Laura McCreary’s Words on Becoming Jewish

Let me tell you a story.

So it’s a Monday night in April and I’m getting ready to go to my first Passover seder. And despite the little notebook in my pocket that tells me that maror is the bitter herbs and charoset is a mixture of apples and nuts, I have exactly zero idea what it is I’m actually getting into. I’m pretty nervous. Excited, but nervous. So I turn to my roommate, Adiv, whose family seder we’re going to and I ask him, “When we’re there, is it okay if I ask questions?”

And he looks at me, looks at me, like I asked if water was wet, or if air was good for breathing and he says, “That’s the whole point.”

And we just, we stare at each other, and it’s this complete moment of utter bafflement because we’re friends and we’re roommates and we’ve been to the same schools and had the same teachers and grew up in the same neighborhoods but we just can’t understand what the other person is saying. In this moment, I realize there’s this disconnect between our worlds – my own, where asking questions is, at times, near-taboo and his where questions are as necessary as oxygen.

It’s this moment, this question, that tips the balance. Here is the fork in the road that marks the start of my new path. Today, standing here, I have been Jewish for three days and seventeen hours. But, really, I have been Jewish since that question, standing there with my coat half on, in love with the thought that that was, in fact, the whole point.

Have you had any of these moments? These questions that mark the boundary between one life and the next, questions that catapult you dizzily into a whole new realm of possibilities. Questions that change the course of the future.

The Torah is rife with them, which should be of no surprise. Questions are very Jewish, after all. You can mark the fate of the People Israel through these questions: “Did God say you cannot eat the fruit of any tree in the garden?” to “Will you let my people go?”

Today’s parshah marks another one of these boundaries, a question that changes the fate of the Jewish people. It’s all the more amazing because the one being questioned is God, and because the question seems so trivial. “What would the neighbors think?” Moshe asks. “No God, I know they screwed up, but you can’t kill all the Israelites and start over. What would the neighbors think?” This question – and the reminder of the promises made to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs – is just enough to tip the scale in Israel’s favor. We survive the episode of the Golden Calf. Life continues. But what would the world have been without Moshe standing there, ready to say, “wait, wait, wait, hold up?” And what would the world have been if God hadn’t been ready to listen?

Because asking the question is only half of the story – a big half, mind you, especially when the one you’re questioning has an unfortunate habit of making frogs fall from the sky and having rivers run red with blood. But if Moshe’s voice had fallen on deaf ears, then poof! No more Israelites. We talk a lot about asking questions, but what we forget sometimes is listening. Just think. What if you hadn’t been listening the day your teacher said, “Have you ever thought about med school?” Or the day when the person who would become your future spouse asked if you wanted to go catch a movie sometime. How different would your life be if your ears had been filled with anger or sorrow or even just the general hustle and bustle of life?

I wouldn’t be here in front of you today.

Not that it was easy. I’m standing here in front of you encouraging you to listen, to keep your eyes and heart and mind open for those questions that will change the balance of the world, but, to be honest, I didn’t listen.

I didn’t listen when a soft, small voice said in the back of my heart, “What if I’m Jewish?” I blocked my ears when the Hanukkah songs sounded like coming home, when the faces lit by candle light looked like family, when pieces of prayers followed me home, dancing through my mind like an errant wind. I refused to even think the word “conversion” for months and months and months – what if there was no place for me? What if I didn’t belong? What if I fell in love with these people and this place, these stories and these songs, this unbearable sorrow and indescribable joy, what if I fell in love and I wasn’t wanted? I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t bear it.

When I was a kid, I left my family’s church – I had so many questions and all of them had answers, answers when I thought there should only be more questions. What started it all was a debate over the Tenth Plague of Exodus, how a loving God could kill all those children. I tell you this because a decade later, I was here and steadfastly Not Listening when I asked, could I be Jewish?

And the thing that changed it all was a two-by-four of coincidence straight to the forehead. The first time I ever came here to Beth Jacob, of all the weeks in the entire year, that week the reading was Parsha Bo – the story of the final plagues of Egypt. And the dvar torah was someone asking parallels of those same questions I had bothered my teachers with, questions with no answers. I was a stranger in this place, but, in that moment, it felt like home. The question became louder than my fear. And here I am.

