What makes something Jewish? Who owns the labeling rights to call something Jewish enough? If I go to a service, how do I know if I am experiencing something authentically Jewish? It’s a question that I grapple with. I have a non-Jewish spouse, and when we have kids, we have committed that together we will raise them Jewish. It’s important to me that they are raised “Jewish enough.”
Not long after we moved to Washington, DC my wife and I found our way to a Sixth in the City service at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Sixth and I is a nondenominational/non-membership synagogue and Sixth in the City is their brand for programs targeting the 20 and 30 somethings. It tends to be a Reconstructionist meets Jewish summer camp-style service. There is a Rabbi, a song-leader with a guitar, a volunteer choir, a lot of short prayers, upbeat and catchy tunes. There is also a happy hour before the service and dinner is served after.
Prior to coming DC, it would not have been my first choice for a Friday night service. I identify mostly with what most would label a traditional Conservative service: lots of Hebrew, very little skipping around, and no instruments. Still, everyone had encouraged us to go to Sixth and I. “What is Sixth and I?” I would ask. “You just have to go to understand.”
Few people would question whether all of this was a Jewish event or a Jewish experience. It’s a Friday night service with prayers, blessings and a Shabbat meal. The food even comes from a kosher caterer. However, after going a couple of times, I had this nagging feeling that this service might not be religious enough for me. To complicate matters, my wife decided she like this service better than any other service we had gone to. She also was very aware that I didn’t love it. I was faced with the choice of attending Sixth and I again with my wife, or going to my flavor of service by myself.
All of this caused me to reflect and wonder. What makes something Jewish? More importantly, who am I to judge the merit of one Friday night experience over another? Who is anyone to do this? As someone who had spent a lot of time both volunteering and working in the Jewish community, I felt guilty and embarrassed. I was acting a bit superior to others in the room because I had a different kind of Jewish education. Was I cheapening the experience by acting as if I was going to humor somebody? Was I cheating myself out of something?
To attempt to answer the question, I chose a new approach. The next time I went to the service, I tried all that I could to go without expectation and just be present. It was only then that I understood what everyone had been talking about. What you couldn’t explain, and just had to go to see for yourself.
I began to notice different things. I realized how welcoming and warm all of the staff were. I realized that there were volunteers with nametags there to also greet and meet people. I watched how the service was inspiring people throughout the room. I heard how the direction from the Rabbi was carefully delivered to ensure that everyone was on the same page and nobody felt dumb or belittled. I saw how everyone was able and eager to participate. I saw that almost everyone was smiling. Most of all, I noticed my wife was too.
The Sixth in the City service meets once a month, and we try to go as much as possible. It’s a Jewish event that we can look forward to attending. Is it Jewish enough? I think I have learned that the answer has more to do with those participating in the service, than the service itself.