Connecting to Judaism Through Songs of Social Justice
This past December was a profoundly life-altering time for me. I attended the Reform Jewish community’s Biennial convention and found something I didn’t even know I was missing.
I came to the convention by way of the Dunst Music Project for Social Justice, which 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 was one in which I passionately believed I could make a difference.
Prior to submitting my song, I had no idea about the Reform Jewish community, and so I hesitated. I knew I could write a song. I knew I was technically a “Jew,” but was I Jewish enough? With the urging of a caring friend and leader at Temple Beth Emeth in Mt. Sinai, NY, 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 and our annual pilgrimage into New York City to celebrate Passover at my Great Aunt Mimi’s. Although we lit the menorah on Hanukkah, we recited no prayers, and we decorated a Christmas tree under which Santa would leave our presents. I was young, it was fun, and the tree was pretty. I didn’t know to question the mix of traditions until later in life.
Jump to my third-grade homework assignment, which asked, “What does Easter mean to me?” As a Type A personality, 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, I had no religious identity.
I spent my teenage years exploring different sects of Christianity in an effort to fit in. In my 20s, I met my beloved husband, Gian, of 24 years. He was raised Catholic, but like me, 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 a menorah 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.
Then in December, recording with my fellow project-mates from the Dunst Music Project, I knew I’d found “my tribe.” I have never felt more welcomed, supported, or valued than I did during that three-day gathering of creatives. What I didn’t know at the time was I was among the “rock stars” of the Jewish music community. What was apparent, though, was that the “Together as One” CD we created was not only a work of art; it was a work of collective passions.
The convention turned out to be more than a conference. I was unprepared for the depth of spirituality and social awareness that under laid everything. Every hour provided opportunity to explore and discuss the current state of affairs in our country and the world, to learn about other spiritual practices, to have meaningful conversations with total strangers. The energy was palpable. I was overwhelmingly moved.
When we debuted the music project, I offered my truth. I was taken aback by the thunderous standing ovation I received and melted into tears right there in front of everyone. And then it hit me – I did belong. The feeling transcended my 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 Reform Judaism – that we are encouraged to find our own way – and it’s okay to do that. I took a deep breath and allowed the music and prayer to wash over me. I cried so many times during that week that I struggled to get my contact lenses out at night. I cried out of a deep passion, out of a deep frustration, and it was transformative.
I continue to explore and have heady conversations with other Jews about their practice – what works for them, what doesn’t. The one consistent thread I’ve found 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 Reform Judaism. I feel a physical and mental longing for my project-mates. I feel the most immense gratitude and awe toward Isabel Dunst, the Reform leader who conceived the idea for the project.
Even as I yearn for answers, and for them to arrive now, my higher self knows this is a journey. As I embark upon it, I am grounded in my path, taking one step at a time. I know that wherever I land in my Judaic pursuits, I will be welcomed. For this gift, I am ever grateful.
Photo: Courtesy of Peri Smilow
"Together as One" is available for purchase and streaming on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
This post is adapted from Connecting to Judaism Through Songs of Social Justice, which originally appeared on the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism blog.