Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

An Outsider in the Woods

At Jews in the Woods, a spiritual retreat for college students, I tried to see how I’d fit in if I converted to Judaism

Print Email
Related Content

Academic Transfer

In order to understand her identity, an Irish Catholic student at the University of Virginia had to follow her passion: a major in Jewish Studies

Shortly after I arrived at Jews in the Woods—a spiritual Shabbaton at a campground in Rhode Island—on a Friday evening in March, I was approached by two girls who asked if I’d come with them for a moment. Following them over the hardened snow, I came to a small blue sedan loaded with food. Visibly nervous, they took turns explaining that, since sunset had fallen and very observant students would not eat meals carried inside by other Jews, they needed me, a gentile, to bring all of the food to the kitchen. To alleviate the discomfort of observant Jewish participants, I had been appointed the Shabbes goy.

My head was spinning; I was surprised, angry, humiliated. It was not the best way to start the weekend.

Yes, I’m a gentile, although these days I would probably describe myself as Jew-ish, with an emphasis on the ish. I’m a Jewish Studies major whose initial interest in Jewish history and culture has resulted in my increasing involvement in my university’s Jewish community. My affiliation with Judaism is primarily cultural, and many of my Jewish friends at school feel the same way. Meaning: We can recite lines from Curb Your Enthusiasm on command, but we can’t quote rabbinical commentary from the Talmud.

The prospect of converting—and learning more about the religious aspects of Judaism in the process—has become increasingly appealing throughout college. So, I was intrigued when a professor told me about Jews in the Woods, a pluralistic weekend retreat for students. I informed the event organizers that I was not Jewish, but would be happy to make the 13-hour drive with a friend to attend. This event would clearly encompass more religious content than anything I had attended before, and I thought I’d have a chance to learn more about Judaism. I just didn’t think I’d be the one asked to carry everyone else’s bags.

I didn’t exactly fit in at Jews in the Woods, as I’d soon figure out. But I most definitely learned quite a bit about Judaism.

*

At first, when the girls told me that they needed me to carry the food, I agreed, frazzled and too surprised to protest. I brought in two bags of food with an irate look on my face. But after collecting my thoughts as I returned to the car, I angrily quit the task and stalked up to the event’s tie-dye-clad student organizer and asked if we could talk alone.

For the next 20 minutes, I expressed my anger over my disrespectful (and, might I add, anachronistic) designation as the Shabbes goy. Are you serious?! I demanded. Reaching back into the annals of my memory for the little knowledge I had acquired about Jewish religious tradition, I clung to my understanding of Judaism’s affinity for justice. Remembering my many experiences in the tikkun olam-infused world of youth Jewish culture, I insisted that my appointment as the Shabbes goy was definitively un-Jewish. What about equitable treatment of others, not to mention the admonition in the Hebrew Bible to welcome the stranger? This weekend was supposed to be all about pluralism—so why was I the only one whose needs weren’t being met?

A funny thing happened. He apologized immediately and asked me how we could fix the situation together. With his kindness, he had stopped my one-woman show of anger in its tracks. I suggested meekly that he should appoint the other student leaders to retrieve the food and inform the religiously observant participants of the change in plans.

Then he asked me to describe how this experience had made me feel, as if my 20-minute lecture about justice and Judaism hadn’t already indicated my emotional state. I responded that this situation wasn’t about me; I said I hoped I would be just as angry if I were Jewish and this had happened to someone else. We pondered this together, and the idea spawned a conversation that spanned everything from religion to the prison system and continued for several hours. Unexpectedly, I had made a very cool new friend. I was impressed by this student—no pretension, and no annoying shows of male assertiveness. I felt humbled by the conversation. If this is how Jews address conflict, I thought, I could get used to this community. As we talked, other endearingly contrite students occasionally poked their heads into the doorway with worried expressions, and finally brought us the Shabbat dinner of lasagna and salad that we had missed.

Among these exceptionally tolerant individuals, I felt welcome. But feeling welcome certainly isn’t the same thing as actually belonging.

We finally decided to join the other Shabbaton participants, re-entering the great room to find a large circle of students sitting cross-legged on the floor and singing songs in Hebrew. While I enjoyed the music, it also triggered discomfort, a reminder of my ignorance and lack of belonging; obviously, I never learned these songs as a child.

I didn’t look like I belonged, either. My Paris-Hilton-goes-camping getup—a ridiculous fur-lined crocheted hat, an enormous brown flannel shirt, and the kind of faux-rugged suede boots worn by girls who typically spend their time inside—seemed ridiculous in contrast with the attire of many other students: boys in button-downs with glasses and velvet kippahs the size of cereal bowls, and girls in ankle-length floral skirts.

Despite feeling like an outsider, I enjoyed my conversations with the other students, who struck me as intelligent and conscientious. That night, I fell asleep in a bunk bed in a wood cabin next to the lake and down the gravel walkway from the main building. As I drifted off contentedly, I decided to embrace this sort-of wacky weekend.

*

Whoever said that observing Shabbat is boring was definitely wrong! Saturday morning, the sun rose with a brilliant intensity, dispelling the heavy clouds of the previous day and thawing the snow on the ground. I befriended a free-spirited Brown student and decided to attend a session of acro-yoga—which is how I found myself poised horizontally in mid-air, supported only by his feet. The day’s other activities included walks around the woods and study sessions about ethics and Jewish texts. I, for one, was having a good time. But I still wasn’t quite fitting in.

My conservative, WASP-y roots run deep, and it has always been somewhat difficult for me to relate to hardcore politically progressive Jews. The old Ralph Lauren bed sheets I had brought with me, emblazoned with tiny American flags, were good-naturedly mocked by one of the other students in my cabin, a super-liberal Peace Studies student who drily congratulated me for displaying my patriotism. Even in my interactions with the other students, I noticed behavioral differences. People were constantly hugging me and asking me to “process” my feelings and the events of the weekend together. Down to the details, everything was done with sensitivity; one of the Shabbaton’s organizers had even hung “female-identified” and “male-identified” signs on the restroom doors.

