Some who know me may be surprised that this marks just the sixth year I’m celebrating Rosh Hashana. After all, I thoroughly enjoy our Jewish festivals, holidays, and food. Our collective stories and religious traditions continue to fascinate me. Throughout the week, I’m readily found at such Jewish haunts as Chabad, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, or Adas Israel. With this mind, why was it not until adulthood that I celebrated our New Year?
Quite simply, the heritage of my Jewish mother was quite overshadowed by my upbringing in suburban Pataskala, Ohio. Our small community of 15,000 people spread across 36 square miles contained dozens of churches, one bar, and no synagogues. In fact, my father was a fundamentalist Baptist minister in our town.
My belief system as a child and even as a young adult reflected this decidedly non-Jewish upbringing. Throughout 17 years of childhood in Ohio and four years of attending a Baptist undergraduate college, I met not a single peer who identified with the Jewish culture or who practiced the Jewish faith.
Several years later, as a 25 year old first year law student, I quickly developed a close friendship a Jewish classmate. For the first time, I heard about the Birthright program– a free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults. Eager to visit the place which was the focal point of so many memorable stories learned of in my Christian Sunday School and where I knew my ancestors lived many centuries ago, I—along with one of my younger brothers- applied to the program. We were the first of our ten Jewish cousins to do so.
Several months later, the journey was underway via a flight from NYC to TelAviv. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, most of the passengers around me still sleeping, one of the Hassidic men onboard approached my seat, politely asking whether I would accompany him for morning prayers, including applying the tefillin. When I informed the man of my unfamiliarity with the practice, he offered to guide me through the Ve-haya Im Shamoa — for the first time.
As I bound the teffilin repeating, out loud, those words in the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy, an incredible emotion took hold of me “Put these words of Mine on your heart and on your soul, tie them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be ‘totafot’ between your eyes….”
The importance of my spiritual experiences on this trip cannot be understated. As a child, my religious instructors taught that spiritual peace could not be obtained through the Jewish religion. Some of these leaders described the Jewish people as spiritually “lost” and the intellectual leaders as “blinded.” Nearly everything on this first trip to Israel-beginning with that El-Al flight- exposed me to a different view.
For Shabbat, the first I’d ever experienced, a rabbi stayed with our group. Several of us read and discussed the Sabbath’s Torah portion with the rabbi that evening. I still recall my sense of surprise as the rabbi encouraged debate, allowed argument, and fueled questions!
The following morning, I attended synagogue for the first time in my life. Sitting by the wall in the back row, I observed the hundreds of worshippers singing and praying. Then, the rabbi delivered a thunderous sermon. I remain inspired by his articulate and powerful plea that we never shy away from being a force to confront evil.
Rather than finding confusion, blindness, and despair in the Judaic religious tradition, my first experiences revealed certainty, enlightenment, and confidence!
At Masada, we walked through the ruins of the fortress and I heard the story of the Jewish patriots who chose to forfeit their lives at the top of that rock rather than surrender their heritage and freedom. A young IDF soldier, rifle by his side, reading a prayer book after applying teffilin seemed to me a living tribute to their bravery.
Thoughts and emotions from these experiences and many more fermented within me as my brother Joshua and I stood overlooking the valley next to the Golan Heights. With our arms around each others’ shoulders, I thought back to the traditional idea of God’s promise to Abraham thousands of years ago.
I was home…
I’m happy to say, that my personal transformation continued. My experience in Israel encouraged me to continue to discover Judaism. I was now emotionally able to resolve much intellectual conflict. I realized that I was free to embrace the heritage, the faith, and the culture that has been forgotten by many in my family…and which had lain dormant within my soul.
Several years after the Birthright trip, my younger brother and I decided to share an apartment in Chicago, in order to spend time together while developing relationships with the city’s vibrant Jewish community. We enjoyed Shabbat dinners, Torah study with several Chabad rabbis, and immersing ourselves in ancient traditions newly discovered.
I hold immense gratitude in my heart for those people whose generosity made it possible for my brother Joshua and me to discover the beauty of our Jewish heritage.
I left for Israel thinking I was a young man whose mother had Jewish parents. Today, I know that I too am a Jew.
Shanah Tovah! May it be a sweet year for all.