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Shir Tikvah sees Judaism as a religion that one has a personal relationship with, and demonstrates this belief through their mission of acceptance as well as through their actions.
In my senior year at my private Jewish high school, every student wrote a piece titled, “Why I am Jewish.” While everyone in my grade had been born into the Judaism, this was not the main topic of the paper for any student. As we read our pieces out loud to the grade throughout the year, I quickly realized how much was central to the religion. In their eyes, my peers were not Jewish because their mothers were Jewish or because they had grown up in Jewish households, but they were Jewish because of the experiences they had been a part of, their values, and their many beliefs. It was in my senior year, hearing my peers talk about the religion that I had so long known and been a part of, that I began to see the many different conceptions of Judaism. There were 34 students, and over 34 different ways that Judaism had been viewed, which quickly lead me to question what exactly it meant to be Jewish.
It seems that this question, and perhaps an implicit answer, is extremely important to Shir Tikvah as well. Upon learning of Shir Tikvah at the start of the semester, I felt strongly that this was a synagogue I would like to spend more time at and learn more about. The reason that I felt such a strong commitment to Shir Tikvah before even entering the building was that I identified with the way that they answered this question. It seems that Shir Tikvah’s answer to this question is that the answer is not so simple. In other words, there is not a specific set of criteria or simple set of actions that make someone “Jewish.” According to Shir Tikvah’s views, it is not being born into a Jewish family or growing up in a Jewish household that makes someone Jewish, nor is it belief in certain ideas or the following of certain laws. Shir Tikvah sees Judaism as a religion that one has a personal relationship with, and demonstrates this belief through their mission of acceptance as well as through their actions. On my Jewish journey I had come to believe in this same personalized Judaism that Shir Tikvah so strongly promoted. As a result, I thought that I would gain much insight from spending time at Shir Tikvah and with the Shir Tikvah community. I knew that it would be of great value for me to learn from all that was going on at the synagogue, and I had a learning goal of understanding what exactly was at the core of the community that I was entering into.
What does it mean for different identities to be just as important, if not more important, than one’s religious identity at a religious institution?
I quickly learned about the many values and ideals that are core to Shir Tikvah because they are so deeply engrained in everything the synagogue does. The acceptance and inclusion of all was everything that I had expected it to be, if not more, but brought me to a different question. My mind once again wandered to the students at my Jewish school stating that they were Jewish for an array of reasons, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether these multifaceted Jewish identities were the same as the ones present at Shir Tikvah. In theory, there should have been no difference between the two, but in my mind there was. I could not rid myself of the feelings that the acceptance of all that was present at Shir Tikvah was quite different than the many reasons for identifying with the religion that had been present at my school. In my mind, these differences lay in the fact that at Shir Tikvah there did not seem to be a limit to this inclusion, while in the situation I had been a part of, all of us were already Jewish. Anyone could come to the synagogue and be welcomed, which was something that Shir Tikvah prided itself on, but in my mind that was not always something positive. While I admired Shir Tikvah’s dedication to their mission and their outreach towards all who needed someone to reach out to them, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of these actions.
Shir Tikvah is a community that values multiple identities, but the more time I spent at Shir Tikvah, the more I wondered what it meant that so many identities were important. What does it mean for different identities to be just as important, if not more important, than one’s religious identity at a religious institution? Is there something that is lost such as a relationship to the traditional religion that one loses in taking these actions? These were all questions I addressed in my interviews and through my observations. Members and clergy of Shir Tikvah do not believe that there is a significant difference, yet I still wonder if this difference is present and one they simply do not notice.
This question, along with many others, is one that I am leaving my fieldwork with. Throughout the duration of this project I was able to learn so much about not only Shir Tikvah, but also about a religion that is so central to my identity, and therefore about myself. Due to all that I gained from my experience, I would say that my semester of learning about Shir Tikvah and engaging with so many interesting people was a success. The experience that I had as a result of this project is not one I could have had in any other situation, and I feel extremely lucky to have had an opportunity like this one.