Religious fanatics

Amid religious fanaticism in all corners of the globe, I’m reminded that some of the most ancient religious fanatics are still among us: those who seek to learn and spread more love.

Hassidic Jew (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
Hassidic Jew
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
I enter a busy Starbucks in Chelsea looking for someone I’ve never met. Noa and I have emailed now for a few weeks trying to find a mutually convenient time. Intrigued by Judaism, potentially interested in converting, eager to meet with a rabbi, Noa greets me with a warm smile, waving.
We sit down and she immediately dives into her story.
Originally from Mexico, Noa grew up in a Catholic family, her mother a professor of Christian theology. Noa grew up in what she described as a broken home. It was a rarity in the church when her parents divorced and Noa was left without a religious community that might welcome her.
“But what first lit my interest in Judaism was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,” Noa interjects.
“Carlebach?” I wonder.
“Well, my boyfriend’s family helped found the Moshav, the community Reb Shlomo started in Israel. His name is Chalom. His parents are also divorced; his mom explored Buddhism and Islam, and now we’re both sort of seeking our own spiritual practice.”
Chalom means “dream “in Hebrew and I can’t help but marvel at the unique, dream-like journey Noa has embarked upon.
Noa is one of the many 20-somethings I’ve been meeting since becoming a rabbi.
Each shares a sincere quest for self-discovery, uncovering and finding their place within our vibrant tapestry of Judaism, and on their own terms. Their passion pushes me to articulate my Judaism with more commitment, clarity and purpose.
Another young woman, Cecilia, who I learn with regularly, was curious about converting.
“Would the men be present?” she asks.
“When?” I reply. A moment passes without her response.
“Oh,” I say, feeling foolish.
Turns out, Cecilia hadn’t even read of the recent Freundel scandals which occupied so much of the Jewish headlines.
Her boyfriend, who happens to be Jewish, encouraged her to ask a rabbi.
Already in a deeply vulnerable position, I feel pretty strongly that it is highly inappropriate for men to be present when a woman is naked, especially while at the mikveh. In rabbinical school, my study partner and I had to quote various sources for an exam noting why we found the tradition of men witnessing a female convert immerse in the mikveh unacceptable. The next year the Freundel story broke.
Cecilia sighed.
As I meet so many of my peers, I ask myself: what draws Jews to rekindle their Judaism? What inspires the unaffiliated to convert to a faith and way of life, to join a people and tradition as splintered as they are ancient? Chalom and Noa join us for Friday night dinner and Chalom explains that Reb Shlomo wrote a tune in honor of his parents’ wedding. He sings the melody; it’s one of my favorites.
“Tell them your parents’ names,” Noa says to Chalom.
“Written for Avraham and Yael’s wedding,” he shares.
Yael happens to be my wife’s name.
“What a coincidence,” Noa says, smiling, and then asks, “By the way, what’s with your name, rabbi?” I tease my parents, noting that they destined me for a life of dissonance, as my Hebrew name is Avraham but the one written on my birth certificate is Avram. The Hebrew letter “hey” signifies Abram’s blessing in the Torah. With Chalom’s story, I’m grateful for the wiggle room my name sometimes allows me, the dance between quests and contentment.
Noa goes on to note how her mother asks if she’s brought Chalom to the Jews for Jesus assembly near their apartment; Noa scoffs, frustrated by her mom’s insensitivity.
I smile, mindful of how Noa’s life mirrors that classic Abrahamic journey, of leaving one’s parents’ home and starting a whole new path.
“What do you prefer to be called?” Chalom asks me.
“Avram,” I say, “Or whatever comes naturally.”
Stella, though, a homeless woman in our neighborhood, has taken to calling me Abraham.
Recently, we walked to Payless together to buy a new pair of shoes.
“I really need the discounted pair,” Stella says, “Buy one, get another one fully priced, rabbi.”
“Sorry Stella; I’ve got enough for one pair,” I decide arbitrarily, feeling like I’m half-lying.
Stella schleps two large duffle bags with her into the store.
“What are you carrying?” I ask.
“What are you carrying, Rabbi Abraham? Abraham, lift not thine hand to the child!” she says back to me, echoing the Biblical verses where Abraham nearly slaughters Isaac, his son.
These are the people in my neighborhood. These are the stories I carry with me, day to day, fueling my work. The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is said to be a bitter one in Jewish tradition as no special holidays occur. But each encounter I have had this past month, each new story I learn lifts my spirit. Amid religious fanaticism in all corners of the globe, I’m reminded that some of the most ancient religious fanatics are still among us: those who seek to learn and spread more love, humility and grace in the world.
The author is a rabbi and writer in New York City. He is the co-founder of Base Hillel, a new initiative in Jewish engagement.