A few Shabbatot ago I prayed at a Baptist-style tent-revival Amen-Halleluyah neo-Hasidic Jewish service. Yes, that was Biennial Shabbat and although I was prepared for the spirit of it based on my years at NFTY, I wasn’t quite prepared for the spiritual of it.
I grew up in the Reform movement, through Eisner Camp and youth group. But something shifted in me while in university and I felt myself move slowly away. Maybe it was going to Brandeis and meeting all those deeply committed Conservative and Orthodox students, while my Reform friends drifted away and stopped coming to services, stopped celebrating Shabbat. Maybe it was the year in Israel where I studied in yeshiva and went to the Wall regularly and davenned in traditional circles. Or maybe it was the memory of my Confirmation class when my teacher said “Kashrut was for health in those days. Nowadays its outdated and dumb. No Reform Jew needs to practice it.” Or the day of Confirmation itself when the Rabbi flatly refused to let a classmate wear a kipa. (We were rebellious in those days. As the strains of “God is in His Holy Temple” began on the organ, each one of us—girls included, which was still unheard of— drew a kipa out of our robe pocket and put it on as we marched down the aisle.) Our parents sent us to URJ camps – what was then UAHC– but the Rabbis made fun of our new-found passion for Judaism by telling us we were bordering on “Conservative.” The youth group joyfully did Havdala before our movie nights but the presidents of our congregations refused to add Havdala before a Saturday night social for families, saying it was “too religious.” The Reform I grew up with was, quite frankly, more concerned with not looking Orthodox than with teaching me any positive value of being Reform.
I tried being Orthodox for awhile, but my feminism got in the way. I tried being Reconstructionist but my strong supernatural concept of God got in the way. I tried Jewish Renewal but I fall asleep in meditation and I’d rather shuckle than do yoga. I never toyed with being Conservative because my need for consistency got in the way. I just couldn’t grasp hold of a positive, joyful, traditional and spiritual Judaism within any of the movements and I wandered around for many years looking for home.
This past Biennial helped me find it. First, they sang O Canada and put up a Canadian flag which opened my now-Canadian heart. Then they said we could sit for Shema if thats our custom— a custom I’ve practiced for 20 years and one that I instituted at my synagogue— which publicly valued and normatized that choice. Then the gathering of tzitzit on my tallit, something I’ve done silently and privately all these years. Then asking mourners to rise separately, something I longed to do at a Biennial many years ago when I was in the year of mourning myself. Ok, it was also the clapping and dancing and 13 Torah reading tables and Bibliodrama along with a silent Amidah. My traditional side was finally recognized. My spiritual side was finally satiated.
I came to Biennial with trepidation, as it was not universally accepted in my new synagogue for us to be Reform affiliated. Many members doubted this idea and many still identify with the Conservative movement. They did not feel moved during the application process no matter how I preached the vision of Reform and it’s “best practices.” They fear the Reform they remember as being churchy and sterile. They fear the Reform they remember of lack of kipot and lack of Hebrew. Traditional Canadians, they honestly worry about flying the flag of Reform in a community where Conservative still is the norm. I knew the workshops and plenaries would be fine. I knew the call to tikkun olam would be loud and clear. I knew the speakers would be powerful. But would the davenning be davenning, or would it be “services”? Would “we rise and recite the watchword of our faith?” Would we sit for the standing prayer? Would we drone on in responsive readings? The chair of our Leadership Team came with me, with some degree of doubt. I couldn’t quite explain how far the Reform movement had come for him. He had to see it with his own two eyes. His response? “This is awesome. Next Biennial our whole Team should come.”
This ain’t my father’s Reform. It can finally be mine.