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By Lizzie Gomes, WHC Member
“You’ve come to the right place!”
Those were the first words said to me by a Washington Hebrew Congregation member.
I had drafted the outreach email to WHC and stared at it for 30 minutes, too nervous to click send in case I sounded silly, was emailing the wrong person, was too informal, or spelled my name wrong. I finally hit send and shut my laptop. A few weeks later, the enthusiastic response was at the top of my inbox and my only regret was not sending that email 30 minutes earlier.
I was barely four years old when I first felt Judaism. I saw a dreidel at the store and asked my mom what it was because the children on the package looked like they were having so much fun. From then on, even before I could verbalize it, I had always felt the inherent yearning to find my way home. It felt as undeniable as having brown eyes. But what does that mean? How do I figure it out? Is this even allowed?
What made me take that first step was a conversation I had with my friend a few months earlier. We were discussing religion and I opened up to her about wishing I had been born Jewish so that I could be a real Jew. I told her that I wish I could wear a necklace with the Star of David on it but that I would feel false because I wasn’t technically Jewish. She told me, “There’s nothing false about that. I hope you can wear that necklace with pride one day.” There was something about what she said that made me ask myself, “What are you waiting for?”
I had been casually researching synagogues for a few months, but I couldn’t find one that I resonated with. It wasn’t until after the conversation I had with my friend, when I decided to really take the first formal step, that WHC popped up for the first time when I searched again. Whether a coincidence or divine intervention, I am forever grateful for the timing.
I was no longer trying to find an answer for others, I was now trying to find an answer for myself.
This past year has felt less and less like a conversion and more and more like walking through the front door of a house I never knew was my home. Learning the rules of the house, the quirks of the infrastructure, the customs of the family, the history of its architecture, and finally, which room I could choose to call my own. Is that room Orthodox? Conservative? Reform? It is none of the above. It is a room of my Jewish identity so long as I keep the bed made and a chair open for God. A room of my own but in a home full of other unique and individual rooms, each decorated differently but still in the same home. The Jewish home. All of us different from each other but still under the same roof, just a knock away.
In this Jewish room of mine, there are many books that pose wonderful questions by wise sages. One of the most debated questions being, “What is the meaning of life?” Philosophers spanning ancient generations to modern day have dedicated their entire lives to searching for this answer. I too have been one of those philosophers, eager to find the, “aha!” answer to a nearly rhetorical question. But why search for a universal answer to such an individual question? Adding just one word to the question changes the entire thought process – “What is the meaning of my life?”
However, life is complex, and the variables are infinite. The direction of the answer to this question becomes far more complicated when adding that one word. I spent my entire life up until last year trying to find the answer to a question that didn’t exist. Adding one word to that question reset everything I had accumulated to answer the nonexistent question because I was no longer trying to find an answer for others, I was now trying to find an answer for myself.
I’m not looking for the meaning of life anymore, I’m looking for the meaning of my life. My Jewish life.
Learning to read on our own is nearly impossible, so why should embracing Judaism be any different? One of my favorite concepts I have read, in one of the many books of my growing Jewish library, is the notion of chevruta — studying in pairs. Generally speaking, we are capable of reading on our own, but to learn, we require others. I have been blessed with the opportunity to not only work closely with Rabbi [Susan N.] Shankman but with each rabbi of WHC and even the wonderful cantors and the witty Gerdy. At no point have I felt unsupported, unloved, or unmotivated. Reading together, figuratively and literally speaking, not only helps to understand the narrative but to also understand each other’s narratives, making the finite pages of the Torah infinite.
Entering the process of conversion was initially intimidating — how does one merrily enter the most sacred and resilient of religions? But that’s just it, an eternal religion is not only carried down from generation to generation, but also through teaching those who seek it no matter their background.
Our relationship with God is not transactional. God is not a vending machine.
I grew up Catholic. A Jewish soul with a Catholic upbringing. I attended Sunday school, chose a Confirmation name, wore a crucifix, and prayed in beautiful cathedrals. I wish I could say I had a positive religious experience growing up, but the insidious sermons echoing in the extravagant church made the prejudicial rhetoric seem digestible. We were taught to love, but with contingencies; we were taught to care for others, but only those who qualified; we were taught to read the Bible, but not question it. I felt isolated and unwelcome in those crowded pews. I felt like a pariah living in fear of being seen; too scared to look up at the crucifix staring down at me.
