Pluralistic communities are a blessing to the Jewish world, for through them individuals have the opportunity to not only explore their personal beliefs but also acknowledge the divinity that is in each person. My definition of pluralism is based in the concept of b’tezelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of God. There are many ways to be Jewish, and as I Jew I am first obligated to respect the divine spark that is in each person rather than concerning myself with the way that any one person chooses to practice. I have had the privilege to be a part of a variety of pluralistic communities, some more successful than others, and it is in these places and spaces that my identity as a Jew has been formed. Pluralistic communities require that individuals acknowledge that there are many ways in which to view the world. The most transformative community of which I have had the privilege of being a part was Women of the Wall in Jerusalem.
Founded almost 26 years ago, Women of the Wall is an organization of women who desire to pray at the Kotel as they would pray in their various communities. Their fight for the right of a woman to wear tallit, t’fillin, to pray out loud, and to read from a Sefer Torah has been Women of the Wall’s main goal. In recent years, and even in recent months, their cause has been moving forward in an increasingly positive direction. It was my time spent with them as an intern that allowed me the access to see how an organization can embrace pluralism in a purposeful way that grants those involved the opportunity to find their own voices within the collective. Being a “fly on the wall,” so to speak, was a privilege and granted me the ability to learn from women who have shaped not only their own lives, but the lives of so many people around them in beautifully positive ways. The most important thing I learned from working with Women of the Wall is that my ability to work with people who have views very different from my own requires me to understand my beliefs and myself.
The personal and spiritual growth I experienced during my time with Women of the Wall prepared allowed me to be successful in my teaching fellowship at a Conservative congregation this year. As a Reform rabbinic student, I have a different knowledge base than the other teachers at the Conservative congregation. These differences are not an issue of one Movement being better than another, but rather an underlying difference in philosophy. As a teacher in the religious school, it is my responsibility to not only be authentic in my behavior, but also to be respectful of the minhagim of the community. As a role model for the students of an example of a Jewish leader, I work hard to show them that there are multiple paths to finding themselves in our tradition and that there is no one right answer in Judaism. I am incredibly grateful to have a supervisor who is also a mentor in this regard and constantly pushes me to challenge my comfort zone. He believes strongly in the importance of pluralism and has himself engaged with a variety of communities that have all helped shape him into the leader he is today. I am a better teacher because of his assistance and because the congregation believes strongly in embracing individuals of all backgrounds who wish to be a part of the community.
As I look towards the future, both the immediate future and the long term, I acknowledge that there are still many things that I need to learn and many experiences I would benefit from having. I also imagine that my future will include working with communities who wish to embrace a pluralistic worldview. It seems to me there are so many Jews who feel alienated from the Jewish community because they do not fit into a certain type of box, and my dream is to be able to be a rabbi for them. For it is only by embracing one another that the Jewish community will be able to continue to be a guiding light in our world.
Simone Schicker is a TJF Fellow currently serving at the Northern Hills Synagogue and Ohav Shalom joint religious school, the Kehillah School for Creative Jewish Education.