Have a Little Faith

Every year around this time I get the chance to re-connect with family and friends in my community through the Jewish high holidays. When I was a child, I used to look forward to the holidays so that I could see my friends and wear one of the new outfits my mom had bought me for the special day. The fact that the meaning of the holiday was lost on me was due in part to the fact that we attended a Conservative synagogue where the sermon typically focused on donations and guilt rather than hope, promise and introspection. Additionally, I never received a Bat Mitzvah as a child because the rabbi didn’t believe in giving girls the opportunity to recite their Haftorah during shabbos. If I truly wanted one, I would have to do it on a Thursday. My mom was incensed with that option and instead, gave me the choice to have a Bat Mitzvah or a sweet sixteen. I opted for to drop out of Hebrew School, skip my Bat Mitzvah and we went to Israel instead – which incidentally, was one of the most memorable vacations I’ve ever taken with my family.
When it was time for my family to decide which synagogue we were going to join, I again made the decision a bit frivolously. You see, my passion is singing and writing and when a good friend told me that she got to perform annually in the Temple Follies, I was hooked. I convinced my husband that we had to enroll in the synagogue and poof, we were members. I should also say that we had been attending services there before we became members and the senior rabbi at the time also presided over my daughter’s baby naming, so I did like what I saw, I just didn’t take anything too seriously when it came to the decision making process over our house of worship.
Over the years, there were many changes at our synagogue, our original senior rabbi, who many of us came to adore, decided to pull up stakes and move to Oregon with his family. Our associate rabbi left shortly thereafter when his wife, a cantor landed a great job in Chicago. While this became great fodder for Follies, I didn’t think twice since I wasn’t that attached – or so I thought.
Another rabbi joined the congregation along with an associate rabbi who seemed quite young at the time, but I’d soon discover how incredibly wise she was. There were also a few constants. The cantor for the synagogue – one of the most gifted performers and a motivating force among the children has always been someone I’ve admired and liked as a person and when I heard friends sharing stories of their kids’ Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, they always remarked on how wonderful he was with their child as they struggled to recite their portion of the torah. The Rabbi Emeritus and Cantor Emeritus, who I’ve come to know through our Follies rehearsals, and are two of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
In the last year, another senior rabbi joined our temple and despite the fact that he too seemed quite young, what I’ve come to discover in the short time he’s been a part of our temple is that he is a gifted storyteller, a motivator, a community activist, runner, father and much more.
Which leads me to the sermon that both shared on Rosh Hashana. Our senior rabbi focused on pursuing goals for ourselves and our community and to stop coming up with excuses with why we can’t achieve the unthinkable. He shared a story of the first time he ran a marathon and almost gave up until he saw a man in front of him with one leg tackling the 26 mile race on a set of crutches. He also spoke about professor Randy Paucsh – who lost a battle to pancreatic cancer but rather than spend his final days wallowing in self pity, he shared his “Last Lecture” with students at Carnegie Mellon about how he set out in life to always pursue his dreams and managed in a variety of ways to achieve them. The rabbi’s sermon left me energized, inspired and ready to tackle the dreams I’ve set out for myself in the coming years ahead.
The following day, I attended the family service with our associate rabbi who, as I had said earlier, is wise beyond her years. I will never forget the day after my daughter’s beloved Hebrew teacher was tragically killed in a home fire and all of us were shell shocked. We didn’t know what to tell our children about how to cope with the news and yet, our associate rabbi knew just what to say. I remember her speaking to the children the morning after it happened and sharing a story about a jewelry box that evoked so many memories for her. At the heart of it, her message was simple and powerful – despite the fact their teacher was gone, her memory will always live on through the students she guided and the philanthropic mitzvah projects she helped them turn into reality.
This year, she tackled the subject of judging a situation versus being judgmental of another person, and I have to admit that I have been guilty of the latter. Who doesn’t confide in a friend when someone does something they don’t agree with or takes objection to their actions? But what the rabbi made us aware of is when someone does something we might not be happy with, there is probably a back story to their actions that we might not be taking into consideration. As much as it is hard to forgive someone for bad behavior, it’s sometimes better to give them the benefit of the doubt and move on rather than passing judgement.
So as I prepare to start the Jewish New Year – 5771, what I can say is that both sermons provided me with a great deal of food for thought in the year ahead. As I continue to pursue all those hard to achieve goals on my bucket list, I will strive to do more for my community. At the same time, I will try my best not to pass judgement and give my peers and my own kids the benefit of the doubt (within reason of course).
No matter how old you get, we always need teachers in our lives who can inspire us to achieve while taking stock in our own actions. And what I’ve come to discover is that some of the best teachers I’ve ever met are rabbis and cantors. All you have to do is listen and learn.