How To Be A Jew In 2017

My Jewish upbringing means the world to me, yet I am afraid to open up about it.
01/04/2017 09:04 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2017
JACK GUEZ via Getty Images

The following is a guest post by Jenny Katz, the Volunteer Coordinator at Civic Works, an organization working to strengthen Baltimore through education, skills development, and community service.

Katz was born and raised on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel, moving at age 10 to central New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University in 2011 with a B.S. in Animal Agriculture and a minor in Jewish Studies. She worked on several dairy goat farms before settling in Baltimore in 2012. In 2015 Jenny participated in JUFJ’s Jeremiah Fellowship, a Jewish social justice program for professionals.

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Throughout 2016, I was involved in an interfaith fellowship for community leaders in Baltimore. I loved hearing the thoughts and experiences of my Christian and Muslim fellows, for often their modes of thinking were foreign to me. Although I expected to identify most with the other Jewish fellows, it was a black Muslim man describing his fear of bringing God into a conversation that resonated the most with me.

He did not want to bring God into the conversation because he wanted to convert anyone, but because God meant something to him. God, and religion, played a part in his upbringing, in his views on justice, and in his understanding of love and compassion. And as a Muslim, he felt that sharing his religious views in conversations with non-Muslim peers was taboo.

I, too, have always felt uncomfortable and ashamed when speaking of my religion, especially in social justice circles. I was comforted to know that people of all faiths who fight for justice felt similarly.

If in 2016 religion wasn’t “cool,” which was the original topic of my essay when I first wrote it in May 2016, interreligious conversation in 2017 can be downright dangerous. But how can we heal our broken city, and indeed our broken country, when we are hiding our love, making our neighbors feel afraid to invite God and religion into the conversation?

The reasons for my own fears are complex: as far back as I can remember, I have always felt uncomfortable discussing my faith background with non-Jews. The Jewish God means little to me (I’m sorry Ima and Abba), and I have little connection to sacred texts. My Jewish upbringing means the world to me, yet I am afraid to open up about it. How I would love to speak lovingly and openly about everything that I’ve learned throughout my Jewish life - visiting Bedouins in ghettos in Israel while still in high school, singing beautiful Shabbat songs at sunset at summer camp, learning about Jewish racism in the basement of a Baltimore synagogue - verbally, proudly, confidently in my conversations about social justice and modern life.

But instead I feel shame. I can much more easily make a joke about how awkward I was at my bat mitzvah (which, trust me, still stings to this day) than I can tell a friend about the insightful lecture I heard at a recent Shabbat dinner.

I have always felt that bringing religion into the conversation would make me seem like a zealot, would make people feel as if I am being disrespectful of their own religions, would make people want to convert me, and/or would cause my atheist friends to look down upon me. So I keep quiet, ashamed to open up about my religious background.

I was inspired by the scholars who came to speak to us in the interfaith fellowship. There was the Muslim scholar who spoke of the power of vulnerability; the Christian scholar who orated about Agape, or love and respect of the sanctity of the other and of the value of dialog; and the Jewish scholar who spoke lovingly of maintaining boundaries as being integral to interfaith work.

Our faith traditions and their scholars have so much useful insight, learning, experience, and texts to offer us as guidance in our work and in our lives, especially now in 2017. In this upcoming year, after this election, feeling safe and comfortable in sharing religious diversity and backgrounds feels further from reality than ever. And yet it is more important now than ever.

The hard truth is that I have to start right here with me. How can I transform my own shame about sharing my Jewish values and rituals into using those same values and rituals lovingly and proudly to help transform my city?

I’ve written out some steps for myself to establish a conversation where my Jewish background can play a leading, or at least supporting, role. Maybe this cheat sheet will help you too. Follow the steps below to have a helpful conversation that includes religion with a peer about an issue that concerns you.

1. Make an announcement at the beginning of the conversation explaining your identity. “I am Jewish. I don’t go to synagogue but I love lighting the candles on Friday night because it reminds me of my family, who I miss. I am so grateful to have a sense of right and wrong that has been passed down to me through generations, through stories, through texts. I am proud that in my culture, we value deep thinking, asking questions, self-analysis, and feelings-sharing.”

2. Assert the existence of the other, and value it. “I know that you have different values, rituals, and religious beliefs than me. I think that is what makes you heartbreakingly beautiful to me. I will never try to convince you that your religion is wrong, or hateful, or violent.”

3. Make a commitment to learning. “I promise to stay open-minded and flexible. I promise to be open to learning new things. I promise to listen.”

4. Assert your harmlessness. “I will do my best not to hurt you. Many of my people have been hurt in the past, and I know yours have too. In fact, you and I both hurt right now. I make a vow to try to hurt you and all others as little as possible.”

5. Ask for a safe space. “Please, though you may believe that your religion could save my soul, I would prefer that at this time we leave out that part of the conversation so that I may feel safe with you. When you try to change my beliefs, it makes me feel like you do not respect my beliefs, and that hurts me. I know that you care about me and my soul, and that is why you would try to change my beliefs to be like yours. I love that you love me like that.”

6. Acknowledge the good and the bad about your religion without attachment. “I know that many Jews have perpetrated violence and hate. I know that many Jews have acted with love and compassion. I cannot speak for all of Judaism. All I know is my own belief and culture.”

7. Make a joke. Always make a joke. People like you better when you make jokes, and they may accept you even if you are talking about your religion, which they may think is scary. I like to joke about how at Jewish weddings someone always tries to set me up with several of my cousins.

8. Use your religious life for good. There is no better way to win people over and change their mind about your religion than by being an amazing religious human. This can mean different things to different people. For me it means hosting delicious and inclusive meals, installing rain gardens at congregations, and listening for those who are suffering.

9. Stand tall. You are who you are. Many of your ancestors were forced to hide their religious identities upon threat of death or imprisonment. You are free. Free, baby! We will not be hidden again. As long as you are respectful of other people’s identities (refer to #2), why shouldn’t you own your religious heritage? As long as you acknowledge the parts of your community that you don’t agree with and disavow them (refer to #6), why shouldn’t you speak from a place of truth and love stemming from your faith values? As long as you promise to be kind (refer to #4) and prove your goodwill with a joke or a smile (refer to #7), why shouldn’t you wear your Star of David on your neck? As long as you use your religion for good (#8), why shouldn’t you be proud of it?

I know that in these trying times, the above steps can seem difficult, even insurmountable. I promise to read them to myself whenever I need courage. We need these steps now to create a world where we, and all of our fellow humans of whatever faith, may feel safe and cherished.

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.
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