I looked for you in everyone
And they called me on that too
I lived alone but I was only
Coming back to you
– Leonard Cohen
I’m going to do something that I haven’t ever done before when I move to Victoria: I’m going to start regularly attending Shul. I’ve already done my homework on synagogues in Victoria, considering both local congregations. One of them is housed in the oldest surviving synagogue in Canada, dating back to 1859, rich in local history and Jewish history, and if nothing else, I look forward to soaking up the beauty of all that history.
However, I am looking more towards the reform one. Both websites for the congregations stressed social justice ans advocacy as cornerstones of their performing Mitzvahs, and both welcome interfaith families. But on the reform website, they made a pledge to welcome everyone, declaring that they, do not “discriminate based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic or religious background.” I’m hoping that, for Jaime’s sake, “gender identity and gender expression” will be added to that as well, after we get to know the congregation better. I was also amazed and gladdened to find that they had a woman rabbi. But, it was also this that won me over:
“We are obligated to pursue tzedek, Justice, and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”
That is the type of place where I can truly feel welcome.
“But Leah,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “why do you need to go through a synagogue to pursue social justice issues? Why got at all? You’re not really that religious, and you’ve been critical of religious institutions before. Why start going to synagogue regularly?”
I wish I could answer that in a succinct, reasonable, logical fashion. It is true that I’m not religious, or even all that spiritual. During my teen years, I was just as curious about other religions as my peers, and dabbled in Buddhism, Wicca, Paganism, and other religions which struck my fancy, but never found myself spiritually drawn to them in any special way, so I didn’t stick around for long. So what reasons do I have for wanting to become a regular at my local shul?
The answer is, for the past four years in Missoula, I’ve been a sort of token Jewess in my town and among my friends. In many of my classes, I was the only Jewish student. In my time as a student here, I had the misfortune of having an antisemite possess great power over my life and my job, who regularly made attempts to destroy my morale and self-esteem, referring to me as a “land stealer” and accusing Judaism of being the root of all the world’s ills. I didn’t regularly keep kosher, save on high holy days, but when I did, I was mocked and teased for it. The overwhelming presence of Christian groups on campus made identifying as a Jew problematic and uncomfortable, including a time when Jews For Jesus were allowed to pass out pamphlets and rally students, not just on any day, but on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I can remember evangelical Christians looking at me starry-eyed with the happy news that they found out they had a Jewish great-great-grandmother, and could feel “the holy spirit of Jerusalem and Christ” gushing in their veins.
In short, being here made me realize how Jewish identity was constantly under assault in a Christian-centric area, even at a supposedly enlightened place like University. I see returning to my roots as celebration, and as an act of cultural rebellion against this assault, and making it known that the Jewish identity is alive, and it belongs to me, a queer, skeptical, disabled Jew who is the product of an interfaith marriage between a Jewish man and a Norwegian/Blackfoot woman. If the world of Jewry can find a place in its heart for Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan, there is room for me as well. I may not be perfectly virtuous or the best representative of a Canadian Jew, but I hope I will be welcomed. I would make a mitzvah out of their inclusion, I promise.
Where is my light? My light is in me.
Where is my hope? My hope is in me.
Where is my strength? My strength is in me – and in you
– Rabbi Sherwin Wine