012: Picking a Rabbi, A Community, and a Name

Forging a Jewish Identity: How I chose a Rabbi, a community, and a Hebrew name—with love–while being very pissed off at the state of the world.


I came to Judaism seeking.

What I was even seeking was difficult to encapsulate in words at first, but if I were to distill that core feeling, it’s belonging. If you distill that further into one of the 5 core emotions (thank you, Mankind Project), Belonging is really Happiness.

Belonging to a tribe, belonging to a congregation before g-d, belonging to a community. Belonging to other people, which means being of service, being accountable, being present, having purpose.

I met with two different Rabbis, both female, both activists, both incredible. Rabbi Denise Eger at Kol Ami and Rabbi Susan Goldberg at Nefesh.


I came to Judaism angry and sad.

I mentioned purpose earlier. I’d already narrowed it down to these communities for a few reasons: they’re progressive, they’re queer and queer-affirming, and they’re activist. I was a gay rights and democratic activist in Austin starting in 1999, and part of what drew me to studying Judaism was Jews Against ICE.

PHOTO (L) COURTESY OF NEVER AGAIN ACTION; PHOTO (R) BY ROBERT NICKELSBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES.

I was seeking something grounding and bigger than me and found it here. I found a framework around the moral authority to be outraged; outraged about children being torn from their parents, often permanently, and permanently emotionally scarred; children locked in cages, sexually abused, and shuffled from state to state; families dying in the desert fleeing gun violence; people of color being executed by the police in their homes and in the streets; trans women being murdered every week, and almost exclusively black trans women; synagogues being attacked on the holiest of days, in America and abroad; violent rallies being led by our President segueing into riots in Charlottesville, the first shots in a hot civil war long cold; and countless other atrocities large and small committed with impunity and often with glee by white nationalists and terrorists of all stripes.

I found in Nefesh an engaged musical community, a spiritual center, and a warmth I long needed. I have aspects of this in my men’s work but naturally, it’s not religion.

I found in Rabbi Susan Goldberg an activist, a visionary, and someone walking the path I wanted to follow, albeit far behind her. She was arrested at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. She walks the walk.

“Let justice well up like water, and righteousness like a flowing stream”

Amos 5:24 as quoted by Martin Luther King, JR

I came to Judaism needing a clean slate.

One of many appeals of Judaism and its spirituality was the idea that I get to choose a Hebrew name upon conversion. I did some research (thanks, Kveller), but ultimately it was the large, engrossing, and often sad history in Jewish Literacy, an encyclopedia of Jewish history and concepts, where I became aware of The Book of Amos.

Amos wrote of the hypocrites of his time, the elite hanging around the Temple following the law to the T, making frequent sacrifices and talking of their piety, and all the while dismissing with disdain the poor and desperate outside the Temple who they passed with arrogance.

Amos was the first to write what really encapsulates Reform Judaism, my chosen denomination, to me: That deeds matter more than dogma. To be a good Jew is to do good in the world and help the poor, the sick, and suffering: Tzedakah. If I’m in synagogue or prayer every day but I’m not doing these deeds, I’m actually further from God.

עמוס

Amos in Hebrew

When I read about the Book of Amos and realized how much I identified with his teachings, I was shocked. It happens…. that my favorite singer-songwriter, a man who inspires me greatly to continue up a steep mountain and continue playing and writing, is named Amos. Only when checking out his bio did I discover, 13 years after first listening to him, that he chose that name, too. Amos Lee, everybody. Rebranding, rebirth, and renewal.

(My favorite singer-songwriter prior was also Tori Amos. I mean…)

Incidentally both my music crushes in the Amos camp are activists and/or sing about social issues.

Check out this wonderful, animated run-down of the Book of Amos!


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I’ve learned a lot.

choosing a temple, choosing a rabbi, picking Hebrew name