‘There Are No Jewish McGraths’

April 3, 2013
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Despite spending a good deal of my personal and professional life delving into the complicated morass of identity and diversity (and how identities intersect), questions related to my perception of myself as a leader, a Jewish leader, and a Jew by choice are challenging.

Attempting to separate the three pieces of my identity — who I am as a leader, who I am as a Jew by choice, and who I am as a leader in the Jewish community — or to understand which part of who I am came first, has reduced each aspect to a degree that feels significantly less than the sum of its whole and less than authentic.

The sum, in my case, is driven by an inherent passion for repairing the world. Even before I knew about the concept of tikkun olam, I had chosen to live an introspective life. I would experience a bit of a jolt, a pause, whenever an external reality created a moment of dissonance with my internal vision of how things ought to be. Much like the kabbalists, I believed that we and the world in which we live are in various states of disrepair and that our task in life is to bring our world back into a state of repair and to strive, along the way, to create a more connected and less fragmented sense of self.

This path brought me to Judaism, to leadership, and to the opportunity to become a leader within the Jewish community. I did not choose to be Jewish; rather, I chose to build a meaningful and enduring connection between my soul’s deepest desires to create a better world and and the community in which I knew this desire would be shared, celebrated, nurtured, and fulfilled. Leadership, for me, is a necessary and natural outgrowth of this same desire.

Assimilating into the Jewish community — especially as a leader — has had some challenging moments. Ironically, those moments are the same moments when I feel the most Jewish. After the matriarch Sarah’s death, Avraham wanted to buy a burial plot from the children of Het. During the negotiation, he articulated what had been and continues to be a central feature of Jewish identity: He said, “I am an alien and resident with you (ger toshav).” Jews have held this tension — of feeling both part of a community and separate from it — for millennia. As a Jew by choice, I am uniquely aware of what it means to be both “part of and separate from” at the same time; as a Jew, I exist in that paradoxical space alongside members of my chosen community.

I’m reminded of my alien status most often because of the reactions other Jews have to my last name, “McGrath.” The assumptions about my origin don’t bother me; they engender an opportunity to discuss the compelling beauty and strength that I have found within Judaism, which is why I accepted my rabbi’s advice not to change my last name.

But I am frustrated by moments when my identity as a Jew and my knowledge of things Jewish is challenged simply because of my name. Sometimes I handle that frustration well, sometimes not as gracefully. More often than not, I do feel that I must work harder than other Jews to demonstrate what I know or to prove myself a credible member of the tribe and a contributor to the community.

Recently, frustration has come full circle to opportunity. Just as maintaining my last name created opportunities for rich discussions about Judaism, I now realize that these moments create equally rich times for challenging the assumptions that people have about who and what is Jewish. On a good day, I meet those challenges head-on and, I hope, change some perspectives. On a bad day, I allow others to define who I am, which is never comfortable.

Although the option to change my name in order to “pass” as a Jew remains, I remember the conversation I had with my rabbi many years ago. When she asked me why I wanted to change my name, I answered, “There are no Jewish McGraths.” Her reply? “There will be!”

She was right. There are — at least one for now. And if my unique perspectives on what it means to be a Jew by choice and my leadership have any influence to create change, it will be this: to contribute to building a vibrant, inclusive Jewish community where all Jews — the McGraths and Cohens alike — are welcomed in Jewish homes, synagogues, schools, and summer camps. As a leader, a Jewish leader, and a Jew by choice I could think of no better goal to pursue or example to set. This is my tikkun olam.

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Scott McGrath has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a therapist, coach, trainer, and consultant, and while in Toronoto, he served as chair of the Annex Shul’s Leadership Team (annexshul.com). In 2011, he became Associate Director of New Camp Initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (jewishcamp.org). McGrath also serves as a mentor for the current cohort of the PresenTense Fellowship (presentense.org). He has participated on many panels, given keynote addresses, and facilitated numerous workshops — some with Keshet (keshetonline.com) — about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) inclusion. McGrath completed his conversion in 2002.

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