My friends and family have always viewed me as someone who would only work for an organization whose values I strongly and deeply uphold. So, I was excited to begin my new position as grant writer here at JOI. A self-identifying atheist-agnostic with unaffiliated unengaged immigrant parents and an intermarried brother and sister in-law (whose kids don’t realize that Thanksgiving, Passover, and Christmas come from three separate cultures) I haven’t always felt welcomed into the North American Jewish community, but the benefit of working for JOI is being able to show my family, and families like us, that the Jewish community is, in fact, a welcoming place to be, no matter how you celebrate your Judaism.
Growing up, I was raised by my agnostic mother, agnostic grandmother, and atheist father, who all felt very strongly about their Jewish roots and upholding Jewish traditions. As is often the case for Russian Jews, many of the traditions were not passed down to my grandmother’s generation and were reinvented by my mother’s generation (due to the restriction on religion during communism, which often makes our traditions a little different from other Jewish family traditions).
My family traditions included Passover dinner with the retelling of the story of Passover, with Russian dishes like red caviar and salads that included mayo and pickled fish on the table next to traditional Jewish ones like gefilte fish and Matzah ball soup. In my home, lighting candles on Friday and then staring into them and making a wish silently wasn’t necessarily a religious practice, but more of an ethnic tradition. My nephews love challah and coming over for family dinner on Friday nights, even though they don’t understand how this is related to their father’s ethnicity. An over-arching theme for us is that this is a way to preserve our ethnic identity, not necessarily our religious identity. So where do we fit in the tent? I would often hear my family discussing how communal Jewish activities are not for us: there aren’t meeting places for people like us, other Jews don’t understand us.
But, that is precisely what JOI is all about. Not only does my family have a place in tent, but everyone who wants to be there has a place in the tent. JOI is a progressive organization that attempts to change the landscape of the Jewish community so that no one feels the need to say “there aren’t meeting places for people like us” or “other Jews don’t understand us.” Through JOI’s work, a transformation is underway, a transformation that will allow my family’s odd little brand of secular Russian superstition/tradition influenced Judaism to find a place under the Big Tent, and I am eager to help others find their place here as well.