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Looking back, I feel sadness and sorrow for this narrow vision, this narrow place, an Egypt of the mind – mitzrayim. I know, as my father knew, that the redemption of the world will come from the opposite impulse: expansive love and inclusivity. Isn’t that what klal Yisrael (the whole of the Jewish community) is about?
I have just experienced klal Yisrael in an amazing way, having returned from a most remarkable event – the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, the URJ. 5,000 people strong, it is one of the most spirited and important events in the Jewish world, and the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America.
Before I arrived at the convention center in San Diego, I felt honored and excited at the opportunity to be able to offer my music and heart to those with whom I don’t often have the chance to connect – my Reform brothers and sisters. The Conservative Jewish world has been a warm and loving home away from home for me (and I had the dazzling experience of joining “The Conversation of the Century” by headlining at the centennial of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism this past October in Baltimore). Many of the Conservative Jews I know share practices and beliefs close to the open-minded Orthodoxy I experienced as a child. But Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.”
That world was far away from mine – or so I thought.
Boarding the plane for the West Coast, I did not know what to expect; I certainly had no inkling of the personal transformation that awaited me. So, it is with an overflowing heart and soul that I must report, as I did on the stage on Saturday night, that my soul made an aliyah (coming up) at the URJ’s biennial.
Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was. The tikkun olam mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah. To give you an idea of the stellar caliber of Reform Judaism, here is a link to a keynote address given by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the URJ president.
In his passionate talk, Rabbi Jacobs spoke about the commitment to a path of progressive change, to inclusivity, social justice, nurturing the next generation, egalitarian values and spiritual relationship to all that the Torah stands for. Standing among 4,999 other delegates, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I found myself moved to tears, inspired and grateful. And when Rabbi David Ellenson, the outgoing head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion spoke on Shabbat morning, his warmth and scholarship opened my eyes as well as my heart.
Having felt like a refugee from Orthodoxy for the past couple of decades, I feel like I found a new family with values I can get behind. And so, at my show on Saturday night, I told the audience I was making aliyah to the Reform movement. I know that statement made a great sound byte, but I meant every word. To be clear, when one makes aliyah, they take all parts of themselves with them. I have not abandoned anything that is intrinsic to me; I’ve simply expanded myself and been elevated. I’ve been blessed.
In San Diego, I touched something brand new and yet deeply familiar. It reminded me of my father’s teachings. It gave me a feeling of homecoming.
And perhaps that is the best that we can aspire to: a homecoming. Let us return again and again to the land of our souls. Let us transcend our differences and discover that we are one people, regardless of our label, movement or denomination. Let us make aliyah every day to who we are, to what we are, to where we are born and reborn again.
Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the late Jewish singer-songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, is a singer who performs at venues throughout the world.