Aside from being exceptionally sensitive, most, if not all, of the Shabbaton participants also attended Ivy League schools. The unintentional Ivy League exceptionalism manifested itself frequently. On a walk in the woods, I witnessed the kind of introduction that, I imagine, only happens in the Ivy League. “You’re at Columbia?” “Yeah, are you at Harvard or Yale?” “Harvard.” “Where did you do your gap year?” “Jerusalem, how about you?” And so forth. Staring down at my snow-soaked suede boots, I pondered what must be the staggeringly small number of people in the world who can seriously have these conversations.

Even on dish-washing duty, I noticed a certain attitude as we took turns washing and drying and talked about our future plans. One student, identifying both himself and his girlfriend as writers, described their various ways of “narrativizing our lives together.” Give me a break, I thought with a silent eye roll as I silently placed newly dried cups into the cabinet. Even the intensity of these conversations intimidated me a little bit; I was continually surprised by both the intellectual depth of these conversations and the frequency with which serious subjects, ranging from marriage to the Arab-Israeli conflict, came up.

The most difficult part of the weekend was yet to come. After a dinner of make-your-own-kosher-vegetarian burritos, we convened in the great room for havdalah. From my previous experiences with havdalah in Israel, I remembered enjoying the beautiful, candlelit ceremony ending Shabbat. But as the music started, I once again felt incredibly frustrated by my ignorance regarding the prayers, songs, and motions that accompanied havdalah.

Shit, I muttered to myself as we gathered in a wide circle, arms around one another’s shoulders. The same songs that awoke a sense of nostalgia among my Shabbaton friends produced a reaction of dread in me comparable to, say, the Jaws theme music. As the swaying and singing began in the huge, dimly lit great room, I felt oddly exposed and began silently freaking out over my inability to fake my knowledge of the songs. It was ironic; after five semesters of Hebrew, I probably understood these songs’ meanings better than most of the students, but I didn’t know the tunes by rote. Repeating what I had done countless times before at Jewish religious events, I lowered my eyes demurely and vaguely moved my lips.

Then the ecstatic dancing began. My mind returned in that moment to a year long ago when I watched a friend’s shy dad at my school’s father-daughter dance. This father’s expression of pure terror at the prospect of dancing to silly songs in front of other people had been a mystery to me at the time—What’s the big deal? I had thought. At the Shabbaton, I finally understood how that father had felt. I didn’t know what I supposed to be doing, and that anxiety made me lose my interest in participating in the dancing at all. Very shortly, I retreated to an adjoining room where some similarly unenthusiastic students had already gathered. After talking with them for a while and, of course, engaging in another one of many platonic cuddling sessions that were so popular that weekend, I schlepped back to my cabin with mixed feelings about where exactly I was supposed to fit in the Jewish community.

By Sunday morning, the spell of the Shabbaton had broken and the sky had returned to gray. It was as if the sun had also attended the Shabbaton, and had decided to leave promptly at its end. After a mostly silent breakfast in the great room, interrupted only by the clank of spoons in cereal bowls, we said our goodbyes to the few students who had not already returned to their universities. With bemused expressions, my friend and I drove down the muddy gravel driveway, set the GPS for Charlottesville, and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. My relationship to Judaism was somehow permanently affected by that Shabbaton in the woods. Yes, at times I’d felt extremely uncomfortable, but I had really enjoyed the weekend of “processing” my emotions and learning more about Judaism with the quirky, kind group of young people I had met there. Having met these spiritually minded young people—even though I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in—I now feel much more comfortable with the idea of converting and learning more about Jewish spirituality. I’m ready for the next Shabbaton. I just hope there is a unit during the conversion process where I can learn all of those Hebrew children’s songs, so that next time, I can join in.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email
Benjamin_Isaac says:

Perhaps this goes without saying, but I feel it’s worth emphasizing that upper-crust Ashkenazi east coast culture does not equal Judaism. Being a Jew from a small city with a small Jewish community, not having attended an Ivy League school, not being fashionably “progressive,” I would have felt like an outsider at this event too.

    Susan Barnes says:

    Benjamin –
    I agree. I would have felt like I didn’t fit in there, also, being a west coast, non-Ivy League person.

    Anne –
    I hope you find a place among our people, where you feel that you fit in and are fully respected. Familiarity with the songs and words will come naturally with time, repetition, and a bit of study. There are many cultures in the Jewish world, so I am confident you can find one in which you will feel at home.

    RS1961 says:

    I am an East Coast born-and-bred-and-college-educated, suburban (although not “upper crust” or an Ivy Leaguer) Reform Ashkenazi Jew.  I would have been appalled if I’d have attended and witnessed someone being asked to shlep bags because they’re not “one of us”.  As others have also commented, the lack of planning to ensure that the food could be transported after sunset and acceptably eaten by Orthodox Jews was just a dumb oversight; there were other options (e.g., erecting an eruv) that should have been undertaken when they set up camp.  How could they have been sure that a non-Jew – one who would be willing to act as Shabbos Goy – would attend the event?

    While I’m a socially liberal and fiscally moderate East Coaster (as I mentioned above), I’m honestly unsure how “included” I would have felt at such an event (aside from the fact that it was organized for college-aged students and I’m, you know, over 50 years old!).  While pluralism is an admirable goal, it’s often difficult to execute in practice when there are diametrically-opposed ways in which people are accustomed to thinking and worshipping.  The leaders who spoke with the author seem to have been compassionate and inclusive, and if those qualities were possessed by the majority at the event, I think that I would have really enjoyed it and found it to be a terrific experience. 

    One more thing:  Even within “our ranks”, the melodies that accompany our canon of music are not always the same.  I grew up attending a Reform synagogue, my husband grew up attending a Conservative shul, and we are members of a (different from the one I attended as a child) Reform congregation.  There are many instances in which the melodies that we sing today differ from the ones that either of us learned while growing up.  In addition, our son is a song leader for a regional NFTY chapter and he attends a URJ camp, and they frequently use different melodies altogether than any I’ve heard sung elsewhere.  So I would imagine that the author of this article was far from the only person in attendance who didn’t know the tunes being sung.

      daized79 says:

      They couldn’t have been sure. They messed up. maybe it was because they didn’t know halakha or maybe it was because they were late for shabat and messed up. It’s funny, I imagine being in Grant’s shoes I would have odne the opposite. Be upset until someone explained that Jews believe there are different laws that Jews and non-Jews have to keep and that Jews have more responsibility and obligations than non-Jews because we’re supposed to be role models (even if we often fail). Worst comes to worst she says no and the Orthodox folks have limited food supplies. But a caring person would look past their own ego and understand where the Other is coming from. Or are we still in the 50’s where the Other is despised and multiculturalism hasn’t been born yet? What if a Muslim needed you to do something? Would you balk or be a decent person?

