It’s hard to say when my Jewish journey began. I have always believed in God, as long as I can remember, and I was raised in the Episcopal church. Thankfully the branch of Christianity I grew up with was super warm and fuzzy, with lots of “peace be with you,” which is just an awesome thing to say, and “praise be to God” which I can’t really argue with. Usually I say my real Jewish journey began when I was in college, working on a project for my Religions of the World class. I was supposed to attend a religious service of a faith other than my own, so in the midst of my New Agey, raw foodist days, I naturally chose a Buddhist monastery. Alas, it was over an hour away and turned out that visitors were only welcome on certain days of the month, and you had to make an appointment, and did I mention I was kind of flaky in college? I took the easy way out and went to a service at the Conservative synagogue in the town in New Jersey where I grew up. I remembered having heard the name over the loudspeaker of my middle school when some of my peers were studying for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah. “Hebrew school at Agudath Israel is cancelled today due to snow” was all I could think of when I called to ask if it would be alright to attend services that Saturday.
I arrived at the service with a few of my classmates, found our seats, and felt extremely self conscious when the Rabbi announced that we were visiting and everyone should make us feel welcome. Then my phone rang. Yes, I forgot to turn off the ringer on my phone. My face flushed with shame, I wanted to crawl under my chair, and just as I was strategizing a quick exit, the singing started. I can’t explain the feeling, after having spent my life in church services almost every Sunday, singing in the choir, singing at Christian summer camp, feeling part of a church community, as if suddenly hearing a song for the first time. The melody cut through every layer, and even though the words were Hebrew, I knew what it meant. I stood there, tears streaming down my face, feeling awkward, yet somehow like I was diving off of a moving ship. Confused, elated, embarrassed, it was an “aha” moment and yet I tucked it away and went on with my life.
About a year later I was taking the worst class of all time, public speaking, six week summer version, three hours twice a week in a crowded, unairconditioned basement. In walked this tall skinny guy with a close trimmed beard and a tank top. Each speech he gave made me more and more curious about him. I mean, who has traveled through Borneo and lived with orangutans? By the time our last class rolled around I was determined to talk to him. I wasn’t sure if I had a crush on him, or if I just thought he was really interesting, but I felt truly compelled to at least make a connection. His final speech was about why everyone should visit Israel. I had honestly never given Israel a thought, but his beautiful photos and vivid descriptions of a place far different from the images on the news piqued my curiosity. I worked up my courage and on the way out of class I told him I thought his speech was really beautiful. He said he thought my speech on meditation was really beautiful. He walked me to my car, and we stood talking for three hours. We talked about Israel, about the beauty and pain in the world, about life, and as we were finally winding down the conversation I said, “well what’s the answer?” He said one word, “Love.” It sounded the first word anyone ever said. Again I had the feeling of falling through layers of self, of time, of blocks fitting into place, and I knew from that moment my life would never be the same.