Jewish Identity and Jewish Institutions

In my reflections after seeing President Obama’s Farewell Address, I made some commitments to our Democracy. A few things that I will do to protect our country and myself in the coming years. This included voting, canvassing, paying for journalism, taking care of my health and not retreating from Jewish Life.

I want to talk a bit about the final commitment.

I wrote:

I will not retreat from Jewish life. I have struggled since the election with silence from Jewish organizations and foundations. With the exception of the Reform Movement, Repair the World and If Not Now, very few Jewish organizations have been banging the drum for freedom. While I don’t think I’ve moved much from center, I feel like the organized Jewish world has moved further away from me. 12 years after my conversion, I’m struggling to maintain a Jewish identity and feel that I still belong in the organized Jewish world. I won’t retreat. I’ll call the foundations that are important to me and keep asking that they speak up.

As a convert to Judaism, I’m not Jewish because my parents were Jewish or my grandparents were Jewish. I decided in my late-20s that Judaism spoke to me, so I studied it a bit. A little bit made sense, so I studied it more. Then I studied with a Rabbi. About 18 months later, I went before a Beit Din (a panel of rabbis) and then to mikva (a ritual bath) and signed my contract with the Jewish people.

I made commitments to the Jewish people. I forsake all other gods. I promised that I came of my own free will. I promised that if I was blessed with children, I would raise them as Jews.

I then continued to live a Jewish life. I say “continued” because in the year prior to my formal conversion, I was already attending synagogue on a weekly basis, reading pages upon pages of Jewish text, learning and observing holidays, reading and blogging my experience and building Jewish relationships.

I did not get married. I was single then and am single still. I didn’t start taking my kids to Hebrew school. I was childless then and am childless still. I didn’t kasher (to make kosher) my kitchen. I was lazy then and am lazy still.

What I did was start to join organizations. I joined my synagogue – a Reform synagogue in Chicago. I joined the Federation’s Young Leader’s Division for a trip to Israel. After another year, I was accepted to attend the ROI Summit.

The institutions that I joined became part of my Jewish identity.

How do I know that I’m Jewish?

I am a member of a synagogue. I went to Israel with the Federation once and have made occasional donations ever since. I was accepted in the ROI Community and attended the summit five years in a row in different capacities. I was invited to The Conversation and have attended many reunions. I started a minyan with friends who have become my extended family.

I also know I’m Jewish when I consult the Torah to make some decisions. I know I’m Jewish when I debate if chicken is really a meat or if I can have a chicken enchilada with cheese. I know I’m Jewish when I make a donation of $18 or $36 or $54 dollars. I know I’m Jewish when I go to Israel every year to see friends I met online who have become my extended family.

But this year has been hard. Membership in formal organizations helps define my Jewish identity.

I’m about to age out of the ROI Community… for real this time. The rabbi who supervised my conversion to Judaism retired, which makes me feel lukewarm about my synagogue. I still believe in a two state solution and that peace is possible, but nobody seems to believe that anymore.

Then the election happened.

One of the first people the President-Elect identified to become a White House Advisor is a known anti-Semite. He made this appointment the same week at the General Assembly – a massive annual conference of Federations and Jewish professionals.

I waited for the condemnation.

I waited to hear of people wrestling with the appointment.

I waited to hear the call of social justice.

I heard silence.

With the exception of the URJ, most Jewish groups offered to politely work with the PEOTUS’s appointee. Nobody would go on record or off the record to say it was a problem. Foundations suddenly had no place in politics, because they are about Jewish identity.

Since then I’ve felt the organizations that I’ve long used as cornerstones to my Jewish identity wooosh away from me. I don’t think I’ve moved. I’m fairly center, but I feel like Jewish Organizations have moved away from me at breakneck speed. My friends on the Left are suddenly the only people ringing the alarm bells, but maybe those bells are at a frequency only I can hear?