David Eber says:

Anne-

I was very moved by your piece! I am Jewish, but grew up in a non-traditional house where I new more about Bob Dylan than I did about the Torah or Jewish prayer. I have felt the feelings that you describe, both the positive feelings of “processing” and “discomfort” in different Jewish spaces. I especially have dealt with frustrations of Jewish pluralism actually meaning “accommodating Orthodox peoples’ needs first.”  You are right that your needs weren’t being respected, and that to ask you to be the shabbos goy was unfair. I am also often frustrated at the silent exclusion that happens in spaces where people know the prayers, and I wish that someone would have told you to niggun or helped you learn the tunes.
I would also say however, that I wish you the best in your search for a meaningful place in our community, because I know that we need people like you!

B’hatzlacha

    daized79 says:

    It’s not pluralism without Orthodox Jews. It’s just you guys who broke away from traditional Judaism. You can’t have it both ways.

Speak_Into_Being says:

Thank you, Anne.  I too have been asked to be the Shabbos goy.  At first I found it amusing, then later demeaning.  It was resolved when I offered such service rather than it being expected of me.

I hope to see many more stories of your encounters along the way!

    Stacey Flint says:

    Very interesting. I am glad that in all my 20 years of involvement in the Jewish community I have never experienced this, but I also agree that the young lady should educate herself better before participating. I am a Torah Observant Messianic Jew and am raising my kids as such and as “Hebrew” I would respectfully decline such a request because I don’t “work” or carry loads on Shabbat and before the sun goes down I try my best to have our family prepared and would never ask a guest who has agreed to “sojourn” with me to break Shabbat law, even if it is a “Tradition”.  Tradition does not trump Torah for me.
    There is one law for the b’nai Israel and the “stranger” that sojourns with you Numbers 15:15 

      RS1961 says:

      @Stacey – with all due respect, the term “Messianic Jew” is an extreme misnomer.  You may be “Torah observant” and even call yourself a “Hebrew”, but if you believe that Jesus was the messiah you are not following a singularly key precept of practicing Judaism or being Jewish.  We believe in one G-d.  Period.  And we still await the arrival of our messiah.  Period.  No immaculate conception, no resurrection, no “son of G-d”.  Those are tenets that unite every part of our observance spectrum.

      I absolutely respect and support your right to observe as you believe, as long as your religion does not preach intolerance or harm to others.  But tacking on the suffix “Jew” to what is, essentially, a Christian sect is misleading and inaccurate. 

        But she is a Hebrew. What should she call herself? Hebrew Christian?

          daized79 says:

          Read my reply to Stacey, but that sounds fine. Or even Jewish Christian. There were plenty of them into the 3rd Century, you know…

      DAVID COHEN says:

      messianic is not JEWISH. it is a new religion nothing to do with JUDAISM.
      yOU COULD JUMP OFF A BRIDGE FOR ALL I CARE but  you cant say you  are flying.
      THAT IS NOT JUDAISM

        daized79 says:

        It’s not really a new religion, it’s really just Christianity. I’d like to learn more about it though if I ever got to meet one. I don’t understand why it’s proper for a Christian to observe Jewish law.

      daized79 says:

      I have no idea what you just wrote. But to try to respond — either you’re Jewish or not. What does Hebrew mean? It’s difficult to say where believing in J fits in to Judaism, but unless you believe he was a prophet or the Messiah, if you believe he is somehow the son of a god, that’s probably idolatry. But that’s a whole different conversation — how much worse can your beliefs be than these Reform Jews who don’t believe G-d gave us laws to begin with? But back to the topic. Why would anybody ask you to be a goy shabat? Are you Jewish or not? If you’re not, but you believe in a religion that follow a Saturday Sabbath, of course you would say no and the Jew who asked you would apologize and say he totally understands, but just hoped you were from a different religion since 98% of Americans do not follow a Saturday Sabbath. But if you’re not Jewish why are you a Messianic Jew? Shouldn’t you just be a normal Evangelical? I’m very confused and would love more dialogue on this issue.

paul delano says:

What was ‘disrespecting’ about wanting you, the only non-Jew present, to perform the service of carrying the food? You are very immature to not understand that this is a very old ritual of Judaism. I suggest that if you decide to affiliate with Judaism, you align yourself with the Reform branch where such Politically Correct nonsense as you have expressed is received sympathetically. 

    I think what Anne is expressing is that it’s a bit disempowering to be asked to do someone else’s work for them because of a religious conviction that you don’t share with them.  Regardless of whether or not having a Shabbes goy is a “very old ritual of Judaism,” it’s fairly obvious that being one might not be a pleasant experience.

      paul delano says:

      What don’t you understand about there being nothing disrespectful in asking the only non-Jew present to perform the duties which are forbidden to be done by Jews on Shabbas? If this girl was truly mature enough and serious about wanting to learn about Judaism she would have regarded this request as simply one more learning opportunity about the faith she claims she is drawn to.

        Paul, it’s not that I don’t understand, it’s that I disagree.  Understanding the reasons that some Jews don’t carry on Shabbos isn’t the same as being okay being asked to do the work for them.  I can completely see how that would feel manipulative – especially when it was a bunch of men in kippot and tzitzit who asked her to.
        And don’t question her commitment to or interest in Judaism simply because she takes issue with one interpretation of one practice.

          AriShavit says:

          Since it’s not said enough, I wanted to ‘double-like’ this:  

          “And don’t question her commitment to or interest in Judaism simply because she takes issue with one interpretation of one practice.”

          paul delano says:

          LOL! So we’re supposed to be ‘sympathetic’ to her ‘interpretation’ of the Shabbas Goy tradition? Why limit it to just that aspect? Let’s have her interpret every aspect of Halakha according to her ego and see if maybe something needs to be changed to suit her. What will be a perfect fit for this girl is some form of Judaism Lite aka Reform or Reconstruction.

