Living a life of Jewish integrity

Lighting Hanukkah candles with my kids.

Young people at my synagogue, Binghamton’s Temple Concord, are wrestling with some mighty large ideas as part of this year’s confirmation class. I’m speaking to the teens tonight at the invitation of our rabbi. The overarching question for our session is “What must a person do to live a life of Jewish integrity?”

Sheesh! I feel just a bit out of my depth on this one. Though I’m now a temple president, I didn’t set out to be a Super Jew, nor do I really feel like one. It has been a steady, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sort of thing for me.

I attended Hebrew school. Became bat mitzvah. Went to confirmation class. And to Jewish summer camp. Served as a kindergarten aide in my hometown temple’s religious school. Became president of the local chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls. And so on and so forth, until I found myself organizing a Passover seder in the dorm during college.

I choose to be a Reform Jew because the values, rituals and traditions (and, yes, the food) give meaning to my life. I think there are numerous ways to be a good person and to lead a good life, but being grounded in this particular religious tradition makes it easier to see one of those ways.

I appreciate being part of a religious movement that encourages me to think deeply, to care about social justice and even to question authority. I appreciate that the Reform movement operates not in a vacuum but with a full awareness of the challenges and opportunities that are part of life in 21st century America. (Is it ever all right to text while I’m at temple? Is it OK for my kids to do an Easter egg hunt with my non-Jewish in-laws? And what the heck is going on in Israel?)

There are, of course, moments in my life as a Jew that stand out in my memory. Making motzi with hundreds of other kids at camp for the first time. Realizing that my friends at a summer college program were not mostly Christian with a few Jews mixed in but rather were predominantly Jewish with a few goyim trying to decode the Yiddish words that peppered our conversation. Holding my baby girls in my arms as they received their Hebrew names.

But for the most part, my Jewish practices aren’t about the big events so much as the everyday:

For example, I close my eyes when I recite the Shema. I picture Jews around the world and through the millennia saying those same words, and even if I’m alone I feel like I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with millions.

I light Shabbat candles with my family every Friday night, and we say the blessings over the bread and wine before we eat. We don’t get to have dinner as a family every single night, and we hardly ever say motzi before meals, but those Shabbat dinners are special to me, a way of experiencing Sabbath peace together. In Mishkan T’filah (right next to the words to the song Yismechu, I think) it says, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” So true.

The rabbi has also asked me to leave the students with a piece of advice about living a meaningful Jewish life. I think I’ll share with them this bit of wisdom from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.”