Reconstructing a Tribe by
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(149 Stories)

Prompted By Finding Your Tribe

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In my sophomore year of high school, I took a drama class and it changed my life. My shyness evaporated, my self confidence was boosted, and I made a wonderful tribe of friends. Likely many others had a similar experience at this stage of life, so I won’t elaborate on this tribe, terrific though it was.

"This is the weirdest, most interesting group of people I've ever encountered," I thought. "I fit right in!"

I’ve always identified as Jewish, but my relationship to organized Judaism was strained during my teenage years and into my adult life. As a teenager, I thought the synagogues superficial and the teenage cliques intolerable. As a young adult, I was active in some smaller groups but found synagogues’ emphasis on getting married and having children off putting. “You are welcome to join us,” one synagogue representative told me, “as long as you are actively searching for a husband.” I am not making this up.

In my 30s, I would attend High Holiday services sponsored by the Hillel group at Stanford University, spearheaded by a very popular, open-minded, charismatic rabbi. Jews of all backgrounds and levels of observance felt welcome. Unfortunately, the university decided it could not continue to keep the services open to the public. As I discovered later, a group of faculty and staff from Stanford then decided to form a new synagogue, affiliate it with the Reconstructing Judaism movement (formerly Reconstructionism), and make all services free and open to the public.

A few years later, when I turned 40, I felt the need to reconnect with a Jewish group, and a professional friend told me that she joined a really small congregation called Keddem, and that High Holiday services were coming up. I attended and was impressed with the lay leaders, who were highly educated and yet warm, welcoming, and inclusive. I started “lurking” at various other events, including great lectures. The diversity in this small group of 150 was amazing–three Nobel laureates, professors, tech workers, gay couples, converts, couples with non-Jewish spouses, and single people.

“This is the weirdest, most interesting group of people I’ve ever encountered,” I thought. “I fit right in!” I joined the synagogue for its simplicity and informality (no rabbi, no building, just participants running the show). It has been wonderful to study Torah and resurrect my Hebrew (still pretty rudimentary).

The practices of the Reconstructing Judaism movement are slightly different from the mainstream, but the distinctions are so subtle that I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to note that I’d been a Reconstructionist in my beliefs all along, I just didn’t know it.

Keddem was there for me when, I few years later, I went through a bad breakup of a serious relationship at the same time my father was critically ill and eventually died. Before I knew it, the congregation organized a kaddish minyan* for me. Over the years I have given back and done the same to support those who needed help.

There are a few disadvantages to being a Reconstructionist. We are such a small group, just 1% of Jews in the US, about 60,000 people in all. This has been a challenge in planning for my future, because if I want to move and still be associated a congregation, there is a limited number of places that I could go.

And, no tribe is perfect. The congregation went through a controversial period of trying to become more traditional, with a rabbi and rented building, and faced some tough years financially and philosophically. A couple of years ago we decided to shrink and are back to being an inclusive, intimate, participant-led group that offers free High Holiday services and other events.

At our Shabbat services I always look forward to singing, studying, and celebrating with my tribe.

*A group of ten Jews who, with the mourner, say specific prayers.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Fascinating story, Marian, about something I know — I mean knew nothing about. (Which is part of why I love being here on Retrospect.) As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m half-Jewish, and as such I encountered much of that clique mentality, especially in my high school which was 99% Jewish, and to such an extent that it had an impact on the rest of my life. I have to say I love the qualities of Keddem as you describe them, enough so that were I to seek and embrace religion at this point in my life, I’d certainly be drawn in that direction. Isn’t it something that we both speak of having been [fill in the blank] all along and just not knowing it!? That’s exactly what it means to “find your tribe”!

    • Marian says:

      We are definitely in synchronicity mode, Barbara, and we have members in our synagogue with one Jewish parent, so I understand. The most fascinating instance was a recent bar mitzvah of a young man whose father is Jewish and mother is from India. Lunch afterward was a wonderful combination of traditional Jewish and Indian dishes. In terms of artists, I am struggling to find a tribe. Writing can be both left and right brained, and I used the left side so much professionally. Now I’m trying to stress the right side (thanks, Retrospect).

  2. Suzy says:

    Marian, I love this story about your journey through Judaism. I gasped at the line about “actively searching for a husband” – that would have sent me running too. Glad you found Keddem, a weird and interesting group where you felt like you fit right in. I don’t know much about Reconstructionist Judaism, it might be a good fit for me, but since my Reform temple is (a) one block from my house, and (b) where my beloved choir is, I am not likely to switch congregations.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Because our congregation is so small, we sometimes collaborate on events with local Reform and even Conservative synagogues (Reconstructionism started out of the Conservative movement). Everyone is very tolerant and interested in learning, so when we had a joint service at a Conservative synagogue, the Rabbi explained some of the fine points. The Reform movement has adopted many practices originating in Reconstructionism–did you know that the first bat mitzvah (in 1922) was a Reconstructionist one?

