What does it mean to create spaces of belonging? We all know what it feels like to belong: to know that we are an intrinsic part of the whole, to know our full selves are not only welcome but valued, to feel comfortable and safe, to feel a sense of ownership within the community. This is at the heart of what I want to create as a cantor: communities of belonging for Jews of many backgrounds, many identities, many ways of making meaning in Judaism.
It is easier for some, however, to find a sense of belonging in Judaism than it is for others. Some may feel excluded due to their identities: they feel different from others, and as a result they either don’t bring their full selves or don’t come at all. Others may feel excluded due to a lack of invitation to participate: they feel that Judaism is something they are witness to, rather than something they can feel ownership of.
While providing pastoral care at an internship, I got a phone call from a forty-five year old congregant. The congregant recently began exploring their gender, and they reached out to me with an existential theological question. “I don’t believe that God makes mistakes,” they told me. “But then why was I created in a body that makes me feel bad? If I start hormones or get gender-affirming surgery, would that be going against Judaism? Against God?”
I felt their pain as they wrestled with aligning their gender with their understanding of Judaism. I could see how much this question troubled them, and knew that my answer could impact their sense of belonging in Judaism. “I believe we are partners with God in the work of creation,” I told them. “God shaped us, but we also must shape ourselves. Making your body a home is a holy act of creation. You are not going against God, you are partnering with God.”
Affirmed that their identity was not incompatible with Judaism, this congregant became more involved. With a sense of belonging, they were able to claim Judaism as their own.
Judaism is most meaningful when we practice it with our full selves. This could mean bringing our authentic identities into Judaism, or it could mean being active participants.
I know what it’s like to feel disconnected with prayer and services. I remember growing up, we went to shul every Friday and I sang in the junior choir. I loved services, but there was a certain performative element that disconnected me from the sense of being in community. Prayer was something that happened on the bimah, and I felt removed from it in the pews.
But after attending camp for the first time, I experienced the power of communal singing in prayer. Raising my voice in song with others, feeling a part of something bigger than myself, using my voice to pray our holy blessings along with the rest of my community, I felt spiritual for the first time. I felt safe, comfortable, and like an integral part of something bigger.
As a cantor, I understand the power in offering a prayer on behalf of the community. I have witnessed the deep connection others feel when hearing Kol Nidre. While powerful and necessary, I believe we cannot always rely on the prayer leaders to pray on behalf of others. My aim as a cantor is to evoke the transcendent sense of belonging that comes with everyone lifting up their voices together. When we sing and pray as one, we are able to viscerally experience our connection to one another, and within it our collective power. We feel ownership over our prayers and our tradition, and we create a sense of belonging within Judaism.
We as clergy people, synagogue leaders, and congregants all hold the responsibility to build communities that are safe places for everyone to feel a sense of belonging. Communities where people of different identities, backgrounds, and abilities raise their voices together in one collective prayer. As a cantor, it is my goal to create communities of belonging for all Jews where their authentic selves are not simply included, not side-lined or disconnected, but seen and valued as the fabric of the community itself.