The following sermonette is from our recent Outreach Shabbat, which features the Jewish journey stories of those warmly welcomed into our community through conversion to Judaism, renewal of their Jewish connection, or raising Jewish children.
I think I was always Jewish. Even though I wasn’t, I was. Like something that is born into you, it was born into my soul. I came to understand that my instinct needed guidance, in an incubator of a community with resources and open arms. I found that at Beth Israel. [pause] Being Jewish is more than the relationship you have with God, more than ascribing to a readily packaged collection of beliefs and rituals. Its about Believing, Behaving and Belonging.
Since I was 12 years old I spent my time experimenting, learning and absorbing all about Judaism. I remember going to my first bar mitzvah. My friend Daniel looked so nervous standing on the bimah, his proud parents smiled with joy. The ceremony was like traveling in time. I was enchanted by the flow of the Hebrew, confused about what to do when the Torah started moving, and totally captivated. Judaism felt real. Over the next 17 years my family encouraged me to explore my faith. I would spend Hanukkah and Passover with friend’s families, each year becoming less nervous when it was my turn to read, memorizing the Seder plate; the holidays became a tradition for me.
When I was 18 I moved to Florida to attend the University of Miami. While in college my social circle was entrenched with new friends, relationships and experiences all greatly colored by Judaism. I attended events at Chabad and Hillel, associating with my predominantly Jewish sorority sisters. I remember spending one very confused Passover at Chabad, where the rabbi would not shake my hand and I felt dismissed.
Experiences like that led to reading and learning, asking my friends questions about traditions. I spent my holidays with my friend Allison Freidin’s family; I shared with them my desire to convert to Judaism and they were beyond supportive. They gave me books to read, told me stories, and always set a place for me a their Seder. I feel very fortunate to have embarked on my Jewish life surrounded by warm-hearted souls who welcomed me.
Once after college I thought I was ready to convert, I called a synagogue to inquire about conversion and the second question they asked me was “Are you Currently dating a Jewish man?”, I stuttered and said “Well at the moment I’m currently in between them.” This scared me. I wanted my conversion to be about supporting my instinctual need to be Jewish. I never felt I would be denied love or companionship, and I knew that my coming to Judaism for myself would be the only way I could do it.
My exposure to Reform Judaism made everything click in my heart and in my head. I can not deny the truth of science, of nature’s own unbending rules. But I also believe that when someone falls in love it’s not just biology. When the smell of a specific flower gives you a flash of hours spent with your grandmother, it is not only synapses in the brain. Feeling your heart cry out at the site of injustice is not only learned. I always believed that there was something outside of myself, something that made us human. It is the thing we can all believe in: our emotions, our connections, our soul.
How to interpret this into living a Jewish life was something I continue to learn. Embracing the importance of mitzvot in my everyday world. I spent Purim last year delivering baskets to home-bound seniors with Jewish Family Service. We visited three seniors, to deliver baskets of hamantashen, candy and other treats. All three women were holocaust survivors, could not leave their home but were full of life. They were so happy to see us and their joy was contagious. Mitzvot like that, putting this energy into the world, supporting a Jewish community and makes me feel like there is a God and that our community is an expression of God. Our mitzvot create love and our love builds closeness, and that is what bonds us together as Jews.
But what has been most special for me in building a Jewish life is sharing holidays and Shabbat with my friends and family. I look forward to sundown to share those special moments with them. I live with two very close friends who I would consider family. When I told them I would be formally going through the conversion process they were supportive, asked numerous questions and learned to love Shabbat as much as I do. We started by lighting candles with challah and wine on Friday’s; our favorite prayer to read is from the alternative set that says:
“Let there be love and understanding among us.
Let peace and friendship be our shelter from life’s storms.
Adonai, help us to walk with good companions…”
For Hanukkah I brought my mom to Beth Israel to make chanukiot and learn about Hanukkah; she hopes one day her grand-kids will want to play dreidel with her, and that the holidays are something we will all share together.
It fills my heart and soul with joy to express my faith and experience Judaism through sacred traditions, meaningful memories and expressing my Jewish identity in my everything I do. It is hard to put into words the exact feelings but I think the best things in life are usually like that. It took me more than 17 years to be where I am now – but I know it was worth the wait. And I just want to finish by reading one of my favorite prayers from Ruth:
Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.