The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
When I was in 10th grade, I headed from Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC for my first program at the Religious Action Center. I had no idea that this experience would shape my view of Reform Judaism or that the knowledge and perspective I gained would remain an active and integral part of my adult life.
As a teen and young adult, I was always drawn to social justice. Both then and now, I care far more about sociopolitical issues related to fairness and justice than most anything else. I remember my first lobbying experience with the Religious Action Center (RAC), heading to the Capitol to speak out in support of gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, and to denounce the death penalty. I remember sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Havdalah, enchanted and inspired by the progressive vision of my religion. I remember being proud to be the kind of person—the kind of Jew—who was trying to understand what humanity really looks like and could become. That is where Judaism changed from forced religious school attendance to a passion for my people, the community and our beliefs.
The RAC encouraged me to ask hard questions about our society. I was challenged to use Hebrew texts to evaluate humanity, laws, and social issues. I am incredibly thankful for that. It impacted my learning, my thoughts, my religion, my love-life, and how I contribute as a world citizen.
I like to think that I contribute to the world though one of my deepest passions: dialogue. When I talk to people different from myself, I learn a lot. I love that. And one day at a conference in Atlanta, GA, I had a conversation with someone that changed my life. That person was Joe Sears, a Jewish educator from Houston, TX, who was in town for the same conference I was attending. Though we certainly didn't agree on every point (we are good Jews, after all), we fundamentally agreed that progressive Judaism shapes the way in which we interact with the world.
Like me, Joe was deeply passionate about his local Jewish community in Houston, TX where we both now live. He was a proud convert to Judaism years before we met. He works at The Emery/Weiner School, a Jewish middle and high school, and attends Congregation Beth Israel, Texas's oldest synagogue, where I work. Our children, both attend The Shlenker School a private Jewish day school, and Joe is an avid participant on several community committees. He also works at the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center, Beth Israel’s learning center. To say that our Jewish community plays a leading role in our lives, might be an understatement.
I didn’t realize until I met him how important it is to me to be with someone who is Jewish, someone who truly “gets it.” While it is true, that at the age of 16, during my first RAC trip, I couldn’t have foreseen that I would be working as a Jewish professional, it feels nothing but B’sheret or “meant to be.” Joe and I are both active members in the Jewish community. Social action is at the core of our love, our parenting, and our dedication to our community. We are now engaged.
A few months ago, we were sitting in Shabbat services and listening to a sermon given by Central Conference of American Rabbi’s Immediate Past President Rabbi Denise Eger. Rabbi Eger implored the room to think about the way Jews can stand up for refugees, as we were once as well. "Remember, you were once strangers in the land of Egypt," she reminded us (Deut. 10:19). As Jews, we know that during the Holocaust, many were denied entry into America, only to be sent back to Europe where they were killed. Her sermon was spot on. It was meaningful, and it hit home to me as a Jew. What happened next is even more important.
Our 11-year-old son leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t really understand exactly what she is talking about right now, but I know that it is really important.” That was the moment I realized the importance of the discussions and experiences Joe and I prioritize with the kids about the world through a Jewish lens. These conversations will lead to a generation of people who will continue to fight for the values of our Reform Jewish community. There is hope in the hands of the next generation. There is love, and meaning, and strength in our future. As our community continues to stand up for its’ message, we will only continue to thrive.
On October 17th, Beth Israel will host Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of RAC. I cannot wait for this meeting between my past and present practice. I am even more excited to hear and see the reaction of my children, the future of our Reform Movement.
Alyssa Weinstein is the Communications Manager at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. She is a human mom, dog mom, partner, writer, and matzah ball aficionado.