Jennifer Janes may live in the same city she had as a teen, but she’s traveled a long road to find her spiritual home in Reconstructionist Judaism and Congregation Beth Am in San Antonio, Texas.
The Jew-by-choice and spiritual seeker was drawn by the open and flexible nature of Reconstructionist thought: particularly with big questions like the nature of God and why evil and suffering exist in the world. And she’s stayed involved because of the inclusive, relaxed and family-oriented nature of Beth Am. In fact, the congregation is where Janes, met her husband, Peter, and the father of her twin two-year-olds, David and Eliana.
“I would say that the greatest gift that Reconstructionism and that Beth Am have given me is the chance to participate fully,” said Janes, a former president of Beth Am, in a recent phone interview.
“Our congregation is really like a family,” added Janes, a hospice social worker who infuses her work with Jewish values. “And it is a good environment for theological discussion and thought that can range from, ‘yes, there is an old-man sitting somewhere in a cloud in the sky’ to more of an earth bound spirituality, where God is the trees and the grass and the people you see around you. You don’t have anybody dictating to you what you need to believe.”
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is closely associated with converts to Judaism, in keeping with its themes of covenant and acceptance of the Torah. The Book of Ruth is traditionally read aloud in synagogue on this holiday, as Ruth the Moabite is the mythic antecedent to conversion — referring to one who chooses Torah, covenant and peoplehood by her own free will.
Shavuot, which starts on the evening of Tuesday, May 30, is a time to honor the journeys and commitments undertaken by Jews by choice, many of whom have found Reconstructionist communities to be particularly welcoming places.
Janes’ spiritual journey to Reconstructionist Judaism began as a young child. Her mother, a Presbyterian, brought her to church; though by the time Janes turned 6, they stopped attending. She never developed a strong connection to Christianity. Around the age of 10, her life took a turn when she was diagnosed with the first in a number of conditions: diabetes, asthma, Crohn’s disease, and hypothyroidism. She has suffered from these ailments throughout her life.
“I have always been a big reader and I was exploring the question of theodicy: how can there be evil and suffering in a world overseen by a good God? That has always been one of my big questions in life,” she recalled of her teenage years. “The more I read about Judaism, the more I thought, this makes sense. It was basically finding a name for what I already thought.”
Summarizing the Jewish response to theodicy isn’t easy. But essentially, Reconstructionist theology has rejected the idea of God as a supernatural actor in human history who determines who lives and who dies. Rather than questioning the meaning and purpose of tragedy and suffering, Reconstructionists tend to focus on responding to it in Godly ways.
At 16, she began attending a Reform synagogue in San Antonio and enrolled in its conversion class. She didn’t complete it, she said, because she couldn’t promise to marry a Jewish man.
“I can’t make that promise. I am 16 and I have no idea what the future holds,” she recalled. “And, as much as I wanted to marry somebody Jewish, it was Texas for God’s sake.”
That same year, she enrolled in Trinity University in San Antonio, taking every Jewish course available. At the same time, she started attending a Conservative synagogue led by a Reconstructionist rabbi. In 1999, soon after graduation, she officially converted to Judaism.
But in many ways, her journey was beginning.
Janes wanted to help people through life’s difficulties and considered a career in the rabbinate. Deciding she needed more of a background in Jewish scholarship, she did graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Gratz College in suburban Philadelphia. She earned a master’s degree but decided the rabbinate wasn’t right for her. A decade later, she’d find her true calling in social work.
When she returned to San Antonio after graduate school, she struggled with where to attend synagogue, in part because the rabbi she’d connected with earlier at the Conservative synagogue had moved on. That congregation now had a more rigid atmosphere, she recalled. For instance, she was advised not volunteer in a hospice on Shabbat because it would be considered work.
“Anyone who thinks that God would disapprove of holding the hand of the dying just because it is the wrong day of the week has religion all wrong, in my opinion,” she wrote in an email.
Janes had read about Reconstructionism in college and graduate school and checked out congregation Beth Am, San Antonio’s Reconstructionist community. She knew after a few visits that she’d become a member. In the years since, she’d chaired the High Holiday committee, served as congregational president, and as a Torah reader, even though she doesn’t know the traditional troupes for chanting the Torah aloud.
“Getting to read from the Torah was an incredible gift to me, very moving and very special,” she said. “My Hebrew is good, but at my previous synagogue they would never let anybody read from the Torah without knowing the trope.”
Being a synagogue leader has been challenging, rewarding and surprising.
“My ideas have always been welcome and my hard work has always been appreciated. Nobody has ever looked at me any differently because I am a convert,” she said. “Now, it is fun to take the kids to shul, when I do get the energy together and do it. Other members really love seeing them.”
These days, her work with dying patients takes up much of her time, and spiritual energy.
“For me, Judaism is who I am. The whole idea of bikur holim, visiting the sick, is my life’s work and I live my Judaism through my work,” she added. “It is important to me because I have been sick my whole life. I have been in pain. I have been hooked up to tubes. That is the one thing in my life that makes me uniquely suited to do my job.”
Most of her patients aren’t Jewish. Usually, her own religious beliefs don’t come up – but sometimes a patient presses her on her own thoughts of the afterlife.
“One of the things that is more difficult for me is when patients want to talk about their spiritual issues in the dying process,” she noted. Most of the time, I just listen, but when people start asking me questions about what I believe, I try to handle it on a case-by-case basis. It is not my job to preach to people. I really don’t believe in an afterlife, but I don’t want to destroy anybody’s hopes.”