Just before dinner last night in this very Unitarian Universalist sanctuary, several dozen people — an imprecise count — gathered for a Havdalah service for the ending of the Jewish Sabbath. They stood for evening prayer, they witnessed the smelling of sweet and pungent spices to fortify the soul for the new week, they chanted and swayed in ecstatic Hassidic fashion.
It was not the worship of our Boston Brahmin fathers, not anything Channing or Emerson would have ever seen in their wood-pewed New England churches. Certainly not anything my Jewish Humanist parents would have seen in their Unitarian fellowship in suburban Maryland, with its speaker’s lectern and string quartets.
And, truth be told, this traditional, if beautifully-adapted, Jewish service is not what they would have wanted, a couple who even before they had married had, on their own, each come to the conclusion that religious Judaism had nothing to offer them and cultural Jewishness almost nothing, except, in my father’s case, a more than occasional craving for cold red beet borscht with a generous dollop of sour cream or some pickled herring, and for the Jewish comedians of his era: Jack Benny, later Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.
And he did love baseball player Hank Greenberg, who proved that Jewish boys could hit and catch, and despite the prejudice they encountered, become major league stars, as I was reminded recently opening night of the Atlanta Jewish Festival at the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta, where more than 3,000 people bought tickets to see Jews in Baseball.
Before the movie began, we stood for the national anthem, hands over hearts, and then sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame, first in English, then led by a local rabbi in Yiddish, learning that this emblematic American song, like so many others, was written by a Jew.
But in that moment of rising and singing and uniting around what was once, at least, the national pastime, we were primarily living out of what religious sociologists have called the Protestant, Catholic, Jew, American paradigm, that assimilated, universalized identity that so marked my childhood and so many others.
This alphabet soup melting pot, held together by flag and sports and patriotism, that recognized that there were non-Protestants within its soup as benign flavorings, but still preferenced a kind of cultural Christianity.
The world my family created for their post-World War II children, with its brick ranch houses, and scout troops, and Fourth of July fireworks and cook-outs. The world of our cul de sac neighborhood, in which every house at least had a Christmas tree, if not lavish lights, and we found Easter baskets with marshmallow peeps and hollow chocolate bunnies on our beds, and hunted for eggs we had dyed. A world where every morning in school we said the Pledge of Allegiance for a country under God who didn’t mind Jews, but where the songs we sang for holiday choir concerts were always Christian.
Culturally Christian. As was my religious home chosen for me by my parents, in that fledgling Unitarian church, which is what it was renamed after it left its small temporary digs in a women’s club, bought its own stand of woods, and built its modern building with its large glass windows looking out at what is sometimes called the Cathedral of the World. The minister did not wear a clerical robe, at least most of the time, there were no formal pews, nor an organ — at least at first. But downstairs we were busy getting prepared to visit The Church Across the Street. Not the synagogue, and certainly not a mosque.
I didn’t just visit those churches. I sang in their choirs with my girlfriends, learning and lustily singing traditional hymns and gospel music along the way, while hardly hearing, never learning, a word of Hebrew.
This was my Jewish Unitarian upbringing.
It was only when I began my own family, had my own children, that a very tentative exploration of my Jewishness and Judaism began, with my experiences in synagogue worship being as unfamiliar, more unfamiliar perhaps, as taking part in a Catholic Latin Mass.
This weekend, we have been privileged to host the second-ever national meeting of Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, the first one held more than 20, probably 25, years ago. We came together, as the name of this gathering promised, “to be counted,” to know that those of us who self-identify as Jewish are not isolated and unseen. That we matter to each other and to our larger liberal religious movement, with its commitment to diversity, multi-culturalism, and to being a multi-source living faith tradition.
To hear each other’s stories, to ask how we found our way into Unitarian Universalist congregations, why we have stayed, what gives us joy and a sense of belonging, and also what challenges us, troubles us, and might indeed make us leave. To question what it means to be both Jewish and UU.
