It wasn’t quite the “atheists’ convention in LA.”But it was close.I was visiting family in the beautiful Jewish community in Columbus, Ohio, when I noticed an item in the Washington Post reporting that during my stay there, the national association of Unitarian Universalists (UU) would hold its four-day annual meeting at the city’s convention center, with more than 3,500 people expected to attend.
Now, the very notion of a Unitarian convention was, for a columnist always on the lookout for good material, a jackpot of sorts.The opportunities for satire (all, of course, good humored) abounded, and I began mentally cataloguing the numerous delightful directions in which I could take this satirist’s dream of a story.
The convention’s agenda made my task all the easier.There was the vote scheduled for Saturday on a resolution calling for divestment from five major companies with business ties to the West Bank.According to the resolution, “Israel’s occupation… [leaves Palestinians] without a country, without the rule of law and without… the most fundamental human and legal rights… [which] violates the basic principles of our UU faith.”
That vote was to be followed by another one on Sunday on a resolution entitled “Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered.”For real.
No, this was not about, say, advocating fat-free pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner.Rather, with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower soon to be marked in 2020, “concern has been expressed by Native American tribal leaders, by human rights advocates [and] environmental justice advocates… about the celebration of the… anniversary of the colonization of New England.”
Apparently, back in the 1600s, UUs played a role in creating the Thanksgiving holiday.And so, the resolution, among other things, “encourages all UUs to enter a time of education, careful reflection, and healing, for the years 2016 to 2021” — and, it goes without saying, staying clear of cranberry sauce in late November.
I could see my lines taking shape already: “Could it be that the twin votes on West Bank divestment and opposition to Thanksgiving are aimed squarely at the imminent normalizing of relations between Israel and Turkey?”
The core beliefs of the UU movement themselves make the group a fertile target for lampooning.In short, there are none.It is a “creedless faith,” whose adherents believe that truth and spiritual meaning can be found in all faiths — which is why every UU congregation chooses whatever eclectic mix of beliefs and practices “works for it.”Personally, I like smorgasbords too, but only the kind that features sesame chicken and spare ribs.
UU’s amazing religious elasticity is wedded, in turn, to a political orientation so far left that “radical progressive” seems almost too timid an adjective.We’re talking about a denomination whose national convention agenda of 200 lectures and workshops features no fewer than 32 sessions addressing social justice, 27 on topics relating to racial justice, and another eight or so taking up multiculturalism and gender issues.
I searched the program agenda carefully for sessions about character development and interpersonal ethics, perhaps along the lines of “Practices for Reining in Anger and Developing Humility,” “Eradicating Corrosive Gossip from Our Communities,” or “Raising Kids to Be Kind,” but I came up virtually empty-handed.That seems strange for a faith that “places emphasis on spiritual growth” and counts among the “six sources” of its practice things like “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
The program guide helpfully notes that “many restrooms throughout the Convention Center are designated for use by all genders.”However, “gender-specific… restrooms are also available…” which was very thoughtful of the organizers, although I wonder if next year’s convention attendees will be so fortunate.“In all restrooms we ask that you trust that individuals know which restroom is most comfortable and appropriate for them.”Because, you see, it’s all about trust.You don’t want to be distrustful of your fellow man (or whatever), do you?
This section goes on to request that when “choosing what restroom to use, we encourage you to thoughtfully examine and challenge your assumptions around gender identity and gender expression.”To be frank, I’m not sure people about to choose a restroom to use have the time to thoughtfully examine anything.
The very next section in the guide lets attendees know that there is a “resource available to [them]” called the Right Relationship Team, which “exists to listen and engage with people who have experienced any form of oppression or identity-based marginalization during [the convention].”Imagine that — oppression, right here in sunny Columbus, where you don’t even hear honking in traffic.
This is not a movement ripe for parody.It is the stuff of self-parody.
But then, it occurred to me that an ultraliberal, yet spiritually searching denomination such as this one probably counted a lot of Jews among its members.I began to research a bit, and I came across an article in a UU magazine reporting on a three-day conference in Atlanta in 2011 sponsored by a group called UUs for Jewish Awareness, intended for “UUs who often feel isolated because of their Jewish heritage and practices.”
