Eight Lights in the Desert

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chanukah 2014

(This is post is part of a continuing series about my experiences remaining synagogue unaffiliated as a former regular worshiper.)

Chanukah is Ryan’s favorite Jewish holiday. He tells me the nightly ritual of blessing and candle-lightning make him feel connected to every other Jew on the planet, so many of whom are engaging in the same meaningful things at the same moment. and by extension to the generations who came before. I get that, too, about Chanukah. The festival of lights just passed were a time for us both to use the lessons of the holiday to reflect on our Chicago Jewish futures.

In the status-quo telling, in the second century BCE, the Maccabees in a military campaign won the Temple in Jerusalem, political control, and control of the Jewish religion, back from the Greeks. Only enough ritually pure oil was found to light the Temple’s great menorah for one night, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight.

In actuality, the Maccabees in a religious war bested another faction of Jews whose religious practices they didn’t agree with, decided to mark a belated Sukkot, the eight-day holiday that the war had postponed, and then spent the next few generations suppressing any expression of Judaism with which they didn’t agree.

(Sounds a lot like the liberal Jewish status quo in America, not to mention the Orthodox Jewish status quo in Israel that we liberal American Jews often criticize. Because irony. But I digress.)

We celebrate the gently fictitious myth of the oil lasting for eight nights instead of the audacious actual event of celebrating a late pilgrimage festival because miraculous oil doesn’t have any nationalistic connotations. But for Jews who want to go deeper than our myths, the question is always there every Chanukah–what exactly are we celebrating?

The Maccabees were religious extremists. They killed other Jews in the name of Judaism. While they were in power, the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t a spiritual home for the entire Jewish people. With the sugary coat of the miracle of the oil, we are celebrating Jewish continuation. But we only do so with heavy editing, and the yearly admonition that Chanukah “is a minor holiday,” anyway.

So for eight nights as always Ryan and I put on the Pandora and SiriusXM Chanukah stations, sang our blessings, lit our individual chanukiyot, ate our latkes and jelly donuts, argued about playing dreidel, and thought a lot about what Judaism and Jewish futures mean to us.

We love the feeling of meeting the Jewish People in our actions and our ritual and holiday observance at home. Just like at Chanukah. But we remain mindful of the feeling of exclusion that grew and grew at our old shul, and the lack of a welcome for the stranger (a fundamental Jewish tenet) at the synagogues we’ve visited since then.

A point we often come back to is our shared Christian origins. Yes, together we have memories of unfriendly, cliquish Roman Catholic (me) and Protestant (Ryan) churches. But we have more memories of heartfelt welcomes to unknown faces at friendly, open congregations. We know similar Jewish congregations are out there. But there’s a reason our adopted faith has a reputation for being standoffish to newcomers.

When I left Emanuel last March, I started to realize–as eventually did our Jewish forebears–that remaining in the desert could be more beneficial to the soul than beating a hasty retreat back to Egypt, or a making quick march into an allegedly promised land.

So for the remainder of our time in Chicago, we’ll remain right where we are. At home. We are and will remain unaffiliated Jews. No more shul shopping. No more rabbi emails. No more outreach. No thank you. In the second half of 2015, after we arrive in Los Angeles (yes, that soon, more later in its own blog post), we will re-assess where our hearts and our minds and our kiskhes and God are leading us.

But for now, that’s it. We don’t agree with their tactics, but we do agree with the Maccabees on this: it’s important to be in control of your own Jewish trajectory. It doesn’t belong in the hands of clergy, or congregations, or denominational leaders, no matter how well-meaning or deaf-eared, welcoming or unfriendly they may be. It belongs to you. The moment you forget that, you start living someone else’s Jewish life. And then what’s the point of being here on earth, gifted with life and limitless possibility, in the first place?

That about wraps it up for my synagogue blogging until at least July. The moral of the story as it currently stands, if there is one, is the total misreading of unaffiliated Jews by the Reform movement. My story with Ryan is not unique in any way. How many other regular worshipers walk away from their longtime congregations after sounding the alarm of feeling excluded? How many other congregations look at the backs of a steady line of dis-affiliating members and think the problem must be with the members and not with the shul, itself? How many shuls wonder why new faces don’t often stick around, while at the same time thinking that unfriendly factions within the congregation are perfectly ok?

My telling of my experiences over the past year leaving my former shul did not curry much favor there, nor did it win many friends with fellow Jews deeply embedded in Reform (and Conservative) Jewish congregational life. I’m glad. As I’ve always said, there’s a prophetic aspect to being a convert, and our prophets never let their fellow Jews off the hook when they were acting in un-Jewish ways.

To that I would add there is so clearly a prophetic aspect to being an unaffiliated Jew in America today. If a mainline Reform synagogue can’t keep as a member a former congregant like me–someone who became Jewish under its auspices and lived a deeply Jewish life for years within its walls–how strong a pull do our denominational shuls have for the majority of unaffiliated Jews who are less earnest about the feeling that meaning might lie in congregational life?

No, really.

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