When I decided to become Jewish, to undertake a year of study with my Rabbi and eventually to convert, I happily told my best friend; she had converted years before, but had also been raising her children Jewishly even earlier, so she had about 20 years of affiliation by then. Of course she congratulated me, then wryly mused, "I must be really Jewish now, because honestly my first thought was "Why?"".
As so many things have since, this struck me as supremely odd. Yet I've had a few other brave souls give me the same reaction and it is, I would discover, quintessentially Jewish.
What they are referring to is the innate struggle. It is often unspoken because it is so deeply inherent. Being Jewish is to be stereotyped, to be a minority, to be sometimes vilified, and yes, occassionally discriminated against. It's happened to me in the mere 10 years since my conversion.
To many who were born into the mantle that is Judaism, it seems odd that someone would willingly embrace their faith. It is of course more than a faith - ask any secular Jew.
Today I attended a fund raising meeting at our new Temple.* It's a small shul**. I have belonged to two large synagogues, in cities with strong Jewish populations, and yet the challenges are the same: funding is scarce, resources thin, the congregation is involved but sometimes marginally. Once in a while key people burn out. A multitude of decisions teeter on the head of a pin - we must balance our expectations of congregants with a sincere acknowledgement that many things distract people from supporting their Temple. Life is demanding.
As with other faiths, religious life used to be the center of the community, the services were well attended, shul was socially important and economically relevant. Not only were major life events celebrated, but shared too were the mundane details of life's routines.
Now we struggle to make ends meet. This recession has not translated into more attendance in organized religion. As the country and the world falters, so do the institutions that support it. Why should we be any different?
Once again Jews are reminded that while we are unique, we are not Special - our Temples are also hard hit by economic scarcity, and most were already struggling before the recession.
Why kvetch when the budgets are tight?*** As someone observed wisely today in our meeting, yes, we are running a deficit, but we will survive as we always have. We need to plan long term and deal with near term shortfalls.
Are we surprised? I knew there would be hard times when I chose Judaism, I just didn't know how, when or where. I undertook the committment with as much forethought and foresight as I could muster. I considered it for years before I even began to study. And I knew I had no idea of what I was getting into. My longing for the beauty of the liturgy, the intellectual and philosophical rigor, the transcendant music and chanting, the sublime Hebrew and Yiddish, the tight-knit community, the fascinating history and traditions, the mysticism (which I was too young to study at 36) all outweighed my doubts. Just writing about what attracted me to Judaism, to this day, puts tears in my eyes.
Similarly I knew when I met my husband that there would be challenges, tho I could not predict what issues would arise. We had 3 years of off and on dating before we ironed out the details. And like all couples we will always have things to work out.
Marriage offers plenty of opportunities for growth. Something causes pain or discomfort before motivation and attention is turned to what needs to be addressed. So first imbalance, some struggle or work, then usually, resolution and peace regained. Or detente declared.
I think it works the same way at Temple :)
Other long term / life committments, such as college and career present the same opportunities. Who among us can say we really knew what to expect? Did it go as we planned? And yet we accepted the challenge, perhaps with a prayer we would succeed. Now we all know people who have radically changed their lives as a result of the recession, a historical event that few predicted, even counting the experts. Millions are still struggling to deal with entirely different circumstances than they foresaw.
We learn to expect the unexpected.
The difficulties in personal life, the challenges overcome, much as we loathe to admit it, make us stronger. Why wouldn't this fringe benefit apply as well to the Temple where we gather to thank G-d for our blessings?
Decades ago Scott Peck, who wrote the Road Less Travelled (second best selling book of all time), described the decisions of parenting as having to struggle with choices. He observed that while we must do our best to make the right decisions, we are all human and sometimes we will make mistakes. He went on however to note that it was very important, crucial even, for our children to see us struggle with parenting. As role models, the more important lesson was in the how not the what. How we arrived at a decision was the key to showing our kids we took parenting seriously. What we decided was less critical. That we love them enough to struggle with the responsibilities inherent to parenting - that was the treasure to show them.
In effect, it is the journey, not the destination that matters.
Maybe it is a blessing to get to work hard to support our Temple (or Church or Mosque). Call me crazy, but it does seem to bring us together doesn't it? It even encourages creativity. And cutting away where we can. Keeping what is crucial.
I believe that struggling to protect our faith, our community and our values is the point. If G-d is watching us, maybe that is the goal - to see if we care enough to have the courage and determination to make the effort, to find solutions. Even if it feels as though we are sometimes wandering in the desert, looking for the Promised Land.
*I chose a seat in their meeting place - the lobby. HaShem has such a sense of humour. I stayed as an observer, left on a subcommitte :)
*** I honestly didn't hear anyone kvetch today at the meeting - concern, yes. Complaints? No. It's a lovely group of warm committed people. I'm really enjoying this Jewish community :) Small but active!