          Paul, you are aware that Jews in the Woods is a pluralistic Shabbaton, right?  That means that it doesn’t force one interpretation of halakha or Judaism on the participants.

          paul delano says:

           According to Jews in the Woods it is a gathering ‘whereby young Jews gather to observe the  the Jewish Sabbath in a formalized manner.’ The use of the term ‘formalized’ does not endorse any laissez-faire interpretation of Shabbat nor preclude the use of a Shabbas Goy.

          Natan79 says:

          When I lived in Israel, Jews like yourself were not serving in the IDF, while I was. But they knew better what observance dictated – a-historically of course, since for them Moses would have worn a fur hat. 

          So I agree with you Paul Delano – Ann Grant should indeed  avoid people like yourself, authoritarians long on rule and short on facts or on courage when it comes to defending the Jewish people.

          daized79 says:

          That’s ridiculous. There are an enormous amount of datiim in tsaha”l.

          daized79 says:

          I don’t get the relevance of pluralism in this discussion except that she might want to respect the religious beliefs of others. The Orthodox people were stuck. Would she be cool helping out or not? No? Okay then, they’ll make do with what they’ve got (maybe water).

          daized79 says:

          What does one interpretation of one practice mean? This applies to all shabat laws… Or khamets on pesakh… How come wherever I go I find Americans open to helping me out in my religious practice, but this girl who actually knows something about Judaism (and Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a fit when she is asked to help some folks out who are in a bad situation.

        AriShavit says:

        … and if those persons who wanted her to carry the food had taken their convictions seriously, they would have arrived earlier, planned better, gone without, or ensured they could carry the food in themselves.  

        it’s patently ridiculous to ask a gentile to cater to your needs and have the gall to call it a “learning opportunity.”

          paul delano says:

           It’s patently ridiculous not to understand that for someone professing an interest in converting, and as someone who was the only non-Jew present at Shabbat, being asked to carry the food certainly was a ‘learning’ experience. Of course, if you’re coming from a place where your ‘ego’ is offended at the thought of SERVICE in the name of religion, then it’s understandable to be reading all the immature comments, including yours, on this point.

          AriShavit says:

          How is it not immature to fail to provide for your own convictions?  How is it not immature to expect a person invited as a guest to perform work?  
           

          jcarpenter says:

          and had a “goy” not been in attendance, the work would all wait until after the Sabbath. Perhaps a better object lesson for all, Jew and learning-Jew, than what transpired. Hospitality extends to all, not undue expectations.

          Agreed – as the person who was responsible for the decision to ask Anne to carry the food (although I didn’t make the decision alone), I learned a huge amount from this experience.  To me, the biggest lesson was that even though I still have a great deal of respect for halakha as a system and understand it to be internally consistent, applying it to the modern real world isn’t as smooth process as we might like it to be.

          DAVID COHEN says:

          CONVERTING IS SERVING GD, *NOT YOUR OWN CONVICTIONS
           WHICH  potential converts would have to give up.
          ITS WHAT GD WANTS,
          NOT WHAT YOU WANT 

          Natan79 says:

          Hey Cohen, how do you know what God wants? Do you get he messages in Hebrew, English or yeshivish? That’s the nonsense you speak best. When I served in the Israeli army, I asked that, if I am killed in action, I do not want an orthodox rabbi at my burial. Reform or Conservative, sure. Orthodox – that could be like you.

          daized79 says:

          How often do you mention you served in the Israeli Army in real life when it’s completely irrelevant?

      daized79 says:

      Actually that’s just sensitivity to others and understanding that not everybody has the same religious beliefs or culture that you do. If a very religious Christian or Muslim asked you to help them out when their religion didn’t allow something would you seriously balk at it or be a decent human being? I think you would help them out, but maybe I don’t know you.

    It is disrespectful to ask a guest to provide a service. If she had been invited for that purpose and informed in the first place then it would be fine. She was not. PAYING a person to perform those tasks is an old ritual of Judaism. Demanding it for free is the kind of thing that breeds holocaust denial.

Thank you for sharing this. I converted to Judaism when I was in college (started the process in high school). I used to get odd looks and questions about why I would convert (I also have an unquestionably WASP name and look), so for a while (I’m now ashamed to say), I had a made-up Jewish grandparent. For some reason, that’s a better answer to Jews and non-Jews alike than simple religious and cultural interest/calling/devotion.

I had the same fears of not knowing enough, so I learned everything I could. Now, I know a lot more than most Jews and am asked to lead benching and even seders. The other night, someone asked a halakhic question that nobody could seem to answer and I piped in; one of the guys said that converts always know everything because they work for it. Ten years before I would have been a little appalled to be called out as a convert, but now I feel that it’s something to be proud of. Now, on the board of my shul and a volunteer teaching Hebrew to adults, I often have people ask if I grew up Orthodox; I love the reactions when I reply, “No, Mormon and Southern Baptist.”

paul delano says:

 It’s a learning opportunity for someone professing an interest in converting. In the case of those gentiles who were paid to perform these duties, it was just a job. Questions

    Natan79 says:

    Yeah, when will you shut up about Judaism Lite? I am a Reform Jew who is observant and served in the IDF. Did you serve Paul Delano? Before posing as some religious authority – which you manifest mostly as catcalls- how about we hear about your moral authority in Jewish matters? 

      DAVID COHEN says:

      what can you possible be observant about?
       you broke all the rules already

        Natan79 says:

        Who are you to say what I observe or not? In Israel I met haredis who talked like you. Not one had served in the army yet they dispensed advice freely and unasked. You sound just like them.

          daized79 says:

          It’s not about being kharedi, it’s about being dati. And Reform doesn’t believe in observance, or are you confusing Reform with Conservative?

      daized79 says:

      What does serving in the IDF have to do with Judaism? You did an amazing thing to protect Jews in Israel (and by extension around the world), but that doesn’t have a ton to do with the religion (other than it being a big z’khut). Or it’s one possible aspect of it, at best.

I’m sorry, but this seems to be more of a dialogue of personal navel gazing than some introspection about conversion or even learning about Judaism. 

What truly struck me about Anne was not her lack of knoweldge about Jewish culture, laws, and tradition, but that what she feared were general social interactions.  It was her bedsheets that became a topic of her writing, singing and dancing that spoke to her fears. 

By contrast, her discussion about actual Jewish practice was limited to her self-imposed annoyance that someone asked her to do them a favor because of actual halachic restrictions. 

