The Shavuot experience I am about to describe was taking place at precisely the time of the terrorist attack in Orlando. The contrast of our experience against that hate crime is stark and devastating. I am posting this reflection only 24 hours after the carnage as a way to counter spiritually, emotionally, morally, and Jewishly the desecration and destruction of life and community that terrorism and violence represents.
The three speakers, Jews by-Choice, at our Tikun Leil Shavuot celebration told our community that they do not feel that they had left anything behind when they converted to Judaism. Rather, Judaism had become already an essential part of their identity by the time they underwent formal conversion.
Some had been married to a Jewish spouse already for years once they converted, but they were already living a Jewish life at home and in the synagogue and identifying with the Jewish community and people.
Others had met the love of their lives and decided before marriage that they wished to create a Jewish family and convert.
One grew up in Salt Lake City with a Mormon background and roots in America reaching back to the days of the pilgrims.
Another was born and raised in Texas as a Roman Catholic.
A third came from a non-religious home in the Midwest.
Each was attracted to Judaism because of our tradition’s emphasis on critical thinking and openness to questioning our faith tradition’s ideas concerning ultimate issues of life and death, faith and God. They loved our people’s commitment to family, our tradition’s emphasis on high ethical living and the value we place as a people in performing acts of loving-kindness, on caring for the most vulnerable, on social justice and tikun olam. They are inspired by our people’s great thinkers and activists – Rabbi Akiva, Rambam, Isaac Luria, Martin Buber, Rabbis Heschel, Kaplan, and Cook. They identify with our historic struggle with God, and our aversion to accepting by rote any religious dogma.
They spoke about their feeling fully accepted for who they uniquely are in our liberal Jewish community. They understood, appreciated and identified with our concerns about preserving Jewish particularism and advancing our universal aspirations, that we care for and take responsibility for the character of own Jewish people and the rights and dignity of the “other.”
As we reflected on the meaning of covenant as it manifested at Mt Sinai and throughout the writings of our sages, and expressed in the Book of Ruth, these Jews by-choice understood that at the core of our people’s covenant with God is love, and love, and love, and love, and love some more – and that true religion must bring people together and not tear them apart.
As I sat and listened to these moving personal stories, I was deeply moved and inspired. We broke into chevruta discussion groups of 3 and 4 people to reflect about the transformative and transcendent moments in our lives and about how those experiences changed us and moved us forward on our respective Jewish paths, I heard that these people loved having found a liberal Jewish community that embraces without judgment and with full acceptance who they are as men and women, LGBTQ and straight, the faithful and the atheist and agnostic, the young, middle years and old.
When we reconvened, I observed how very different Jewish identity is today as compared to a century ago, and how much more embracing it has become of the uniqueness of the individual, but also that today Jewish identity is not a given.
Whereas the immigrant generation of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents felt in their kishkes that they were Jews, many liberal Jews today come to Jewish life not from the shtetls and the pale of European Jewish settlement, nor from tightly bonded Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish families and communities, but from outside the tradition altogether. Consequently, every Jew must make the choice to be and do Jewish, and that takes learning and active engagement with Jewish communal life.
The words of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband and two sons, one of whom was married to Ruth, go to the heart of Jewish tradition: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’” (Ruth 1:16)
Ruth’s love and commitment to the devastated Naomi healed them both and clarified the nature of the covenant forged between God and Israel at Sinai and between each of us – that we are a people meant to love and embrace each other, to care for each other and about each other, and to create and nurture communities that are worthy to stand in God’s presence.
Note: I am grateful to my colleagues Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh and Rabbi Jocee Hudson who conceived of and promoted this Shavuot experience.