“Let Us Be Counted” a conference for Uus for Jewish awareness is two weeks away. This week the UUJA e-list has suddenly lit up like a... Chanuka bush. UU Jews and UUs of Jewish heritage are expressing excitement, and anticipation of experiencing shared values, common understandings, engagement and celebration.
Connection is made sweet by empathy, an intuitive grasp of another's pain or joy. I'm guessing that UUJA members are eager to meet with others who know intimately what it's like to be UU Jews or UUs of Jewish heritage.
I have experienced (since '83) a tension being my identities as a UU and a Jew. Over the years I learned how to share my Jewishness in a way that increases the chances of understanding and appreciation. I've had also repeatedly experienced a cultural gap that I've taken as part of the cost of participation in this religious movement.
From my first days I found that UU literature expressed the beliefs and values that I was raised with as a liberal Jew, but the assumption has seemed to be that these ideas and values were the creation and the property of a group of former Christians, liberal Christians and descendants of Christians. My impression is that as UUs we see ourselves as an elite group of people who have been smart enough to claim only the sensible aspects of Christianity. The fact that only a minority of UUs identify as Christians doesn't alter this orientation. Rarely has Judaism or Jewishness been seen as part of who we are. It's been painful at times to experience the lack of understanding,the invisibility of the influence that Jewish beliefs and values have had upon our UU tradition.
For example, the idea that began the Unitarian movement was the Unity (rather than the trinity) of God. Channing in the sermon that is credited for the claiming of the name Unitarian in America, said: "we follow the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus." How often has this passage been read by us? And how seldom has it been mentioned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were returning to a faith congruent with Judaism?
More personally challenging has been the way that the assumptions about who we are play out in our movement. Despite having UU values, having fairly classical Unitarian and Universalist theological beliefs, and despite a high degree of identification with "progressive culture," I have too often had the impression that I'm still not one of the the right kinds of people, not one of the "us." For years my internalized conditioning from being raised Jewish had me think this was simply my personal issue. In time I came to understand that there are implicit messages, cultural assumptions about who we are, and sometimes they don't include UUs of Jewish orientation. For years I sensed the welcome of Jewishness as superficial, that there existed a don't ask don't tell policy w/ regards to sharing what was really meaningful as a UU Jew. I had the impression that I was expected (as an outsider) to be willing to make constant effort to fit into a culture that doesn't belong to me.
Since I have kept my mouth shut on this subject for most of my life, I may not be quite able to articulate what I've experienced perfectly. Even if I can't spell it out perfectly, will you be willing to trust that I might be expressing an intuitive knowledge of something real?
On the few times I have attempted to raise issues of welcome, culture and Jews belonging in our movement, I've generally been reminded that there are lots of UUs of Jewish heritage. I'm given the names of specific UU Ministers of Jewish heritage.
It's been my sense that until recently, the majority of UUs of Jewish heritage had little exposure to Jewish religion or culture. Until recently it seemed to me that those of Jewish heritage that "made it" into UU, have tended to be highly assimilated Jews. Others attitude toward Judaism seemed to assume that Judaism was the escaped Egypt, and UU the promised land of liberation.
Fortunately, in the past decade, I've experienced increasing numbers of UUS who claim or have interest in the spirituality and richness of Jewish traditions. For me UU is a place that theoretically allows me to be my religious hybrid self. I suspect that the upcoming gathering will help move us from “in theory” to “in practice.”