While one could raise the obvious argument about why the particpants weren’t more organized that they’re shlepping wasn’t done before Shabbes (as mentioned by one of the posters above), or that someone hadn’t strung an eruv up around the campgrounds, we hear an annoyance, that Anne was being singled out, put upon, and essentially disrespected.  A WASPY stepin fetchit, with all the ethnic repugnance that such an image has. 

What truly is surprising is that in 2012, a Jewish Studies student of all things, who apparently has gone to Israel and participated in previous Shabbes activities, doesn’t seem to be able to take the simple initiative to find out what takes place during Shabbes (apparently no davening, but rather Yoga) and the modest effort to actually learn what was on that weekend’s agenda. 

Forget even going out and borrowing a bencher, or a siddur, (complete with transliterations), one need only go as far as you-tube to at least get a clue as to the melodies and songs. 

And even easier, would be to talk with the other participants about events later in that very same day. 

Really Anne, according to your own writing you’ve been to ‘countless’ Jewish religious events, and you continue to ‘freak out’?!?

Yet, rhetorically ask yourself “where you were supposed to fit in to the Jewish community?”

What is so mind boggling is that your comments about actual discussion that could have and may have been held about the weekend, are absent from your article.  How about instead of Yoga and ‘processing your emotions’ you go do some study, have some discussions about being a Jew.

Oh, and if you want to learn some children’s songs?  Go to a Jewish bookstore or web site and purchase a few CD’s.  Try Paul Zim, try you-tube and type in a few of the prayers and songs. 

    To clarify: there was plenty of davening during Shabbos.  Yoga was one of several participant-led sessions offered on Saturday afternoon, after full Friday night and Saturday morning services.
    Not that I expect an accurate understanding of what actually went on at Jews in the Woods to change your opinion of it – you’re clearly less interested in connecting with other Jews who observe differently than you than you are in deriding someone who’s looking for a way in.

      Hardly. 

      I’m less interested in scoring how much davening vs. Yoga went on.  But Anne was the one writing about connecting with Judaism both as a student and in a personal way.  Yet, what she wrote about had little to do with Judaism and much to do with everything but that. 

      daized79 says:

      Yes, Harpo, to be fair, Grant was the one who who focused on the (non-Jewish) yoga, or chose it over davening. Nothing wrong with yoga, but it shows her perspective.

As someone fortunate enough to have attended Jews in the Woods, I really appreciated this piece.  I think it is incredibly important that Anne was able to have discussions with the participants – including with one of the coordinators – about these important issues.  These dialogues say a great deal about the environment that Jews in the Woods aimed to create.  (In my personal opinion, the Shabbaton went above and beyond.)  Being part of a pluralistic community can be incredibly challenging, but it can also be a truly rewarding experience.  As a very secular reform Jew, I have had many experiences similar to what Anne describes; I feel like I have learned a great deal from stepping out of my comfort zone and interacting with those who observe differently than me.  We can all be Jewish – and be members of a Jewish community – in a variety of ways: this religion offers many avenues for individuals to explore spirituality.  I hope that more events like Jews in the Woods continue to exist, and I hope that I will be fortunate enough to attend them, along with Anne, and have a positive experience.

    RS1961 says:

    @Mel wrote:  “We can all be Jewish – and be members of a Jewish community – in a variety of ways: this religion offers many avenues for individuals to explore spirituality.”

    THIS.

    I’m, frankly, tired of reading derogatory, exclusionary references about those who practice any “flavor” of Judiasm except for Orthodox.  I’m tired of the way in which I observe being referred to as “Judaism Lite”, “Fake Judaism”, or worse.  I am affiliated with a Reform synagogue because the ways in which my Rabbis and my congregation choose to worship; the specific religious, educational, political, and social philosophies that are maintained there resonate with me.  I feel welcome and at home in that community. 

    Just as I would not dream of criticizing or belittling someone who identifies as Orthodox,  I would expect the same courtesy.  How do those of you who are Orthodox feel when you are characterized by others as being automatons who are incapable of an independent thought or emotion, and who base your entire lives on a literal interpretation of a fantasy tale?  So why play the “we are the only REAL Jews, and we are observing in the only ACCEPTABLE way” card with the rest of us?

    Like @Mel and several other commenters above me, I am open to learning about and from others, and I welcome opportunities to respectfully interact with those who observe differently than I do.  With that said, I believe that the “us” and “them” mindset that continues to pervade Judaism, from within our own ranks, is more of a threat to our future as a people than any other single group or factor.  The level of anti-Semitism that is sometimes expressed by Jews toward other Jews, both in the comments here and elsewhere, is astounding and disheartening.  

    Trust me:  My husband and I are “real” Jews; we’re each the child of two Jewish parents, and we worship only one G-d.  Our son is on the synagogue youth group board, is a song leader at regional NFTY events, and attends URJ overnight camp (and will travel to Israel this summer with 600 other NFTY rising 11th graders); he has happily continued his Jewish studies after the “Bar Mitzvah years”, and will start a post-Confirmation program next Fall.  I finally – and with much joy – celebrated my own Bat Mitzvah two years ago; I read Torah, sang, and prayed with 17 other women during an incredibly moving service in which virtually every seat in the sanctuary was filled.  I love being a Jew.  I try to be the best person I can be and make a positive contribution to my world. 

    But because I wear jeans, have both Jewish and gentile friends, eat at non-kosher restaurants, and use technology on Shabbat, does that make me a “lesser” Jew?  Or just one who observes differently than you do?

    I truly hope that experiences such as Jews in the Woods helps young Jews (and prospective Jews) of ALL “flavors” learn to accept and appreciate one another.

