Reading on the Train

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

I wasn’t paying attention when I chose where to drop my bags and settle in, but by sheer luck I picked the side of the train which runs right alongside the Hudson. At this season the hills are a deep brown-purple and the water reflects the grey sky. The tawny reeds and grasses are the brightest, most colorful things in sight. A long low dark-green barge moves upriver, leaving ripples in its long wake.

Every few moments our horn sounds. Warning people and animals off the tracks ahead, I guess. The train rattles slightly, shaking just a little bit from side to side. The journey from Albany to New York City doesn’t take terribly long only a few hours. But in emotional and spiritual terms it feels like a great distance between here and there. Between rural America and the great metropolis.

I have homework to do while I travel: rereading three studies about religion in American life. (One of them is a 2012 Pew Forum study ‘Nones’ on the Rise. Another is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.) I read these a couple of months ago, before what was supposed to be the first meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellows cohort but then Hurricane Sandy got in our way. Statistics don’t stay in my head for long; I need to re-read.

It’s interesting for me to learn that most people who self-identity as having “no” religious affiliation still consider themselves religious and/or spiritual. “[M]ost of the ‘nones’ say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both,” says the Pew study. I find myself wondering how many liberal American Jews those who are affiliated, who do belong to congregations would be comfortable defining themselves in those ways.

And I’m fascinated to read that among American adults who say that religion is important in their lives, one-third report attending services less than once a month. It makes sense to me that those who don’t identify with a religious community don’t come to shul. But that a third of those who do so identify and, more, who say that religion is important in their lives don’t come to daven: what does that mean?

I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations we have and what sort of learning we do over the next two days. For now, I’m alternating between digging into these studies and watching little birds startle from the branches and scatter as we pass.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011. Author of 70 Faces (Phoenicia, 2011), a collection of Torah poems, she serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.

Originally posted at Velveteen Rabbi

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One Response to “Reading on the Train”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    My favorite comment on spirituality (credit to Jerry Kaye, although perhaps not quoted exactly) — Spirituality works best when you leave off the first three and last three letters.

    Is spirituality the sense of cosmic wonderment we feel when we see the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? Or the warm embrace of community we feel when we daven with a turned-on group of worshippers? Since these are two very different experiences, can the same word apply to both?

    Maybe we should mount a movement-wide campaign to “lose” the word altogether, and substitute kedusha?

    My teacher, Rabbi Fred Schwartz z”l, had a ready retort when someone would “excuse” his or her absence from shul, saying “I can pray just walking by the lake.” At which Fred would smilingly ask, “But do you?”

    At some level, these nones or religious/spiritual unaffiliated fall into the category that Rabbi Rick Jacobs has taught us to call the uninspired — but if I understand him correctly, we are not going to inspire them with the spiritual if we don’t get to them first with human relationships.

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