Building an Inclusive and Vibrant Community in a Time of Disconnection and Fear

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By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein, Congregation Ner Shalom

Hate crime statistics across the board rose significantly from 2016 to 2017 (the data for 2018 isn’t publicly available yet). Minorities of all sorts have really had to think more in these times about who has our backs, who is a part of our communities, and who considers us to be a part of theirs. The greatest weapon in the fight against bigotry is solidarity and growing intersectional communities.

Here in Prince William County, I think we do a pretty good job of that. I see how the county comes together after a tragedy strikes any section of the community, how the local first responders step up to ensure the safety of all of us, and how the various houses of worship are always working together, striving to learn from one another, and praying in each other’s services.

Inclusivity and Social Justice

Within the Jewish community, this is something I work on very actively. Our members at Congregation Ner Shalom will tell you that I frequently give sermons about inclusivity and social justice. Just recently, I attended a rabbinic convening with American Jewish World Service, and returned to give a sermon to my congregation to take action against the degradation of human rights norms in Guatemala. This sort of specificity borne from three days of intensive learning with my colleagues may not be common for me, but the general focus on human rights absolutely is.

As a Reform Congregation, we are committed to the view that every person is created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God, and so every person has a place in our community, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, disability, knowledge level, whether they were born Jewish or are Jews by choice or are non-Jews living in a Jewish home or raising a Jewish family.

Openness and Solidarity

This openness is essential to healing after a hate crime shakes one’s community. This solidarity is essential for growing resiliency in a time when such crimes are on the rise and one might feel unsure of who to truly trust. And it is essential for growing one’s community, because the future is intersectional. Interfaith and interracial marriages are no longer statistical anomalies, and approximately half of Generation Z identifies as a part of the LGBTQ community. Easily drawn lines between who is “in” a community and who is not do not exist anymore (if they ever really did), and the question now becomes what do we want our community to look like.

One option is to stick to older ideas of who is a Jew, who is a respectably “religious person,” and what a healthy relationship looks like. In doing so, we cut out huge swaths of the population, creating schisms in the community. So I must conclude that the better option is to embrace people as they are, and minister to all who come seeking community and holiness. I am confident in knowing that progressivism always wins out eventually, because the reality of people’s identities and relationships matter more than on-paper ideas of what “should be.”

A Guiding Rabbinic Voice

I feel deeply for my friends of my generation who feel pushed out of their parents’ synagogues or feel that leadership opportunities within the Jewish professional world were withheld from them because of their identities, relationships, politics, or because they can’t afford the membership dues. I am enthralled with the communities they have made for themselves to replace the old models: the Shabbat dinners and Yiddish classes they have constructed, the free online resources for deeper Jewish learning that they share, the social justice organizations that are visibly Jewish that they have created where prayer is an element of protest. I have been as proud to stand with them in those endeavors and lend some guiding rabbinic voice for them as I have been to stand with Prince William County and serve as the rabbi at Ner Shalom.

The driving forces of social action, inclusivity, and creating meaningful Jewish spaces that serve a diversity of identities and needs has been a central element to my rabbinate since I was still in rabbinical school. Truthfully, though, this calling to compassion and justice goes back much further than rabbinical school, and even beyond my calling to the rabbinate. It has always been with me, truly an innate calling to repair the world.

An Increased Interest in Judaism

From there emanates my calling to stand guard against bigotry and that which would harm us, without building up walls that might also keep out those who could enrich us. I think it’s working so far. Within Ner Shalom and beyond it, I see increased interest in Judaism, Jewish culture and community from so many people, particularly young folks. Some who are Jewish but weren’t raised religiously, some who were raised too strictly and left the religion for their later adolescent years and are returning, and some who weren’t Jewish but are interested in joining the Jewish people.

It’s considered uncouth in Jewish culture to expose converts, but I’ll just say I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with people interested in the study of Judaism, and many of those people have decided to undergo the process of conversion. It’s less surprising to me when people who already have a cultural or ethnic claim on Judaism come to me to learn, but the conversations with them and their process of reconnecting are no less inspiring. Together, we can all build a stronger and more united community against fear and hatred.

Lizz Goldstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, the only synagogue in Prince William County. She resides in Vienna and also works to build Jewish community among millennial activists in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached at [email protected] or through nershalomva.org/

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