In preparation for our time together, I had the opportunity to revisit the subject of the honors thesis I completed a dozen years ago as part of my Master of Divinity studies at Candler School of Theology here at Emory University.
Titled Inside or Outside the Fold: The Circumstances under which Jews Join the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, was what is called a participant observer study, I selected this congregation as the research site, the faith community where I had been a member prior to studying for the ministry, where our youngest son had been in the religious education program, where I had served in the first class of lay ministers, and where I had become involved with the L’Chaim Jewish Celebrations and Awareness Group, helping to craft some of their worship materials, including the High Holy Day services held every year here. While I observed the activities conducted by the Jews who were members here and interviewed them about their spiritual and cultural journeys, I could not and did not set aside my own affiliation here or my own quest. The wrestlings of these congregants were very much mine as well.
In the introduction to this thesis, I described the Yom Kippur service held in l998, a gusty, rainy late September night, pounded by inland storms from Hurricane George (somehow that detail was important to me and got by the red pen of my thesis advisor). I even observed that we shared the parking lot and the building that evening with a sobriety group that rented space from us.
I noted that there were around 20 people present, most of them Jewish members or friends of UUCA, along with our two associate ministers at the time, both in street clothes.
During the hour and fifteen minute service, different members of the service, Jews and non-Jews, read passages woven together from a variety of Jewish sources, and some from our own. One of the ministers, a born Baptist, lit the chalice. A woman who had been bat mitzvahed in our local reform temple led the songs. A born conservative Jew who studied cantorial singing, sang the Kol Nidre. A Quaker, born Mormon, recited a blessing in English, followed by his girlfriend reading it in Hebrew.
This service, and other Jewish observances that took place and still take place within this congregation, allowed a group of Jews, most of them also members (and most of them still members here) to observe a High Holy Day from their religious tradition of origin without returning to a synagogue. These services are held within the walls of a building that is commonly called and labeled a “church” in a faith that characterizes itself as having its roots in liberal Christianity, with a nod to what it calls its Judeo-Christian beginnings.
In this research paper, I pointed to Unitarianism and Universalism, a book published for use in UU Sunday schools and by entering members as background history, which states “that Unitarianism and Universalism grew out of a common heritage, the Judeo-Christian tradition…as love to God and Love to Man,” rather than recognizing Judaism as a separate source of wisdom and practice.
The Jewish thread is viewed here, as in traditional Christianity, as an evolutionary piece of our tradition, not a free-standing, evolving faith of its own.
The title of this sermon Outside the Cathedral Walls, comes from my response — through the lens of Jewishness and Judaism — to the ironic title of the chapter on the world religions as a source of inspiration in our ethical and spiritual life in Our Chosen Faith, the well-loved, much-used introduction to Unitarian Universalism by Rev. John Buehrens and the late Rev. Forrest Church.
Rev. Church authored this section, using the metaphor of a stained glass cathedral window to take on the claims of fundamentalists, both on the right and the left, that the light shines within their window only. Or others of us, given so many windows within a cathedral and too many, perhaps conflicting, images and views who reject all of them. He asks us instead, as UUs, “within our churches to acknowledge the presence of many different windows, to celebrate a wide variety of festivals to divine the essential meaning of each — and at our best — truly welcome and respect the insights of others.”
I will assume good intentions, assume that it was a blind spot on his part. Yet I would point out that, ironically, Church invites us to be expansive and radically hospitable in our appreciation and incorporation of an array of spiritual views and religious affections, yet risks closing the door to those for whom the word church, let alone cathedral, is not descriptive of their house of worship and, in the case of Jews, historically painful.
There are much visited and revered cathedrals, magnificently beautiful, where you still can see the celebration of the “triumph” of Christianity over Judaism adorning their exteriors and in their stained glass windows.
There is a statue affixed to Notre Dame Cathedral where a “proud female personification” of the Church stands tall with cross in hand while Synagoga is slumped and blindfolded, her staff broken, her Torah, her holy book, on the ground, desecrated.
