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Song leader inspired through music, acceptance

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Falling in love with being Jewish 


In a continuing exploration of Jewishness, Jane Charney discovered Jewish history and Jewish life on Gibraltar in August 2008

Gilana Alpert had a way with music. She played guitar like it was an extension of her hands rather than a separate instrument. As she led Friday-night Reform services at Indiana University Hillel, she brought music into the service that made the sanctuary feel empty for me when the guitar wasn’t there. A striking redhead, Gilana made me – a newbie to the world of Jewish practice – feel welcomed and accepted.

In a testament to how small the Jewish world is, I now work with Gilana’s sister Aleza at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. We played Jewish geography recently and figured out that Gilana and I studied at IU at nearly the same time. I lost touch with Gilana when she graduated and stopped leading services after my sophomore year at Indiana University. Aleza told me last week that Gilana suffered a stroke last year and died tragically at 26. Her yarzheit was Monday, November 3, and I want to let her family know that they are not the only ones missing her voice and her music.

The Friday night services were something my friends and I looked forward to all week. We’d go to services, have Hillel dinner made by a Baptist cook (who by now knew more about kashrut than many rabbis), and then go out for dessert, a movie or to a party afterward. I had never been big into Judaism as a religion. By then, I’d gone to a Reform Sunday School for three years (mostly because I loved the history courses), and I struggled – and still do – with my relationship with G-d. I had also tried to forget three atrocious summers at a Lubavitcher summer camp just outside of Moscow, where my parents had sent my sister and me because other Jewish experiences were hard to come by in Russia in the early 1990s. My sister loved it; I hated it. Now our roles have reversed.

I can’t pinpoint exactly which moment it was that I fell in love with being Jewish, but it was definitely one of the Friday night services Gilana led. A Rabbi’s daughter from Michigan, she taught me that the melodies we produce with our hearts have a worthy accompaniment in the guitar. Her melodies and easygoing style made me see that offering a prayer doesn’t have to be about perfection or fervent belief. It can also be about participating in a tradition that makes you feel like part of a community.

This idea is at the root of my connection to Judaism. Whether I’m making challah, lighting Shabbat candles, or reciting the Haggadah on Passover, I’m feeling an instantaneous connection to the community. Since those freshman year Friday nights, I’ve married a nice Russian Jewish boy. I’ve gone to Israel twice and hope to return again and again. I’ve explored what it means to be a Russian Jewish American through volunteering for Russian Hillel and working as a madricha at the annual Midwest Russian Shabbaton. I’ve attended retreats and leadership training sessions. I’ve worked for the Jewish community in three states. I’ve grown as a Jew and as a human, having decided that combining elements from different movements in a “do-it-yourself Judaism” approach was just as good as each of the movements within official Judaism.

Through it all, I have kept Gilana’s wisdom and gift of music as a source of inspiration throughout the past seven years. In the years to come I will continue to explore what it means to be Jewish. And every time I do, I’ll think back to those wonderful Friday night services and the song leader who has given me one of the greatest gifts – the ability to love my people, my culture, my faith and myself.

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