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What Being a Practicing Reform Jew Means to Me

What Being a Practicing Reform Jew Means to Me

View of a synagogue sanctuary with the focal point being a wooden pew with a Star of David carved on its side

Recently, on two occasions, a non-Jewish acquaintance asked me: “Are you a practicing Jew?” Without putting any thought into a response, I promptly answered each with a quick, “Yes,” and no further discussion about Judaism followed.

After the second person asked, I wondered what vibe I was giving off that invited that question. But more important, it got me thinking about what it means to be a practicing Jew.

Having been raised as a cultural Jew in north suburban Chicago in the 1960s, I essentially abandoned my Judaism from the time I went to college until my children were preteens in the early 1990s. I jumped back in by happenstance, when my kids started asking questions about religion – and joined Sinai Temple of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, the first and only temple membership I’ve ever had.

In the past few years, I’ve curiously visited some churches where friends worship, pondering what it is about Judaism that inspires me.

Family members have suggested that I’m more Jewish than they, but I believe that’s only because I sometimes attend Shabbat services. Nonetheless, here I sit on a Saturday morning, it’s Shabbat, and though writing for me is fun and extremely satisfying and not at all “work,” does writing at this particular time of the week makes me less of a Jew?

Truthfully, Friday night Shabbat services often don’t engage me. I attribute some of that to the fact that I’m an early-riser and by 7:30 on a Friday evening, my brain and I have pretty much shut down for the night. I may find my mind wondering about things Jewish, but equally likely it’s wondering what to add to the grocery list for tomorrow’s shopping. It might be that all the standing up and singing and sitting down is what keeps me awake during services!

But when I bring a non-Jewish friend as a guest to Shabbat services, I always get much more out of the evening than when attending solo. I try to select a service that’ll be especially nice, such as one that includes a special musical program. I find great pleasure in explaining to my guests what’s happening during the service, attempting to answer their questions, and introducing them to the rabbi during the oneg Shabbat (reception that follows services).

When attending Shabbat services, if I see someone unfamiliar, I make it a point to approach them and introduce myself and offer to sit with them if they’re alone. That simple act makes me proud to be part of the Jewish community, an observant Jew, and definitely a practicing Jew, at least in my eyes.

When, during the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing, I hear the name of someone I know who is sick, I often will give them a call the next day to offer my good wishes and extend myself as someone who can visit or help in some way – perhaps offering rides or bringing groceries. Such an act makes me feel like the good person, the good Jew, I aspire to be.

I spend Jewish holidays in a variety of ways. A little bit of High Holiday observance in the fall goes a long way for me. I’m more inclined to attend the evening services at University of Illinois Hillel Center, where the erev services start earlier and generally are shorter than in my own congregation.

Though I’ve never served on the temple board of trustees nor held any officer position, being on the building committee for the past seven or so years, also makes me proud of my Jewish-ness, as part of a conscientious team that tries to keep our building in good working order, inside and out. Financially, too, I give as generously as is comfortable.

When entertaining thoughts of writing this blog post, I asked my walking pal, who’s very active in her Lutheran church community if she considers herself a practicing Lutheran. She seemed surprised at my question. Of course she’s a practicing Lutheran, she stated. She attends weekly Sunday services and lives by the Lutheran principles.

Last night, after several weeks of feeling too busy to attend, I made my way to temple for Shabbat services. Before services began, I started talking with a friend who is on the board, telling him I wanted to write an article about being a practicing Jew and asking him for his thoughts.

“You could write an entire book about that,” he said.

Maybe I should!

Ironically, or perhaps not, in these past few months of writing for reformjudaism.org, I feel more solid in my Jewish-ness than ever before.

Debra Doppelt Karplus, a registered occupational therapist, is also a freelance writer who writes regularly for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners, The Dollar Stretcher, Prime Life Times, and Grandparent Magazine, as well as travel articles for the News-Gazette. She is proud to be a longtime member of Sinai Temple of Champaign–Urbana in Champaign, IL, where she serves on the building committee, the chevrah kadisha committee, and has taught Jewish genealogy to the Hebrew school students. Visit Debra's blog

Debra Doppelt Karplus
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