they wished to be. I was in for a bit of a rude awakening when the foreign exchange company placed me in New Albany, Indiana, with a Mormon family. They tried to convert me but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
My identity started to take over with full force and I suffered the consequences of America’s Judeo-Christian rejection of what some people considered a “perverse cross dresser.” I was in the middle of the Bible Belt and a doomed marriage to an evangelical Christian led to moments, in church, where I questioned my own validity as a human being.
In 2001, I attempted suicide. Most transgender people can tell you a similar story. I wasn’t trying to follow Eleazar’s defiant end. I just wanted the pain to stop. I did not credit God with my change of heart, but instead set the blame at God’s feet for my failure to remain an active part of the world
In fact, I flirted with atheism, believing that there could not be a God given the inner conflict I was suffering and the endless torment of knowing that I could not live as myself in a society which just would not accept me. Yet I could never reject God completely. I just had no hope that God would not reject me.
Fifteen years after the day I stood on the sidewalk of Indianapolis’s busiest street and was one step away from death, I met with Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. From there I joined Rabbi Cindy Enger’s classroom at Temple Beth Emet in Evanston.
By this point, my physical transition from Jonathon to Gretchen was over and I was beginning my journey toward finding God in Reform Judaism. There was just one missing piece.
I found it last year when, for one week I joined my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and gender nonconformists in their day-to-day struggle for equal rights in Israel. I was a secular transgender journalist invited to join a writers and bloggers tour of Israel during the 2015 Pride Celebrations. I wanted to know what life was like for the average Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individual.
After eight days in Israel, I realized that the lives of LGBTQ people there are not so dissimilar from our lives in America and I knew I wanted to be a part of the passion, solidarity and fight of the Israeli LGBTQ community. I knew it the moment I was invited to take hold of a corner of the immense transgender flag on its journey through Tel Aviv’s streets.
There was no question about whether I was an outsider or what my religious affiliation might be. As far as the transgender marchers were concerned, I might as well have been living and fighting along with them for years.
The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities may be celebrating more social acceptance in Israel but they are still fighting against religious intolerance and for pro-LGBTQ legislation that has stalled or even moved backwards. This has left them even further behind, say, a LGBTQ person in Mississippi.
In the end, I discovered the Israeli LGBTQ community is involved in a fight that is just as brutal and essential for their rights to exist as those in the trenches of any other country, or state, where such a right is being denied.
I had hoped to go to the summit of Masada and breath in the place Eleazar had made his last stand, but alas, the schedule didn’t allow for it. Instead, I found the people of Israel and especially their LGBTQ community to be as beautiful and flawed as those in the rest of the world. There is a passion to get a lot of things changed for the better and I believe they will.
I will be honest. Recent events in North Carolina, Mississippi and Orlando, Florida, have not only tied me further in solidarity to my LGBT community but also with the community in Israel. That is why I want to join them. Oppression must and can be fought no matter where it rears its head. The story of Masada taught me that.
I have found the God I have searched for all my life in Reform Judaism. It is a place I am accepted, where I can question God but love at the same time. I have been a part of many religions whether through circumstance or family, but this is home.
My life as a secular British transplant in the United States amounted to a 25-year discovery of my authentic self. Now that I have discovered where I belong—as a proud Jewish transgender individual in Israel—I expect the road to get there to be as challenging as it is long.
But it is a journey I can hardly wait to begin. Next year, in Tel Aviv.
InterfaithFamily is proud to offer many LGBTQ resources and connections. For more info, click HERE.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond was born in Manchester, England. She came to America at the age of 18 as part of a foreign exchange and was placed with a family in New Albany, Indiana. In the course of her career, Gretchen has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film critic for FOX 59 and WXNT radios in Indianapolis, a fundraiser for theaters and educational organizations and is currently a senior staff writer for the Windy City Times in Chicago with a focus upon investigative pieces and features. A transgender woman, Gretchen was inducted in to the Trans 100 in 2015 and has lectured on transgender issues for the Adler School of Professional Psychology and Roosevelt University in Chicago. Gretchen sits on the Board of the Trans Life Center at the Chicago House. Her book The Last Circle was published in 2013.
By Lela Casey
The first time I really celebrated Purim was when I was 9 years old on vacation in Israel with my family. I remember being in awe of the sea of kids pouring through the streets dressed in colorful costumes and shaking noise makers. It was a party like I’d never seen before and I was thrilled to join in.
My next Purim experience didn’t come until my junior year of college when I did a semester at Tel-Aviv University. The night of Purim, we all piled into an enormous bus which took us to Jerusalem where we drank rum punch and danced with students from all around the world until the sun came up. The spirit of that evening inspired me to be a different person than the thoughtful, fairly prudish girl that I had been until then. By the end of the night my angel costume had shifted into something more like a toga, I was more tipsy than I’d ever been before and I’d lost track of the number of boys I’d kissed. It was one of the happiest, most free-feeling nights of my life.
When my own children came along, I made a point of taking them to Purim festivities. As the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, I felt a responsibility to share with them that same freedom, that same lightness of the soul that I’d felt. And, while they did enjoy the celebrations, something about the holiday began to concern me.
Yes, there is a joy and lightness about Purim, but there is a darkness that few people ever mention. Purim is essentially a celebration of the blotting out of our enemies…and not just the infamous Haman. During Purim we drink to the destruction of the entire nation of Amalek, a genocide that is mandated to be read about in the Torah every year. It is, in essence, a celebration of a bloody act of retribution.
The first time that I learned of this part of the Purim story, I began to think back again to that night in Jerusalem. Yes, it was fun and free, but I also did things that I would never have done as my usual self. The spirit of the holiday, along with the alcohol and costumes, took me outside myself. Could the mandate to drink on Purim be, in essence, a way to shut out the “good” voices in your head? Could it be symbolic of how Biblical Jews had to silence those voices in order to commit genocide?
There are a lot of frightening things happening in the world today. People are being categorized by ethnicity and religion and immigrant status and painted as the enemy. There is a sweeping movement across America to blame others for our misfortune—a movement eerily familiar to other dark times in history. Extolling peace and acceptance is paramount on my mind right now.
As Purim gets closer, I find myself struggling with how to justify glorifying genocide with the desire to have my kids enjoy the joyousness of the holiday. Should I simply ignore that part of the story with them and focus on the merriment and hamentaschen (Purim cookies)? Or is it better to discuss the darkness of the day with them and let them come to their own conclusions? Perhaps should we just forgo Purim entirely?
One of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages questions and discussions. So, I ask you: Is it possible to celebrate the lightness of Purim while also addressing the dark side?