Among all of the deeply rewarding elements of the pulpit rabbinate, none has been as meaning-filled, for me personally and on a broader communal level, as guiding the study and rituals of those who choose Judaism and the Jewish people as their own.
Each of the individuals who have invited me to join them — at whatever stage of the journey they find themselves when we meet here through the little Reconstructionist congregation I serve in Baltimore — has been a tremendous source of enrichment and learning for me.
To see Judaism through their eyes – the ideas, the holidays, the approach to life cycle rituals, to prayer, to learning Hebrew – always provides me with new appreciation for our tradition, and for the privilege of being “a Teacher in Israel,” as my ordination certificate reads.

As we grapple together with the material of our studies, each ger tzedek is inevitably confronted with the need to make choices about how they will live their Jewish lives.

They decide, in effect, how they will Jew.

When, and how, do Jews typically get to answer the question – how do you Jew?

As children, those answers are provided, some would say, at too pediatric or pedantic a level. For most adult Jews today, Jew School, most often supplementary, was a source of trauma. Adult Jew School for liberal Jews has most often meant considering rabbinical school, which for many of my colleagues did indeed represent their first or only option for concentrated grown-up Jewish study.

Now that more opportunities exist for serious adult engagement with Jewish learning – such as the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, the MEAH program, and others — Jewish communal professionals are all energetically grappling with this challenge of “engagement.” Baltimore’s own Federation and its main agencies have been re-aligning their institutional priorities in order to more effectively engage Jews at their most significant and concentrated points of emerging need.

And yet, despite the fact that there are many secular and social resources available to reinforce this yearning to “do” Judaism that are accessible to individuals, there remains this impulse to gather, with other Jews, in the framework of synagogue life.

So, does belonging to a synagogue help you Jew?

To current synagogue members especially, but also those who staunchly keep themselves out: I urge you to resist the complacency that may come with your inherited legacy, or with your current comfortable, unexamined Jewish groove.

Rabbis, it is said, should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. If you are comfortable with what you do through, or know about, Judaism, then those of us sustaining the pulpit paradigm with our Jew-leading are not rabbi-ing well enough.

Do not mistake this for a shofar call towards a predictable ladder of Jewish observance. In fact, hearkening back to my time spent with those studying towards conversion, it’s been a particular blessing to affirm the practices of those whose choices land them in a more traditionally-framed approach to mitzvot, particularly Shabbat observance, kashrut, and prayer, than my own.

I don’t have a set hierarchy in mind. I do know that my heart swells when a shul member tells me that they never observed Shabbat at all before joining the congregation; when I see shame or embarrassment about not knowing what to do or say in a prayer service fall away at the first opportunity to stand on the bimah; when I can practically hear the click that occurs when an exchange in a devar torah discussion refracts someone’s secular values through a Torah teaching.

As a service leader, I try not to do things by rote, or automatically, but there is one routine I appear to have settled into during our Torah services that include Bnei Mitzvah. As I present each teen with their Bat or Bar Mitzvah certificate, I’ve taken to reading the passage inscribed in beautiful calligraphy around the page: “Undertake the study of Torah to make it your own; it is not yours only by inheritance” (Pirkey Avot 2:11). It is so apt, so reflective of the essence of the ritual and the studies that preceded it.

So, join to Jew, or don’t. But whatever the status of your commitment to the wider Jewish world and its institutions of prayer and study, figure out how you might answer the question: How do you Jew?

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

Liz is in her 10th year of serving the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation affiliate in Baltimore, Congregation Beit Tikvah.