Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Can You Feel It?

It’s Thursday night, and I’m sitting in a bar with a friend. Earlier that day, we had said farewell to our graduating rabbis and cantors, and now we’re thinking about our far-off and yet not-so-far-away graduations. I tell her that while I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year, I just don’t feel like a cantor yet. I don’t know if I ever will or when that will happen. Ordination? Interning? A few years after being in the field? It’s easy to get bogged down in verb conjugations and musical modes and Talmudic debate in your first year of school and forget that there is a world beyond our beit midrash, let alone feel prepared for it.

Friday night, nearly 24 hours later, I’m sitting across a table from the same friend, and I smile and tell her that tonight was a good reminder of why I do what I do. I’ve just finished leading my first service for residents in a senior center, and I couldn’t have imagined a warmer and more fulfilling experience. Their love for the music and my love of the prayers and their affection kept me smiling the whole time. Though my mind raced every second of the way, being able to look at the circle of people surrounding me with their small cups of wine or grape juice in hand as I led them in Kiddush reminded me why I do what I do. Why we, the Jewish leaders, do what we do in service of our communities.

Being a clergy member means acting as a focal point. I hesitate to say this, because I don’t really like to be the center of attention. Like, ever. I have colleagues who thrive in the spotlight, and I often think, nope, that’s not me.  But I will admit that people look to the cantor for guidance and leadership, and that is something I love.

I like to think of the cantor as the concertmaster of an orchestra. She is on the same level as everyone else because she is just one player in the midst of many, but she is the one cuing and leading people. In a symphony where there is no conductor, the concertmaster is the one who makes the musical decisions. Together, the whole group creates the music. Together, the entire congregation sends their prayers to God. The cantor is just the one guiding them through the experience. At the end of the day, the congregation could function without the cantor, but the entire process goes more smoothly when there is someone to look to for cues, melodies, and consistency. Not only that, but our Jewish leaders are the ones who can take a bunch of skilled musicians and transform them into a fantastic, cohesive orchestra. We are the community builders.

For this service in particular, I built community through memory and connection. As much as the world needs us to be innovators, we are also preservers of a tradition. A tradition so powerful that connects people not just with their childhood from 70, 80 years ago, but also to their parents and their parents’ tradition and their parents’ tradition. There is something sacred in preservation, which I particularly felt when leading this service. The tunes I used were familiar ones, not just because they garnered the most participation, but because they were the appropriate channel at this place and time for a spiritual experience. They allowed us to form a connection among ourselves and to the congregations of years past that used these same tunes.

Walking into an already established Jewish community, I felt that I was both able to build it up and join it as I led the congregants through the service. The fact that everyone appreciated my services and I enjoyed the people there was a huge plus. I have finally felt what it means to embody the work that I wish to do.

Now it’s Saturday morning, and as I clip my kippah to my head before heading out to lead my weekly kids’ service, I smile at myself in the mirror.

“Looking good, Cantor Jenn Boyle.”

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Who lives who dies who tells your story

My school’s Holocaust remembrance program today centered around sharing stories. As we moved around the room talking about family members who we hold close on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I immediately thought about the woman who I called bubbe but everyone else knew as Eva Winston.  She was the grandmother of my high school boyfriend, and she meant a lot to me.

And I realized I’ve never told her story.

It’s never been my honor or my task to. She only passed away last year, and even when her life came up in conversation, there were family members and those who knew her more intimately than I who could weave together the threads of her life into a complete picture.

When it was my turn to share today, I felt the enormity of the task of remembering. Where do I begin? How can I capture someone so full and dynamic? I felt a similar loss of words when I was trying to put something together to share about her at her funeral. Out of the ninety-one years that she lived, I knew her for only the last four.

But here I am, needing to try to tell her story because to remain silent about her life is to do her the greatest disservice.

If there is anything you should know about bubbe, it’s that she had the biggest heart out of anyone I know. She always made a point to make me feel welcome in her home. It started from the second you walked into her house. “Hello, my darling!” she would call before she even saw my face. And then as I came into the living room, her eyes would light up and she would exclaim, “Well, this is a surprise! The best surprise!” even if I had told her I was coming over.

I learned after my first visit that you don’t say no when bubbe offers you food. She’s relentless about making sure you’re fed and won’t take no for an answer. When her health wasn’t so great and I would go to her house to visit, she’d fret that she wasn’t able to cook me something. Once, I went over to her house, and we made pierogies together. And we ate all of them together, and the leftovers went into the fridge. Most days, bubbe didn’t each much. But if you brought her food that you had made, she would eat every last bite.

Once you had settled yourself on the couch next to her, you were in for a treat. Bubbe expressed herself through story, and she was a master storyteller. You may have heard the same tale a thousand times already, but it didn’t stop you from listening for the thousand and first time. She had a thick German accent and an incredibly animated voice that swung from the highest tones of shock to the lowest mutterings of friendly conspiracy. Her laugh was infectious, which paired nicely with her great sense of humor. She loved to tell about how she cared for a little baby on the train that she took when she fled Vienna. Or the story about how she worked in what she thought was a hotel as her first job in England… only to find out it was a whorehouse! Or the story about how she left for America very pregnant and refused to give birth until she was in the states so that her baby could be American, and she gave birth right after she arrived. Or the story about how she joined the British army as a nurse, and they took all the new recruits in to the hospital, and they all passed out at the sight of the gruesome ward but not her! She was the last one standing and put to work.

There were many stories that bubbe shared with everyone, but there was one I felt that she kept in her pocket especially for me. For the first couple years that she knew me, I was a practicing Catholic. And once she found out, bubbe told me about the Christians she lived with in England after she fled from Vienna. She told me of how she had a Christmas tree, how she ate ham, and how much she loved that family. She’d always conclude by saying, “It’s all the same God, in the end. We’re not so different.” Later when she learned about my conversion, she stopped telling me this story. But it stayed with me as a sign of approval and acceptance, and I keep it close.

Bubbe’s stories might seem like rambling, but it was just her way of conversation. She loved to explain, and teach, and offer advice. She’d often wink at me and her grandson and say, “As long as you really love a person, that’s all that really matters.” Her favorite concluding line after telling a long tale was always “that’s how life is.” It’s a simple idiom I still use to this day when there’s nothing left to say. Bubbe didn’t just use her stories to tell you about her past- she wanted to give you something that might influence your future as well, if you listened close enough.

I realize that I can never truly tell the full story of what bubbe went through. While it is important to retell the details of the Holocaust so that we can never allow anything like it to ever happen again, it is also important to recognize how people like bubbe reacted in the wake of that tragedy, so that we too might know how to act when injustice happens to us or the ones we love.