  3. In so many ways your Jewish story mirrors mine. Growing up in a conservative synagogue, my Jewish education was minimal, but I always felt an emotional attachment to my roots. I knew that I would marry someone Jewish and give my kids the Jewish education I never had. Fast forward to the time when we had to join a congregation and had to decide which branch of the tribe we would become member. . My husband taught resource room part time in a conservative Hebrew school which would mean that we could get our membership gratis. But we had a daughter and did not want her to be bat mitzved on a Friday night. I wanted her to get the full Jewish treatment that I never had, which would mean finding a place where women would be equal and have their mitzvah on Shabbat morning. (I did not feel really comfortable in a reform shul, because it lacked many of the traditions I was used to from childhood.) Serendipitously, we attended a bat mitzvah far from home and were blown away by the service. The rabbi gave us a brochure about Reconstructionists and the philosophy fit both of us perfectly. We found our intellectual and spiritual tribe in a wonderful Reconstructionist synagogue near home.

    • Marian says:

      Sara, it’s gratifying that you found a synagogue that suited your family, and personally it’s great to know it was Reconstructionist. I well remember the “separate but equal” Friday night deal with bat mitzvahs. And, like you I didn’t feel comfortable in many Reform temples because I wanted more Hebrew. Interesting how our journeys had so many parallels.

  4. Thank you Marian, It’s wonderful to read about other people’s spiritual journeys. I was raised in a secular home and had no formal Jewish education – although my parents sent me to Jewish camps throughout my childhood. Years later at a Jewish women’t retreat I was laughingly told that Jewish camps give kids the best indoctrination!

    My husband Danny’s parents were European-born, and although not observant themselves, they sent him to Hebrew school at an Orthodox synagogue. He tells me although he learned to read Hebrew, he learned little else, the rabbi was distant, he never remembers even speaking to him, and felt no connection to the shul.

    When we married we were unaffiliated for awhile, but when our son Noah was 3 1/2 we sent him to nursery school at Central Synagogue, that beautiful and historic reform synagogue in midtown Manhattan. His years at that nurturing place were wonderful, and as a librarian on maternity leave at the time, I volunteered to start a parenting library at the school..

    But when it was time for Noah to start Hebrew school we sought a reform synagogue closer to home and joined Temple Shaaray Telifa where again I started a library! Our son was bar mitzvahed and confirmed there, and I greatly admired the rabbi. Whenever I had the need to talk I sound myself in his study and when my sister was terminally ill, his support helped get me through a very difficult time.

    Noah later took his own journey, now keeps shabbat and is more observant than we ever were. I once heard a rabbi say, “Try to do something Jewish every day.” I try.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I could really relate to your journey. In my story this week, I talked a lot about my Chavurah. When the oldest kids were nearing bar/bat mitzvah age, some members felt uncomfortable without a more formal affiliation. We synagogue shopped and ending up joining a small Reconstructionist congregation. The group met in churches and had just hired a young, progressive rabbi when we joined. Eventually, it grew in size and bought a building. The Sunday school we loved for our kids became more and more like the one most of us hated in our youth. We left, tried starting small study groups, tried a couple of other synagogues that were not as inclusive as we had hoped, but were never successful in recapturing what we had in the early days. A few years ago, a friend of my daughters became the rabbi at the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue and we rejoined JRC. We are happy there and glad to be reunited with the philosophy and type of service we like. I hope if you move, you can find another tribe.

    • Marian says:

      I’m delighted to know you ended up in a Reconstructionist synagogue, Laurie. Moving somewhere else has been a big issue for me, but when when we were out visiting a friend in Sedona, Arizona, I noticed a huge Jewish Community Center. Turns out they pretty much incorporate people from all areas of liberal Judaism, and I went on their website and was very impressed. So, there may yet be resources in areas I didn’t expect.

  6. This sounds like a fascinating and important tribe, Marian, with its mission to reconstruct that which exists, but in such fragmented form, that any attempts to dig deeper and reconstruct such a profound and ancient culture (5780 years on the calendar, since the first Iron Age, already) seems to be a worthwhile and fascinating tribal experience.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Charles, it’s been a very interesting and meaningful experience for me. We try to reconstruct these traditions so that they can evolve for the modern age (the founding rabbi speaks of an ever-evolving Jewish civilization). The operative guideline for current practices is that the past has a vote but not a veto, hence Reconstructionism’s egalitarian focus, among other things.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Marian, I, also loved learning about your search for meaning through the various Jewish movements. Your current home sounds interesting and welcoming.

    No place is perfect. I grew up Reform (indeed, my brother is a Reform rabbi, who teaches at Hebrew Union College). I used to attend Conservative services with a close friend in a large synagogue in greater Detroit on many Saturday mornings (our services were Friday nights) and learned more about my religion this was. By the time I got to Brandeis, I only attended High Holiday services. I thought I had married a Jewish man, but Dan wasn’t bar mitzvahed, and had no Jewish education, so that became a bone of contention between us. I attended services at Brandeis until we had kids. Then we joined a Reform congregation in Newton, as I insisted that they be bar mitzvahed and learn about who they are and where they came from. But after those milestones, we dropped out and I went back to Brandeis. Rabbi Axelrad (who would have been the chaplain during your time too) retired after services two years ago and now I don’t know where to turn, so I’m currently without a “tribe”. I miss the camaraderie.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy. The Jewish tribe search really varies according to your stage in life and the age of children, if any. I noticed in my searching that it was a lot more straightforward for parents to make choices based on bnai mitzah prep, for example. There isn’t one right answer for everyone. I recently discovered a conservative congregation that was very welcoming and had a lot of baby-boomer age folks, but felt it was just too big. I like the intimacy of a chavurah-sized group.

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