Being Jewish in Spokane

Shabbat Triptych
Shabbat Triptych

Back when I lived in Seattle, I wrote for a blog called Jew-ish.com. My editor there, Leyna Krow, moved to Spokane in the fall of 2010 for graduate school. A few months later, she posted a brief essay titled “Feeling way too Jewish in Spokane.”

I moved here in September of 2011 and have thought several times since then about Krow's experience as a Jew in this highly Christian city. Though our Jewish backgrounds are different, she and I have both noticed that Judaism is not widely understood in Spokane. Unlike Leyna, I have actively delved into the city’s Jewish community. Its richness and vitality, albeit on a small scale, continue to surprise me.

For her, Jewish identity in Spokane felt like an all-or-nothing proposition. Since Jewishness is not a major part of her life, she decided that “sometimes it’s easier to err on the side of nothing.” Because the Jewish elements of my life were important to me when I arrived here, I did some digging and discovered that it’s possible to enjoy a moderate level of involvement in local Jewish life. Soon after I began attending Spokane’s Reform congregation, Emanu-El, members reached out to me and asked what I wanted to contribute to the community. As a result, I now coordinate the congregation’s e-newsletter and am preparing to mentor a young member as she creates her bat mitzvah service project.

Compared to Seattle, which Bill O’Reilly once referred to as a center of “secular-progressive nuttiness,” Spokane is a pretty Christian place. I base this observation on the number of churches I see, the popularity of the local Christian rock station, the religiously themed conversations I often overhear, and the fact that many of my friends here are Christian. I did not move across the state with the goal of learning about Christianity. However, Christian faith and culture are part of the fabric of society in Spokane. Living here has helped me to deconstruct a number of the anti-Christian stereotypes I absorbed during three decades of life in liberal cities and Jewish or “secular-progressive” social circles.

Just as one of Leyna’s friends mistakenly referred to a Shabbat dinner as “a Shabbat Shalom,” non-Jewish Spokanites sometimes fail to grasp the subtleties of Jewish life. (That seems only fair, since my understanding of Christianity’s nuances before moving here was virtually nil.) When I say I attend Congregation Emanu-El, people usually think I mean Immanuel Church. Folks have referred to my Jewishness as my “faith” without knowing that Jewish identity can be cultural rather than religious. (Not that I’m necessarily a purely cultural Jew, but that’s a discussion for a different post.)

At a picnic a few months ago, I had an especially memorable interfaith experience. A devout Christian asked me what the best part of being one of God’s chosen people is. Without missing a beat, I replied: “The food.” I was (partly) kidding, but this brief exchange led to a fascinating half-hour conversation. At one point, my new friend said she wanted to better understand Judaism. After all, she pointed out, her Lord was Jewish.

Some Jewish people I know dismiss such interest from Christians as a poorly disguised hunger to convert us all. Even if that were the case — and I’m not convinced it is — I don’t feel threatened by it. If I feel secure in my Jewish identity, then proselytizing, when it does arise, doesn’t have to feel like persecution. Millennia of institutional anti-Semitism have made us, as a people, hyperaware of potential threats to our existence. I believe we should work to overcome such a fear-based psychology in order to make the best lives for ourselves, whether we end up in Tel Aviv, New York, or Spokane.

Some Jewish people in very non-Jewish places don’t want to be the token Jew who explains his or her tradition to all of Christendom (that’s how it can feel, anyway). Like Krow, I feel poorly qualified to assume such a role, but I don't mind teaching the little I do know. As I live in Spokane, I notice that I’m learning about Christianity, my friends are learning about Judaism, and we’re all doing a pretty good job of respecting each other’s backgrounds and beliefs. It’s been a wonderful education for me so far, and I look forward to many more years of it.

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About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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One comment

  1. Neal,

    I spent part of my childhood in Olympia, far enough away from Seattle that there weren’t many Jewish people around. think I was in middle school before I met anyone who was Jewish. Then, as an adult, I moved to Massachusetts and worked in Boston. It was a great experience learning about some of the traditions (and yes, the food!) of Judaism, both cultural and religious.

    I am glad you’re finding Spokane to be a place where people can learn about different cultures and faiths in a respectful manner.

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