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PLATTSBURGH -- Temple Beth Israel's Rabbi Heidi Waldmann followed paths away from Judaism in her youth that brought her full circle.
"I was kinda looking for more texture," she said. "I was looking for some answers."
The Reform Judaism of Waldmann's childhood was the streamlined, modern version born of the German Enlightenment, with emphasis on intellectual engagement and not so much on observance.
Holy-day celebration, with the exception of Hanukkah and Passover, was minimal; the families didn't keep kosher.
The services conducted by rabbi and cantor left no room for participation by the congregation.
And while she absorbed like a sponge the Reform instruction in responsibility and social justice, overall, the connection was missing.
And so Waldmann, a self-titled "hippie wannabe," tasted the spirituality of the '70s -- sunsets and other gifts of nature.
"I had also always been fascinated by other faiths," she said, sipping coffee at a corner table in Starbucks. "I found them different languages for expressing the same things."
She was married briefly to a "nice Jewish boy" whose military service took them to Germany; not until a visit to Dachau concentration camp did she comprehend her connection with the larger Jewish experience.
In Germany, the young woman's path converged with that of Jim Waldmann, a Roman Catholic from Nebraska; they married, raised two children and owned their own audio-equipment store in St. Paul, Minn.
Attending the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., Rabbi Waldmann earned a degree in theology. She trained and served as a chaplain; her work with patients in a small county hospital, helping them make sense of life-and-death issues "spoke to me," she said.
It was when her mother, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, needed nursing-home care that the future rabbi found herself unexpectedly pulled back to her roots. The older woman no longer took much note of the world around her, but her daughter felt comforted surrounding her with things loved and familiar at a Jewish facility.
"And it tugged at me," she said.
"The Israeli art on the walls, the snippets of Yiddish.
"I was totally unprepared for that."
Before long, she and Jim found themselves looking at synagogues.
A conservative temple, with services all in Hebrew, left them feeling "like fish out of water," the rabbi said.
One large Reform synagogue took her back to the sanitized worship of her childhood.
The couple eventually found Mount Zion in St. Paul, and she fell in love with a Judaism she hadn't known existed.
"It was a very different Reform Judaism," she said. "Lots of Hebrew, lots of participation in the service.
"There were a lot of intermarriages."
TASTE OF JUDAISM
At first, Rabbi Waldmann said, smiling, "my sweetheart went with me because I have a good guy.
"Kinda before we knew it, Jim was going under his own power."
Her husband converted to Judaism and plays an active role in the Plattsburgh congregation.
Their own journeys -- including the one that led her to rabbinical school and then ordination -- fuel the rabbi's desire to crack the door for others, whether they're seeking or even if they're just curious.
Temple Beth Israel will soon offer "A Taste of Judaism," three weekly sessions taught by Rabbi Waldmann that will introduce Reform spirituality, values and community.
Sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, the program has been offered at hundreds of locations over the past 15 years.
There will be no textbooks, no reading, no homework, she said.
"People who know absolutely nothing don't need to feel behind."
MORE THAN ONE PATH
Conservative Judaism advocates strict adherence to Halakha, which the movement defines as Jewish law.
The word, the rabbi said, literally means "path."
"It stands to reason, if there is a path, there may be more than one path," she said.
That is how Reform Judaism interprets Halakha, with a view that respects its literal definition but is not bound by it.
"One of the things I love is that it's both, and it can hold both possibilities at the same time.
"The Torah is true, but that doesn't mean it's factual. The people of the time didn't have the same sort of concern with accuracy. They were telling a larger story" in a time when there was no scope for the kind of detail society demands today.
"I love that (Reform) Judaism sees it that way," she said.
"I think because of that it has some qualities that are very well-suited to contemporary seekers."
Take Shabbat -- the Sabbath -- for example, the rabbi said.
Some forms of Judaism strictly follow the "39 categories of activity" during that weekly observance, one of which forbids kindling a fire and even flipping a light switch because of the tiny spark that results.
"Reform would say, No, that's not lighting a fire,'" Rabbi Waldmann said.
Those who practice Reform decide how they as individuals want to observe Shabbat.
"My personal practice is I will avoid to the best of my ability anything connected with the work week," she said.
And that is renewing, she has found, and lets her look at day-to-day life with new eyes.
"For liberal Jews, it's not about restrictions."
A GOD OF VULNERABILITY
As well, it's not about worshipping a deity of specific image.
"In all forms of Judaism, there are many different concepts of God," the rabbi said.
In fact, one need not believe.
"Full-blown agnosticism is perfectly all right ... as long as you do not flat out deny the existence of God."
Rabbi Waldmann's personal image of the creator is one that is always in flux.
"So if we meet again tomorrow," she laughed, "it's going to be different."
Her broader view, however, is a deity that is "the sort of net, the web that holds things together and supports what is."
That means there's a vulnerability about that God.
"That net can be torn," she said. "I think we're doing some pretty serious violence to that net right now in many ways."
In Reform Judaism, people should learn what tradition teaches before making their own choices.
It might seem a minimalist faith that leaves the ultimate decision to the person, the rabbi said.
"It should be the toughest," she said, "because it demands the most personal responsibility."
w/pic called rabi waldman or rabi waldman2 and box
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