Following the Holocaust, bubbe dedicated her life to serving others. Even though all she offered were snacks and conversation and endless reruns on the cooking channel, she somehow gave me everything that she had. The only physical thing I have of hers is a pair of pearl earrings she insisted that I take, and when I wear them, I think of her. She gave me so much that can never be measured- a Jewish home to belong in, a warm welcome, a treasure trove of stories, a fondness for late afternoon tv… But beyond that, she has shown me how to give of myself. She is my model for service to the Jewish community. Though I will be serving it in a different way, I will never forget the way in which bubbe opened her home and her heart to everyone, even shy high school girls like myself who provided nothing but a listening ear and a hand to hold.

You can read more about her life and how she survived the Holocaust in this newspaper article:

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Fun Fact!

I was looking up my Jewish birthday out of curiosity, and you’ll never guess what I discovered.

June 2, 1994 = the 23rd of Sivan

June 11, 2015 (the date of my conversion) = the 24th of Sivan

What a crazy coincidence! The Jewish date for my conversion was one day after the Jewish date of my birth. It feels very fitting.

I’m looking forward to my Jewish birthday weekend, which is going to fall on June 17th and 18th this year. I’ll have to think of something fun to do to celebrate the birth of my Jewish self, or as I call it, my Jewniversary.

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The Journey’s Not Over

Hey friends!

I know it’s been a while. I stopped writing regularly because I completed my conversion and I figured, well, that’s it. I’ve done this process, I’ve gone over all the oys and joys of this converting business, and now we can move on.

Not quite.

We, the Jews by choice, never really stop choosing Judaism. We choose it in little daily acts, and we choose it in big life choices that we make as well.

I’ve realized that there are still struggles unique to a Jew by choice that continue after we have dipped and recited our brakhot and been members of our community for what feels like a long time.

I was talking with a Jewish man whom I considered a friend, and he let me know that he could never date, let alone marry, a woman who had converted to Judaism because he needs to be with a “naturally born Jewish woman.” Only a born Jew and her family could provide a true Jewish family and culture. The conversion “would never be enough.”

To all Jews who continue to see us as second class Jews, I offer the following response:

Take it from a Jew who has fought long and hard to be who she is: we are more than enough. Do you know the work I had to do to get to this place? Do you know the things I’ve sacrificed and the beautiful things that I’ve gained? We are every bit a Jew as you, and we are valid, worthy, contributing members of communities. You and your opinions are the reason I am still hesitant to answer when people ask what temple I went to growing up or how my family raised me. Because you and others like you make me feel less than. You remind us of our different past and use it against us like it is some sort of weakness rather than seeing and accepting us as full Jews.

You want a Jew who was naturally born. For me, there was nothing more natural than coming home to Judaism, and I continue to thrive in Jewish environments. Have you been in the kahal when I lead a Friday night service? Have you drunk from the cup over which I have made kiddush? Have you held my hand as we swayed and said havdalah or have you davened beside me during the days of awe? You will see that in all of these things, there is no distinction between convert and non convert. We are all Jews. We are all born with this Jewish soul that we come to realize at different points in our lives. And we are all equal.

I hope someday when I have a congregation and a Jewish family of my own and I’m changing the world for the better, you see how wrong you are about me and all converts. Though we do not need to prove ourselves to others, you will seem time and again converts who are creating lasting impacts in their Jewish communities. And it’s a beautiful thing.

To all converts who are struggling and feeling like they are made to feel unworthy, I offer the words from Joe Buchanan’s song Unbroken: “I chose a brand new path- it was waiting for years. And there was plenty of room under that tree for the whole wide world, even you and me.”

His whole song, which I had the pleasure of listening to him play recently, reassures us that, yes, indeed, it is a beautiful thing to choose to be chosen. Don’t let anyone have you believe otherwise.

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Reflection Is Its Own Teacher

Four years ago today, I graduated high school. Though this revelation was prompted by a friend’s Facebook post, I pondered this milestone after sitting through Hebrew College’s graduation and ordination ceremonies. In three years, I too will be graduating for the third time, and my years in college have taught me that time does not wait for anyone. It passes you by faster than you can ever imagine.

I heard something at Hebrew College’s commencement that really stuck with me: we do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience. Before I embark on my next great adventure tomorrow, I want to learn, and so I turn to reflection.

In January, I spent ten life-changing days in Israel. I mean truly touching and transformative in every way. Going on birthright changed me as a Jew, literally in the sense that I became a bat mitzvah but also in ways more subtle. Through birthright, I fell in love with a nation that I never had really called my own until that point. Seeing the land of Israel allowed me to physically conceptualize an otherwise intangible concept. Wandering the land of Israel allowed me to wander home. I’m going back someday; there’s not a doubt in my mind.

In February, I received the news that I had been waiting my entire undergraduate career to hear: I had been accepted into cantorial school. When I got my acceptance letter, I could still remember the day when I first decided I wanted to be a cantor, and the overwhelming doubt and exhilaration that filled my mind as I began to comprehend both becoming Jewish and becoming a leader of the Jewish people. It felt incredibly fulfilling to know that all of my hard work had not only paid off for myself, but made me a desirable candidate at a wonderful institution.

At the end of the month, my luck changed. The woman who had been a grandmother to me passed away, which was preceded by the deaths of immediate family members of two of my friends. They say that death comes in threes; I think we would prefer that death didn’t come at all. Being a comforter and then a mourner myself taught me a lot about human empathy and strength. Additionally, I had always felt that my knowledge surrounding Jewish funeral rites was lacking. I can now say that I’ve had more than my fill and wish that this learning experience hadn’t been so raw and personal.

April saw the end of my five-year relationship with my boyfriend. I don’t really have the words yet to make sense of it, but it still shakes me to my core on a daily basis. I am in the process of reshaping who I will be after it.

In May, I graduated Hofstra, completing my undergraduate degree and marking the end of four years of truly amazing growth. By the time I left Hofstra, I had made unbreakable friendships, deepened my knowledge of music theory, history, and practice, led a Jewish a cappella group, served as Vice President and President of my Jewish organization, and advised a Jewish high school youth group. The list goes on. There was never a dull moment, and it was a four years well spent.

Tomorrow, I begin cantorial school. If I’ve learned anything from these past six months, it’s that the next chapter of my life is going to transform me in unexpected ways. It’s going to come with unbelievable highs and accomplishments. It’s going to give me first hand experience, both positive and negative. It’s going to leave me broken and hurting in unexpected ways. And it’s going to fill me with an unknowable, inexplicable joy the day that I receive my Master’s in Jewish Education and certificate of cantorial ordination.

May the coming years be not only a blessing, but years of learning.

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Rain Rain Go Away

Chag Sukkot Sameach, my friends.

We’ve had quite a lot of rain this week, and I was just thinking about how appropriate it is. As a group of us stood huddled under the skakh (roof) of our sukkah with the rain dripping in and the icing running and starting to pool on our cookies, I thought, “It should rain every year.”