      DAVID COHEN says:

      so how does it feel to make your own rules?
      as lonhg as your happy, forget about GD. 

      daized79 says:

      I don’t know what being a “lesser Jew” means, but you are observing a different religion than traditional (What we’re now calling Orthodox) Judaism. And you need to be comfortable with that. Your religion has different beliefs and tenets. Your beliefs are more different from traditional Judaism than Evangelical Christianity’s. This is nto judging you — it’s just true. I don’t know what you’re worshiping exactly, but in all the pluralism classes I attended in UCLA, I learned that Reform does not believe G-d gave Man laws to keep, that the tora was written by human beings, and that Jews have no obligations, only voluntary traditions and practices that they can choose to keep. You can’t get more alien from traditional Judaism than that. Orthodox Jews consider you Jewish and believe that G-d considers you Jewish. That means that you can come back anytime without conversion, but that you are judged as a Jew (though perhaps your upbringing absolves you of much guilt for how you live). You have to accept the reality that is what traditional Jews and Judaism believe and decide if you still want to dialogue with us or not. We would love to hear from you, but we can’t change our beliefs for you. And that’s what it means to have pluralism where you include Orthodox Jews. I was always respectful of the others’ opinions and beliefs, but it did not mean I would change mine. The only other thing we have in common is that antisemites don’t care whether we practice Judaism, Reform, Buddhism, or Christianity. They will still come and kill us when times are ripe. So that’s another reason we stick together (and our shared heritage).

shularosen says:

Anne….First of all, I will tell you that I am myself a convert to Judaism and was married to a rabbi for 8 years. While I shared with you the bafflement of not knowing songs and prayers during my first steps, I really think the Shabbaton could have been handled differently. For my first Shabbaton, many of the born Jews who participated were not knowledgeable of the words of the songs either, and the rabbi took time to explain the words beforehand. On some occasions, rabbis (Chabad) will pass out papers with words of the songs written on them so everyone can sing the songs easily.

But those Observant women who asked you to carry food? That is a NO NO according to halacha. Yes, sometimes a non-Jew is asked to assist a Jew on Shabbos, but it should NEVER be in the form of a direct request and NEVER if the non-Jew is going to be potentially embarrassed by it. Certainly if the non-Jew is also a participant in the Shabbaton. I spent much time with Chabad, for instance, and even if there was a sticky situation, such as someone’s toddler turning on a radio on Shabbat, not once was a candidate for conversion (i.e. not yet halachically Jewish) asked to “help” in this way.

Knowing this might not assuage your bitter feelings, but please know that this wasn’t correct behavior and it might be a good idea to spend another shabbaton with observant Jews who know this wasn’t correct.

Best of luck to you and thank you for sharing your experience.

    DAVID COHEN says:

    as long as you know the words to  the song,,
    youre an ok JEW

      Natan79 says:

      Who are you to say? Are you OK? You sound demented in the many comments you put here.

        daized79 says:

        Natan, I don’t like a lot of what you write, but you are on point with this one!

    daized79 says:

    Ummm… Let’s correct this: amira l’nakhri (directly asking a goy to help out) is allowed when there is a public need (tsarkha d’tsibura). That’s what happened here. As for being embarrassed, I can’t imagine that Harpo etc. did anything but ask in the most sensitive way possible. Part of the problem may have been that instead of the usual flipping a light switch, Grant was asked to carry heavy things and so she saw this as worse than just helping out. But for all the reasons posted above I still don’t understand why she had such a violent reaction. It was handled well apparently (except that there was still food left in the trunk?).

shularosen says:

Bryan, about your comment “I had a made-up Jewish grandparent. For some reason, that’s a better
answer to Jews and non-Jews alike than simple religious and cultural
interest/calling/devotion.” I really do have a maternal grandmother who it seems was Jewish (but without proof enough to satisfy the rabbincal court, hence my need to do a full conversion). I davka don’t mention it as an inspiration for conversion, because I’m worried people will think I am making it up to fit in. Now that I see this is a tactic to fit in (don’t know how common) I davka will not tell anyone…sad, though. You shouldn’t have to invent a Jewish grandmother, but be proud of who you are. Those of us who DO have this experience might never be believed if enough people are “crying wolf” about imaginary Jewish ancestry. Not bashing you Bryan, but please try avoid using this story in future out of respect to those of us who might have this experience.  

    daized79 says:

    Dude, he said he’s embarrassed he did it… My dad converted and made up all kinds of stuff to avoid embarrassment, but it was a different time, closer to the Holocaust.

judahdan says:

Hello Anne,

Good luck on your journey.  I just wanted to add that Judaism is a far cry from leftist-liberal American Jewish (often self-deriding) culture- and I mean far cry in a good way.  To laugh at an American flag is sickening to me.   I discovered my Jewish place here in Israel and I could not be happier.

