Appearances Can Be Deceiving… In Good Ways!
by Noah Leavitt
Congregation Beth Israel, in Walla Walla, WA – about 10 miles from Oregon and 100 from Idaho – is the outpost of Reform Judaism in rural, politically conservative, southeast Washington. Our congregation, which has been in existence for more than 70 years, has about 30 member units, owns our own synagogue (a converted neighborhood grocery store), and keeps our Torah scrolls in a fireproof John Deere gun safe which we purchased a number of years ago from a local farm supply store. It is frontier Judaism at its best.
CBI is also unquestionably the most welcoming congregation – URJ or otherwise – with which I’ve been affiliated in my adult life. And there have been a few.
Coming to realize this surprising reality has been especially heartening considering that I am part of an interracial and some might say interfaith family. My wife, the daughter of two Korean immigrants, is comfortable with and familiar with Judaism as a result of her upbringing in Silicon Valley, where many of her classmates were Jews. Our two children, Aryeh Zakkai and Talia Shalom, were born in Walla Walla and were welcomed to the community (Jewish and non-Jewish) with creative brit milah and simchat bat ceremonies, respectively.
While at first, it might seem that a Jewish community in our tiny, remote corner of the country might be chilly (or worse) toward a family like mine, the complete opposite is true. Nearly all of the members of the congregation have moved to Walla Walla for professional opportunities afforded by the colleges, hospitals, government agencies and law offices in the community. They come from all across America, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, from all different kinds of families, upbringings, synagogue affiliations, traditions, levels of observance and non-observance – any factor that could be imagined. The result is that we are an incredibly diverse range of families and individuals, religiously, racially, ethnically and in other ways too complex to catalogue. We welcome and respect all, as we work together to create a Jewish community for everyone who wants to access one. We all need each other and everyone has something to contribute to our collective Jewish life.
I cannot remember a single instance when there was ever a question, or even an implication, from a fellow congregation member about the Jewish authenticity of my family and our religious identity. Because the CBI “family” brings so many different ways of incorporating Judaism into our lives, and know what we have done to make Judaism meaningful for us, we assume the same of everyone at CBI and accept them for how and whatever they bring to our communal Jewish life. It’s not a perfect congregation, but it’s pretty great.
This welcoming, enthusiastic reaction to our family has been especially rewarding because not only are we a diverse family, but we are also in conducting a national study of Jewish-Asian families across the United States, to see how couples that have so many seemingly different elements of their identity resolve those aspects of their collective identity. And there, too, we’ve found that appearances may not lead to conflict. The relationships aren’t perfect, by any means but they seem generally stable and able to address challenges in productive manners.
Moreover, nearly all of the couples we’ve interviewed for this project are bringing up children as Jews, in households that are clearly Jewish. In some cases, the children have even greater connections to Judaism than their parents. This finding has led me to believe that at least in some cases, it may be that complex family backgrounds coming together might even be a way of increasing Jewish observance and practice in the United States.
Thus, for me, a lesson from both my family’s experience at Congregation Beth Israel, and also from our interviewees across the country is that what at first seems a situation that might be unfriendly to Jewish practice can turn out to be friendly, accepting, creative and encouraging.
Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes in great ways.
Noah Leavitt is the President of Congregation Beth Israel.