As you may or may not know, I have walked a rather peculiar path to Judaism. To capture its mystery and wonder, here is my Jewish journey in Haiku form:
It seems we are all Jewish
Nana says no to Moses
Now dead she says yes
Daddy loves Jesus
I love your big bat mitzvah
Let my people go
I hope that was elucidating.
This winter, I made the decision to join a temple for the first time. This was a pretty big deal for me – I had never belonged to, or practiced, any kind of organized religion before; I was afraid of it; I felt like a Jewish phony; I have only been to two services, neither of which was at my current home-base temple; Husband isn’t Jewish, and I basically knew nobody there. But it felt like the right next step in my Jewish development, and this temple had two things in particular which I really loved: 1) they had as many non-Jews as Jews, and were extremely diverse, and 2) they had a ton of groups through which to engage in volunteer work.
P.O.W.E.R. is an interfaith group comprised of congretations from across the city; it seems to be mostly churches & synagogues now, and I’m somewhat curious about the absence of other religions in the group, but I have a feeling that’s a question I will answer further down the line.
I have so far been to three meetings for P.O.W.E.R. The first was at the historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church; there was a lot of communal prayer to bookend the meeting, from which I abstained; we ate cold pizza under florescent lights in an old library in the carpeted upstairs of the church, and it was a curious mix of female rabbis in yarmulkes and black reverends.
The second meeting was held at Rodeph Shalom, for all the P.O.W.E.R. members of Philadelphia; 400 of us sat in the basement wedding hall; we were talked at by various community organizers working at different levels within the P.O.W.E.R. staff; the night concluded with our being asked to commit to bringing a certain number of our congregants to a huge meeting of 4,000 people in April, where we would make a case in front of local government officials to move forward on our three causes: jobs, immigration, and education. Although we were unclear as to what exactly we would be doing, or asking, or saying at this springtime festival of the devoted, the co-chair of my group stood up and committed us to bring 100 people.
Here is a little peek into the glamorous world that is P.O.W.E.R. – me, getting buck wild with my new colleagues and the books they raised money to purchase for Spring Garden Elementary, at a banquet table strewn with potato chip crumbs and ruddy xeroxed calendars for upcoming congregational meetings.
The third meeting was a small one, for just our temple’s group. Our local P.O.W.E.R. staff organizer came, after having a coffee date with me which I thought was due to his curiosity about my joining, but which I learned was called a One-on-One, and is standard procedure when a new person comes on board. It was like thinking you were on a date and then realizing at the end that they guy is only there because his mother said he had to go as a favor to your parents. I left our fake conversation feeling unsettled, and entered a meeting that made me even more uncomfortable. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Ironically, at this meeting, I was asked whether I would be interested in leading the charge to get 100 Rodeph Shalomers to the big P.O.W.E.R. event in April. I was mightily unsure, so I arranged to meet for a coffee (which I seem to spend most of my time doing these days…) with one of the co-chairs. She seemed to like me but made some sharp comments about my age, my wedding ring, and my frizzless hair; she didn’t buy that I don’t believe in God; she was frustrated with the group, but remained one of its leaders. Despite the shifting ground we were standing on, I felt able to be honest with her.
I sat back in my chair and mustered the energy for a serious talk.
“So. One of the things that made me uncomfortable was at the last meeting -”
“What?” she interrupted – excited, it seemed, for me to say something dark.
“Well, I felt like we spent a lot of time having our ideas pooled – what do we see as the biggest impediments to students’ being able to be successful in Philly public schools, and what are the causes, and who benefits from those causes – which I thought was a really interesting question to ask – but then, after we’d spent 25 minutes brainstorming together, the workshop leader goes, “OK, well I’m glad we did that, now here is a plan for what you should do with the Spring Garden Elementary, and it’ll mean involving seven other local congregations in your work, and then we’ll use it as a model site and have all the other P.O.W.E.R. members do it in their neighborhoods. Sound good? Can we get a vote on it? Now? Good?”
“And it was like, hold on – first things first, we are just forming a relationship with Spring Garden Elementary, why are you going to rush it? And muddle it with other churches & temples? We need to build relationships with them first – we don’t even work with them, and that’s a whole other kit + kaboodle. And secondly, why did you just waste half an hour of our time fake-building-consensus when you already had a plan for what you were going to tell us to do?”
“Well, what I was told by our Rabbi is that culturally, this is what works for many of the other congregants in the community; that they’re more used to having a Reverend who gives direction, who says, “This is God’s work that I’m asking you to do, that we will do together,” and for them that’s the charge they need to get moving. But for Jewish congregations it’s different – we need to chew on it, ask questions, argue, debate. That doesn’t work, the blind accepting, but I guess I need to be culturally sensitive to the way others do things.”
“Well, yes – but they need to be culturally sensitive to us, too. We are just as much a part of this larger P.O.W.E.R. community as the other folks you mention, and part of our culture is examining, analyzing, arguing, pushing back – that’s part of the Jewish tradition and how we engage with holy texts, with ideas, with one another. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be honored just as much as the traditions and methods of other faiths.”
