A close friend had come to shul to hear me give a sermon on Rosh Hashanah. As she settled in expectantly, she heard a woman behind her whispering about me, “Look at the shiksa in a tallis.”
That was many years ago, yet giving a sermon, a short teaching drash, on the High Holidays still challenges my sense of authenticity. “Who am I to think I have something important, something helpful to say to all these people?”
That feeling of doubt and that sense of inauthenticity (“a real rabbi would be sure of herself and truly wise”) are probably common to many. Do I feel it more deeply because I was neither born nor raised Jewish?
I don’t know. But I do know that I live and work with a consciousness that my Jewish journey to the place I inhabit has been different from that of others, in significant ways. I have a similar consciousness about being a woman, about being an older woman, and about being a privileged older woman. Those are all special lenses through which to observe my daily activities and to trace my life’s journey.
What I hope to share here is how the awareness of being a Jew by choice has emerged — sometimes with surprise — in my various leadership roles. It has changed over the 32-plus years I have been Jewish. At first, I felt very shy, and I doubted that I would ever feel Jewish. But I also knew that I brought a special resource to the Jewish family table. In Buddhism, great value is placed on the beginner’s mind, on coming to a situation without prior judgment, definition, or expectation. I brought that beginner’s mind to my Jewish journey and later to my leadership. And I brought such enthusiasm that a lot of my friends were jolted. When I decided to convert, many of them — wonderful Upper West Side Jews — asked me if I was crazy: “Why would you convert? You are just right the way you are! Why would you take all this on when you don’t have to?” I can never take Judaism for granted.
I learned that one of my early tasks in assuming a leadership role would be to develop self-confidence and, at the same time, to instill in others a trust that my deep love for Judaism and my active engagement in community gave me the power to take risks and to embrace new ideas. That trust grew and took root over the years (despite much experience with dysfunctional and ideologically feuding Jewish communities; narrow and hurtfully exclusive forms of Judaism; and discrimination against women, Jews of color, and gays).
Trust in my authentic Jewishness grew as I found joy and learning in family and community, as I helped to revive the Ansche Chesed community on the Upper West Side, and then when I entered rabbinic school at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. After my husband’s death in 1988, I found in Judaism the spiritual strength I needed to give my life new energy, purpose, and meaning. The interplay between my own seeking of spiritual strength and my community’s acknowledgement of my Jewish authenticity dynamically propelled me forward.
As director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation from 1990 to 2003, I helped to create many programs that brought insights from non-Jewish spiritual paths to expand traditional Jewish teachings and practices and awaken Jews to them. I initially wondered if onlookers thought that I was drawn to these programs because of my non-Jewish spiritual formation. As well, many community stalwarts viewed my advocacy for welcoming intermarried families as a danger to the Jewish future, and they thought my belief that engaging young people in social action and service learning as a way to root them in Jewish life — while opening them to universal values of justice and compassion — was ungrounded. Did my non-Jewish background form these ideas? Was I misleading the board of trustees? Those questions hovered in the back of my mind for years.
It turns out that I wasn’t misleading the members of the foundation’s board; they were seekers who were thirsty after years of wandering through a Jewish desert in search of Jewish meaning. And the people we funded were all thoroughly Jewish; none of them had gone to Christian Sunday School, as I had. The results of our work were significant enough to help make Jewish spiritual practice available to thousands of lay and professional leaders who shifted the cultural paradigm in the Jewish community so that spirituality came to be embraced as a Jewish value.
I have come to believe that, like countless others, I bring an important voice into communal life. It is not the voice of the cultural Jew, or the genetic Jew, or the “soaked-in-Jewish-learning-all-my-life Jew.” But it is the leadership voice of one who, while completely comfortable in American culture and extremely close to my family of origin and their worldviews, is passionate about the importance of active Jewish wisdom for repairing today’s society, and who tries to help many bring Jewish wisdom and practice into both public discourse and private transformation. I know that sharing my voice and creating new organizations have helped many others who feel as peripheral as I once did — born Jewish or not — to see that their stories are important and that the more the community is inclusive, the more it thrives — and the more it matters in this troubled, wonderful world.email print