I'll start with a word of Torah, which my dear friend, Rahel b'At Or , taught me is the fittest beginning for any Kehilla event. But I take it from my own King James Bible. This leather and these pages of thin paper are a document of my own spirtual journey. And I love the language of the King James. As archaic as it is, it sings, it rings.
The book of Ruth, chapter one, verses 16 and 17:
"Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. "
How does a man, not of Jewish mother born, come to stand in front of the World's Largest Jewish Renewal congregation, in the holiest time of year, and direct at you the words of a loving daughter-in-law, and mean them, every one?
I stopped, consciously , being a verse-memorizing, hymn singing Presbyterian goody-two shoes when I was 12. Inspired by my new god, Science, and by the conviction I was on the wrong side of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I left the Church of my parents. I searched, fitfully, for 20 years, for a spiritual practice and community where I could invest my faith - still present within me, but without a name
My most vivid early memory of Kehilla was at Simchat Torah, 12 years ago. As a Klezmer band beat on the "Beer Barrel Polka" with a clarinet, turning it into "Roll Up the Torah", another set of hands was needed to return the scroll to it's starting point. Filled with anxiety, the same body fear that plagued me while others chose me last at pick-up football games as a child, I pitched in. Nobody objected.
I did not join the ecstatic dancing with the Torah that evening; in my own mind, I was not permitted. But I had found a congenial place to rest from my spiritual wanderings.
My introduction to Jewish home life, the center of Jewish spiritual life, was through my involvement with Havurot. It was through these friends, these families of choice, that I first felt in my heart that I belonged. Here is where I learned to cherish Shabbat, Havdalah, and Jewishishness itself, as something apart from, but a vital adjunct to, Judaism.
Kehilla retreats have been another deep source of learning, laughing, meeting, and belonging. They were a chance to get to know people at a heart level, to holler more songs in hebrew at the top of my lungs, and earn a rep, not as a Righteous Tzadik, but as a formidable player of Trivial Pursuit.
When asked, or when personally drawn, I serve, even lead. I do mitzvot, consider myself bound to, and therefore, I am Bar Mitzvah, without the awkwardness of learning Hebrew this late in life.
My message, to those that come, as I did, from a background of difference: It's Never too Late to Have a Happy Jewish Childhood.
I am the Stranger Among you - I do not define myself as a Jew. Yet I raise a Jewish son, and teach, share, the joy of Shabbat and the holidays. I keep a biblically kosher home, even if far indeed from glatt kosher. I have been a dues paying member of this synagogue for 11 years.
It was natural for me to do this. Renewal Judaism fits me very well.
I like the emphasis on the here and now.
There is a deep harmony between the theory and practice of Renewal Judaism, and my own long held personal beliefs in sustainability, justice, community and feminism.
There is a familiarity. What do Christians teach their children? The story of Rabbi Jesus, certainly, but beyond that, not much that is not found in the Torah, and the Havtorah - that's where the best stories, the best lessons, reside in the Bible of the church of my parents .
I appreciate the Jewish, the Kehilla, direct engagement with the teachings and traditions - each generation must act as if the Torah just came down, and make within themselves a Torah of their times, of their hearts, and their actions.
Finally, I find the universality of much of the teachings striking. I returned from a Teshuvah workshop on the first of Ellul, thinking of the returning, the examining that I intended to do. Before I retired, I picked up a book on relationships I've been reading, only to find the exact same prescription, of searching self-examination, from this secular text.
I could talk for hours about my experience in Kehilla, but I've been given just ten minutes. I just want to touch on a few of the challenges I, we, personally, and collectively, face, in Walking Our Talk as a Diverse Jewish Community.
The first is who defines membership, and how? It's a thorny issue for all Jews. Here at Kehilla we're setting the net a little broader, we're clearly looking beyond Who is A Jew, but folks, it's the same question. Though I don't define myself as a Jew, I've clearly, consciously, substantially, embraced the practice of Judaism in my home, my heart, and my way in the world. But what of those whose practice isn't as intense or as broad - are they members?
My personal answer is to turn to intentionality, to Kavenah. It is my sincere intention to be a member; therefore I am. So long as my actions support my intention, and perhaps a bit past, for we are all people full of error, I remain a member.
But are there are shadings within this definition? What is permissible to me, particularly within worship?
One piece I'm wrestling with is the Chevra Kedisha, the self-select of the membership who perform the ritual preparations for burial. I've been avoiding this call to service, partly out of fear, and partly out of the sense that this is not permissible to me. It is a precious responsibility, performed in places of holiness and service to the entire Jewish community, not just Kehilla. I am drawn to this service; my friends in the community are aging, there are not enough male volunteers to reliably ensure this mitzvah can be performed for male congregants. But the last thing I want to do is create an uproar at a Jewish cemetery or funeral home in a time of mourning. I need to learn more, and reflect more, on how I can best serve my community in this sphere.
This brings us back to the question of membership. If I decide personally, we decide as a community, that certain acts are permissible to some, but not to others, what does that do to the notion of membership? Have we duplicated the divisions that draw lines in society at large?
My own answer is: perhaps not.
Many of the forms of human society divide by roles. The analogy I find most compelling is parenting. Women can bear children, men cannot. Thus their roles in nurturing the next generation are different. But in a just world, this difference does NOT set one above the other.
The roles of rabbi, cantorial soloist, president of the board, and simply member are different; all are needed. In my mind, and I hope in the community , all belong.
Finally, this note from my mother:
".... you don't consider yourself a Jew. Would you view yourself differently if Dad and I were gone?!"
Oooooh what a Goood question!! It's one I've thought about, a lot, in this time of inward reflection.
I don't fully understand why I don't consider myself a jew. Consideration for my parents , particularly my mother, is certainly a piece of it. What would it mean if, after their passing, I converted? In what way would THAT honor their memory ?!
Not at all. Such a simple progression would be a denial of the sacrifices made, and the love shown.
There is related piece in this puzzle that is truly about ME. My continued pattern of deference. Of denying, stuffing, delaying, my own emotional, physical, and spritual needs for those of others. Because their need was greater. To keep the peace. Because I thought it would bring me love.
I have come to suspect this pattern serves me NOT.
If I should convert, either formally, or in my own self definition, now, after my parents passing, whenever, it needs to be, it will be, for reasons related to myself and my understanding of the power that transcends understanding.
Another of my Jewish teachers noted recently the inherent conflict of the Holidays; this is a time of private reflection, conducted publicly. Kehilla has honored me by allowing me to display my private reflections in this very public fashion; I hope I have honored the honor.
I am not a Jew, but you have supported me when the trials of Job seemed like a good beach book. I am not a Jew, but you have brought me opportunities to serve and grow. I am not a Jew, but physical force could not seperate me from my bounds to you, this community, my Kehilla.
"...for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God..."