'How Christianity Brought Me Back to Judaism'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When Charles Bretan, a Jewish reader responding to Bella’s note on interfaith worship and The Sanctuaries, emailed to describe his experience at Wild Goose, “a 4-day Spirit, Justice, Music and Arts Festival” in North Carolina, the annual campout sounded like Burning Man but with more Christianity and a lot less drugs and dust. (Then I read on the About page that Wild Goose organizers were indeed inspired by the famous annual gathering of techie hippies in the Nevada desert.) But despite its Christian roots—or perhaps because those roots go especially deep, back to the radical inclusiveness of Jesus himself—Wild Goose welcomes people of any religious bent. “One of the reasons I love Wild Goose Festival it that we don’t come here labeled atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist … whatever,” says author Frank Schaeffer in the promo video seen above. “We come here as human beings on a journey, a lot of us alienated from our religious paths.”

Here’s how Charles sums up the festival and its profound impact on him:

Hot Springs, North Carolina, was the site for Wild Goose Festival 2016, a Progressive Christian Woodstock, but with food and showers. Rain, mud, hosannas, psalms, and “Praise Jesus.” Fellowship, love, acceptance, and moonshine masses. Deep theological discussions longer than the queue for the bathroom. Three thousand progressive Christians—and two Jews. It’s the last place you would expect a Jewish couple, but this was exactly where Gail and I were last weekend.

Here is where I have to make a confession. My title for this note [“How Christianity Brought Me Back to Judaism”] is clickbait. I never “left” Judaism. I never had a crisis of faith or felt abandoned by G-d. My Judaism has always been, is now, and will continue to be central to who I am. I think Jewishly, my week is ordered around Shabbat, and the holidays and festivals set the rhythm of my year.

But there have been times I have felt estranged from other Jews. The ethos of American Jewry is influenced most heavily by a Western European privilege of decorum over kavanah. Raised in an Eastern European tradition, I tend to rock back and forth as I pray and vocalize even the “silent” prayers. Culturally, Ashkenazic Jews are divided into two major categories: Litvaks and Galitzianers.  The majority of American Jews consider themselves Galitziana. I am a Litvak.  However, despite these differences, I never felt estranged from the expression of my Judaism until a few years ago.

From 2005 to 2009 I lived and worked in a Jewish community where I was bullied, emotionally and verbally abused, and had my Judaism silenced, negated, and denied. Teaching a secular subject was proof, I was constantly told, that I was a “secular” Jew. Scandal ensued when I dared teach “Song of Songs” as literature in my senior AP Lit class.  Whenever I attempted to contribute to discussion about the Jewish direction of our community, I was told I knew nothing about Judaism and please shut up or go away.

I left that community a few years ago, but I have yet to find my comfort level in my new community.  It was not that I felt a void where my Judaism was (as I mentioned, my Judaism never left me). I felt more like my presence in synagogue created a void in that holy place and time.

Then I attended my first Wild Goose Festival.

My favorite session at there was the Moonshine Mass, but don’t look for it because it’s not on the official schedule. And yes, Moonshine Mass is exactly what it sounds like. The Saturday night of the festival, the leader of the mass, Phil Wyman, the carnival host and lost brother I never knew I had, invited me to say Ha-Motzi over the loaf of communion bread. For me, this was a transformative moment.

There is a Native-American saying that you never step into the same river twice.  The river is different for you have stepped in it, and you are a different person for having the experience of stepping into the river. In other words, every experience you have changes you. This is called life. There are larger moments that cause us to change our opinion or outlook. We often call these “transformative moments,” but they are more accurately called growth. A truly transformative moment is in which you are changed as a person and after which your life will never be the same.

There have been a few transformative moments in my life: the first time the person who would become my wife and life partner put her hand on me, the birth of each of my two sons, the death of each of my parents. When Phil asked me to say Ha-Motzi, I was transformed. For the first time in many years, I was acknowledged not only as a person but, more specifically, as a Jew. More than physical presence, my metaphysical presence added to the holiness of that space and time. I realized that I had felt more Jewish in the three days of Wild Goose than I had in the past few years combined.

I am home now, but I will never be the same. I sit and write this email wearing a silly red clown nose, occasionally lifting my fingers from the keyboard to rub my wrist where the Nabokovian memory of my festival band once resided. I have been transformed. My carnival has been flipped.

If you’d like to share a profound experience you had worshipping with people of a different religious faith, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com