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The Courage to Be a Reform Jew

The Courage to Be a Reform Jew

I must be honest. Purim is not my favorite holiday. Truth is, I was never a big costume person. Probably a therapist’s delight!

Nonetheless, I was a “good” mom and put aside my own mishagas (craziness) and helped my daughters with Purim costumes and parades so that we made it through enough years dressing up as characters from the story. However, it wasn't too long before they both expressed a similar “love” for costumes and parades and so Purim became a minor holiday in our house.

However – and it is a big “however” – even without the costumes and parades, my daughters shared, as they began to realize the essence of the Purim story, that they were impressed with Esther’s courage. And so that became the topic of discussion for us around Purim.

What does it mean to have courage?

The challenge in trying to instill courage in my daughters was that, when they were young, courage conjured up images of bravery in the face of danger. Fortunately, my children did not experience danger – at least not in situations in which they weren’t protected by their parents or teachers.

For our children, courage is more about stepping up to defend their rights and the rights of others to be the people they are born to be. To be Jews. To be African-Americans. To be multi-racial. To be LGBTQ. To suffer from mental health diseases. To be in recovery from alcoholism, drug or food addiction. And so on.

Our children must have the courage to proclaim confidently who they are – in front of the entire Jewish community and the rest of the world. They must be able to do so without any fear of being sidelined, misunderstood, or shortchanged regarding possibilities for exciting or challenging experiences in their future.

Our teens must not hesitate for a minute to strive to be leaders, while also acknowledging their mental health issues. Likewise, a young college student thinking about a career in Jewish professional life should not be concerned that his Asperger’s, dyslexia, or ongoing recovery from addiction might impede his ability to enter rabbinical school.

At the same time, as adults, we must have the courage to break out of the unfortunately all-to-often instinct to worry that maybe that teenager with the Tourette syndrome might not be the “best” student to represent the confirmation class in presenting the resolution to the synagogue board, or that the college student who faces the ongoing challenge of a panic disorder might not be the one to speak at a large gathering of the Jewish community or…

It’s equally important, especially for our teens and young adults, to proclaim their identity as Reform Jews. In an increasingly trans-denominational Jewish world, it is critical that we not only educate our children to understand what it means to identify with the Reform community, but also  to instill in them the confidence and courage to stand up for their rights and needs as Reform Jews. While our kids are in youth group, they may not feel that need because – well, they are all Reform Jews.

However, once they step onto college campuses, too many of our movement’s young adults are intimidated about entering Hillel because it seems too religious and not necessarily welcoming of Reform Jews. One of the greatest regrets of my Jewish life is that, after years of being deeply involved in temple life, youth group, and camp, I never passed through the doors of Hillel at Boston University when I was in college – even though it was on the very same street where I lived. Sadly, I did not know how to ask for what I needed as a Reform Jew and so I missed out on what could have been active and exciting involvement with Hillel.

As their parents, teachers, and advisors, it is our responsibility to ensure that our young people listen to their own truth and take action aligned with that truth – especially when that action isn’t the most popular, the most obvious to others, or the easiest for them to face. Only then will they truly have the courage to enter Jewish organizational life and ask for what is important to them as Reform Jews.

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz is associate dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, CA.

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz
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