Daniel
Jerusalem

Halacha is very clear about the roles and rules of nonJews on Shabbat, and the roles and rules of Jews.  But its development occurred largely in a world in which communication between communities was much more constrained than in modern America.
 The case of the convert is training is a bit ambiguous.  Many poskim recognize that this person already has a Jewish soul.   He or she is in the process of making real in all senses what is already true in a deep inner sense.   How should he or she be treated?  As a goy? As a Jew?  The Rabbis (and thus Jewish culture) are always troubled by intermediate categories, and a convert in process is definitely in an intermediate position.     But it’s a good thing to learn to wrestle with ambiguity. There is basic idea that someone who is actively in the process of becoming a Jew should observe all the laws of Shabbat, but carefully break one prohibition, until he or she becomes fully obligated at the time of conversion.   Such a person is not a shabbes goy and should not be treated as such.   There is an analogy to a child who is not yet bar mitzvah.  Although technically not yet obligated, the obligation of education / hinuck mandates that the child be gradually encouraged to do more of the mtzvot and avoid more prohibited activities, so that when fully obligated, he or she lives halacha naturally.  We don’t encourage asking Jewish children to serve as “shabbes goys”, notwithstanding their lesser level of obligation, because we know they are soon to be fully obligated, and doing so would not support bringing them into full membership and comfort with the mitzvot.So also (in some respects) the convert in process.  He or she is a Jew in training.  However the author is not apparently at that stage of moving toward conversion.  Perhaps she is still just playing with the idea, exploring possibilities.   In an emotional sense she appears on her way to becoming a Jew, but she also says she is not studying for conversion or made a commitment to get to that point.  Of course her hosts should simply have asked her.  Are you Jewish?  If she said “No” they would ask:   Are you converting to Judaism? If “yes!” then politeness dictates that she be welcomed as a Jew… the responsibility to quietly not keep one small aspect of Shabbat is entirely her responsibility and not their’s to impose on her.  The larger truth is that she is in the process of moving toward  obligation and should be welcomed and respected for that.   There should be no question of calling out her difference or asking her to do things that Jews don’t do or asking her to be a shabbes goy.If the answer is “no”, then the polite follow up, with an explanation, is that we Jews have some obligations that make it difficult for us to do some things on Shabbat, but since you are not Jewish and not becoming Jewish, you can be an incredibly helpful part of our spiritual ecosystem by doing some things that we are prohibited from doing (although direct instructions are also prohibited, cf. Orach Chaim 307:2 )   There is a legitimate way to present the role of the shabbes goy that honors both the nonJew and Judaism/halacha.   (Curiously, the whole institution of shabbes goy, correctly done, requires a kind of deep knowledge of what Jews can’t do, so that the shabbes goy can do those things without being instructed to do them directly.   You could even argue that the art of being a shabbes goy is more halachicly complex than being a learner who simply can imitate what Jews are doing.   There is an art (the Jewish art of being an allied nonJew) to being a goy shel shabbat!   But that’s a long discussion.)
If, on the third hand, her answer is BETWEEN “yes I’m converting” and “no, I’m definitely not converting”, but more in the zone of “I’m just exploring and learning more”, then I’d argue she should certainly be treated as one who is converting.   Only if a person has enough Jewish consciousness to be able to state clearly “I’m not a Jew, and I have no interest in ever becoming one” should he or she be invited to play the role of shabbes goy.   For much of Jewish history you could make that assumption of “Never!” about any nonJew.  Today, to assume that is not right.  Jewish sparks are lurking everywhere in the souls of people who don’t think of themselves as Jews, yet.  They’re trying to figure it out.   Unless the person knows they cannot and will not be Jewish it seems obvious that a person electing to hang out with other young Jews at a Jewish retreat is on some level exploring some Jewish aspect of his or her soul, and it’s crazy not to invite them to think of themselves for the weekend as a Jew, and to treat them as a Jew in almost all respects.  They are in an intermediate space and we are granted the opportunity to participate with them on the journey of discovery that they have launched.Finally, the closer she got to conversion and the more knowledgeable she became, the more likely it is that she could have reached the point where as a fully educated nonJew, planning for mikve on a firm date after the conference (unlike her circumstance here), she could have experienced the opportunity to carry food on Shabbat not as distancing and rejection, but could have understood that helpful act as her single act of NOT keeping Shabbat, a recognition that she was indeed about to undergo a transformation, but had not yet done so.  As a highly educated ALMOST Jew she could have perceived the problem of the food in the car AS a problem for obligated Jews without having it explained to her, and understood how she could help without being asked.  She would be in the position of the highly Jewishly aware shabbes goy, and able to perceive her formal status as a nonJew, just days before conversion, now able to perceive the Jewish problem with the food in the car, now able to respond to the situation (not the request!) as a nonJew without insult, out of obligation to the law that did not yet, but soon would, obligate her.  So there is a high level of spiritual and halachic awareness at which she might have responded to the food in the car problem, but she wasn’t there yet.  It wasn’t reasonable to expect her to be there.  To ask her to be a shabbes goy in that situation amounted to prohibitted direct instruction to violate the Shabbat on behalf of Jews, and also, as noted above, failed to recognize her as a woman in search of her Jewish soul.  She could not yet perceive the situation in all its halachic dimensions and she would inevitably perceive it primarily in its human dimensions of rejection and difference.  Her hosts had an obligation not to put that stumbling block before the blind, and an obligation to be mensches, and an obligation to welcome the stranger.  It seems that they did not succeed, but subsequently repaired some of the damage through conversation and communication.  Anne Grant, may your journey toward your destination, whatever it may be, meet with success and joy.

    daized79 says:

    Where do you get that Jewish soul nonsense? The ensoulment probably happens with the mikva. That’s when the root of the n’shama would be ripped out fo the one she was in previously and be plugged into the Abrahamic one (at least according to ramkha”l if we’re going kabbalistic on this). but more importantly you know very well that until they convert, converts-to-be have to do things to violate shabat. How does that mesh with your theories?

Ellen Tabor says:

Dear Anne,

Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your striving to understand both us and our religion.  I have a few thoughts:

You should NEVER have been asked to be a Shabbos goy.  The Torah and Talmud actually prohibit the use of other people for this purpose (the 4th commandment, for one; Pirkei Avot for another).  On Shabbat, EVERYONE rests, and to place you in a lesser position by virtue of not yet being a Jew shamed you publicly, which is the worst sin of all.  I am sorry this happened to you.  The Orthodox constantly act surprised when they shame people and the shamed feel humiliated…the Orthodox holier-than-thou attitude is what is truly shameful.  

Also, I think you are confusing culture for religion.  A sephardic Jew would have felt as awkward as you did at that Shabbaton because of the different rituals and melodies they use. Stick around, you’ll learn and hopefully come to feel that you own those melodies as surely as someone who learned them either at home or, more likely, at summer camp or youth group.  It’s all a learning process, and like learning a new language, learning a new culture and religion take time.  Be patient with yourself and with us!  Find a learners’ minyan at a local synagogue or JCC, get a transliterated  or inter-linear siddur and Bible, and see how fast it all sinks in.  I know you know Hebrew, but it’s easier to combine the words with the music this way.  

Stick with us!  We have a teaching that the convert, once accepted for conversion (remember, we do not believe that we offer the only path to salvation, and so do not encourage conversion), is never to be reminded of her past and to welcomed instantly and sincerely.  I would like to welcome you, and hope that we will share a Hebrew name, since your name, Anne, comes from the Hebrew Chana (Hannah) and that is my name too.  It means “gracious” and I hope that is how you will find us: gracious, open, warm, sincere, and true.  We are all created in the Image of God, and we all strive to treat others that way.  Yesterday we read in shul the Parasha Acharey Mot-Kedoshim, which describes many ways for us to be “Am Kadosh,” a Holy people, and we were reminded of how to treat the “stranger” within our gates, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I’m sorry you were not treated that way, and hope you will be in the future.  Also, from yesterday’s parasha, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and I hope that you will feel that from us, the Jewish people, as you continue on your journey.  

Ellen (Chana Batya)

    Finally, someone who’s actually interested in Anne’s story and journey, rather than making fun of her for not being an expert on everything about Judaism.

      daized79 says:

      Personally I would be very interested in Ms. Grant’s story and if we ever met I would be happy to speak with her about anything, but that’s not what this piece was about. Please don’t be unfair to those of us who read it and take her at face value. The best thing about her is her patriotism which I hope she never loses.

    daized79 says:

    So the talmud forbids it but all Orthodox Jews do it? Hmmm… Something sounds wrong there.

navak says:

Anyone converting into an orthodox community needs to grow a thick skin.  And maybe even all communties. It helps.