Rain helps us reflect on the impermanence of structures and the fragility of life, which is exactly what we should do on this holiday. We escape the rain at other times of the year by hiding in our homes, watching from behind thick glass windows as the world gets drenched. When it gets under our skin and drips down our backs and squirms its way into our clothes, we experience rain in a whole new, uncomfortably intimate way. I was happy for a little discomfort if it helped me connect to my ancestors and the struggle that they lived through. The Israelites used to live in tents, so the least I can do is spend a couple days in one.

Then came the weather alerts, the storm watches, and the threat of the hurricane. I felt the guilt seeping in. What have I done? All I wanted was a little rain. I began thinking back to the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy three years ago, and I start reconsidering my newly formed relationship with rain. As I stood outside taking down the decorations from our sukkah, chilled to the bone, I came to resent the weather and the sudden harshness of the environment.

Even though the hurricane blew out to sea, enough gusty wind made its way up to New York to demolish our sukkah overnight. What started as this:


Became this overnight:

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Fragility doesn’t just mean impermanent. What is fragile quickly snaps under too much pressure. If human life is as fragile as our flimsy sukkah (which by the way, was not so flimsy), then there are countless human lives that are also in this demolished state.

Brandon, blogger and photographer behind Humans of New York, captured the brokenness of human life in a haunting series of refugee photographs. These people are the embodiment of fragility- they have lost everything, fled from their homes, experienced unimaginable trials and pain, and don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next.


Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that I could build a house in Syria. It only had two rooms and a bathroom, but for me it was paradise. We lived there for about twenty years. We did not want to leave. We have young children and no money to travel. But it became impossible to live. Our house was situated between the army and the opposition. Every day the army knocked on our door, and said: ‘Help us or we will kill you.’ They came to the restaurant where I worked and accused us of feeding the enemy. We hid in the cellar while they beat the manager. If the opposition managed to capture our village, we would also be killed. They would accuse us of collaborating with the army. We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” (Lesvos, Greece)- Caption included with photo

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

Copyright Brandon at Humans of New York

“I’m working as an interpreter. I know what these people are going through. My family fled Afghanistan because the Taliban wanted to kill my father. I arrived in Greece fifteen years ago. We came across a river from Turkey. We tried to walk at night but we knew that we’d been caught because we kept seeing red lasers pointed at us. We saw the glow of night vision goggles through the trees. But nobody approached us, so we thought that maybe we had been mistaken, and we kept walking. Eventually we came upon a car along the road that had driven into a ditch. The lights were on and the doors were open. We thought somebody might be hurt inside, so everyone ran toward the car. But it was a trap. The police came swarming out of the trees. I’d been told many times that they’d beat us when they found us. But it was even worse than I imagined. They treated us like animals. They wore masks and gloves because they were afraid to even touch us. It was like we weren’t human.” (Kos, Greece) -Caption included with photo.

Life is not just fragile. Life is broken. Spending time in our sukkah, laughing, enjoying good food, and thinking about life is a mitzvah (commandment) and a wonderful way to spend Sukkot. But if we really open our eyes to fragility and our hearts to empathy, there is no way that we can stand by while the lives of others are destroyed by some inexplicable storm. For those of us who are lucky enough to not have to trudge through the storm on a daily basis, we need to extend an umbrella. Offer a rain coat. Open our homes. We need to do what little we can to somehow fix these glaring injustices.

The values of Sukkot are not archaic. They can help us fix the world we live in right now, today. I was deeply saddened by the stories that Brandon shared, so when he posted a fund to help the refugees, I knew immediately that I needed to contribute. I wish there was more I could do, and my heart aches for everyone affected. We need to be the stability in the storm, whether that means supporting each other emotionally, financially, or physically. Though we break easily, we are all stronger together.

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Happy New Year

The new year starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited! I am welcoming this new year as a Jew for the first time. It feels absolutely stunningly wonderful.

My simple resolution: to be joyful. I resolve to be messier, haphazard, abundant, and beautiful loving proud HAPPY.

To let my feet dangle off the edges of oblivion and proclaim


This is me.

Jews are pretty good at hospitality, if I say so myself. I think it’s in our nature. I can think of no better example than the welcome I had at camp this summer.

On July 12th, I casually mentioned to a close friend of mine, an Israeli and fellow staff member, that yesterday was my Jewniversary. She looks at me.

“Your what?”

“My Jewniversary. It’s been exactly one month since I converted to Judaism.”

“You’re WHAT??!”

So that prompted my long explanation and her presentation of two slices of cake at lunch. She got the entire table to sing with her in loud, racuous voices, “Siman tov and mazel tov AND SIMAN TOV” until they finally paused to catch their breaths and gasp, “Why are we singing?”

Lea shouted, “It’s Jenn’s Jewniversary!!!”

They glanced at me with shining eyes and gathered lungfuls of fresh air and began the chorus anew- SIMAN TOV AND MAZEL TOV.

When the singing subsided, they asked more seriously, “Why are we singing?” and I shared my story to an incredibly captivated audience. This prompted my Rosh (boss) to organize a party, which I insisted that I didn’t need.

Nevertheless, after a Shabbat dinner in August, I was led into a room filled with rabbis, friends, colleagues, bunk mates, and people who had somehow come to know and love me within the past two months. Before anyone could say anything, the cantor led the entire group in a song. Avinu Shaaaaalom Aleichem… The first sweet notes of welcome were not spoken but sung, and I couldn’t help but think how fitting.

A few people spoke warmly and passionately about my journey. I received the most precious gifts that night- kind words, hugs, silly anecdotes, and even an acorn from Israel to plant at my own home someday. I fought back the tears that I felt at all of this sudden warmth and love and affection. Then we cut the cake, and a friend of mine shoved piece after piece into my hands, faking a German accident and harkening back to the bubbes we all know and love, “Eat, eat, put some meat on your bones, have another, my darling…” We dissolved into laughter as everyone circled me to offer their warm wishes and congratulations.

So tonight, I welcome the year 5776 in the same way- with laughter and singing, good food and family warmth, emotion and nostalgia. It’s now just past my three month Jewniversary- I look forward to many more in the year to come.

Shanah Tova! May your coming year be a sweet one.


Jewish Ethnicity

Today, I was told by a room full of Jews that I could never be a Jew.

Which is fine, really. I only spent years studying and underwent numerous trials and tribulations to be who I am.

No one minds if I belong to the Jewish community. No one minds if I take part in Jewish life. Heck, no one even minds if I call myself Jewish.

The problem lies in being a Jew, which some people define as an ethnicity. You can’t choose your ethnicity, they argue. Just look at Rachel Dolezal and everything she said this summer. You are either born with it (or in this case, born from a woman who was born with it), or you’re not it. Plain and simple.

