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?
In the Jewish mystical tradition, the name of the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is actually an acrostic for several verses in the Torah. My favorite of these verses is Song of Songs 6:3 — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” I think I enjoy this interpretation of Elul because it can be easy to forget amidst all of the hubbub of holiday preparation and teshuvah (repentance) that while rituals are important to Judaism, rituals without compassion have no meaning. During Elul, we have to repent and work to better ourselves because we are each others’ beloveds, bound together in holy diversity.
At no point in Jewish history was Jewish life homogenous, despite our love of rules.
At no point in Jewish history was Jewish life homogenous, despite our love of rules. There have always been groups within the Jewish people who were more or less involved with Temple rituals, sacrifices, services, and legal procedures — and even among those who were more ritually active, there was ample disagreement over how to carry out those rituals (thus, the birth of the Mishna, Talmud, and other rabbinic discourses). There have always been exceptions to halachic rules for health and safety and in times of war and disagreements over how to trace descent.
With all that in mind, how in the world did we get to a place where a young woman, plucked from the ashes of history in the former Soviet Union and interested in learning more about her culture and traditions, could be rejected by her own people?
I’d like to imagine a different kind of future for us all, one where young Jews around the world — supported by organizations like JDC — are encouraged to explore their heritage and cultivate their own Jewish futures. I’d like to imagine an interdenominational dialogue that begins not with documents and discussions of matrilineal descent but with “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” And I’d like to imagine that all Jews — Haredim, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, non-denominational, post-denominational, secular, patrilineal, Jews who’ve converted, the list goes on — would see each other as beloveds first, and choose compassion.
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.