Since becoming a rabbi, I have come to believe there really are five seasons to the year. There are the typical four: Fall, winter, spring, and summer, but for rabbis, there is an additional season called “pre-High Holidays.” It is the time of year when rabbis reflect on the messages we want to give our congregants and plan the services in observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As a Jewish educator, I spend this time preparing to open religious school for our almost 600 students, making sure our program is the best it can be.
This year, my attention is being spent on something much more mundane and, ironically, more stressful. With many school districts beginning at the same time as Rosh Hashanah, I find myself preoccupied with what to do about the fact my daughter will miss the first day of her high school classes. While I know our family belongs in synagogue, I also am keenly aware she will actually miss an exam being given on the first day. For many, this does not sound like such a big issue, but for my daughter, it is certainly a concern. While I understand that legally she cannot be penalized for missing due to religious observances, I also understand there are ways in which she will feel punished.
This is but one example of what it means to live as Jews in the secular world. Let’s face it — we don’t live in Israel or even a city large enough that secular school calendars are affected by the Jewish calendar. For many of us, we are the only Jew in our school or office. We are constantly being asked to balance our Jewish and secular identities, whether it is at school functions, with social engagements, or at work. The balancing act can be tricky at times. The larger problem is how this constant balancing often makes us feel like an outsider in our own community.
I recently overheard a teenage girl tell another how she does not like wearing her necklace with a Jewish star on it. She explained that wearing it made her look “too Jewish” and how she didn’t like to set herself apart from her peers at school. For many, being different is a positive, but for far too many, this feeling of being different is isolating. This isolation affects people regardless of age. Make no mistake — teens are not the only ones who struggle with this issue.
Unfortunately, the challenge of finding a balance between the Jewish and secular parts of our identity will not go away. Navigating these challenges as they occur will be an ongoing process. There will be times when we feel like the outsider, but the answer is not to turn away from our Jewish identity. Rather we need to turn to our synagogue or chavurah or youth group, to remind ourselves that we do belong, that we are not alone. When we belong to and are active in a synagogue, attend religious school or adult learning classes, take part in Jewish summer camps, belong to Jewish youth groups (regardless of which one) and are active with organizations such as Hillel, the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Service or Federation, we remind ourselves we are not “the other.” We are, in fact, together. By taking part in a vibrant Jewish community, we surround ourselves with other Jews and are invited into a sense of belonging often lacking in other areas of our lives. I repeatedly hear students tell me they love coming to religious school because, while they are the only Jew in their grade or school, they have community in our synagogue. They feel validated.
As a rabbi, Jewish educator and mother, this “pre-High Holiday” season is spent contemplating how important it is to live as a Jewish American — one who straddles both the Jewish and secular worlds and one who proudly belongs to both communities. It is exactly this pride I wish for all Jews to have so when choices must be made, it brings pride — not discomfort. May this New Year bring with it deeper connections within the Jewish community for each of us.