I try and retaliate and say that a Jew is not defined by a Jewish mother but by the affiliation he has with his religion, the ties she makes to her community. And the argument takes a sharp turn. You can never know what we went through because your family never went through it. You can never understand the Holocaust because your family didn’t die. Your past will always be a part of you and your past is not our past. You can’t tell our jokes or have our babies because you don’t have Jewish blood in your veins.

I think before I attempt to tackle this problem, we have to agree on what ethnicity means. I present you with the dictionary definition of ethnicity.

An ethnic group or ethnicity is a socially defined category of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience.


If you want to go all the way back, I could begin my argument with Adam and Eve, we all have the same ancestors, that sort of thing. I know that’s not going to work for the majority of you. It’s true- my family is not Jewish. I am not denying that fact. However, if being Jewish to you is nothing more than a pedigree, you have a pretty narrow scope of what it means to be one of the tribe. I share in your Biblical history and relate to the same forefathers that we all aspire to be like. Our roots are the same. You know your Biblical ancestors just as well as I do because we all look at them through the same window- our sacred texts.

Okay, but what about our recent ancestors, our family history? Over the years, I’ve adopted various Jewish families as a sort of foster for the holidays, special occasions, and just general Jewish living. I’m not denying the impact of my own family. I love them, and they will always be my family. But family is more than blood. Family are those who have shaped us into the people we are. Sometimes, that’s not our blood relatives, and I must tell you frankly that my parents did not teach me how to be a good Jew. You might define a family by lineage and genealogy, but I define them by something more meaningful and less tangible.

I think of the adopted family members I have in my life. The happiness that spreads across bubbe’s face when she smiles and exclaims, “You are family!” as she squeezes my hand. My sitting at the head of my friend’s table at Pesach as he holds the matzah high above us. A relative calling, “kinderlach!” as she shuffles down the hallway. The sadness in bubbe’s eyes as she recounts each relative perished in the Shoah and the corresponding ache and heaviness in my heart mixed with anger and a sort of determined pride.

My Jewish family is scattered and diverse and loving and above all, mine. My home is where they are .

Society and Culture.

I’m putting these two together. If I didn’t feel a part of the Jewish culture, I wouldn’t be so active in my Jewish community. Culture encompasses everything that we do that makes us different. The foods we eat, the times we pray, the celebrations we have, the way in which we mark our lives. One’s culture is apparent by his ease and participation in it, and I’ve written countless testaments to my embracing of Jewish culture. Enough said.

National Experience.

The Jews have a homeland, and that homeland is Israel. While I’ve never been there myself, I’ll be going for the first time this January. Even so, I stand with Israel. I don’t agree with everything that everyone there says or does, but it’s my home, albeit the one I have yet to lay eyes on.

To those who say I am not a Jew- there is nothing more hurtful. I’m sorry if I do not conform to your typical expectations or definitions, but I am not sorry for who I am or for the choice that I’ve made. I’d do it a thousand times over if I could. And Abraham, your great patriarchal father from whom you all descend? Just remember that he was a pagan worshipper and a convert.

Like me.


Head Over Heart

Scene From Above

I stand before my reflection,

Reflecting that this depiction of my self is incomplete,

contemplating tradition.


The word bounces off the tiled walls and ricochets in my head,

mixed with the notes of a fiddler perched just out of sight.

High above my head You sit

looking down at my fiddling thoughts

uncovered and bare for You too see.

So I cover them gently,

hiding myself from your view

and as I slip from your sight the last part of my being slips into place

and I am whole.

Somehow, in embracing a tradition, I become untraditional.

If you can recall my first blog post, I talked about what it was like when I put a yarmulke (said like yah-mih-kah) on my head for the first time. Now, the new year year is approaching the old one is ending, and I find myself coming full circle as I talk about the same subject once more.

See, ever since I’ve tried on my first yarmulke, I’ve wanted to keep it snugly on my head. But at the time, it wasn’t really an option or a possibility for me. I wore one this past Passover at a friend’s house, but that was different. That was following what everyone was doing, taking what was already placed in my hands and following suit.

I thought maybe at camp I would have an opportunity to wear one, and I did. Oh, did I have countless opportunities. But I convinced myself that by the time I found one that I liked and put it on, people were used to me without it and it was “too late.” So I learned how to pray with a talis (prayer shawl) instead, which was equally fulfilling.

Now it’s Friday, the first real Shabbat services and dinner back at school, and I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror trying to decide what to do. The reasons behind my wearing of one- respect before G-d and as a reminder of who I am and what I do- are clear, but still I find myself wavering.

I catch myself thinking, “I’m going to be the only woman wearing one. People are going to ask.” I try to shut these nagging worries out. But then I realize if I’m thinking these things, I can’t be the only one. Other women in my community might also want to wear one, but no one wants to be different. Someone has to be the first.

With new resolve, I take the black clip in my hand, attach the kippah to my head, and walk out with my head held high. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror- my entire self smiling and new and so Jewish and resolved and content. I’ve never looked more like myself.

The aftermath is almost irrelevant. But it’s too nice not to share. I’ll never forget everyone’s reaction when I walked in the room. I felt like someone who has lost 20 pounds or come back with a stunning new haircut. You look so good! That looks amazing on you! You’re my little Jewish girl! The compliments were unnecessary, but they were affirming. I did get one confused person asking, “Why are you wearing a yarmulke?” And my simple response was “because I can.”

Funny to think that while your head is covered your soul is laid bare. A kippah is more revealing to me than a short dress or a Jewish star around your neck. You know right away- hey, she’s Jewish. And that means something to her.

I’ve made a few other changes to my lifestyle this summer. I hope in this coming year, I can have the courage to continue to change for the better. More than that, I hope my comfortability with my Jewishness and my willingness to share gives others the courage they need to change themselves.

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I Am Jewish

Before I begin to tell you about the end, allow me to introduce myself: my name is Elisheva Sivan- אלישבע סיון – and I am Jewish.

I’ve been waiting a long time to say those words, and a feeling of pride swells in my chest each time I think them. ME, Jenn, Elisheva- I am Jewish. Finally.

Here’s how it happened.

David and I left York, PA around 9AM for the mikveh in Hewlett, NY. After stopping by Hofstra to visit some friends and driving through some incredibly harrowing traffic, we arrived at a tiny white house with some Hebrew scrawled along the outside, 20 minutes late to my scheduled bet din. I was flustered, to say the least. My sponsoring rabbi answered the door with a smile and an assurance that our tardiness was not an issue and ushered David, a friend, and me upstairs to where the other two rabbis were waiting.

My terrifying vision of a long wooden table and an interrogation spotlight melted away as I stepped into a carpeted living room with comfy armchairs and a rather squishy couch. The rabbi who taught my conversion class was there along with another rabbi whom I had never met.

