I grew up in and around Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in a very left wing household. My parents were members of The Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (now Community of Christ) —one of the many churches within the broader Mormon world. The government of Canada recognises me as Metis, and some of my extended family are what had historically been labelled Status Indians. Thus I grew up between cultures and in a minority faith tradition. I have three living and one deceased sibling, all of whom are substantively older than I. Faith was linked to politics—CCF/NDP and the trade union movement for my father; CCF/NDP and housing and international solidarity for my mother. My family had little contact with the small Jewish community in Sault Ste. Marie but did work on matters of common interest with labour Zionists and some of the Jewish activists in the CCF/NDP world.
I have a varied academic and work background. I have an B.A. in political science/psychology from Algoma University; a B.Ed. from Queen’s University with Drama as a teaching subject and an M.Div. from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto.
To earn a living, I have done everything from acting to working in a lumber yard to community organising, with teaching for a decade and working for housing co-ops for close to 20 years being the substantive careers I’ve chosen. I was ordained and worked within various church structures, from prison chaplaincy with the United Church to peace education with the Mennonite Church to congregational ministry with St. Andrew’s Old Catholic Church.
I have a long history of volunteering with local, provincial and national co-operative organisations and various non-profit organisations, including serving as President of the Canadian Alternative Investment Co-operation, chair of the endowment committee of the Student Christian Movement of Canada and on the Board of Directors of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. Currently I am serving on the boards of St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society and Puppetmongers and as treasurer of Home Ownership Alternatives.
Choosing to become Jewish was both a sudden and slow process.
I have worked with many within the Jewish left in Canada on common projects, supply taught for a year with Associated Hebrew Schools, moved back and forth on supporting or opposing Zionism not as fashions changed but as my view of the roll of the state changed, had long discussions with Harold Kandle (a World War one era vet and anarchist Zionist) and had a moment or two of heatedly challenging anti-Semitism.
The big shift occurred when I accompanied my wife to Israel. She was giving a paper at the University of Tel Aviv and I went with her, with the intent of just having a nice holiday together. Upon getting off the plane at Ben Gurion I had the overwhelming sensation of coming home. It stayed with me as we explored a bit of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
I chose to test this by going back to Israel, this time as a volunteer. Through Skilled Volunteers for Israel I did placements at both Israel Elwyn and the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations. I had a chance to meet people from the Christian community there who indicated that there was work I could do there if I chose. However, they didn’t feel like my people. I found myself more comfortable at the Kotel or in conversations with people from different streams of the Jewish communities in Jerusalem. My world view and the way I saw myself had shifted. I was a home but it was a different home than I expected—a shift had occurred and I found myself feeling at home in the Jewish world, not the Christian one. We chose to take the yearlong Living Jewishly course, I was laicised by my religious tradition and I have undergone the hatafat dam brit
Perhaps the final intellectual push for me to move away from Christianity and embrace Judaism was reading Giosuè Ghisalberti’s The Achaia Testament: Paul, Timothy, and the Judaic Hellenistic Foundations of the Gospel. It helped me come to the realization that what I liked about Christianity was what Jewish elements remained in the faith; what I didn’t like were the accretions that were added to it from its earliest days on. The view that Jesus was the fulfillment of the messianic tradition made no sense, especially in light of Ghisalberti’s persuasive argument that Paul and Timothy were responsible for much of this view. Torah makes more sense than Gospel; reason and tradition more than faith; current practices more than focusing on the end times. I have described this as coming to see that the Shema is a clearer statement of my faith and spiritual obligations than is found in the Nicene Creed.
We are members of the Danforth Jewish Circle. I am also in fairly regular attendance at First Narayever, more often at the Sunday morning davening. We have attended services at Makom, which we’ve enjoyed and felt welcomed at, and at Holy Blossom. I have gone to davening at the JCC but find that 7:15 a.m. is hard for me to make. We honour Shabbat at home with following the home rituals, primarily those of the reform tradition, by reading the weekly Torah portion and haftarah portions together and discussing commentaries on these passages. I do recite/read along with the Shema in its entirely most evening and recite the beginning of it upon rising. I try to remember to be consciously in the world and acknowledge the many blessing that around me.
I miss the sacramental aspect of celebrating the Eucharist but find that Jewish prayer/davening a meaningful alternative. In the flow of prayer and in the sense that the community is where the sacred can most easily be approached I do feel something very akin to my previous religious practices.
I find that I struggle more with time than faith—it is hard to break a habit that Saturday is a sleeping in day. This makes my regular attendance at Shabbat services a challenge. I have also struggled with learning Hebrew; I’ve taken two courses and will take more in the future but very little remains with me. I find the lack of Hebrew an actual challenge—reading English translations of prayer makes me feel I’m looking through a window rather than being fully present and sharing with the community around me in a common act.
I find some aspects of communal Jewish life quite challenging. At heart, I am a hermit. I certainly find myself attracted to ascetic forms of spiritual expression, which makes Purim daunting and Tisha B’Av a time of familiar spiritual expression.
I feel trapped, at times, between my life long radicalism and my wanting to be in and supportive of Israel. With many of those I worked with for decades supporting BDS, it is odd to be on the outside of my political worlds. This isn’t the first time—I also found it hard in the 70s and 80s to be strongly critical of imperialist and militarist initiatives of the U.S.S.R. and China when so many peace activists were doing apologetics for these countries.
I am delighted that study and reflection are seen as core expectations of being a Jew. Even in challenging times, and with splits within the Jewish world, reason is respected.
I will continue to take advantage of learning opportunities offered by the Danforth Jewish Circle and other shuls. This is important for me to come to a better knowledge of Jewish rituals and practices.
I will be returning to Israel in the near future, primarily as a volunteer but also to continue to explore longer term options in a place where I have felt so strongly at home.
While I am not 100 certain I won’t change my mind, I think I’d like Baruch Chayim (Blessed Life) as my name. If I am correct this would make my Hebrew name Baruch Chayim ben Avraham Avinu. I think it sums up my understanding of what being Jewish means to me.
[Note: Pieces I wrote at the time of my visits to Israel can be found at my somewhat active blog: https://morecoherent.wordpress.com/category/israel/ , with perhaps different insights available through a couple of YouTube clips I posted: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheRevBrian/videos . There are relevant mini reviews of Jewish works mingled with other works on my Tumbler blog: http://brianburchbooksetc.tumblr.com/ ]