Returning home

Whether desire for Jewish knowledge at a young age was an indicator of my career path back to JRC I can’t say, but what I do know is this: I have always felt welcome here.

Rachel Weiss image

In 1985, I asked my parents to go to Hebrew school-wanting to learn more about the Jewish traditions that felt at the heart of our family celebrations. The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston became a home for me and my family, and we would see b'nai mitzvah , weddings, divorce, funerals, and shivas within its walls.  Today, it's also my office and my pulpit, as I have returned to my childhood home to serve as their rabbi.

Whether desire for Jewish knowledge at a young age was an indicator of my career path back to JRC I can't say, but what I do know is this: I have always felt welcome here.  When I was a child, I learned to include the imahot ( foremothers ) alongside the avot ( patriarchs) in the Amidah .  When I was a teenager, I came to understand our relationship to being the "chosen" people was one of agency and choice, not of superiority.  When I was a college student and came out as a lesbian, I found my home community embraced me and my partner, and would later hold the congregational chuppah at our wedding.  And just as the community at JRC has not remained the same all these years, neither have I.

For Judaism to stay alive it has to change. Because we, the Jewish people, change.

The JRC community has more LGBTQ people and more gender-diverse folks than when I was a child.  There are more Jews of color, more interfaith families, more families created by adoption, more adults trying different styles of spiritual practice.  There is more social justice, more organizing and more kids going to Jewish summer camp than when I was here last.  The voices we bring into services-a range of ideas on Israel and Palestine, awareness of privilege and racism, environmentalism, and religious pluralism are loud and vibrant.  This community fills me with pride as I walk in the door each day.

It's a blessing to have a home that evolves and grows, and one that comforts.  It is a blessing to find home that values the individual life experiences we each bring, and looks for footholds in tradition that resonate.  It is a blessing to bring my full self to this table-as a rabbi, a lesbian, a parent, a partner, an activist, a feminist, a Reconstructionist, a Jew-and to have a place that is expansive enough to hold the wholeness of each of us.

Wholeness, shleymut , is a luxury because we live in a broken world.  To maintain these sacred spaces we must open our doors as wide as we can; if the boundaries become too inflexible, our tradition will crumble like the ancient temple walls.  We must be willing to look to the places less illuminated, the places on the margins, and ask not "how can we include you and make you feel welcome" but rather, "what is it you know about your experiences in the world that will help us necessarily change and transform?"  We must risk not knowing the answer, and we must risk having to try again.

This month, we will gather around our windows, face the world, and bring in more light.  Menorahs in hand, we will sing ancient words and dedicate ourselves to making the world shine.  

Perhaps the most miraculous element of Chanukah-this ancient battle about the authenticity of Judaism, and whose practice was more "true"-was not the fact that the oil for one day stretched on for eight.  No, the real miracle of Chanukah was that out of the midst of despair, the dimmest time of the year amidst ruins and brokenness, was that our ancestors had the courage to re-light the light in the first place.  When all evidence pointed to the end, a ner tamid permanently extinguished, someone struck the flame.  Someone extended a hand.  The best hope we can have in this season is to imagine that things will be different than they are, even if we aren't certain how we will get there.  

If we're lucky, and our flames stand close enough to one another to be lit by a common shamash , then real transformation and illumination is possible.  That shamash , differently sized and outside the rest, is the place where we start.  

This Chanukah, let us look to the lights outside what we know.  Let us look and see what risks we need to take to come together.  Let us look to see who is on the margins, and how their light will shine on us.  Let us look to the vulnerable among us, making explicit that all are welcome in our Jewish communities, and allow ourselves to wonder how their wholeness will bless us all the more.   

Rabbi Rachel Weiss is the new rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC). Weiss, whose rabbinical installation is on Dec. 16, is JRC's first female and first gay rabbi, and is believed to be the only gay senior rabbi at any synagogue in the Chicagoland area.


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