JOI’s New Program Associate Sarah Sechan Looks Forward to Changing the Lexicon

When I was in high school, I had a friend from Hebrew school who frequently approached me to talk about how she was a “bad Jew.” “I don’t know any Hebrew, I’m such a bad Jew,” she said, launching into a conversation about how she didn’t go to synagogue, didn’t keep kosher, and didn’t participate in our synagogue’s youth group. At the time, I recall feeling unsettled by these conversations, though I could never articulate why.

I understood why she approached me with these concerns. I was a very active member of my Conservative synagogue, a frequent Torah reader and service leader, and a board member of my local and regional youth groups. I was, for all intents and purposes, a “Super Jew.”

However, my Jewish identity was often a source of conflict. My mom grew up Lutheran in rural Michigan, and discovered Judaism for the first time as a freshman at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). Judaism spoke to her in a way that Christianity never did, and my mom underwent an Orthodox conversion shortly after graduating from college. Since then, my mom pursued a career as a cantorial soloist and Jewish educator, met and married my dad, and together raised my siblings and me in a vibrant Jewish home.

Although I had an immersive Jewish upbringing, when I was growing up I was frustrated by the fact that I didn’t always feel “Jewish enough.” This insecurity manifested itself most strongly in 2006, when Israel’s chief rabbinate announced that it would no longer recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora (Jewish communities outside of Israel), unless they are on a pre-approved list. This was the first (and only) time that anybody told me that I was not Jewish, and it was absolutely demoralizing. My immediate reaction was to be enraged. How dare someone tell me that I wasn’t Jewish?! Many of my Jewish peers were completely unengaged and uninterested in Jewish life, yet it was my Jewish identity that was being called into question, not theirs.

As time passed and the initial pain faded to a dull ache, my perspective changed. I realized that as long as I based my Jewish identity on the opinions of others, I would never feel completely accepted by the Jewish community. I am still hurt by the fact that the Jewish community is divisive and there are Jews who question my Jewishness, but rather than dwelling on this, I have chosen to seek out facets of the Jewish community that welcome me with open arms.

I would give similar advice to my friend who used to fret over being a bad Jew. One of the things about Judaism that I love most is that there are a multitude of entry points. If somebody does not want to learn Hebrew or keep kosher, that’s fine! Judaism also has a rich history and culture that extends far beyond religion (like this, for example). This is what drew me to Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). As I begin my new role as a Program Associate here at JOI, I look forward to connecting with Jewish communities across North America, to helping people discover a Judaism they find engaging and inspiring, and to erasing the term “bad Jew” from the lexicon.

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