It’s nice to become  Jewish and not having to worry about getting diabetes.  Just kidding .  I like your idea about putting the stress on the ‘ish’ in Jewish.

AllenLowe says:

if a Jew fell in the woods……

Re Anne Grant—Shall I assume that she is a student of Professor Vanessa Ochs at UVA? If so,she is in good hands.

I related to this story a great deal and I was born Jewish and raised in a Conservative/Conservadox/Modern Orthodox way. And yet, I have often found myself in various Jewish environments where I felt I didn’t belong because I hadn’t studied in Israel for a year between high school and college, or because I didn’t go to yeshiva for high school, where I didn’t know the songs being sung and had to pretend that I did.  I even had an experience where I was away in a wooded setting for a Shabbaton, and I didn’t know the tunes being sung while it looked like I was the only one in the room who didn’t. It is quite an alienating feeling. I’ve done a lot of thinking and searching trying to figure out where I belong in the Jewish community, and I realized that it has more to do with finding a Jewish community within the Jewish community that speaks to me – not trying to fit into the ones that are just too far removed from my own sensibilities. The good thing is, that there are many choices of different Jewish communities, and I believe for myself that I will find one eventually where I can feel at home. I hope the writer of this article will find her home community as well.

    Let me ask you Andrea, at what point did you try to push the envelope in terms of your own education / study / immersion? 

    I’m asking because from reading your comments, you come across as someone who said – the heck with it, all I need to do is find other people who don’t know the words, melodies, etc. and I’ll be fine. 

      It’s been a long process. It involves my entire life actually – incorporating what I learned growing up, with getting to know myself better and figuring out what I actually believe in and what I stand for and having that match up with my religious path. The last few years have been an accelerated part of that journey for me. It’s been exciting and rewarding to gain such mental clarity. I have been able to observe and participate in a wide variety of Jewish communities, ranging from Reform and Liberal, through Modern Orthodox and even Chassidic and Ultra Orthodox (I have many close friends and relatives who fall into the various categories and therefore I feel well-versed in my knowledge of the gamut of Jewish observance and communities.)

      “the heck with it, all I need to do is find other people who don’t know the words, melodies, etc. and I’ll be fine. ”

      I do not feel that this is what I actually said and it’s certainly not what I  meant. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not consciously trying to antagonize me or pick a fight with this comment. The point I was trying to make is that there have been Jewish communities which I could not relate to at all because the people and their attitudes were so different from mine. I couldn’t see myself ever fitting my square peg self into that kind of round peg hole and was not interested in continuing to bang my head into a wall over and over again trying to fit in where I really don’t belong. But there were others where the members of the community I came in contact with have had sensibilities similar to mine, the sensibilities I have come into as an adult who knows who I am and what I want out life. I don’t expect any community to be a perfect fit, but at least I feel confident that there are communities I could be involved with where I could feel comfortable.

      The reality is that Judaism is a communal religion and culture. It’s really hard to doing Judaism all alone and not much easier doing it in a community you don’t feel right about. And even if I didn’t know any of the words, what would be wrong with finding another group of like-minded Jewish people who may also not have much background but at the very least know that being Jewish is important to them and they want to start somewhere in terms of being able to express their Jewishness and grow with it, within a community?

ChristopherOrev says:

I enjoyed reading the first short essay Ms. Grant contributed to Tablet, “Academic Transfer” (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/89065/academic-transfer), and I relate to the different community/different tune stumbling block she describes in the above piece (as do many other readers, apparently).

That said, as someone who studied, first on my own and then with rabbis, for a few years before undergoing conversion (in the Conservative stream), and often found (and sometimes still find) myself in unfamiliar, even embarrassing situations with respect to ritual and tradition, I’ve come to appreciate those moments of confusion or ill ease.

Conversion shouldn’t be an easy affair; it’s a significant transformation of one’s identity, and discomfort, it seems to me, is a necessary part of the passage.  As a one-time uncircumcised male, I initially felt I would have to convert under the auspices of a rabbi who allows conversion without brit milah, a rarity even in the most liberal Jewish communities.  As my relationship with Judaism and Jewishness grew and changed, however, my feelings evolved, and I eventually underwent surgery and hatafat dam brit as part of the process.  Some friends tease that this was the masochist in me acting out, but, when all was said and done, I was profoundly grateful (overjoyed, even, the day after the circumcision, despite physical discomfort and some anxiety about the healing process) to have such a flesh-and-blood aspect of conversion, a physical change to accompany and accent the irrational, psychological change.

And, lastly, I also think the awareness of the slight difference of the convert — ger, after all, means stranger, but traditionally refers to a convert, not a Gentile — that remains is of value.  As I wrote after Ms. Grant’s earlier article, the ‘who is a Jew?’ question is humbling; “I’m secure in and proud of my Jewish identity and practice,
but I’m also regularly reminded, slave-in-Egypt style, to empathize with
all Jews, to prioritize klal Yisrael, even when it’s very tough.”

Just wanted to point out, Ralph Lauren (the designer of those bedsheets the author implies are un-Jewish) is a Jew.

Anne— I was at Jews in the woods this past March as well! Our paths must have crossed at some point. I’m sorry this comment is so late in coming; I didn’t read this article til now!

I’m so sorry you felt shame at being asked to fill the role of the shabbos goy. We spent as much time as we could, before Shabbat came in, discussing what could be done about the food situation. We were afraid that many among us would be unable to eat for the next 25 hours if the food had to be carried by Jews. For a participant, even a non-Jewish one, to be unexpectedly asked to perform this sort of task, was never meant to happen. This was not what you were there for.

My sincerest apologies; I hope if you choose to return to JitW in future you have a more shabbosdik experience.

(I’ve written more about my thoughts on your article at my blog, if you’re by any chance interested.)

I’m helping to organize this year’s Jew in the Woods, so this article was helpful to read. I actually was already thinking of including a workshop to teach songs, though I’m not sure how, logistically, it would work — I think Shabbat activities start pretty soon after people arrive.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

An Outsider in the Woods

At Jews in the Woods, a spiritual retreat for college students, I tried to see how I’d fit in if I converted to Judaism