Q: Dear Rebbetzin,
My brother adopted Orthodoxy as an adult and he and his wife and kids lead an active Jewish life. We were raised within the Conservative movement, so I guess he went one direction and I went another: I identify, now, mostly with the Jewish Renewal movement and also consider myself to have an active spiritual life. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m not doing the “authentic” religious practice. When we meet as a family, we defer to his level of kashrut, observance, etc. I respect my brother, his choices and his family. I want them to also recognize that while we may observe differently, I am also the “real deal.” Grateful for any insights on this.
A: Dear Trying,
A few years before I met Dan, I attended a weekly Torah study run by a Chabad rabbi in Manhattan. The group met on Wednesday nights in the basement of a small temple a few doors down from The Chelsea Hotel. Every Thursday morning I received a message in my inbox from Rabbi Naftali stating how my presence had elevated the group. How was this possible? I wondered - I don’t think I spoke once in that setting. But this teacher was sincere; he believed every person - and their engagement with Torah - made that space rise. It was a generous and benevolent perspective.
For a short time I adopted the garb of the more observant members in that group. But, eventually, the poetry of the neighborhood pulled me in a different direction.
The truth that I continually return to is that Jewish practice does not look only one way — That your brother’s experience is real and that your experience is also real. That you are both the real deal.
When you defer to his standards of kashrut or religious practice, it does not mean that it’s more authentic, but simply that you love him, your family, and value having them in your life. Because there is less “wiggle room” for him, you may have to bend more. I do hope that there is also room for some mutuality, a genuine curiosity and interest in your spiritual path and some effort to meet you in your own space and life.
Your question also reminds me that the desire for authentic spiritual practice is so personal, and yet we’re reliant on community.
The work that I am involved in with Dan can be messy; people are having different spiritual experiences within the same setting. What touched one individual offended another, or one felt something and another felt nothing. And so I repeat to myself: This is also real. This is also true.
You don’t need to convince your brother. You just need to continue what you are already doing, Trying.
When I walk outside this week, there will be no less than a dozen observant teens walking around with the lulav and etrog asking me if I’m Jewish and if I’ve had a chance to hold these items close to my body and shake them towards the heavens. Though, I’ve already done this, I will do it again, saying the blessings together. Because it is real, and it connects us.