We all settled in, my sponsoring rabbi next to me and the other two rabbis in chairs across from me. I was asked simply to begin by “telling us a little about yourself.” I’ve never liked that opener- where do I start and how to you expect me to cover the complexities of my past 21 years in 2 minutes? So I stumbled awkwardly through my introduction, giving a vague and rather unhelpful overview of my college experience and my involvement in Hofstra Hillel.

Once the other questions started, I was much more at ease. Some of them included “Why Conservative Judaism? What is the most exciting thing you’ve discovered? The most difficult? How does your family feel about your conversion? How do you personally or spiritually identify with Judaism?” Even though these questions were not exactly the ones I had practiced for, none of them caught me off guard. I breezed through my answers and kept them simple, heartfelt, and honest, often saying the first thing that came to mind.

My sponsoring rabbi and the rabbi who taught my class were convinced, but the other rabbi wanted to “really test me” before he gave the a-okay. He knew that I was going away to Jewish summer camp in a few days, and I am anticipating that it will be an incredibly rewarding and immersive experience. However, he asked what if I don’t like camp? What does that mean for Jenn and her Judaism?

I answered that camp, like any Jewish community, is only one representation of Judaism. If I don’t like camp, I’ll come home and analyze why. Was it the people? Was it the way the laws were taught? Was it the prayer community? Then, I can troubleshoot and learn more about myself and how I live as a Jew. You learn a lot from the experience you enjoy, but sometimes, you learn even more from the ones you don’t like. Not liking camp does not mean I don’t like Judaism- it just means that there was something in the way Judaism was enacted that doesn’t work for me, and I can adapt and grow using that knowledge.

The rabbi who posed the question said I gave a very Jewish answer and he needed no further convincing. I smiled, happy that passing the bet din was as simple as being myself and having a casual conversation. Part of me wishes that it could have gone on longer. I could have talked for hours.

Instead, I went downstairs to the mikveh, which was a lot smaller than I pictured. It was like a mini swimming pool- maybe 8 feet by 8 feet across and 5 feet deep in the shallow end where I stood, once I had walked down a series of steps into the incredibly warm water. The mikveh lady held my robe and instructed me to dunk myself completely.

Annnnnnd… under. The water felt no different from any other water I had been in. It sort of stung my nose and clogged my ears. One of the rabbis on the other side of the door had me repeat the blessing word for word after him. I glanced at the blessings engraved on the wall, my eyes tracing the Hebrew with apprehension. I was hypersensitive of my pronunciation, wanting to make sure that I didn’t miss a single syllable of the prayer.

After saying the Shehecheyanu and dunking for the third time, a series of “mazel tov!”s came from the mikveh lady and everyone outside. The sounds of congratulations washing over my head felt better than the waves of water that had spilled over my head three times.

I have to be honest, I didn’t feel a deep spiritual connection in the mikveh waters. But when I was drying my hair afterwards, I looked in the mirror, my fine hair sticking up like a fuzzy, newborn chick, and thought “Look at that! You’re Jewish. That’s a Jewish face looking back at you.” I felt everything wash over me in the most calm, serene way. I realized that from that point forward, I really am a new person. Transformed in the deepest, happiest, and most profound way.

I walked back upstairs to the living room and was immediately greeted with exclamations and happiness. Smiles. Hugs. The passing around of the words “mazel tov!” like it was a sweet bottle of wine we could all drink from and enjoy. I was asked to complete one more task- the recitation of the Sh’ma, which I did with the same focus and precision as the blessings downstairs.

My sponsoring rabbi and I took care of the paperwork, stating that on this day I cast my lot with the Jewish people. My Hebrew name- Elisheva Sivan- has a double significance. The first name I picked a while ago and it means God is my promise. I find, given the fact that I feel bound to this community and my relationship with G-d, that it is very fitting for the Jew that I’ve become. Elisheva was also Aaron’s wife in the Bible. Sivan is the month in which I converted and a modern Hebrew name that can be either male or female- a more recent addition to my identity and a constant reminder of this oh so special day.

So, I left carrying the documents signifying my Jewishness, a copy of The Conservative Life (a gift from my bet din), and a fire inside my soul that I feel will never die.

More than anything, I felt content. I realized that the conversion of my heart happened a long time before I went to the mikveh. Having my body and soul finally catch up makes me feel very tranquil. I also feel incredibly proud. Not just of what I’ve accomplished, but of my new identity. I am proud to belong to this group, of the history of my people, of where we are today, of our cultural richness, and of the things we stand for.

There is nothing better than achieving something for which you’ve worked so hard, and converting has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I was tested multiple times, I overcame set-backs, I had my fair share of doubts, I was denied, turned away, scorned, and laughed at. I learned and cried and sometimes felt very much alone. Despite everything and thanks to the wonderful supporters I’ve had along the way, I’ve made it. A well-earned victory that I’m more than happy to share with you all.

The euphoria still hasn’t worn off, and I hope to never take my new identity for granted. On Monday, I am leaving for Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and I won’t return until mid-August. So you won’t hear from me for a while, but I do want to keep blogging. Even though the title of this blog- Converting to Judaism- has been fulfilled, I have a feeling I am still going to face a lot of oys and joys when it comes to choosing this Jewish life. I’ll continue to share them with you here.

For now, I am content. I am Jewish.


It’s Time

Well guys, the big day is tomorrow. I have my dress picked out and the blessings learned, instructions printed from mapquest and a council of rabbis waiting for me at the end of a long stretch of highway. I got this.

I’ve been telling nearly everyone I know that I’m heading off to the mikveh to officially convert this Thursday, and I get the same response. Whether they’re old or young, known me for a few months or a few years, they all say, “It’s about time.”

In part, I would agree with that sentiment. I feel like my conversion has been a long time coming. While I feel a little nervous about the bet din itself, I have no nerves or second thoughts about becoming a part of this religious community. I’ve been living this way for a while- time to take the plunge.

I don’t regret waiting. Even though I wanted to immediately convert after completing my six month class back in March, spending some time unpacking the class and planning the ceremony helped me clear my head and figure out what I really want this big change in my life to look like.

I’m scared. I’m excited. I’m ready to see what will happen tomorrow. Rather than saying “it’s about time,” I’m at the point where I can finally say, “it’s time.” Everything has fallen into place, and I’m ready. Wish me luck.


Welcome Home

I’ve been staying at my parents’ house for a little over three weeks. But today was the first time in a long time that I truly came home.

Let me bring you up to speed on my family.