All over Europe, you can still see the gated remnants of the Jewish ghettos outside, well outside those Cathedral walls, whose safety and very lives rode the tides of religiously based anti-Judaism.
From my studies and anecdotal observations over the years, if there is any one thing that initially keeps Jewish people out of our faith movement and continues to trouble us once we join, it is the use of the word church, even in congregations, fellowships, and meeting houses that do not call themselves church. But who slip into the practice, understandable as it is for those who still identify as UU Christians and those whose religion of origin was Christianity, of too often, I would say, exclusively using this way of describing that physical place where we come together.
This word matters, functioning to discourage, if not in implicit ways barring, entry to those who might well otherwise flourish as Unitarian Universalists within our communities.
Other commonly used words from Christian vocabulary can be discomforting, or at least require a fair amount of translation, words like ministry, parish, and grace.
In the terms used by religious sociologists, using the language of conversion — which is rarely applicable by conventional definitions for joining a UU congregation or affiliating with our movement — instead of this being potentially a form of institution-switching, a relatively unthreatening change within the broad Judeo-Christian spectrum, often an accommodation within an intermarriage, these trigger words — church, in particular — can require a much more major tradition transition.
They can stir up a much more wrenching individual confrontation with a world view, ritual system, and symbolic universe that can be greatly disturbing to Jews with a history of persecution and terror in the Jewish-Christian struggle.
Language matters. And it can keep people on the other side of the wall and outside our doors.
But some of us have found UU and crossed the threshold. So my questions for myself and those I have studied and met over the years have been many. I have wanted to know whether those who identify as Jewish UUs come from similar religious backgrounds and similar cultural practices. What attracted them to this congregation or others, and in order to join a UU society, what types of accommodations did they need to make?
What did we know about the Jews within Unitarian Universalism — how indeed are we counted? By our own religious association and by the Jewish community at large?
Very little it turns out, either by the UUA or by Jewish organizations. The percentage of Jewish UUs within the American Jewish population is not specifically tracked in the Jewish Population Study, instead we are lumped in the categories of either born/raised Jewish, or switched to another religion, or as adults of Jewish background or Other Current Religion. The Core Jewish Population, the groups targeted by most Jewish community agencies, includes only three identities: those who report their current religion as Jewish, as Born Jews, Jews by Choice, or those Born Jews without a current religion — around 90 percent of the American Jewish population.
On the ground, that means we are invisible to Jewish federations and other Jewish connected political and charitable institutions who might well want to communicate with and outreach to us, to learn about our sense of identity and theology.
So we show up at film festivals, Jewish Museums, and other cultural/religious assemblages of Jewish people under own steam, by our own initiative.
UU associational archival information on the presence of self-identified Jews is also sparse. At the time my thesis was written, the most recent denominational survey that collected data on religion of origin was more than 20 years ago, listing Jews as four percent of the total associational membership. This survey might have missed Jews whose family of origin did not consider themselves religiously affiliated as Jews but whose definition of Jewishness included an ethnic-cultural identification. The Jews surveyed in the past have not been asked, at least for publication, how they sub-identify, from which Jewish denomination — if any — they arrived.
This lack of statistical data is coupled with the discovery that the UUA has to date never conducted any in depth study of Jews within the association. And when the Commission on Appraisal listed marginalized groups as an issue of concern for the growth and vitality of congregations, while their definition of a marginal group included lower proportional representation and a feeling they fight for recognition of their perspectives and interests, Jews in their small numbers, coming in from outside the walls of mainstream UU culture, were not included.
We often feel and are supported by evidence that indeed we are not counted or not in ways that recognize who we are, the identities we carry.
The Jews that were part of my thesis research came from Orthodox, Conservative, what one person described as Southern Conservative, Jewish Reform, born and raised UU Jews, and Humanist/Atheist Jewish backgrounds, as did those who came to our UU Jewish gathering this weekend. Many are partners in an intermarriage, Christian and Jewish.
