My very first URJ Biennial this past December of 2017 was profoundly life-altering for me. I found something I didn’t even know that I was missing.
I came to the Biennial by way of the Dunst Music Project for Social Justice. It was a call for songs to inspire. Despite my activism, I, like many, felt helpless since the presidential election. I felt ineffective, but this call—this was where I passionately believed I could make a difference. Prior to submitting, I honestly had no idea what RAC or URJ meant, and so I hesitated. I knew I could write a song. I knew I was technically a “Jew,” but was I Jewish enough? Upon the urging of a caring friend and Cantor in a local URJ congregation (Lisa Ann Green), I took a leap of faith.
It took faith because growing up; I wasn’t exposed to religion or even an ideology beyond humanity. My identity was a girl who loved music, theater, and cats. Our limited Jewish practice was connected to food and family; my grandmother’s amazing latkes and matzo ball soup, or our annual pilgrimage into the city to celebrate Passover at my Great Aunt Mimi’s. Although we lit the menorah on Hannukah, we recited no prayers, and we decorated a Christmas tree where Santa would leave our presents. I was young. It was a fun and the tree was pretty. I didn’t know to question the mix of traditions until later in life.
Honestly, I don’t think I even got that being Jewish meant something until I could no longer play with a friend because according to her mom, “my people killed Jesus.” This rejection and statement left me agape. I cried at home, “Mommy—did we kill Jesus? (And, who was Jesus anyway?) Mom quickly regrouped from shock and I learned that while we were Jewish, there were other religious identities and that no one was right or wrong. And, oh—we absolutely did NOT kill this guy Jesus!
Jump to my 3rd-grade homework assignment, which asked, “What does Easter mean to me?” As a Type A, I feverishly researched and turned in a magnificent documentation of Jesus and the resurrection. My A++ was accompanied by a personal note from my teacher exclaiming, “You would make a wonderful Christian.” Dad rolled his eyes, while Mom gave the Principal a lecture on the separation of church and state. Still—no religious identity.
I spent my teenage years exploring different sects of Christianity in order to fit in. In my twenties, I met my beloved husband Gian of 24 years. He was raised Catholic, but like myself didn’t personally align with any particular doctrine. We were married by a Unitarian Minister and omitted the words God and Obey from our vows. During the holidays we decorated my childhood tree and lit the Menorah that he bought for us. I made the second best latkes and matzo ball soup, and we lived a relatively spiritual life together, centered around love and a “do unto others“ philosophy.
I knew I found “my tribe” recording with my fellow project-mates from the Dunst Music Project. I have never in my life felt more welcomed, supported and valued than that short three-day gathering of Creatives. What I didn’t know was I was among the “rock-stars” of the Jewish Music community. What was also apparent was, the Together as One CD was not just a work of art; it was a work of collective passions.
Biennial turned out to be more than a conference. I was unprepared for the depth of spirituality and social awareness that underlay everything. Every hour provided opportunity to explore and discuss the current state of affairs in our country and world, to learn about other spiritual practices, to have meaningful conversations with total strangers. The energy was palpable. I was overwhelmingly moved.
We debuted the music project at Music Lab, where I offered my truth. I was taken aback by the thunderous standing ovation. I melted into tears right there in front of everyone. And then it hit me—I did belong. The feeling transcended a musician’s need for applause. I was connected with every person in that space. We were Jews. It was community.
Comparatively, during worship, I struggled with the words my logical, feminist, secular brain couldn’t get past. Then a project-mate leaned over and shared the beauty of the URJ—that you are allowed and encouraged to find your own way. I took a deep breath and allowed the music and prayer to wash over me. I cried so many times during Biennial I struggled to get my contact lenses out at night. I cried out of deep passion. I cried out of deep frustration. It was transformative.
I continue to explore and have heady conversations with other Jews about how they practice; what works for them, what doesn’t. The one consistent thread is that they celebrate traditions as a reminder of the tribe to which they are connected. For the first time in my life, I feel connected too. I feel proud of my heritage. I feel inspired by the compassion and diligent social activism of the URJ. I feel a physical and mental longing for my project-mates. I feel the most immense gratitude and awe towards Isabel Dunst. My type A is yearning for answers, and for them to arrive NOW. My higher-self knows that this is a journey. And as I embark, I feel grounded in my path. I am taking it a step at a time, and I know wherever I land in my Judaic pursuits, I will be welcomed. For this gift, I am ever grateful.
L-R: Top Row: Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Middle Row: Steve Brodsky, Peri Smilow, Marci Geller, Stacy Beyer. Bottom Row: Ashley-Jo Farmer, Isabel Dunst, Todd Herzog, Chava Mirel. Missing: Billy Jonas.
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