Just Jewish: Thoughts on Jewish Unity from a Bar Mitzvah and the Hiking Trails of Western Massachusetts

I had two “very Jewish” experiences yesterday in Western Massachusetts.  One is not so surprising—it was at a backyard, socially distanced bar mitzvah in Great Barrington.   The other was on the hiking trails at Monument Mountain.  What was special is that they were “Just Jewish” moments. Perhaps one silver lining of the Covid pandemic are these “Just Jewish” moments.
For me, “Just Jewish” moments are when Jewish people connect meaningfully—and such topics as level of observance, affiliation, religious garb, etc. are not relevant or important to the experience.  People just reIate meaningfully, person to person, and what separates and divides is not an issue.  I actually think the pandemic has led to an increase in such “Just Jewish” moments.
Before the pandemic, Jews who affiliate with a certain synagogue or denomination were spending a great deal of time with people “like them.”  Now that most people are not attending synagogue or Jewish communal events or in person simchas, they are not interacting regularly in person with other Jews who are like them.  When these opportunities to meet in person DO present themselves, they are pleasant and people are not looking for differences.
I have attended several “hybrid” bnai mitzvah lately, where a small group met in person for a service, and many others attended on Zoom.  Zoom has allowed family members who may not have felt comfortable attending a certain type of religious service, or eating the food at the event to be present.  Instead of tension and fights and slights, there is good feeling.  The whole family is together—to celebrate a simcha.  They are talking about the bar or bat mitzvah, not about the kashrut status of the food, the separate/not separate seating at the service, etc.   I have observed this phenomena a few times this summer.  This makes me happy.
After yesterday’s bar mitzvah, I changed out of my “outdoor summer bar mitzvah outfit” and in to my hiking outfit.  I hiked alone.  I wasn’t wearing a kipah since my summer hat was protecting my head from the 95-degree sun.   I had no outward sign that I was Jewish—or so I thought.  Near the top of the trail, a friendly 55-ish Chabad couple was coming down.  I resisted my usual inclination to strike up a conversation. After all, “You are Jewish?!” is an awkward conversation starter!  As they got closer, they read the Hebrew my shirt—I had forgotten that I was wearing one of my many Ramah shirts!  We had a lovely conversation about everything from the people in their community who attend and work at Ramah, the local kosher caterer, PJ Library and the great resources on Chabad.org (the rebbetzin and I bonded over both doing some writing for them).   We even exchanged business cards and wished each other an easy fast on Tisha B’av—later this week.  I got a lovely email from the rabbi about our meeting—and “how Hashem directs the footsteps of man.”
I am a big fan of Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.  In his Times of Israel op ed, his bio reads: “…A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers “Just Judaism” to any denominational label.”   I hope we will continue to have even more of these “Just Judaism” and “Just Jewish” moments, long after the pandemic is over. 
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