My family is a very religious Catholic family of 7 (two parents, five kids including me). And it all stems from my mom, who is the powerhouse of the home. Church every Sunday, confession on Saturday, a crucifix in every room, grace before meals, rosaries in the evening, church every morning at 7:30AM in the summer (it didn’t even feel like a chore by the time I reached high school- I WANTED to get up at 7 and go), Christian music in the car and on the radio, fish on Fridays (even when it’s not Lent), and all of us kids have been altar servers, lectors, cantors, the like in church.

In my family, it’s always been 1. God, 2. Family, 3. School, and then 4. Everything else. I’ve been pulled out of class and dress rehearsals for church obligations in the past. All of my parents’ decisions are based on the Catholic church’s interpretation of Christianity. Even though I decided Catholicism is not something I could truly live whole-heartedly, this upbringing coupled with my loving parents gave me the solid foundation I needed to grow into the moral, respectful, observant woman I am today. I have no qualms with my parents or my childhood.

The last time I was here was the week of Passover/Easter because it was my school’s spring break. Despite my awkwardness with eating a completely different diet than my family and dipping out to go to seders at friends’ houses, I found my mother was extremely accommodating of my religious decisions. I was touched by every little gesture that my family made to accommodate my foreign Jewish lifestyle.

Apparently, spending Passover with my Catholic family was the best thing I could have done.

Today, my mom said that having me home for Passover gave her the opportunity to try and help me live according to my new lifestyle, such as when the two of us went out to buy matzah together. She really wants to help me live my new life, but she feels like she can’t ever really support me in my religion the way she can for my siblings because she doesn’t know anything about Judaism.

To hear my mother say that she wants to support me and my new identity made my heart swell. I’ve been waiting to hear these words for a really long time. I honestly thought I would never get her approval. I knew that my Jewish lifestyle felt like a rejection of everything my parents had ever taught me, and I preferred Shalom Bayit- peace in the home- to fights over my life choices.

For a while, I’ve been living Jewishly, regardless of whether I’m at school or with my family. This Jewish identity is one that I’ve adopted as my own and one that I am proud of.  Now I feel like my mom has come to a point where she has adopted a Jewish daughter as her own. It’s more than I was ever expecting, and for the first time, I feel like I can be comfortable in my own skin at my house.

Though my family will not be joining me at the mikveh this Thursday, it’s nice to know that I have their acceptance waiting for me when I return home. After thanking my mom for everything she’s done so far, I assured her that there’s much more I want to learn as well and we could do it together. I can see her in my future as a Jew- it’s easier for me to now picture my parents at my wedding, my children’s Jewish life rituals, and holiday celebrations. While it won’t be easy, it’s wonderful to know that we’ll be together for the important stuff, and that’s all that matters.

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It’s A Date

As of today, I am officially going before the bet din on June 11th at 3:30PM!!!

The bet din is a council of rabbis, in this case three of them, and they make decisions about legal matters within Judaism. The item up for discussion on June 11th is my conversion. If they decide I am kosher, I get to go to the mikveh- the ritual bath in which I will immerse myself completely- and say the blessing and BAM! New Jew. Official and everything.

Words can not even begin to express how excited I am. I don’t even know where to start. I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for this date and now it’s finally here. It’s such a beautiful and wonderful culmination of years worth of studying and learning and loving.

I wanted to share with you all that it’s finally happening, and as the day gets closer, I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to add and feelings to share. So stay tuned.


A Layer of Ownership

Recently, I read that going to the mikveh is more of an additive process rather than a subtractive one. I like that idea a lot. Many of my Christian friends equate going to the mikveh for conversion with baptism, which is fine, but if I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again as a born again Christian, I could have just as easily done that. The mikveh doesn’t wash away our past or purify our souls. It takes what we already have and transforms it. If you’ll permit me to use a food analogy, we are all bagels (different flavors and ages and sizes and seasonings) and the water of the mikveh is the shmear or the cream cheese and the lox- you tasted good and now you taste BETTER. An extra layer of tasty goodness.

I’ve been trying to think of layers I can add that will enrich the Jewish identity of post-mikveh Jenn. What kinds of toppings do I want to add to my bagel? When my sponsoring rabbi and I were discussing my upcoming conversion, he asked what I was looking forward to doing as a new Jew. Immediately, an image came to mind of me standing in front of my Jewish community, holding a glass filled with grape juice as the light outside begins to dim, and leading about 50 or so college kids in Kiddish. I know it seems like a small dream, but it’s something I’ve wanted since it was first denied to me a year or so ago. Soon I will not just be the woman who is really familiar with or passionate about Judaism, but also the woman who is Jewish. I can explain and share my OWN culture.

Once I have that sense of ownership, I can use my other passions to create new traditions within Judaism, keeping it very much alive while making it a part of myself. Last Shabbat when our cantorial intern was leading services, he mentioned that one of his favorite things to do was bring new melodies to the services and share them. I completely understand- you are not only sharing something beautiful, but your presentation and the quality of your voice creates an entirely new prayer experience that is all your own. Whether it’s through music or food or writing or something else entirely, I look forward to making a mark in a tradition that is old and ancient and soon to be mine.

I hope that my conversion will add to this growing sense of belonging that I’ve gathered over the years. More and more I’ve become a part of a tradition that is beautiful, and I feel like a member of a community that lives so vibrantly. I can’t wait to officially call this place and these people mine and for them to do the same for me.

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Bound By Love

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to get a feel for the community and learn more about their cantorial program.

I don’t want to overload you with all the details, so I’ll tell you one of the most touching parts of my day, though I admit there were honestly many, including the emotionally charged service led by a second year cantorial student.

During a meeting with one the rabbis, we left campus to grab a cup of coffee and go for a walk on a gloriously sunny afternoon. I love how nature is a hidden gem in the city: the blue skies are almost as elusive as the patches of grass. So when I found myself in a park above street level on a perfectly clear day, I thought I had stumbled onto a little slice of heaven.

The rabbi and I talked about Israel, the chaplaincy program, and a lot of different subjects. It was a deeper get to know you chat than just the typical rundown of name, academic skills, and personal history.

Then, he asked me a question that was simultaneously predictable and surprising: “How do you feel about davening with tallit and tefillin?”

I paused. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to these traditional objects. For those of you who don’t know, a tallit is a prayer shawl that you wrap around your body and tefillin are small boxes containing scripture that are wrapped around your head and arm.


Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

I told him that tefillin was outside my comfort zone- it was something I’d never tried and honestly a point of apprehension for me. Maybe that sounds silly, I remarked, but it was true. I explained that I understood the ritual in concept. I know that tefillin are there to remind us of G-d’s commandments and that the tradition comes from the book of Deuteronomy: “and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” But I confessed that I had a hard time understanding how these little boxes that I found awkward, cumbersome, and even intrusive added to prayer. How do they create a more fulfilling and spiritual prayer experience? How do they enrich the task that you are doing?

