Smashing Idols

Wed, 12/19/2012 - 1:54pm -- Synagogue Counc...

By Naomi Gurt Lind

Many of us go through the world confident we know what makes other people behave the way they do.  We presume an awful lot about others based on what categories we can put them in: Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and so on.

Although they are common – and sometimes even useful – stereotypes are also limiting and harmful.  Surely we all have been in the position of feeling unfairly judged on the basis of an external characteristic.  I myself have felt confined by, for example, my at-home mother status.  I have seen conversations grind to a full stop when I tell former colleagues I am not presently working, as if what I have actually said is I have no ambitions, no substance, no adult identity.  This is not who I am, I want to scream, even when it sort of is.  

Likewise, how many of us, when in the company of non-Jews, find ourselves serving as unofficial spokesperson for the Jewish people?  People want to know how the Jewish religion views this or that topic, and we find ourselves in the awkward position of trying to faithfully represent the depth and nuance of Jewish thought.  (The phrase, “Two Jews, three opinions,” can be useful here.)  We struggle to come up with a pithy way of saying that the essence of our people is astonishingly varied: that what sets one of us ablaze might leave another cold.  Some of us find spiritual meaning in exacting adherence to halacha (Jewish law), while others of us connect to the divine through singing and dancing, stomping and clapping, what I call “ya-la-la-la-la Judaism.”  There is no single way to be Jewish, and our variegated responses to the richness of our tradition make for more richness still.  Consider a page of Talmud: even our holiest books argue with themselves.  Not for nothing are we called Yisrael; those who wrestle with the divine.

Sadly, the stereotyping does not stop at our mezuzah-ed doorstep.  How many of us think we know how Orthodox (or Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist) Jews handle thus-and-such?  How often do we find ourselves labeling other Jews or other synagogues as somehow not “our kind” of Jewish?  The branches of Judaism that are not our own can seem foreign to us, perhaps even as foreign as other religions seem.  

Sometimes I think these stereotypes are the idols we’ve kept, long after Abraham trashed his father’s shop and set us all on the path of monotheism.  We assume that Orthodox Jews are stiff-necked and strict, that Conservative Jews are wishy-washy and undefined, that Reform Jews are secular and ill-educated, that Reconstructionist Jews are brainy and ritually odd.  Depending on where we sit (or more accurately, where we daven), perhaps we cannot imagine an Orthodox community that warmly welcomes female participation.  Perhaps we cannot imagine a Conservative community that  strictly keeps Shabbos.  Perhaps we cannot imagine a Reform Jew who studies Talmud and keeps kosher.  Perhaps we cannot imagine a Reconstructionist Jew who prays in Hebrew and with ruach(soul).

The antidote to these stereotypes – the way to smash these idols – is exposure.  Last month, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts’s 26th annual Unity Mission.  This unique program provides ample exposure to different approaches to Jewish life, along with sensitive, spirited conversation and exploration.  The mission typically consists of an intense two-day trip to New York, supplemented by pre- and post-mission meetings and readings.  Over the course of the trip itself, we meet and daven (pray) with Jews of many different persuasions, forming connections and experiencing ritual of astonishing variety.   The Unity Mission is a multi-layered experience, replete with readings, conversation, exploratory programming, and prayer.  Every aspect of the trip is carefully planned so as to encourage open communication and inclusion.  Participants become like a living page of Talmud, where each person has the opportunity to engage with and respond to the primary experience (be it a service or a study session or a seminar), and where each response is heard and valued.  We learn by living it that there are many paths up the mountain, and that ultimately each of us has a wholly unique relationship with our shared tradition.  

The opportunity to attend so many different services in such a short time enabled me to confront and examine many of my own stereotypes.  For example, my previous limited experience with Orthodox davening had left me with a feeling of disconnection.  Once when I was in London for work, I attended an Orthodox service in a place where the mechitzah (wall/curtain separating sexes) made the women’s section feel like a ghetto.  The gender separation and the breakneck speed of the service amplified my traveler’s sense of foreignness.  

By contrast, I was deeply moved to feel the atmosphere of warm welcome and acceptance while davening shacharit (morning prayers) at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, home of Rabbi Avi Weiss.  My expectation of an alienating mechitzahwas dashed – Rav Avi has very purposely designed both prayer spaces in his synagogue with a low mechitzah, such that if you walked into the sanctuary when no one was there, it would be impossible to tell which is the men's or women's section.  More importantly, Rav Avi has made tremendous efforts to include and encourage the full participation of women, people with special needs, Jews with little formal background, etc. in synagogue life.  He operates men’s and women’s learning programs and was the first Orthodox rabbi in North America to ordain a woman rabba, recognizing and honoring Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s knowledge of Jewish texts and laws and giving her clergy status in his congregation.   In the synagogue itself, the men’s and women’s sections have equal access to the bima, and although men and women do not share the bima, women are invited and encouraged to lead and teach from the bima.

Those who participate in the Synagogue Council’s Unity Mission find themselves exhausted and changed by the end of the trip.  As for myself, I was deeply grateful for the chance to learn Torah, to contemplate difference, to study the constellations of Jewish life and search for my place amid all those stars.  Through this amazing journey, I came to see that each star adds its own light and provides a point of connection and inspiration to those who see it.


Naomi Gurt Lind is a freelance writer who blogs at  Naomi serves as Chair of the JCDS Parent Association, is active in the Synagogue Council, and sings with the Zamir Chorale of Boston.  She lives in Newton with her family and in her spare time enjoys theatre, crossword puzzles, and playing four-hands piano with her husband.