Tuesday, May 16, 2006

As promised

This was written by me for my organization's upcoming newsletter that is distributed to synagogues and outreach organizations all over North America. Its basically a very personal account of my climb up the ladder towards greater Jewish observance. A lot of it is fluff since I haven't written a 1000 word essay since college (and also the fact that I never even applied to UCLA), but so be it. Enjoy and feel free to comment or email me with any questions. Take it easy and God Bless.


People ask me all the time why I became religious, and, for the longest time, I didn't have an answer. Growing up, I had attended public school, played varsity sports and was even nominated for Prom Queen. As high school graduation approached, I told people that I had decided to attend Yeshiva University in New York, and they were flabbergasted. They asked all sorts of questions: Why hadn't I decided on UCLA or USC like most of my other friends? What is a yeshiva? Do you want to be a rabbi? I explained to them that I liked the idea of the co-curriculum that Yeshiva University offered. In addition to the Liberal Arts and Science classes that other colleges offer, Yeshiva U. required all students to take a full course load of secular subjects as well as classes in Judaic studies, Jewish history and philosophy, and the Hebrew language. To be honest, I liked the idea that these classes were required. It wasn't up to me whether on not to take a class. It was the rule.

My parents had made sure we knew our heritage. We attended a synagogue with a traditional Rabbi and were only sent to Jewish summer camps. We went to services on the High Holidays and my brothers and I had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at 13 -- mostly for the party and presents, but so be it. We happily ate my Granny's latkes every holiday, whether it was Chanukah, Passover, or Thanksgiving. We were, in my eyes, an ordinary Jewish American family. To me, going to temple, having a seder, dancing the horah at my Bat Mitzvah, were all physical things. I wasn't connected to the spirituality of these events.

The camp I attended every summer in Southern California was run by an Orthodox group. It was an interesting mix of kids -- half came from observant homes, the other half were public school kids just like me. As you can imagine, they infused a lot of Judaism into the camp day. Each morning started with prayer groups. The religious kids were given a prayer book and a chance to pray on their own. The rest of us would sit with a counselor singing Jewish songs and learning a few prayers. I remember being envious of the religious kids. I saw them swaying back and forth with their eyes closed murmuring things in Hebrew. I remember thinking, how cool is that! It was as if they were having their own little meeting with God. All I felt like I was doing was singing words to a tune. I wanted to know how to do what they were doing.

Being a typical preteen, when posed with the option of a Shabbat program with my youth group or a Saturday morning softball game, I chose softball. When offered an optional prayer class or a trip to the mall and the 7/11, I chose the Slurpee. I liked the idea of increasing my understanding of Jewish observance but could not be compelled enough to give up all the other things I enjoyed doing.

As it came time to choose a college, somewhere in my subconscious I realized it was time to make things happen. Two choices stood before me: UCLA with its active Hillel offering abundant classes on Jewish topics or Yeshiva University, where Jewish class attendance was not voluntary but expected of the entire student body. I was 18 years old and decided to opt out of the easy choice. Instead I chose to trek cross country to attend Stern College at Yeshiva University in New York City and begin my formal Jewish education. This choice changed my life.

While at the university, I attended all the beginner’s track Judaic studies classes. I took Beginner’s Hebrew, Beginner’s Bible (starting with Genesis, of course), and Beginner’s Jewish philosophy. The classes that interested me most, however, were those that taught how to lead a Jewish life. It was in these classes that I learned what it really means to believe in God, the significance of Jewish life cycle events, and the topic that forever intrigued me, how to pray. Classes on prayer brought back those memories of camp and how badly I wanted to daven like the other kids.

Not only did I learn how to pray and what to pray, but I learned why we pray. Prayer is sometimes referred to as service from the heart. It literally is an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with God. We can praise Him for everything done for us. We can ask Him for the things we need, like good health and sustenance. And we can thank Him for always being there for us and listening to us when we need Him. Before I learned this, the only time I really prayed was while opening my report card or while stepping up to bat at my softball games. I finally understood the spirituality of it all. Its not just murmuring words. Its about feeling what you are saying and speaking from your heart, not just your head.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. No one is. Everyday I feel like I have the opportunity to do more with my life religiously and spiritually. I have taken my religious growth very slowly. I believe all Jews have a flame ready to burn brightly within them, and all they need is a spark to ignite it. I've seen people take on too much too quickly on their path towards observance. These individuals were not able to hold on to that spark. I started small, reciting blessings over food, going to synagogue on Shabbat, and most recently, reciting mincha, the afternoon prayers, every single day. Everyone is capable of being a good Jew. It takes just one act, one mitzvah, to get started. Go visit a friend that’s in the hospital. Make a commitment to learn Hebrew so you can follow along at services. Give to charity. Whatever it may be, it’s these little acts that help perfect the world and make living here a more peaceful experience.


me said...

I really find it amazing when one wants to become more relgious. Myself I am coming from the opposite way. I have been modern orthodox all my life and wonder now where I go from here. I think sometimes people want a change and when one way is not working what does one have to lose?
I wish you all the luck in the world.

Anonymous said...

Can you please make a post about hair covering? Its a hot topic as its become more and more common for MO women to cover their hair after marriage. I would like to know what you think of this mitzvah. Do you think it would be difficult, or you cant wait to do it? Do you think it impedes a woman in any way? Like during sports or not feeling feminine because she cant wear her own locks down anymore in public? I'd love to hear it from your perspective. Thanx!

Drew_Kaplan said...

Cool. Y'know, I didn't realize how little I knew about peoples' stories here in the Heights. That's pretty neat. Thanks for sharing.