Obviously, there are many answers and interpretations to this question.  All I am offering is one that finally resonated with me.

With regards to the tallit, it acts as a loving embrace and source of comfort. When you pray with a tallit, you feel as though you are surrounded by God’s love. I’ve noticed the connection before. I remember noticing during the part of the Rosh Hashanah service when the men up front pulled their prayer shawls over their heads that they reminded me of David hiding under his fuzzy blanket, and I almost started laughing in shul. This layer of love adds to your prayer experience, and I had no trouble picturing myself held in a loving embrace, as it is a metaphor that I visualize often during prayer.

Up until this point, the rabbi and I had been walking. We had long since left the park. He stopped on the side of the street, and I thought we were about to enter a building. He gestures to his head, illustrating how one tefillin resides smack dab in the middle of your forehead. He then gestures to his bicep. The other is wrapped around your arm and down your hand, the box facing inward towards your heart. This way of wrapping binds your heart, mind, and arm all together. If you are not consulting your heart in your thoughts and actions, you are acting without conviction. All three should always be tied together.

Then he holds up his hand, threading an imaginary strap among the fingers. The prayer recited when wrapping the band around the fingers is beautiful, translating to the following:

I will betroth you to Me forever.
 And I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy.
 I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God.

Coupled with the loving embrace of the tallit, the use of tefillin in prayer is an act of transformative love. Each and every time we put on the tefillin, we are betrothed once again to G-d . Daily prayer with tallit and tefillin becomes a very powerful symbol of unconditional love, and a renewal of connection and a promise to know G-d intimately resides in one’s soul. That is the beauty of these simple objects. I never knew my soul ached to express that relationship through this ritual until now.

Of course, the emotional connection would not be immediate. It takes time to grow accustomed to something entirely new (see my post about the first time I attended Shabbat services. Not a happy camper.) I’m not going to don these objects immediately either because I want to ease into them with a community or mentor who can show me the ropes. I want my tallit to be significant, whether because I make parts of it myself or pick out a symbolic design. I want to explore the text of the prayers that I’m saying as I betroth myself to G-d.

For now, I’m grateful to have a better understanding of a ritual that can be so significant and moving. It’s not that I never had good explanations before this one. I’ve just never found an explanation that connected so well with me. With this new knowledge, I’ll set some tentative goals. I’m hoping to be praying with tallit a year from now and have at least started to experiement with tefillin by the following fall. But who knows? The path of my Jewish self-exploration could take me anywhere.

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Israel’s Namesake

Hi there, bloggers. I know it’s been a while.

Before I say anything else, I hope you all had a wonderful Pesach or Easter or just a normal week if that’s what it was for you. I was incredibly blessed to be invited to seders in PA for the first two nights, and I truly enjoyed the food and company at both.

Also, there’s some exciting news in my life that I’d like to share with you all. First, I completed my Introduction to Judaism course last month! The last session was bittersweet and also touching- it overlapped with the first class of the next group of students, so I said goodbye and they said hello. Next month, I am *hopefully* going before a bet din… and then on to the mikveh if all goes well! I can’t believe that this milestone in my process is nearly here. Then in June, I start work at a Jewish summer camp as an archery instructor! I’m incredibly excited to both help kids grow and grow myself in our Jewish identities.

As I’ve been telling everyone who asks why I’ve fallen below the radar, both on the internet and in my face-to-face relationships, I over committed this semester. I took on extra classes, extra work hours, extra responsibility. I’ve always been an expert juggler in the past. But I never realized how far was too far until I took on too much. Now, I’m sounding the retreat and carefully extricating myself from non-essential activities (hey, blogging). I’m gritting my teeth and bearing the rest of the burden that remains on my shoulders. Now that it’s spring break, I have a little time to myself again.

Lately, I’ve been feeling stretched thin. Or, as a character from one of my favorite movies says, “Like chocolate pudding scraped across too much ham.” My sponsoring rabbi often tells me about the analogy of the rubber band, and I’m feeling a bit like the rubber band right now with regards to my work. Someone who is new to Judaism will attempt to follow every rule, far over-extending himself and stretching the rubber band nearly to its breaking point. Then, he’ll withdraw back to a spot that is comfortable for him, and the rubber band is no longer in danger of breaking.

However, the rubber band remains taught, maintaining some of that tension even after the newly religious Jew finds his optimal balance. Tension is essential in our lives because it defines our relationship as Jews. The title of Adam’s blog, Wrestling With G-d, nicely encapsulates the wrestling match that ensued between Jacob and the angel of G-d and resulted in his name change to Israel. We question, we bargain, we argue, and we converse with G-d and each other. It’s simply not in our nature to do things to easy way.

So how do we go about creating tension? One rabbi I know infuses tension into his davening. Every week, he changes something about the way that he leads services,whether it’s a new melody or the omission/addition of a prayer. He explained to me that a goal of his leading services is to make everyone uncomfortable at least once so they can grow. Since then, I’ve tried to approach prayer in that way. If I find myself muttering the same words over and over again without infusing them with any new meaning, I’ll switch to reading the English translation. I’ll emphasize a different word. I’ll skip to a part that I normally don’t get to read. When we become comfortable, we stop conversing with God. We stop actively talking, but more importantly, we stop listening.

My observance of Judaism is certainly riddled with tension. I often find myself struggling to find that balance between assimilation into society and identification with the minority. Where does the tension between me and secular world cease being productive and start becoming unrealistic? I don’t want to push myself too much, but then how can I know when I’ve reached that breaking point? I want my life to be Jewish, but I want that expression of Judaism to be both relevant and fulfilling.

I’ve discovered a guiding principle. I truly believe that even the oldest of teachings can be made applicable. I’m not saying I know how, but I think there is a way to make even the concept behind sacrifices at the temple relevant instead of skipping over that section every time and saying “we don’t do that anymore.” Instead of asking, “How does the world fit this mitzvah?” we should be asking, “How does this mitzvah fit in my world?” From there, I think there’s plenty of opportunity to infuse our lives with tension that is relevant and constructive.

It’s good to be back. I can’t promise you will hear from me regularly, but you will hear from me at every opportunity I have. Promise.



Only an hour ago, I sat crouched on my bed, the comforter flooded with direct sunlight, and spilled my heart’s guts over the phone to a complete stranger whom I’ve never met, a man who happens to hold the keys to my future. Pools of sweat were forming between my hand and the cell I clutched to my ear, and I had to keep dumping the excess moisture onto the ground.

This is disgusting, I thought. Why am I so nervous to tell someone a little something about myself? Am I really that unsure of my identity?