It seems that many of my peers were raised in the 80s in a Judaism focused on Holocaust recovery and Israel building. As someone who came to Judaism in 2004, my experience is not rooted in the Holocaust, but I’ve spent time at Yad Vashem and I understand how central “never again” is to our collective Jewish identy.

Now I feel like I was punked.

Is it possible that all of these Jewish organizations who have long warned of posthumous victories to Hitler don’t see the parallel to our times. Did we spend so much time talking about liberating Aushwitz and gaining the state of Israel, that we forgot to study the decade before the first camp was opened?

Am I the one who is paranoid? Are they blind? If 85% of Jewish voters voted for Hillary Clinton, why are so many Jewish organizations offering to cooperate with the horrors that are unfolding in Washington?

Then I wonder…

If I no longer identify with major Jewish institutions, how do I maintain a Jewish identity? How do I avoid retreating from Jewish life?

My Jewish friends aren’t going anywhere. Not the ones I met in ROI Community. At Federation. At Synagogue. Not the dear group of beloved friends in my minyan.

My love for our love to debate. To turn over questions. To wrestle with Israel.

My love of Israel. Of the people, the food and lilting Hebrew on a sidewalk cafe.

Through simple mitzvot.

When I first began down this Jewish road, Rabbi Zedek told me to “do that you might learn.” Go to services, light candles, keep a level of Kosher, say some blessings.

Try it on, see if it fits.

This weekend I’ve got an organizing consultant coming over. We’re going to KonMari my wardrobe and my kitchen. Evaluate what brings me joy and toss out the rest.

Maybe it is time for me to KonMari my Jewish identity.

What organizations bring me joy?

What traditions bring me joy?

What Jewish places bring me joy?

Perhaps through a fresh evaluation, I can find the institutions that support my Jewish identity and find my balance between left, right and center. In the meantime, I’ll keep a few Jewish institutions on my speed dial to ask, “why haven’t you said anything about the Nazi in the White House?”


Some organizations that make sense to me right now.

The URJ and RAC have spoken out against Bannon, Sessions and other dangerous nominations. Here’s the RAC’s statement about Sessions nomination for Attorney General

The #JewishResistance of If Not Now is focused on getting the Federations to address issues at the Trump Administration.

WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism, AKA The Sisterhood) is participating in The Women’s March in Chicago and cities across the country. I love that Jewish woman are organizing to march together.

Repair the World has gotten laser focused on dismantling systemic racism in the last year or so. In addition to a day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they are working with the Schusterman Foundation and others to host shabbat experiences and political action in DC over Inauguration weekend.

(Edited for clarity on January 13, 2017)

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5 Responses to Jewish Identity and Jewish Institutions

  1. Marcey Rosenbaum says:

    Leah you have identified a true paradox in the Jewish community, it is beyond any intellectual ability to try and understand why so many Jews think Obama was bad for Israel and that Trump is good for it. I truly shudder in horror as to what will happen if they make Jerusalem the capital of Israel. I do not understand how the Jewish community could be silent on Steve Bannon or have so little regard for the resonance in their response to Trump and the attitude of the German Jews in the 30’s. Do know, however, that there are many Jews resolved to fight the heinous plans of this administration. The day after the Bannon appointment I was on the phone with my congressional rep, joined the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I am traveling with about 30 women from my Congregation toe the Women’s March in DC. For some time now, I have been doing what I can with the Wisconsin anti-Violence Effort, a gun control movement and hopefully, most importantly of all, I am working as a Religious School Rabbi, trying to make the historical activist lives of Jews, mean something to our students. We did not get to this place in the USA overnight and we cannot fix it overnight, but we must do everything within our power to turn this tide. The fate of the entire world may depend upon our actions.

  2. rabbiadar says:

    One organization to watch: the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, or RAC as it is known. It is the social justice/policy arm of the Movement, headed by Rabbi Jonah Pesner.

    Building Jewish identity is a lifelong task, and when your Rabbi retires, that can be really tough. I wish you koach (strength) and sechel (wisdom) as you move through this new stage of growth as a Jew!

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