I’m here with you today, celebrating my conversion, but I want to take a moment to thank you all. Thank you for loving me, for welcoming me and supporting me, for taking the moment to talk with me when I came to you wide-eyed, asking, “what if I am Jewish?” My story is one in a million, because I have been so surrounded with light and love, support and acceptance. To have you all here with me this morning is a blessing beyond measure.

Thank you, each and every one of you. Shabbat shalom.

Minyan In Solidarity with Women of the Wall

On Friday morning, Beth Jacob hosted the Twin Cities Rosh Hodesh service in celebration of Women of the Wall.  Nearly 100 people gathered in our chapel for joyful tefillah, together as a wider community, to honor the courage of the women who gather each month to work to make the Kotel a place where Jews can pray in all our manifestations.   For the first time this Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Jerusalem, Women of the Wall were affirmed by a court ruling in their legal right to daven at the Kotel plaza wearing tallitot and tefillin, praying aloud and reading from the Torah.
Several of our young people joined Women of the Wall in Jerusalem this morning!  Five thousand haredi protesters gathered to challenge them with intimidation and violence, but this time Israel’s police force protected Women of the Wall.
BJUSYers Meital Gewirtz and Jenna Fischer in Israel with the Women of the Wall
Here at Beth Jacob, we celebrated their courage and added our voices to the chorus of support that the sacred sites of our people be safe places for all Jews to pray.  Learn more about Women of the Wall here.
 
Wonder what it’s like to be there now? Read Jenna’s Blog!

A Beth Jacob Homecoming

Beginning Monday, November 12th, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman will become the first assistant rabbi in the history of Beth Jacob Congregation, returning to the community of her youth to work closely with the congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Morris J. Allen, its director of congregational learning, Rabbi Lynn C. Liberman, and lay leaders. With Rabbi Kippley-Ogman’s arrival, Beth Jacob will be the only Conservative congregation in the Twin Cities with a woman as a pulpit rabbi.

Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

“It is a tremendous honor to return to serve the community that made me who I am,” Rabbi Kippley-Ogman said. “Beth Jacob is my model for what a Jewish community can be. This is a community of people living a vibrant and ever-growing Judaism, taking responsibility for their religious lives and for one another, and sharing in the work of bringing about a just world as an integral part of the spiritual life of the community.”

Rabbi Kippley-Ogman received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, and holds an A.B. degree in History and Science from Harvard College. For the past two years she served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, a prominent Conservative synagogue in the heart of the Boston area. There she launched an award-winning kabbalat Shabbat—KICKS (KI’s Community Kabbalat Shabbat)—which drew over 60 people each week for soulful, lively intergenerational services and monthly dinners.

Her work at Kehillath Israel also included empowering congregants to lead Shabbat morning and daily services, forming new partnerships with local organizations to create richer programming for the entire community, and bringing a personalized approach to lifecycle events. During her rabbinic training, Rabbi Kippley-Ogman provided pastoral care to patients and families as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, served as High Holy Days rabbinic advisor to the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis, worked as a community organizer in Chicago with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, provided rabbinic support to eight isolated congregations during a summer with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and spent two years in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Allen, who has served as Beth Jacob’s first rabbi since 1986, is excited to welcome Rabbi Kippley-Ogman back to the congregation as its first assistant rabbi. “Rabbi Kippley-Ogman will bring her passion, her wisdom and insight, and her love of all things Jewish to our community,” he said. “Her success at Kehillath Israel provides us a wonderful glimpse of what we can expect from her work here at our shul.”

Rabbi Kippley-Ogman returns to Minnesota with her husband, Benj Kamm, and their infant son, Otto. They share passions for biking and hiking, organic vegetables, folk singing and piyut (the diverse tradition of Jewish poetry as sung across the Jewish world), and building community. Benj is a systems analyst at Health Leads. The family will live in Mendota Heights.