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Drawing Comfort from Community

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I frequently describe myself as an evangelist for progressive religion. I spend much of my time making the case for why folks should belong. Why belong to any religion? Why belong to the Jewish people? Why belong to a synagogue? Why belong to the Reconstructionist movement?

The crux of my answer to all of these questions is that belonging connects us to something larger than our own individual experience. I belong to the Jewish people because claiming this connection enters me into a millennia-old conversation and joins me into community both vertical—all those who came before me and all those who follow—and horizontal—the Jews of today, in all our rich and sometimes maddening diversity. I am a religious Jew because religion invites us to ask ultimate questions.  Why are we, all of us, here?  Why am I here?  What am I supposed to do while I am here?  A religious perspective presumes that the answers are more than individual answers. It presumes they are moderated through those vertical and horizontal communities. And I am a Reconstructionist because a Reconstructionist approach presumes that that the contemporary community’s answers are constantly evolving—and that these changes can be good and can be infused with the divine. A Reconstructionist approach is willing to do the hard work of making space for other people’s interior journeys, reflecting on how to truly celebrate diversity, learning across differences, living together, in varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, and embracing this hard work as a collective process, a part of the Jewish civilization and the human experience. 

These last weeks, I have had powerful experiences of the benefits and importance of belonging. One was extremely intimate, the other of national (American) significance.

Shortly before Shavuot, my father, Edward Waxman, died. He lived a long and happy life and he had what we might call a “good death” at age 87 after a period of decline. Friends and colleagues who attended his funeral told me that it was clear that he loved his family and that we loved him back.

I often say that we join into community so that we can celebrate and mourn together. This was my first experience of mourning the loss of a parent, and I was tremendously moved by the outpouring of support that my family and I received. I felt—and continue to feel—held up and cared for by people near and far, since I am lucky to belong to multiple communities. Members of all of them stepped forward to support me. My gratitude is boundless and the learning deep about what it means to show up for other people, as Jewish tradition teaches. And I wonder how to communicate to folks who do not belong what it means to be a part of such caring communities and how to urge them to join in before they suffer a loss, before they are in need.

My experience of the significance of belonging from the national perspective arises out of the horrific policy of family separation has been implemented at the American border. This policy feels profoundly un-Jewish in both my understanding of Jewish religious values and lived Jewish experience. Every year at Passover, we remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, and this message of remembering is repeated 36 times in the Torah. Countless scholars, classical and contemporary, conclude that this overwhelming repetition makes the point that we must move from learning to empathy, from memory to action. And centuries of Jewish experience, including within the lived memories of the parents or grandparents of some of us, teach us in our bodies the experience of persecution and the deep yearning to find a place of refuge.

I have been so grateful to leaders and members of the Reconstructionist movement who have stepped forward to ensure that Reconstructionist voices loudly protest this and related policies as a movement, and to rabbis and lay leaders who have put their bodies on the line. Under the leadership of Angela Milstein and Rabbi Renee Bauer, co-chairs of the now-forming Tikkun Olam Commission, the Reconstructionist movement has signed on to a wide range of initiatives opposing policies toward immigrants seeking asylum. And dozens of Reconstructionist rabbis have participated in protests and visits, through their own efforts and through initiatives jointly organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and other agencies. Click here for a summary of the actions we have taken.

Now more than ever, it feels important, essential even, to belong. May you find the same kind of support and comfort from your community that I did in the wake of my father’s death. May you find the same kind of comfort and courage that I do from the translation of Jewish values into action by the larger Reconstructionist movement.

President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

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