This led to my relationship with God being strained, uncompromising, and, at one point, nonexistent for the years following the now-distant days of familial exile. Ostracized because whom I love does not conform to the Catholic expectation of traditional marriage. I was so mad at God. I would pray to God just to declare my anger and state that I rejected Him. Life itself was a daily obstacle during that time; I had turned my back on God because I felt that God had turned His back on me. It is easy to let anger control us, and even easier to point a finger at someone, or something, to blame so we have an outlet.
My entire life, I had let the Catholic perception of God make me believe that God was discriminatingly austere, unforgiving, and frightful. I was so frightened of God, believing Him to be unloving and caste. Out of stubborn pride, I converted my fear to anger. But anger requires time, energy, and willful, exasperating passion to keep ill feelings fueled. My voluntary anger with God was exhausting, yet I kept fueling the negativity. What had I done to God to deserve what I went through? Where was the humor in the irony of being hurt by the ones who loved me?
But as Rabbi [Aaron] Miller taught, our relationship with God is not transactional. God is not a vending machine.
Many stubborn years later, once life settled down, an epiphanic moment made me realize that God had never, at any point, abandoned me, even when I was actively renouncing Him. The epiphany was not triggered by anything, it came to me as quietly as a mosquito but as forceful as an ocean wave. What I later learned in 12 Jewish Questions is that God does not exist to fix our problems; God feels pain just like we do. When He created Earth from chaos, God, Creator of the lights of fire, gifted the Earth with the illumination. I finally understood that when I find myself trapped in the darkness of Earth’s chaotic origin, God does not create more light for me, instead, God is present to remind me how to use the light He gave each of us to dispel the darkness. Some people make decisions that lead to chaos, but chaos is unrelenting and does not require an invitation.
Even when life is beautifully harmonious, sometimes things just happen. It’s an underwhelming statement but in such a variable world, things happen without cause daily. God did not make my dad hand me a trash bag to fill with clothes, God did not make him say unrepeatable words either. But God was with me when I walked out the door for the last time. God never left me even when I accused Him of leaving. I just wish it hadn’t taken a tragedy and years of resentment for me to realize that.
With that being said, I was uneasy the first time I walked into Washington Hebrew Congregation for Yom Kippur. I was walking into a house of God on a high holy day sheepishly and shamefully cognizant of the years I had shut God out. I remember telling the person that checked my ticket that it was my first time there and, within one minute, two members volunteered to give me a tour and get acquainted with the surroundings. Everyone spoke to me like we had known one another for years. I sat alone for service, but I did not feel alone. Even the words of Kol Nidrei that delicately yet prominently approached me from behind before I turned around, enveloped me with warmth and belonging. Like walking in the door from a snowy day and being enfolded by the warmth of a roaring fireplace before you can even take your coat off.
I was not only vulnerable with God that day, but I was also vulnerable standing in a place I had never been before. But in both vulnerabilities, I felt safe to be who I was, safe to raise my gaze from the floor, safe to ask the person next to me what page we were on. I knew this as surely as those standing at Mount Sinai, that I was where I wanted to be standing.
I do not believe there would have been a better time for me to attend service in person for the first time than that day. Not only did I enter a formal covenant with God that day, but I also entered a temple I knew I wanted to belong to. In fact, I was so moved by the Hanukkah service later that year that I remember shedding a few tears of happiness. As I listened to each rabbi on the bimah, accented by the ethereal harmony of the cantors, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude to have been blessed enough to find a place I wanted to have the honor of calling home. To see a family I wanted to become a part of. To feel the generations of Jewish history and ancestry fill the room with holy warmth.
During this past year, I have received a lot of “whys?” from my friends and acquaintances. There is generally no malice in their curiosity, and I don’t mind answering, but the answer I have been providing is visibly underwhelming for them. I think as humans we innately crave deeply moving and unique explanations, and there is nothing wrong with that, but that will not be the nature of every response. So, when someone asks me why I am embracing Judaism and going through this process my answer is merrily, “Because it’s who I am,” and always has been.
I started to notice that my Jewish identity was no longer invisible, people were seeing it.
