In this season of curiosity, I have been asking non-Jewish friends and acquaintances who are members of Jewish communities and families about their Jewish practice. The answers have been amazing and often surprising. One non-Jewish friend told me that, lately, she has been finding the act of reciting the shema to be particularly powerful. When I asked her why, she said that she knew that countless Jews have not been able to recite this prayer safely and when she says it, she is standing by her partner and son and protecting their right to say the shema in safety and security. “Also,” she said, “the shema is something I can say about God that feels true and authentic to me.”
Others told me that, while they understood the need to accommodate the schedules of far-flung family members, for them, the content of the Torah portion was the most important element in picking dates for their kids’ b’nai mitzvah. Another person described how much she loved the rare occasions on which she could attend Shabbat services by herself and how heart-opening and cathartic that experience could be for her. Yet another told me that she loves to celebrate Shabbat with her family because it gives her kids the opportunity to connect with something larger than themselves.
While each person I spoke with told me a different story, they were all grateful to be asked about how their Jewish practice is part of their own religious experience.
This leads me to my next question, which is truly a mah nishtana—a “Why is this different?” When Jews do things like have Shabbat dinner, host seder, go to services, read the siddur and/or sing and pray aloud, other Jews identify these practices as enactments of Jewish belonging, behaving and believing. This is particularly true of the acts of joining synagogues and raising Jewish children. When Jews do these things, we identify them as acts of Jewish belonging, par excellence. Yet when non-Jews do them, those of us who are Jews often identify them as acts of support or ally-ship for their Jewish partners and children.
Why do we make this distinction? Why is it hard for many Jews to understand these practices as Jewish practices, as personal religious practices, and as possible enactments of belonging, behaving and believing when they are performed by non-Jews? Why, for us, is this different?
Like the Israelites in Exodus, we travel this season from the Red Sea toward Sinai in richly mixed multitudes. As we travel together, let’s ask one another, Jew and non-Jew alike, what our Jewish practices are like, and how these practices nourish, sustain and challenge each of us on our journeys to find meaning and joy, in this season and beyond.