Thank Goodness for Mistakes

The first big programming event I led as a rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Adam was a mixer with fourteen-year-old Israeli scouts and their Beth Adam host families. The goal of the evening was to help the Israelis get to know the Americans as well as introduce them to both American Judaism and Beth Adam Judaism, which is its own particular flavor of American Judaism.

Beth Adam is a unique kind of Jewish community that respects Judaism for its teaching and values, that learns from Jewish myths and legends as well as science and scholarly history. Beth Adam has its own congregant-created liturgy and its own approach to communal Judaism. It is a place that values all of its members for who they are rather than what religion they are. Both Jewish and non-Jewish parents pass the Torah to those becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah, both Jewish and non Jewish congregants teach in the religious school and serve as board members. It doesn’t matter who is Jewish or who isn’t; it matters who shows up and wants to be part of the community. This is one of the many things that makes Beth Adam such a vibrant a community.

Just a few hours after a group of exhausted Israeli teenagers got off the plane in Cincinnati, they were sitting in the Beth Adam social hall staring blankly at me. We had just done a few ice breakers that had gone really well, but now was time for the content, and I had no idea where to begin. As a brand new rabbinic intern, I was flustered; as amazing and as vibrant as liberal Judaism is, it can also sometimes be difficult to explain without context.

And so, feeling like a deer in the headlights, I watched myself say, “We’re all here because we’re all Jewish” and then go on to talk about what Judaism can be. I heard myself say these dismissive and untrue words — “we’re all here because we’re all Jewish” — yet I didn’t know how to stop myself and regroup. In the moment, I was panicking in front of Israeli teenagers, wanting to prove to them that we really did have common ground, that we really are in this together. But in my my haste to welcome the stranger, I abandoned my own community. I abandoned all the non-Jewish host parents in the room — the parents who drive religious school carpool, participate in adult ed, whole open their homes to Jewish strangers on top of all their work to ensure the future and vibrancy of Judaism.

After the formal part of my teaching was done, I went around the room and apologized personally to the non-Jewish participants I knew of. They were all incredibly understanding, but it didn’t feel like enough. I didn’t say it in public to the larger group, and I still didn’t know how I would have said it differently nor why I said what I said to begin with.

As liberal Jews, we often struggle with the line between the particularity of Judaism and the universal. What does Judaism have to offer the world? Why are we Jews, if we are Jews? Which Jewish values are our values, and which aren’t? Whether or not we are Jewish, how does Judaism help us live more responsible, ethical, healthy lives? It is our responsibility to continue the work of reform pioneers like David Einhorn, Kaufman Kohler, and Emil G. Hirsch, who preached and advocated for a Judaism that was relevant to the human experience as well as the Jewish experience.

In general, I don’t approach my rabbinic work or responsibilities with the goal of perfection. I know that no sermon is ever truly finished, no teaching as awesome or as perfect as it could be. I relish the challenge of that constant imperfection, yet there are still those moments I keep going back to, finding endless ways I could have handled things differently. While I can’t go back and change the past, every mistake can inform how I handle things in the future.

Over a year after that evening with the Israeli scouts, I found myself leading our annual celebration for the beginning of the religious school year in the sanctuary at Beth Adam. We were framing our entire religious school year so the whole community was present— parents, teachers, teen teacher assistants, students, new members, prospective members, and adults without children. As part of our induction, I asked all of our students why we were here beginning a new year of religious school. They had some wonderful answers — to learn, to have fun, to make the world a better place. Then one little girl very proudly raised her hand and shouted, “We’re all here, because we’re all Jewish!” There was a pause. But unlike last time, when I had been totally unprepared for my own misstep, I was able to frame the student’s response and say: “Not everyone here is actually Jewish, but we are all here because we all want to learn from Judaism and live lives informed by Judaism, and because we believe that Judaism is important.” Because I was so conscious of the mistake I had made the year before, this time — when the stakes were much, much higher — I was able to offer a frame and words that were true and welcoming rather than false and distancing.

Interfaith families have unique opportunities and struggles within our Jewish communities. It is time we remember consciously that our Jewish communities are not just for Jews. Our Jewish communities are for everyone who respects Judaism and wishes to be engaged with Judaism and learn from it, not just for those who are formally Jewish. It is our responsibility to examine our values and our language so that our communities, and the teachings and programs that take place within them, truly reflect the values we hold so dear.

Our communities have so much to offer, and so do all of the individuals who help create them.

Iah Pillsbury is a fifth-year rabbinic student and rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio

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