If my friends know anything about me, it is my love of food. So, when I explained that I was adopting a kosher diet – no pork, shellfish, or mixing meat and dairy – they were surprised and again would come the question, “Why?” and, honestly, I didn’t have that answer until a few months ago. I cannot explain why God gives us kosher restrictions, but the beauty of Judaism is being given the choice to practice a kosher diet simply because God says so. Cooking with kosher cognizance has given me a new appreciation and appetite for food, whether that be a delicious meal I spent hours in the kitchen cooking, or something as simple as toast. Hamotzi has made the bread taste wonderful, blessing the wine adds a new flavor, braiding challah forms a holy shape, and asking for a cheeseburger without cheese creates a seat for God at the restaurant I am eating at.
I expected to face agitation from my friends when I first informed them of reserving my Friday evenings for Shabbat, reserving my Sundays for Jewish study, and observing new holidays. To my surprise, my friends instead met me with the question, “Can I join?” Some come over on Fridays and volunteer the opportunity to welcome Shabbat. Some come over on Sundays when I am studying, and they are doing something of the equivalent as we silently enjoy each other’s company. My best friend invited herself to Pride Shabbat before I even finished my sentence telling her about it. My friend asked me to send her the link for the Purim service because she loves ABBA.
This is when I started to notice that my Jewish identity was no longer invisible, people were seeing it.
As Cantor [Susan R.A.] Bortnick taught us one night in 12JQ, there is an indescribable beauty in Jewish liturgy. My Fridays are no longer the days of rushing home to collapse on my couch and say, “Finally, work is over for the week.” I eagerly await Fridays not just so I can pour a glass of wine, but so I can reflect on how God created grapes and we transformed them into wine; taking partnership in the work of creation. I no longer dread the end of the weekend, because I am excited to light the Havdalah candle, smell the sweet spices, and gaze at what I now call the Jewish light, casting a holy illumination for the extra soul I receive on Shabbat to leave until next Friday. Fasting for Yom Kippur was not a day filled with dreaming of food, it was a day of sentimental prayers and sanctifying my relationship with God. Purim was not a boring history lesson; it was a chance to reawaken joy and celebration by interacting with history. Judaism is deeply individualized and intimate, but Judaism is also about celebrating our history through tradition. By joyous celebration and reverent reflection, we continue the resilience of Judaism.
We can make the smallest moments in life holy; we can invite God anywhere even though He is always with us.
During my first meeting with Rabbi Shankman, she told me there are over 100 blessings we can say within a single day. I can’t even count 100 things I did in a week. But now I understand. For example, I recently received an unexpected promotion at work and instead of rushing to see what compensation change I could anticipate, I searched for a prayer of gratitude.
There have been moments of beauty and emotion where I want to say a blessing, but I don’t know which one to say or if a blessing even exists for that instance. In those moments, I remind myself of what Rabbi [Eliana] Fischel taught — if we don’t know what to pray about or can’t verbalize it, we can simply use our fingers to feel our pulse as a reminder of life. While blessings may seem subtle, each word is so profound, even the words unspoken. That’s what prayer can do sometimes — express to God what I cannot verbalize.
I have not gotten here by myself and getting here was not done by checking off boxes on a list.
The clergy at WHC heard in my voice what I could not hear and guided me to find the volume. Just as God guides me to find the light, He gave us moments of darkness.
Life does not always need moments of grandeur to be holy, we can make the smallest moments in life holy; we can invite God anywhere even though He is always with us. It is one thing to tag along with a friend, but it is another thing to feel invited and that your company is wanted.
Life is understanding that we are human and prone to mistakes but, like Moses, those mistakes do not have to prevent us from evolving and making the world a better place. Life is understanding that even the smallest amount of oil can illuminate a room for eight days. Life is embracing humility. Life is resiliency even in the face of adversity. Life is honoring our ancestors with tradition. Life is choosing to use our voices to praise and our choices to prepare the world for the World to Come. Life is realizing that I can atone for the 27 years of a voluntarily Godless life. Life is realizing that a relationship with God is a practice, not an end goal.
But I return to my earlier question — what is the meaning of my life? I will answer that with my favorite line from Havdalah – hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol; who distinguishes the holy from the ordinary. To remind me of God even in the simplest of tasks. To use the light He gifted us to dispel the darkness of the world, not just for myself, but for those around me. To make conscious decisions with Jewish influence. To realize that I am not converting to Judaism but returning to Judaism.
My meaning is not just being Jewish, but actively Jewish.
This story was originally published on Ms. Gomes’ blog, and can be found at https://lizziearinda.blogspot.com/2022/08/jew-ish-to-jewish.html. It has been lightly edited.
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