Only a few months ago, I was standing on the women’s balcony of my Orthodox Sephardi synagogue, not so different than the one depicted in the popular Israeli film by the same name. And just like a scene in “The Women’s Balcony,” the women excitedly threw candy during a bar mitzvah ceremony.
At the time I remember asking myself, “How did I get here?” Even though I had not yet heard of the film, I realized how far I had come from my “roots” as an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in a Reform household.
But looking back, I can appreciate how my background, while perhaps not the conventional path to my current lifestyle, was for me, at least, a logical progression. Growing up at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J., a Reform congregation known for its commitment to tikkun olam, social action, under Rabbi Peter Kasdan and (the late) Cantor Louis Davidson, I absorbed the lesson that Judaism’s focus is not only on prayer or ritual — it is nothing less than a drive to make the world a better place through fighting, for example as advocated by Kasdan, for migrant farm workers in the Southwest. That women are of equal value to men, and have a role in the synagogue. And that the revival of the Hebrew language wasn’t designed to sound like our Eastern European ancestors, but as a modern, thriving tongue pronounced similarly to how Sephardim speak Hebrew (read: “Shabbat shalom,” not “Gut Shabbos.”)
I had the chance to reflect on my upbringing when I learned that the temple where I grew up and had my bat mitzvah was closing its doors for good. It held its final Friday night service on June 30. The membership officially voted to merge with (in reality, to be absorbed by) Temple Sinai in nearby Summit, though some, including my parents, have chosen to join other congregations closer to their homes.
It’s unfortunate, and I’m sad for the congregants who were committed to Emanu-El until the end. And while I consider myself a much more observant Jew than I was as a bat mitzvah student, I’ve come to understand that the core values of the synagogue have had a much stronger impact on me than I realized.
For one, I remain committed to improving the world, as corny as that sounds. As a journalist who believes in the motto taught in journalism school, that our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” I try to do that in my writing, pursuing stories for New Jersey Jewish News and other publications that strive to make a difference in the public realm.
I also hold strong views about the role of women in Judaism. While many believe that Orthodoxy treats women as inferior to men, I have found, for the most part, that they are well respected by their spouses and the community, and are encouraged to attain high levels of both Jewish and secular education. And while many Orthodox women are content to have limited ritual roles in the synagogue, others seek fulfillment by taking on further religious obligations. Having grown up reading Torah and chanting my bat mitzvah portion, Beha’alotecha, I take pride in participating in an (Ashkenazi) Orthodox women’s prayer service every Simchat Torah and receive an aliyah to the Torah; I also attend conferences of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).
Then there is the issue of modern, spoken Hebrew. To this day, I have trouble following along, and even wince at times, when listening to the pronunciation of prayers in Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues (i.e., “Toirah” for Torah, and “mitzvos” for mitzvot). I have also sent my children to an educationally progressive Modern Orthodox day school in which Hebrew immersion is one of its priorities, as Jews should not only understand the meaning of the prayers they read, but be able to converse in our historical language.
So while it was no short journey from Emanu-El to the “women’s balcony,” it’s an experience I am most grateful for. And yes, Rabbi Kasdan and Cantor Davidson, your teachings have provided a foundation that helped set my life’s course; after all, you cannot know where you are headed without appreciating where you’ve been.
Lori Silberman Brauner is deputy managing editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, where this essay first appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.