If asked to describe their current religious identity, they say they are secular humanists, Jewish UU, Jewish who goes to a UU congregation, raised Jewish and attends UU, Jewinitarian, or simply UU.
Some were born and raised in atheist families like mine where parents had already made the decision to disconnect, at least religiously, from Jewish tradition. If we were previously connected to a Jewish congregation, as we discovered in conversations yesterday, some of the reasons for leaving them were disenchantment with the messages and practices we received, as children, youth, or young adults; disillusionment with rabbinical authority; and in some instances the refusal of rabbis and congregations to recognize intermarriage.
Why did we come inside these walls, and those of other congregations across the country, and want to be counted as Unitarian Universalists? In my thesis work, only three of the 22 Jewish people interviewed for the study mentioned searching for a belief system and a faith community that made sense as the primary factor in exploring UU. For most, our acceptance of intermarriage or the need for a religious home for their children where they could receive a balanced, multi-source education were by far more important.
They had done little or no reading or other information gathering about UUism, about the beliefs and principles of UUism, or this congregation. Their exposure was mostly word of mouth from friends or neighbors.
Other reasons for being attracted and eventually joining our congregations are perceived inclusiveness, that we are not creed driven. Also the sense of being part of a larger community of liberal congregants who yearn for spiritual peace and community and a sense of belonging. Some are attracted by our social justice history and work consistent with the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world.
Among other values that seem specifically Jewish within our movement and congregations is the responsibility to take care of neighbors and the poor, the significance of education — over our lifetimes — and the support of families, in our case, in all forms.
For most of those in my study, and for many I have spoken with since, signing the book — however that happens — has not caused a major realignment between their current and original faith systems. Once they get here, they feel comfortable.
For the Jewish people who have arrived at UUCA, where we do have a group of congregants and a professional ministry committed to the regular availability of Jewish celebrations — and at least the occasional incorporation of other Jewish rituals within regular worship services — this is a key factor in continuing to feel welcomed. As one person shared as a plus in being both Jewish and UU, we like the inclusion of Jewish thought and ritual, but not being limited by it.
What are the challenges facing Jews within Unitarian Universalist congregations?
On an individual level, for some it is to hold on to some Jewish traditions without the guilt. To make peace with our families and with our own decisions, in the eyes of others, to leave the conventional Jewish fold. We struggle sometimes with the two poles of either feeling like we are outsiders having to pass or hide our religious and cultural identities, or becoming the identified Jew within a congregation, called upon, as is said, to “represent” religious perspectives, history, culture, and political viewpoints as if we are monolith.
Collectively, we feel the need for more Jewish content, claiming, celebrating, and sharing, not just the major holidays, but the deeper spiritual gifts of Judaism, what we often call moving “beyond the Menorah,” and a kind of ritual tokenism.
There has been lately much talk and much struggle among us about finding a constructive and safe way to weigh in, to be counted in the ongoing dialogue on developments in Israel and Palestine. What would this look like and how do we help make this happen, not just in the heat of immediate witness actions at our General Assemblies?
We also ask, how can we as individuals and as a Jewish presence within UU, more actively participate in fostering an authentic multi-culturalism? We name confronting the stereotypes and prejudices that UUs espouse — truly living into acceptance and diversity.
Much of the study of Jews within UUism, and indeed other groups that are leaving one fold and joining this one, is focused on what they have to leave behind and how they accommodate to our culture, with only a nod to their particular gifts to us.
How can we more fully share with you what Rabbi Arthur Green calls our creative, dissonant Jewish culture, our contrarian history, as questioners and challengers of society’s grand assumptions and systems of values, of idol smashers? How can we help teach and live out the values of justice and decency embodied, as he tells us, in our prophetic heritage?
To be an essential leaven in your midst (except at Passover, when we can be your horseradish and matzoth)?
Help us make this so.