Global Jewish Reflections | This Elul, We Are All Each Other’s Beloveds

In Jewish tradition, Elul — the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah — is a particularly sacred time of preparation for the new year. To commemorate its start, rabbinical student Rachel Simmons explores a verse from Song of Songs.

By Rachel Simmons - rabbinical student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Los Angeles, CA | August 21, 2020

In 2018, rabbinical student Rachel Simmons (center right) traveled to Siberia to provide rabbinic support for JDC's b'nei mitzvah program.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the voices of rabbis and other spiritual leaders and Jewish educators from across the JDC world.

In Jewish tradition, Elul — the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah — is a particularly sacred time of preparation for the new year. To commemorate this special month, we present a weekly series of meditations on Jewish life, the year that was, and the year to come.

In the summer of 2018, I volunteered with JDC in Tomsk, Russia — a city of about 540,000 in the heart of Siberia. Along with another seminary student, I provided rabbinic support for b’nei mitzvah candidates through JDC’s summer program for teens and young adults seeking to undergo that milestone. Started by JDC Board Member Elaine Berke in 2005, the initiative has reached hundreds of young Jews across Russia.

The second evening I was in Tomsk, one of the young women asked if she could speak with me alone. Through tears, she described something several others from the program would also reveal over the ensuing two weeks: She’d approached her local rabbi only to be turned away, told she wasn’t “really” Jewish based on her family’s history, which included relatives being persecuted for their Judaism but didn’t hold a guarantee her mother had been born halachically Jewish. Crying, she asked: Am I Jewish? Does my Judaism count?

It’s been two years, but our conversation has stuck with me. Essentially, what she was asking me was this: Did I, as a future rabbi, accept as valid both the type of traditional Jewish identity outlined by my movement and also other Jewish identities, such as her own? Was she Jewish — to me? 292w, 527w' sizes='(max-width: 527px) 100vw, 527px' src='' alt='Rachel Simmons claps and dances with a group of Jewish teens in Tomsk, Russia.' class='wp-image-21771' width='580' height='387' data-recalc-dims="1" />

So, what did I tell the young woman in Siberia? I told her in no uncertain terms that yes, she was Jewish. I told her that yes, there were many groups of Jews in the world and yes, she might have to go through some rituals if she wanted to belong to some of those groups — but that no matter what, she was still my Jewish sibling.

There is incredible power in looking another person in the eye and affirming the ways in which you are the same, while acknowledging — even celebrating! — the ways you are different. I would challenge us all, this Elul, to examine our preconceptions about what it means to be Jewish and to look at those who feel like the “other” through the lens of Song of Songs 6:3.  

We are all each other’s beloveds.

Rachel Simmons is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, CA.  In 2018, she joined JDC in Tomsk, Russia to support its Siberian bar and bat mitzvah initiative.

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