Finding Spirituality in the Pews

When thinking of spiritual intensity, I cannot help but bring myself to my countless experiences sitting in church pews.

Growing up in a sheltered Conservative Jewish community, I lived a spiritual bubble–complete with Hebrew day school, religious summer camp and two sets of silverware. I learned how to chant the biblical Hebrew words printed onto my siddur before picking up a Harry Potter novel. I discovered Zionism long before I learned anything about my country’s history. My spiritual intensity, if all existent, was perhaps submerged beneath the silver platter on which my Judaism was served to me.

While my struggling Conservative synagogue was suffering from institutionalism at a time when I craved passion and authenticity, I turned curiously to where the grass shined greener than anywhere else: Calvary Chapel, the local mega-church. After Shabbat, I would watch in awe as thousands of cars flooded the church parking lot, filled with intergenerational Christian families carrying their leather Bibles from which I chanted the day before in an unfamiliar language. Teenage girls my age would hug one another, their purity rings and Jesus fish charm bracelets glistening in the South Florida sunshine. While my community struggled with ritual committee meetings and determining which pot parve pasta should be boiled in, Calvary Chapel seemed to have their priorities right as they hosted thousands of God-followers weekly.

My religious curiosity grew alongside the church’s membership, and finally, I decided to explore the magic that existed inside those walls. Unlike the two Catholic masses I had attended growing up, Calvary Chapel was a worship stadium, filled with large screens, innumerable seats, and people of all ages and backgrounds; this mega-sanctuary was a spiritual haven for thousands in South Florida, and I was finally experiencing it for myself. I stood among hundreds of church-goers, a neophyte to the concert-like service that united everyone around me. As the band on stage began to play popular gospel songs, congregants sang along with the lyrics projected on the peripheral screens. I watched in awe as average people suddenly felt humbled by the communal voice that echoed through the church walls. Connected to the powerful music, some people began to raise their hands in the air, while others fell to their knees in prayer. Of course, I first felt uncomfortable and out of place. Growing up in a Jewish bubble, I had never once stood before a large conspicuous cross glowing in a dimmed sanctuary. In fact, I had always been told to refrain from speaking about “J.C.” I had never known that Jews were even allowed to stand inside of a church.

But there I was, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers who believed in a theological being that differed from my own. It was truly amazing to see all types of people—many who looked no different than me—uniting to worship something greater and more empowering than themselves. Spiritual intensity was not only accessible to every person who enters through the church doors, but also embedded through every aspect of the worship experience. They had this unbreakable faith and dedication to their churches that left me in awe, and their commitment to their Christianity shaped the way I saw religion at large. It was because of these people and their unity that I needed to step back and realize that I not only felt impacted by them as people, but also by the very faith they represented. Religion is truly beautiful when it unifies people, and it took one visit to a church to witness that God-shaped beauty.

My spiritually enlightening experiences at Calvary Chapel cannot be traded or ignored; I would have never discovered my passion and respect for faith if I had stayed within the lines of my own religion. Sometimes, spiritual intensity at its peak can only be found by walking in the opposite direction, limitless and unbounded.

Why is it that a ritual-free church can awaken more hearts than the sacred traditions and prayer of synagogues? What is it about Evangelical Christianity that stirs spiritual revival that contemporary Judaism cannot seem to do?

Perhaps the barrier is education. For Jews, we are encouraged to participate in Torah L’ishma, learning for the mere sake of learning. We envision the “most” spiritual and religious people to be rabbis of the Talmud or the streimel-wearing Chassids in Boro Park, simply because they seemingly “know” the most. In Judaism, our perception of spirituality is associated with how many years we have studied and how many rabbis to which we can refer. Our personal relationship with God is seemingly measured by how much we know, rather than by how much we love.

For the Christians I know, however, higher learning is entirely optional. Christian doctoral students can worship alongside high school drop-outs with a faith entirely in sync. There is no hierarchy of spirituality within the walls of Calvary Chapel; pastors, deacons, parents and toddlers alike can all possess the same spiritual intensity. This rich spirituality, however, is strengthened by faith rather than by intellect. Higher learning is not only unnecessary—but also seemingly discouraged– for an everlasting relationship with Jesus. It’s as if to say that higher formal learning, whether through commentaries or historical Christian texts, hinders one’s spiritual identity. It stirs the big questions and potentially causes doubt—a skill that keeps many progressive Jews from closing their eyes and waving their arms in praise.

For the Christians I know, spiritual intensity can be achieved more easily without PhD’s; a whole-hearted belief in Jesus requires no academic rigor. Yet in Judaism, on the contrary, it seems as though only the scholars are ranked “high enough” to experience God intimately. It’s as if to say that graduate school and ordinations justify the spiritual intensity that some Jews are expected to have and others—like me–may never reach.

This dichotomy of accessible spiritual intensity versus in-depth study leaves me, a faith seeker, constantly searching for a patch of green-grassed Judaism that has yet to exist. Perhaps there is some spiritual sharpening we can each provide for the other from our respective pews.


About the Author
Emily Goldberg is a student at Muhlenberg College, but is from New York City. She is a writer, seeker, aspiring rabbi and an optimist. She uses her love of religion to explore and challenge her Jewish identity as well as find the common grounds between all faith communities.