I was surprised to hear myself using “we” and yabber on about the Jewish approach to thinking – when did these ideas find their way into my mouth?
I went on, getting riled up.
“And the other thing is, people don’t like that.”
“Don’t like what?”
“They don’t like having their time wasted, and they don’t like fake consensus building. If you’re coming in here to tell me what to do that’s fine, but be straightforward about it. Don’t pretend to mine for ideas if you are just doing it for show; it’s a waste of my time and it’s annoying. Just be upfront.”
“I’ll tell you – I’m interested in doing the campaign mobilizing, but that makes me wary. At our big P.O.W.E.R. meeting the other week I felt like they got us all to vote on something, but I have no idea what we agreed to. I don’t want to rally the troops for a battle I don’t even understand. What is this thing in April? What are we asking people to say yes to? Why do they need us there? Are we just showing our power in numbers, or are we trying to push policies?”
“I think it’s a little of each.”
” Well, I’d like to know that more specifically before we start asking people to get on board. How can we ask them to come if we don’t even want to go ourselves?”
” That happens a lot with P.O.W.E.R. ”
“Well, I don’t like it, and I think it might be worth talking to the group about it because I bet we’re not the only two who don’t like it. And I think it might be worth talking to the local staff leaders of P.O.W.E.R., too, to let them know that doesn’t work for us.”
“So you’ll lead part of the meeting then, and help us talk through that?”
Wait, what? Shit.
And so, here I am. I am now the Rodeph Shalom Campaign Mobilizer for the April 21st P.O.W.E.R. event. Nice to meet you.
So – now what, I ask myself? Well, tomorrow we will have our next local meeting, like the Mother Bethel affair. And next week we’re having that meeting with RSers where I am going to lead half the gathering, in preparation to rally the rest of the temple.
Tomorrow, I plan to bring up these concerns – being asked to be the evangelists of causes and projects we’re not fully filled in on; and at next week’s meeting, I plan to ask the RS group to share what they understand the message we’re supporting to be, and together – truly – drafting an elevator speech that we can use to explain to fellow congregants what it is we’re doing, and why they should come.
I have mixed feelings about doing this. Haiku? Help a sister out.
The tingle finds me
Worrying about Torahs
Happy to help out
Is it a lie if
Nobody else really cares
If it is a lie?
You, God’s messenger
I like arranging parties
Holier than thou?
So, why am I doing this? It’s mostly selfish – I want to see whether I can. think it will be a great learning experience for organizing people. If I can do this, it will teach me how to accomplish larger organizing feats in my other outside projects – and this one gives me the support of the whole P.O.W.E.R. group, the rabbis, the temple community. It feels like a safe place to learn and try, before working on it on my own.
I also like solving puzzles, and doing things that other people feel overwhelmed by, or which they say are impossible. And so, I have developed a strategy that I’m going to propose to the rest of the group next week, to get us more than 100 people. Here’s my thinking:
There are a number of affinity groups within R.S. To be specific, there are 9 “Connection Groups,” for all different age groups, walks of life, interests, etc.; then there are also two community service groups. If we can task each group with bringing 12-15 people, we will have over 100 people coming. Boom.
Now, each group might not have that many people to bring, but within each group we can find 2-5 leaders, each of whom is responsible for getting their group to meet the quota, either with RS congregants, or friends & family from outside the temple. Each person is then responsible for finding only 3-5 people to bring, which is way more doable and less daunting.
We will then have prizes, because people lurv prizes. We will give an award to the individual who brings the most people to the event, and a prize to the group that brings the most people to the event. There are some pretty snazzy members of Rodeph Shalom – from chefs to artists to business owners – so I imagine we could scrounge up two good prizes to be donated.
We will also have t-shirts or hats for all the RS folks, to set us apart and let each of the affinity groups represent themselves. I’d also like to create a temporary website to let people see updates on whether we’re moving towards our goals, see how many people/who has signed up for each group, etc, perhaps through a site like Generocity.
So, I’m feeling excited to try this out and see if it works – but it is also a little uncomfortable. It feels strange to be put in charge of gathering 100 temple-goers to attend a rally of 4,000 interfaith congregants, when I still feel like a very fringe member here. I haven’t been to a service at Rodeph Shalom; I can’t read or say a Hebrew word to save my life; I don’t believe in God in any way that sits with people who say they do. I felt somewhat queasy about the reasons I was told I would be good for the role – that I’m young and new and energetic and fresh – because these reasons feel outside of myself. But it’s something I’ve become somewhat used to over the past few months: these various groups I’ve joined want me to participate vigorously because I’m young, and they see my youth as an asset. And I figure that if it’s my age that gets my foot in the door, it’s better than nothing, since it puts me in a position to make some meaningful change – even if I’d prefer for it to be my uncanny perspicacity or sparkling wit that clears a spot at the table for me, instead.
Well, here goes nothing. L’Chaim!