An old Kutz friend of mine is now a freshman at Yale. In high school, she lived in Florida and I in Texas, so we hadn’t seen each other in a while. I paid her a visit this weekend, spending one very strange Halloween at Yale.
Saturday afternoon, after a gorgeous walk in some gorgeous weather, we sat down in the gorgeous courtyard of her residence, Silliman College, and had a very interesting conversation. She put into words something that I’ve felt, but had been unable to articulate.
After we spent the Summer together at Kutz on 2005, I was completely sucked into the Reform movement. I went on to go to Israel as a senior in high school on the Union’s EIE semester program, spent another summer and spent another summer as a participant at Kutz, not to mention two years as president of my synagogue’s youth group.
Her story is rather different. Though she is a product of the movement through-and-through (her father is a Reform Rabbi), she kind of fell out of the movement, and became involved in a couple of eye-opening pluralistic programs. First, she spent a summer at Brandeis University on a program called Genesis, which she described as being like Kutz, but not. Genesis has more of a college feel, a focus on text study, and includes participants from all walks of Jewish life, from black hats to no hats and everything in between. The following summer, she was accepted to the prestigious Bronfman Fellowship summer program in Israel, also a pluralist program
I eventually made it to the world of pluralism, but it took me until my first year of college to do it. I attended the Limmud NY conference in January of last year (register here for the 2009 conference, where you will have the time of your life) and, though I enjoyed the conference greatly, came away from it very frustrated with the Reform movement, but unable to say exactly why.
My friend at Yale explained that at Genesis she became very frustrated with Reform as well. She said that at Genesis, all the program participants planned Shabat every week. Her eyes were opened by the more observant students, for whom planning Shabat involved a slew of minute details and considerations, which she had never been exposed to.
I realized that Shabat at Limmud was a similar experience. Limmud NY also draws a very denominationaly (or lack thereof) diverse crowd. It was the first Shabat I had really spent around a considerably large group of people, many of whom were far more observant than I. In the Reform movement, I’m used to being one of the most observant people in the room.
What frustrated us both about these experiences was that the movment that had raised us and educated us and made Judaism dear to us hadn’t explained that there were other Jews out there. Obviously, there aren’t any Reform Rabbis out there claiming that Orthodox Jews are is imaginary as the Easter Bunny, but they are certainly an ignored, or sometimes even obnoxious, fact of life to the Reform institution. My friend and I both noted considering, if only for a fleeting second, joining their ranks.
But in the end, I think we’re just glad that our experiences with pluralism have taught us that there people out there for whom a strictly observant Jewish life isn’t seen as a burden. Instead, it is that observant life that gives their lives its meaning, in just the way that my Reform choice process gives my life meaning.
Though I’m not even remotely willing to say that our movement’s excellent relationship with the American Muslim communiyt is bad thing, it is certainly a shame that we may have a better relationship with members of other religions than we do with our own coreligionists. It is a shame that we are often so insular in the Reform movement.