When I was little, I went to a Jewish school – but I was completely unobservant at home. We didn’t light candles or eat kosher. We weren’t Shomer Shabbes & I never went to Mikvah. Still haven’t actually – remind me to do so at some point. Once or twice a year, we went to a Shul for holidays. The Shul was, of course, an orthodox one. In fact, the one time we saw some people walking into a nearby Reform Shul, and I asked about them, I was told they weren’t real Jews. “Why, their Shul has a parking lot!” one of the people with me said, with derision. Even then, I noticed something was somewhat odd about all that. I didn’t see why it was better to drive to Shul and park a street or two away, rather than having a parking lot. However, it was explained to me that at least we understood that there were rules, even if we couldn’t follow all of them.
I grew up clear on the concept that I may not go to Shul often but the Shul I didn’t go to was an Orthodox Shul. Then, I fell in love with my wife and I needed a Shul that was all right with that. So, I ended up in a Reform Shul. It was a shock. They had female singers! No one seemed to maintain any of the traditions! The prayerbook had some Hebrew but more English, and the English words weren’t always definitions. There were people there who said words and sang songs with *no* clue what they said. On top of that, while the Rabbi was welcoming, they *still* had trouble with two women being a household (this was 22 years ago.)
Nevertheless, it beat the alternative – being nowhere, religiously. So, we stayed. We found people we could relate to and study with – people who cared for us, and in response, we for them. We learned together, as my partner took a Jewish information class and I learned new tunes and ideas. (The bible wasn’t just given to Moses on a mountain? Are you sure?)
As I stayed, my attitudes changed. They changed again and again and again, and I wasn’t even conscious of them doing so. Sometimes, I found so much to admire in my new-found way of worship. The first time I went up to the Torah and said the blessings, my heart and soul opened and I found myself on an entirely different level of connection with God. It was startlingly beautiful. Sometimes, I laughed at my old ways of thinking – a shul that was exclusionary, that focused on form rather than spirit, that supported prejudice in any way – that became unacceptable to me. Sometimes, I despaired of them ever being the community I wanted. I couldn’t explain why it was a good idea to pray and study weekly to my friends. As my brother chose another direction, and found a modern-Orthodox Shul he was comfortable in, I felt mildly jealous – that could have been me, having people over or being over with the same large group of friends, week after week; prioritising Shabbat, saying blessings at every meal. It was so achingly beautiful too.
Was it possible to have both? Why could I not find tolerance and freedom to grow in the same place as community and strength of scholarship and tradition? Why did opening up have to mean watering down? I was talking to someone new to Reform the other day, and hearing those same opinions I had held 15-20 years ago. The high-pitched singing, the women, the lackadaisical approach to observance, the lack of true community and tradition – these were all so familiar. I realized then and there, however, that in me, enough had changed. I was proud, fiercely proud of where I was. I pointed to the holidays we celebrated together as a family and as a community. I talked about being able to express love for the Torah and for tradition without having to put up with obvious male/female barriers. Our small but mighty study group. Our choir. Our kids, growing up with the morals and knowledge I wanted them to have. I realized this was my home, here in my Reform Jewish community, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of work to do. My brother and I talk about it sometimes. He works to get his community to be more open and more modern – to accept women in more places, to understand why environmental approaches are important, to bring social consciousness into the minds of the people he’s with. Mostly, he does it by his actions – he is a feminist, vegetarian, environmentalist, Orthodox Jew and he’s proud of that. I try in my own way – to hold holidays with my community, to ask questions about tradition, to participate in and encourage Torah study with the people around me. Mostly, of course, it’s my actions that make the difference – so, I wear my kipa, pray daily, say the blessings at meals, and go to Shul every week, even if that means driving on Shabbat. I am proud to be Reform. I am proud to be traditional. The two are not incompatible – I just have to work at them both.