Each summer — as the program year winds down — we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience and write a testimonial to share with Friends. Rebecca Rubenstein, a young adult Fellow who served in Atlanta during the 2021-2022 year, reflects on the spiritual practices they explored.
I grew up in two secular, casually-faithed households: my mother’s—she was raised Catholic—and my father’s—he was raised Jewish. We celebrated Hannukah and Christmas, Easter and Passover, but not much else. There was a relatively brief uptick in their respective religious fervors in the years leading up to and following their divorce, at least as far as their children were concerned. My little sister and I began attending both Hebrew School and Catechism, weekly Church masses and Shabbat dinners, and hours-long holiday and High Holy Day services (that were frankly both terribly boring). I loved studying the Hebrew language and singing in Church—but other than those two points of connection, I wouldn’t say that any of my early experiences with religion were particularly spiritual. Moreover, after my becoming a Bat Mitzvah, the fervor for both parents dropped to their pre-divorce levels, and my own interest in observing religious tradition plummeted to Marxian depths of disdain.
“When we perceive that our spirits are linked, it follows logically that our freedoms are too.”
Then in my early 20s I started taking yoga classes. I initially attended in the hopes of managing my anxiety, but over time noticed that when I was able to connect to my body, my breath, my heartbeat, I was also able to connect to the bodies, breaths, heartbeats of others.
I came to feel a Something that pulsed through me and the world around me, came to feel the distinctions between “me” and “world” dissolve. Those classrooms held my first spiritual experiences, my first conscious interactions with the divine within and without. They weren’t quite enough to dislodge my conviction that religion was the “opiate of the masses,” but the comfort those classes provided certainly made me question my certainty that religion had nothing to offer me nor society writ large.
It was while working for Kimberly Dark, one of my yoga teachers and activist mentors, that I began to see how that spiritual connection within/without might not be a hindrance to my activism, but rather a crucial asset. Under her tutelage I learned that when we start to feel that Something within ourselves, and to recognize it in the humans, non-human animals, trees, clouds, rivers, and mountains around us, we are called to stand with them. When we recognize our own divinity, and the divinity in the world around us, we can name and refuse the oppression handed down to us and others. When we perceive that our spirits are linked, it follows logically that our freedoms are too. It becomes a spiritual imperative to fight for the rights and dignities of those made marginalized in order to recognize our collective liberation.
Exploring Spirituality & Activism in QVS
QVS seemed to offer a similar view of the relationship between spirituality and activism—or, at the very least, it offered the space to explore that relationship beyond the secular-liberal framework of “Religion Is Bad”. In addition to that continued exploration, I was particularly eager to create/observe regular practices and rituals that might help me stay in that space of connection to Something. I wanted, moreover, to reconnect with the religious traditions to which I have ancestral claims, rather than solely those within the yogic tradition. So I joined QVS and, interestingly, I have created over the course of this year a spiritual routine that closely mirrors that of my childhood: I light the Shabbos candles (nearly) every Friday night, and attend Meeting for Worship (nearly) every Sunday morning.
The version of Quakerism that QVS and the Atlanta Friends Meeting offer gave me the opportunity to explore safely one of the religions in my heritage, namely Christianity. The non-hierarchical meeting structure, the hospitality offered to asylum seekers, the importance of just showing up—these and many other aspects of AFM have contributed to a sense of peace and safety when I sit in the Meeting House. It is especially that last element that has allowed me to explore my spirituality this year with a sense of genuine curiosity: what if showing up is, in fact, all that is required?
It’s a question my city coordinator Rachael and I discussed at length during one of our check-ins as we walked along the Beltline. During that conversation, Rachael relayed that even Mary Ann Downey—gardener extraordinaire, baking prodigy, and Quaker powerhouse—has expressed that she too has Sundays where she just shows up. If Mary Ann, after her decades of expectant listening, has days where getting to Meeting is about all she can manage, then maybe that’s enough for me too. Allowing my presence along the west-facing windows of the AFM Meeting House to be enough takes a lot of the pressure away from “doing spirituality right,” and undercuts the perfectionism so rampant within my own thoughts and white supremacy culture.
An Invitation to Meet each Ceremony with Curiosity
Being in a Christian program has also motivated me to delve into my Jewish heritage, and reflect on the legacy of queer, American, Jewish activism. (I bring up the concept of “Christian hegemony” often enough that my housemates have included the phrase in many house games of Salad Bowl.) Every Friday I reflect on the poetry of Adrienne Rich, bake challah, and use a queer, non-binary siddur. On a Friday during Spring Retreat, I shared some of my weekly rituals with my housemates. I tried to share not only the prayers and bread, but also the burden of being the only one of you in the room, the weight of being called to represent an entire group of people. I tried to impart the importance of not judging my practices, nor any future Jewish practices in which they may someday participate, as “right” or “wrong,” “better” or “worse,” more or less “authentic.” Rather, I encouraged them to meet each ceremony with curiosity, and to view that particular Shabbos as a window into my particular relationship with Judaism, my Jewish ancestors, and a legacy of resistance against Christian-dominant culture.
So this year has not, perhaps, been an exact carbon copy of my childhood, not least because I am no longer bored. It is rather a reimagination of those practices infused with social consciousness and purpose.
I will say, my senses of spiritual connections with both of these traditions were not immediate, but rather built over time as I came to feel held in the Shabbos lights and the Meeting House. And there are certainly Fridays and Sunday mornings where all I can do is show up. But there is something in that ritual, in that routine, that keeps me grounded. That reminds me of why I joined QVS, why I care about the intersections of spirituality and social justice, why it’s worth trying to build a better world even when it seems impossible. I don’t know what my practices will look like in the years to come, but I know now how it feels to have that multifaith routine. I also know what it feels like to be held in my patchwork traditions in the way that QVS, AFM, and my housemates have held me: wholly. And that experience, I hope, will stay with me, will be recreated and reimagined in whatever comes next.
Photos from Rebecca’s Year
More about Rebecca
Rebecca Rubenstein (they/them) is originally from New York City, but has lived in several states and three countries. They are passionate about community organizing, abolition, and developing a feminist, non-carceral negotiation of difference. They are excited to work and grow with Global Growers in Atlanta, GA.
What sorts of programming and tools are Fellows offered during their year?
Every other Friday throughout the 11-month fellowship, QVS Fellows attend QVS Days instead of working at their site placements.
QVS Days offer Fellows a chance to slow down and be in community. For the first part of the year, QVS staff take the lead in planning and facilitating QVS Days. They support Fellows in exploring their individual and communal journeys, as well as discussing work, community living, Quakerism, spiritual practices, and social justice issues. As the year progresses, Fellows take a more active role in planning and facilitating QVS Days.
Over the course of the year, Fellows learn tools like: clerking and Quaker decision-making processes, clearness committees, conflict transformation, signs of defensiveness, and tons more. Additionally, at the start of the year, Fellows attend a week-long orientation with all QVS Fellows from across the country, as well as a mid-year and a closing retreat with their city cohort.
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