Quaker Universalist Conversations

A birthright Jew in the Religious Society of Friends

Free Polazzo is a member of Atlanta Friends Meeting and Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association (SAYMA). He is also SAYMA’s representative to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Corporation. He is a founding member of Jewish Voice for Peace – Atlanta Chapter.

Hello Universalist Friends,

Thank you for picking October, my favorite month, as the month to have a conversation focused on Judaism and Quakerism. I’ve been peeking in to this group for a while and, thanks to my friendship with Mike Shell, way has opened for me to contribute my piece of the truth.

How does way open for a birthright Jew to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Unprogrammed)?

For me it began as a 5 year old, when my mother left NYC, which we had emigrated to after WW2 ended, to return to Italy to marry the man who would become my stepdad. Mom left me in the care of a Chassidic Jewish community in Brooklyn for about 3 months.

The Chassids are considered “peculiar” by most of other Jewish denominations, as [they] bring a mystical interpretation to Judaism from their native county of Russia. One of their practices was to pray unceasingly each and every Shabbat, to the exclusion of everything else, even food. As an adult, it occurred to me that those Jews lived to experience the love of HaShem (God), even as they feared “him.” They lived their lives in a way that brought them closer to HaShem via a process that included living their Torah (teaching) to the letter.

Chassidic Thought

“What is a Chassid?” from Chabad.org

For example, there was a very strongly enforced rule about no work being allowed on the Sabbath. Work was deemed to include carrying anything outdoors. So, handkerchiefs were not allowed into our pockets as that was seen a “carrying.” We were allowed to bring our handkerchiefs out of the house if we tied them around our wrists, as that act turned a piece of cloth into an item of clothing. Wearing clothing, it seems, was not considered “work.” ☺ This is just one example of how hard they worked to “keep the Sabbath” as a day reserved for resting and focusing on HaShem.

Learning so many rules to follow before one could be able to worship seemed peculiar at first, but the practice of observing so many limits did help me to understand that there were many ways that people could use to avoid connecting to the Spirit. The joy that emanated from the faces of the people I prayed with each Sabbath was something that I wanted to experience myself. Way opened for me to experience that Joy and Connectedness while I was a part of that community but when my mom returned to America, I left the Chasidic community for good.

The Chassids, I realized much later on, helped put me on the path of searching for a spiritual community where I could re-experience that Joyous Interconnectedness with the Spirit. It took just about “40 years in the desert” before I found the “Holy Land” I was searching for. It was occupied by another group of “peculiar” people who called themselves Quakers and belonged to something called The Religious Society of Friends.

Unlike the Chassids, this group of worshipers believed that the Spirit wanted us to be living in the Spirit EVERY DAY and not just focusing on the Sabbath. Using Friends’ testimonies as a guide for living in the world while searching for that of “God in Everyone” was for me a modern version of the ancient Jewish teachings, which were all about making sure we didn’t forget who we REALLY were and to be thankful for what we have.

Being raised as a Jew who had seen the Light while with the Chassids helped to prepare me to appreciate the way Friends worship together in silence, listening for the Spirit who might choose to speak directly thru any of those in attendance…even myself. Quakers try to remove “outward symbols” from the meeting room as a way to reduce distractions, just like work was deemed a distraction to paying attention to the Spirit as manifest in the Torah. As a Quaker I am encouraged to live each day Living in the Light. Here was a journey that appealed to me and that could honor [the] ancestors that each of us carry around with us.

Quakerism is a path worthy of the Jewish teachings and legacy to which I still feel strongly attached. The belief in continuing revelation of Quakers fits right in with the Jewish concept of Midrash. My monthly and yearly meetings have made their circles bigger to accommodate me, as they have with everyone who joins the Society of Friends.

The joy that comes from experiencing the Spirit together that I found as a child in that Chasidic community can now be experienced every day, not just on the Sabbath. The peace that comes with the joy of living in the Light has become my guide to “where I want to be when I turn round right.”

Thank you Friends,

Free

PS: I’ve heard Quakers talk about “wordsmithing” in the pejorative. Part of the joy of being Jewish is, for me, being encouraged to take words apart and seeing how they work or do not work. For an example of what I encountered while being raised as a Jew, see Names of God in Judaism.


Free suggests the following as sources of more information about the Chasidim:

Comments

This is fascinating. I am also a birthright Jew even though some Jews think women cannot be such. I love the Quaker world because women have the same credibility as men. How incredible. This is a lovely discussion of why it’s a blessing to be both Jewish and Quaker. Thank you Free.

Thanks, Free, for sharing youir spiritual journey from this perspective — different from other ways i’ve heard you talk about some aspects. It speaks greatly to my condition despite the complete differences in our childhood stories and what sent us out as Seekers. Like me, you have found so many deep similarities between the traditions, despite outward, surface differences that seem so distinct. I wish more Quakers could learn to appreciate the gifts that Judaism — especially the Chassidim and their mystical roots — has to teach us and the richness of the Four Worlds of the Tree of Life, which supports our wholeness, our integrity, our Shalom.

paz, ~ dpablo

That was very nice. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful how we come together from all backgrounds to sit together on holy ground, bathed in the Light. : )

Thanks Free! I am also a birthright Jew, but raised in a very secular household. It is interesting to me that though I consider myself to be a Jewish quaker. My brother, who is not all that religious, feels that I am no longer a jew.

Hi Henry,
The topic of how the families of origin of convinced Friends are dealing with our being led to Quakerism would be a topic that the Quaker Universalist Conversation blog might consider as a topic for one of the months to come.

Friend Free,

Thanks so much for your witness. You capture the crux of living faith and practice when you write:

Learning so many rules to follow before one could be able to worship seemed peculiar at first, but the practice of observing so many limits did help me to understand that there were many ways that people could use to avoid connecting to the Spirit.

Spirit is ALWAYS present, cannot NOT be present.

Our suffering, our struggles, our violence all arise from the many ways in which we "avoid connecting to the Spirit."

Connecting to the Spirit is surrender, islam.

Such divine irony.

Blessings,
Mike