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Lessons from Southwest Texas

Above all, we are a tradition that communicates our values through our stories. The exploits of Abraham, Joseph and Moses are better recognized and educate more effectively than reciting the Ten Commandments.

Narratives stay with us, providing guidance and comfort. More importantly, a good tale is also many-faceted. It can teach us different lessons as we age and mature. I see Isaac differently now than I did as a younger man and extract valuable life lessons from these new perspectives.

Since I left San Antonio and returned to New Jersey, I’ve been asked by many on both sides of the divide, “what did you learn?” I am still processing my experiences with those I came to know. Yet my view of Judaism seems subtly changed.

A significant number of people who identify as Jews can trace their ancestry back to the Spanish expulsion. They have painstakingly researched family tribulations and martyrdoms in reaching the New World. Some have formally converted to Judaism, and many have not.

This area of the country is steeped in religion. It is an integral part of the culture. The intensity of belief is a given here. Yet it creates dynamics not found in our Northeast. For those who cannot accept the tenets of Christianity, where can they go? They have been raised in faith, and if that faith fails them they look for another home.

Some find the Messianic Jewish movement — where they can still keep their “Christ” but wear a Tallit as well. But even that becomes onerous for some and they find themselves in our congregations. They express a form of Judaism that I find (at times) disconcerting but also refreshing. They believe without reservation, without doubt. It permeates their souls in ways I have not seen before.

As I have written before, I performed last rights on one such “Jew” who had never formally converted but who had moved to Israel and participated to the extent he was “allowed.” I met others who for what I considered legitimate reasons could not convert but whose motivation to become Jewish could not be questioned. Is their Judaism a more potent form than mine? Yet they remain outside our established community, living on the fringe and denied what they seek.

Our narrative has been for at least 2,000 years Jewish identity as a matter of conforming to “the letter of the law.” But Ruth, who predates this tradition, is known as the first convert. “Your people shall be my people … where you die there will I be buried” was the entirety of her conversion.

I am beginning to believe that Jewish identity should be more fluid. The traditional definition of matrilineal descent — and even the more modern patrilineal — can no longer define the boundaries of who is and who is not a Jew. Shouldn’t a person who has shown great loyalty to our tradition be accorded the status denied them so long for circumstances they could not control?

We who are so concerned with continuity are placing obstacles in front of the “blind.” We should know better.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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