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Wanted: Diverse Jewish Experiences

Wanted: Diverse Jewish Experiences

“Let’s go!” I said, excitedly waving my hands in encouragement. “Let’s go dance with them!” We stood up, grasped the hand of the person nearest to us, and joined in the celebratory dance around the sanctuary. As the melodies of Lecha Dodi surrounded us, I watched a new feeling of joy develop on the faces of my students. They had never before had the chance to express themselves through dance in a Shabbat worship experience, and it was just the first of many eye-opening experiences of the weekend.

I had the pleasure of taking four students from my current 10th grade Confirmation Class into Manhattan for the weekend. All over the country, Confirmation Classes plan trips to NYC to experience Jewish New York. This year, for the very first time, I was proud to add a trip to my own synagogue’s 10th grade curriculum. Though Wantagh is only about 30 miles away from the city, we sometimes feel a world away. I knew that a weekend’s worth of diverse Jewish experiences would change the way that my students would understand their own individual places in the greater Jewish community.

My students are active in both URJ camps and in NFTY Youth Group events, but they haven’t really worshipped in any other congregation than our home synagogue in Wantagh. As you might have guessed from the description above, we began our weekend at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, for their Kabbalat Shabbat service. I knew that this beautiful, moving service would be unlike anything the students had ever experienced. A number of the melodies were familiar, but even those that were not were repeated enough to allow everyone to feel included. The students remarked on the heterogeneous make-up of the congregation around us – all ages, sizes, colors, and more were represented. They noticed that each person’s individual expression of spirituality was implicitly invited. They appreciated the warm, personal welcome we were given from a member of B.J., and they also loved seeing another woman rabbi (Rabbi Felicia Sol) lead a major service.

For Shabbat dinner, I decided to take the students for Ethiopian food (one of my MOST favorite cuisines). They still can’t believe that they ate an entire meal with their hands! Over dinner, I spoke with them about the waves of immigration of Ethiopian Jewry in Israel, as well as the very special year I spent working with one Ethiopian family of new olim during my first year of rabbinical school. We talked about our assumptions about what a “Jew” looks like, particularly when we usually only encounter other Ashkenazic families like our own. The students fell asleep with full tummies that night, and I know that the restaurant was one that they won’t soon forget.

On Shabbat morning, we were welcomed to my former congregation, Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side. In stark contrast to the hundreds of people with whom we worshipped the night before, I knew that this morning’s service would be entirely different. I chose to take them to TST’s Shabbat Morning Minyan, a service made up of dedicated congregants who truly enjoy every moment of the service itself. There were about twenty other people in the small chapel, and every single person’s voice was heard and important. We were led by the brilliant Rabbi Joshua Strom, who is always a warm, inviting presence. Here, the students noticed that the service fit a very particular structure, which was greatly valued by the community. Rather than variety, the community appreciated the predictability of the weekly Shabbat service. I reminisced about my years leading services for the group during my tenure at the congregation, and remarked how intelligent, educated, and involved the members were.

After a lunch of matzo ball soup and deli sandwiches at the Second Avenue Deli (which is now on First Avenue, go figure), we visited the Jewish Museum. A few years ago, the Jewish Museum decided to open its doors on Shabbat for free. The café, shop, and special exhibits are closed, but their permanent collections are open to the public. The students wandered the halls and learned about Jewish life of the past and present around the world.

We enjoyed a Broadway show on Saturday night (how could yours truly NOT take in a show with the group?!), then rested up for our finale – a walking tour of the Lower East Side and a tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Thanks to Big Onion tours, we were treated to a thorough history of the Jewish presence on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We learned about the fascinating tensions between German Jews and Eastern European Jews, between Socialist Jews and Capitalist Jews, between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews. Each dynamic was played out in the architecture and the history of the area. Though there are no longer many Jews in the neighborhood, we were able to appreciate how our own families’ histories were impacted by these very streets.

In just two and half days, I hope that I was able to convey one very important theme: VARIETY. Too many of us get stuck in our own way of “doing Judaism,” and we believe that it is the only right way. We forget that there are so many possibilities, so many valid customs, so many legitimate manners in which to express our heritage. In just two years, my students will enter college, and they will be forced to start making their own choices about their own Judaism. How will they make informed choices? How will they decide which, if any, Hillel service to attend? How will they know what kind of adult Jews they want to become?

In the end, we all must make these choices. If we feel that we don’t know enough to make a smart choice, then it is crucial that we visit different synagogues, that we educate ourselves about different kinds of Jews, and that we experiment with various rituals. It is not enough to “Do Judaism” one way just because that’s how we’ve always done it. Our choices are infinitely richer when we know that we are truly choosing them.

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