Celebrating Our Journeys: My Spiritual Path to Reform Jewish Leadership
[eJP note: In honor of Women of Reform Judaism’s (WRJ) Centennial Celebration, HUC-JIR students were invited to submit a 1000 word original essay for the WRJ/HUC-JIR Essay Competition on the topic, “Celebrating Our Journeys: My Spiritual Path to Reform Jewish Leadership.” WRJ received dozens of moving, well-written essays from each of the four HUC-JIR campuses and degree programs. According to WRJ, the decision was difficult, but a dedicated committee of WRJ staff, lay leaders, HUC-JIR alumni, and HUC-JIR faculty chose this essay as the competition winner.]
by Jodie Gordon
Gilda Radner once said, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
The faded yellow paper, with the hand-drawn picture of a butterfly surprised me. “Produced by Mrs. Louis N. Gordon”, it read – noting my grandmother’s role as president of the Sisterhood at my home synagogue, Central Synagogue of Nassau County, New York. The mimeographed program of their production of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” was from 1967-thirteen years before I was born. It is to that program that I trace the roots of my spiritual path to Reform Jewish leadership.
I asked her about that program – why didn’t it say “Ruth J. Gordon”?
“It was a different time”, she told me, so many years later.
“It’s different now,” she said, with a smile on her lips.
She was a college graduate, the founding editor of a nationally syndicated magazine – but, in her synagogue life, she was a wife – Mrs. Insert-My-Grandfathers’-Name-Here-Gordon. I was probably sixteen when I first looked at that program. I had just been elected the Religious and Cultural Vice President of my NFTY region. For me, it just didn’t add up. I felt the initial stirrings of my own feminism in that moment. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance of her explanation. But in retrospect, I know she was telling me how far we had come as a movement, and to “keep going”.
I used to keep a journal, from the time I was 17, until I was 28. These journals span from my senior year in high school, to my year in Israel as a first year student at HUC-JIR. In 2008, while still working at Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, I staffed a Birthright Israel trip. Sitting in the Kinneret Cemetery, I wrote the following entry:
Our guide said something that I can’t forget: “If you have already found something that makes you excited to jump off the haystack each morning- great. If you know what it is, then reach for it. Reality is overrated. Don’t give up your dream. Change your reality”. Must get back here. Learn Hebrew. Become a rabbi.
I remember sitting in the stone encircled plaza at the cemetery, thoroughly moved by the stories our guide had told of the young chalutzim who had come to Israel during the first Aliyah and made their home near the Kinneret. The imagery of the teenaged pioneers, so dedicated to their endeavor that they literally jumped off the haystacks on which they slept each morning, was powerful to me. That week in Israel, I had been feeling the stirrings of something inside me. I loved my work at Ma’yan; I loved thinking about how feminism might shape the future generations of young Jews. But, as I sat there with the eucalyptus-scented breeze coming off the water, near the graves of the poetess Rachel Bluwstein and Naomi Shemer, I felt pulled. I felt the gravity of the evolving story of the Jewish people, and I knew that I wanted to play a role in shaping that story.
And so I did, just as I made myself promise that I would in that journal entry from 2008: I returned from that trip to Israel, and spent a summer in an intensive Ulpan every night after work. I applied to HUC-JIR in the Fall of 2008, and on July 1, 2009, I ‘got back’ there as I began the Year in Israel program at HUC in Jerusalem.
When the poem doesn’t rhyme
I’m sitting in an orange quilted chair in a windowless room on the 3rd floor at HUC in New York. She tells me to close my eyes and just sit quietly. The moment my eyes close, they are flooded with hot tears. It’s my first day back at school in over a week, and I am meeting with my spiritual director, Rabbi Yael Levy. The last time we met, I spoke with her about the sense of awe I felt at being pregnant. Now, we meet and that is over and there are no words. She sits quietly with me. As I have so often since the moment I heard the words “there is no heartbeat”, I keep my eyes closed. She is talking, but I don’t hear her, really. My disquieted mind finally settles, soothing itself with a song:
Ozi v’zimrat Yah, va’yehi li lishua.
My strength, with the Song of God, will be my salvation.
From Rabbi Levy, I have learned the power of having a spiritual mantra – or a touchstone text to which I return. These words resonate deeply for me. They live in my heart, and often come to mind in moments when I feel my strength falter. These words come to mind when I find myself trying to ‘make sense’ of the struggle or, to borrow from the words of Rabbi Rachel Adler, to “wrestle it for a blessing”. What blessing can I find in loss? Perhaps it is this: a sense of God’s presence in my life, even when the “poem doesn’t rhyme,” or a beginning feels more like an ending.
As I have learned from these experiences, and as I expect I will continue to learn throughout my life: sometimes the perfect ending doesn’t look as you expected. For me, my spiritual journey has been one of ‘delicious ambiguity’. I have learned as much from the experiences and relationships that have nourished me, as from the ones that have challenged me. As I anticipate my ordination next year, these are the offerings of my soul that I will take with me as I continue the journey.
Jodie Gordon is going into her final year of the rabbinical program at HUC-JIR in New York, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Joshua Bloom, who is the Director of Israel Programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Originally from Rockville Centre, NY, Jodie grew up at Central Synagogue of Nassau County, and spent ten summers at URJ Eisner Camp. Jodie graduated from Brandeis University, where she majored in Sociology and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Before beginning her rabbinical studies, Jodie’s professional experience included work for Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, The JCC in Manhattan, and Ma’yan: Listen for a Change. As a rabbinical student, Jodie has served as the Reform Rabbinic Fellow at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU and has been very involved with American Jewish World Service after traveling to Senegal as part of their Rabbinical Student Delegation in 2011. Jodie is also a proud recipient of the Tisch Rabbinical Fellowship. Jodie is thrilled to currently be the Rabbinic Intern at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, MA.
cross-posted at Women of Reform Judasim