The group’s president said many “attendees were thrilled and astonished that there were so many of us, which is a pretty clear indication of the loneliness multireligious people — and maybe especially the UU Jewish community — can feel in UUism.”One woman who attended the conference with her mother and sister spoke of it as “a chance to connect with other UU Jews… and to invigorate my own feelings and desire to bring Judaism back into my own life.”
All of a sudden, I didn’t find the convention taking place in Columbus such a rich source of humor anymore.There are real, live Jews in there, my brethren, I thought, and some of them are probably feeling alienated, rejected, or subtly despised.Their Yiddishe neshamos are not being nurtured by the thin gruel of UU.
I read on about a workshop at the Atlanta conference of Jewish UUs that grew out of a previous UU national convention at which pro-Palestinian panels and votes had been held, just like this year in Columbus.Several attendees “described [that] experience… as ‘painful’ and ‘intensely pro-Palestine’ and leaving them feeling both ‘extremely upset’ and ‘unwelcome. ’” One attendee said that “conversations surrounding the issue [at the convention] had been one-sided and that those with opposing views felt that their voices were stifled.”How surprising for a denomination that has no beliefs of its own and is open to sharing the beliefs of everyone else.
And I wondered how many Jews were in the Greater Columbus Convention Center at that very moment who, come Saturday — Shabbos Kodesh, whether they knew it consciously or not — would find the discussion and vote on the Israel divestment resolution “painful” and feel “extremely upset” and “unwelcome,” and would welcome another Jew reaching out to them to let them know they’re not alone, that there are Jews who love them just because they’re Jews.And why, I thought further, couldn’t that Jew be me?
I began to think about ways to reach them.Convention attendees were permitted to distribute literature to others in certain parts of the convention center, so I considered something benign like standing in the lobby handing out bookmarks listing the outreach programming offered by the local community kollel.I was optimistic (perhaps naively so) because this was a denomination that proudly touted its openness to learning from other faiths.Indeed, it has a program called Neighboring Faiths which “takes [students] to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including [an] Orthodox synagogue. . .”
Ultimately, my plans ran up against the reality that the convention wasn’t open to the general public.One had to be a registered, credentialed delegate to enter the building, something that was impractical (and perhaps impermissible) for me.But inside, I couldn’t entirely still the agitation of knowing there were Jews who were so near, yet so far….It’s a feeling that I probably ought to have a lot more often, not just when a UU convention happens to be in town.
My agitation only sharpened when I came across a session scheduled for Friday afternoon entitled “Not Your Grandmother’s Sabbath,” one of the few focused on actual spiritual practice.The blurb reads: “Sabbath is an ancient religious concept, long abandoned by religious liberals.Today, some of us are reimagining it.This seminar explores the political and spiritual benefits of cultivating Sabbath practice in our congregations… offer[ing] practical ideas for getting started. . .”
Its presenter was a woman with a Jewish name who is, nebach, nebach, the minister of a UU congregation in Brooklyn.Yet, in a 2012 piece, she wrote these lines: “You’ve got to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously that she is willing to withstand intense social pressure [to dress immodestly]….Do we religious liberals… similarly experience a tension between our religious values and the values of the secular world?If not, why not?It’s clear to me there should be enormous tension.”
I have no illusions about what her “religious values” are, what her “reimagining” of the Sabbath entails, or what she means by its “political benefits,” so it’s easy to dismiss this as just another liberal appropriation of a Jewish concept, distorting it beyond recognition.Yes, it’s easy — but perhaps it’s too easy?
I was in Columbus this Shabbos, and so was she.Over Shabbos, I thought with sadness of the missed opportunity for her to experience with our family that ancient religious concept called Shabbos, sans the reimagining.On Erev Shabbos, I had thought about how I could contact her to invite her, but I couldn’t come up with a way.Or was it just not urgent enough for me to do so?