When I was a child, the Christian church my family attended and where my grandma played the organ felt like home. I loved Sunday school. The youth ministers were like family. I enthusiastically chose to be baptized. I could recite all the books of the bible in order, although now I’m not sure why.
As I got older, my skepticism heightened and my faith lessened. When I attended church, I no longer felt the serenity I once felt after walking in those doors. I felt nothing but a newfound sense of apathy, which made me feel ashamed and profoundly sad. I knew I believed in and had faith in G-d, but I couldn’t find G-d within the walls of the Christian church I called home anymore.
Desperate to find G-d again, I began searching elsewhere. I attended virtually every house of worship in my Bible belt community. Every week I was introduced to a new faith community and every week I left feeling disappointed and just as empty as when I entered. I was like an agnostic Goldilocks—this one is too conservative, this one is too hippie, this one gives me the creeps—and I was searching for the one that was just right.
But I didn’t find it. Feeling more dejected in my faith than ever before, I stopped searching. I thought maybe I’d join the growing number of fellow millennials who didn’t identify with any particular religion—a “none”. But all the while, my faith and desire to know G-d burned like a flame that refused to be extinguished.
During a World Religions course in college, I read and learned more about Judaism and immediately thought ‘This is me. This is what I believe. These are my people.’ This epiphany left me stunned. At this point in my life, I didn’t really even know anyone who was Jewish, had no idea where the nearest synagogue was and really didn’t know what my next step would be.
I devoured books on the basic principles of Judaism and the more I learned, the more confident I felt that these principles and beliefs closely aligned with my own. I began learning about the different denominations within Judaism—orthodox, conservative, reform—and choosing which would be the best for me to explore. I was impressed by the emphasis on inclusivity, social justice and equality within the reform community, so it seemed like a natural fit.
As a former Christian, currently living in the Bible Belt (where any Jews must be hiding in the .03 percent that selected “other” as their religion at the last census), to say I felt a bit out of place when I attended a Shabbat service for the first time would be an understatement. I was so anxious, as if I expected everyone to yell, “GENTILE!” when I entered and angrily throw their kippot at me. My mind was racing— Should I sit here? Am I on the right page? No, I’m not even close to the right page. Is everyone staring at me? Can they tell I don’t know Hebrew? I’m just going to mime the word ‘watermelon’ and hope no one notices.
I remember that day; I locked eyes with an older gentleman who sat behind me. He looked like someone who would be typecast as “nice grandpa” in an Oreo commercial. He warmly smiled and said, “Shabbat shalom. I’m glad you’re here.” Despite my awkward nervousness, I was glad I was there too.
After visiting a couple of synagogues, I found the one that was just right. The community was vibrant and welcoming. My inquisitive nature that once brought me guilt and shame was encouraged and nurtured. It was exhilarating to witness and participate in debates during class when even the rabbis seemed to have different opinions. There’s a popular quip in Jewish learning—“ask two Jews, get three different opinions.” The Jewish culture is extremely open to the difference of opinions. This environment promotes critical and creative thought. Many believe this environment contributes to lifelong success beyond the temple, as Jews are disproportionately high achievers.
Finally, I felt in my heart what I had been longing for—when I entered the temple, I felt like I was home.
In one of the most helpful books I read, Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant tells an infamous story about Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:
A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved.”
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation.
This really influenced my perspective about my own journey. I am incredibly blessed to have the privilege of discovering Judaism’s beauty and choosing it for myself.