Now that the conversation is over, I think about the questions I was asked by the rabbi at one of the cantorial schools I hope to learn more about and possibly attend. What has your Jewish journey been like? How is your family handling it? What connects you to Judaism? I think about the sticky answers I gave- the beautiful unfolding of my very self and soul as I’ve delved further and further into Judaism, the way my mom expressed her unconditional love for me after learning about my decision to convert, the spiritual and emotional bridge I am building between this world and G-d using song. I realize now it’s okay to be a little nervous when baring one’s true self to another person. It doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable, but I recognize my vulnerability when asked to discuss my conversion in conversation.

It’s funny because the words convert and conversation have the same Latin root: vertere, meaning “to turn.” A conversation specifically means to turn together, to turn to one another, or to face one another.

As converts, we turn over new leaves. We turn our faces to the full sunlight of our new lives and let it flood our souls. We turn to a new community and away from some old traditions. We turn ourselves inside out and upside down enough times to make us dizzy. When it’s all said and done, we end up right back where we started. Same soul, same heart, same body and self. Just facing a different direction.

While I’ve shared bits and pieces of my conversion on this blog and with my closest friends, I remain mostly turned inward, learning about myself and the way Judaism impacts me. I’ve never really turned outward, looked someone in the face, and told the whole story of my self. It’s very, very nerve-racking. I did the same thing last Thursday when I visited HUC and encountered students, faculty, and clergy who all wanted to hear “my story.” I almost wish I could write little pamphlets and pass them out so I wouldn’t have to do this face-to-face thing.

But an important aspect of conversion is your story. When it comes time to turn to those who are questioning and itching to hear your words, what do you say? How can you summarize and articulate an ongoing process that’s been happening for years in a matter of minutes?

My very definition of self is changing, and it will continue to change for a while yet. Above all, it’s been a fairly private process up until now. So forgive my stuttering and that darn red face that shows up every time I feel your eyes on me. If you ask, I’ll turn and face you. Because this is a journey that is meant to be shared.


Circumcised Heart

You know how people have second thoughts about marriage the night before their wedding?

I’m having second thoughts about converting. And I haven’t really felt unsure since I first started considering conversion.

It all started when I lost my keys today. I had the key chain, but my ID had fallen somewhere. I was on a tight schedule and would be late if I didn’t find them soon. I peered into the trash, retraced my steps, and checked all my bags and pockets, until I finally emptied out my purse and there it was, slipped into the middle of my planner.

A prayer flashed across my mind before I could stop myself.

“Thank you, Saint Anthony.”

I tried to cover up my thought with a quick Baruch Hashem, but it was too late. No matter how much I chose to ignore it, I had just muttered the Catholic prayer that my mother always taught us to say whenever we find something. St. Anthony is the patron saint of all lost things, so you pray to him when you want to find a missing item and then you thank him when you find it.

The idea that a small part of me still clung to Catholicism really made me question myself. Am I still Catholic, deep down inside? Is there a Catholic woman under all this Jewish stuff? Or a Jewish woman buried beneath a lifetime of Catholic tradition?

Little by little, I’ve felt Catholicism fade from my life. Sometimes, it really hurts to let go. I know I’ve shared all the wonders about conversion with you as I revel in new Jewish experiences, but there are also a lot of dark moments and self-doubt. Sometimes, it feels like a part of my soul is dying. And death, for us overly attached, immortal-loving humans, is painful.

I first felt this loss years ago during Mass at Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the most important holiday. I was by myself in a brand new, unfamiliar parish. I had fallen in love with Judaism, but I was still torn as to where I really belonged. Halfway through Mass, Catholics recite a prayer called the Our Father, and they all join hands. As I clung to hands of complete strangers, I felt incredibly disconnected both physically and spiritually from the chain that linked our hands and souls. I realized for the first time that I no longer believed and I no longer belonged. I almost started crying right there for the loss of that interconnected feeling and for the ostracization from something bigger and more beautiful than myself. I realized that my very self had changed and I no longer identified with everyone around me.

I experienced similar feelings the day after Christmas this year. I participated in some of the same traditions- spending the day with family, exchanging gifts, enjoying a festive meal, and watching Christmas movies- but at the end of the day, I failed to connect to the true meaning of the celebration. It was like I was role playing someone else’s life and could not truly celebrate with joy and gladness this foreign holiday that no longer contained any special reverence for me. And I mourned for the loss of self, that part of a little girl’s heart who sang that Jesus Christ is Lord loud and clear in church and truly meant it. That part of me was gone.

I know this sounds dismal. But if we are honest with ourselves, conversion is painful. Look back to the first converts, Abraham and Isaac. G-d asked that Abraham undergo circumcision at the age of 99. NINETY-NINE, people. That was not a painless proess. He could hardly walk afterwards. While men who convert today also can undergo hatafat dam brit, a symbolic drawing of a drop of blood, women do not have any physical ritual to undergo.

However, all converts must circumcise their hearts. They cut away a part of themselves with which they no longer identity, whether they come from a religious or agnostic or mixed background. G-d removes a part of the heart so that can choose us as his own. And it hurts. It is painful at times, especially as the process is happening.

At this point, my prayer to St. Anthony is nothing more than a habit, like someone who curses or someone who always leaves his keys in a specific place so as not to lose them. It’s okay to still be a little Catholic underneath. You shouldn’t cling to your old ways, but you can still feel the need to genuflect when entering a Catholic church or have a little hand spasm when 6 people around you cross themselves after a prayer. Old habits die hard. Especially the ones sewn into your heart.


Confessions of a Shiksa Foodie

I just want to get this out there before you tag along with me much longer. You have to know what a crazy woman I am and here goes my biggest confession yet to date:

I love food.

Yep, that’s it. I don’t think you understand the sheer amount of joy I get from eating. There is hardly anything better in the world than relishing each flavorful bite of a wonderful meal. My favorite candy is a secret weapon that only two people in this world are privy to, and my happiness levels skyrocket whenever I encounter anything potato. Bottom line, I’m pretty sure there’s a little fat kid living in my stomach who does a happy dance every time I give him something to munch on.

One of the things I struggled with when I went home this break was being surrounded by mouth-watering, non-kosher food. Bacon with breakfast. Christmas ham cooking in the oven. And dear Lord, those loaded potatoes. Mind you, I also helped make some of this food. And it stayed faaaar away from my mouth.

I find the laws of kashrut and the kosher lines that I draw tend to crisscross, intersect, and get a little fuzzy. Sometimes, I make choices that I regret and am later ashamed of. I present you with three such cases.

Last year- I wandered into the dining hall, looking for dinner and not expecting much. I was ravenously hungry, but I knew better than to think I would see anything worth eating. I end up making about 50% of my meals on campus and was still clutching the remains of my lunch in my hand. I was just getting ready to turn around and make myself a sandwich back in my dorm.

And then they brought it out.

The most delicious, steaming tray of pasta I had ever seen produced by my school’s cafeteria. Long linguini noodles bathed in some sort of creamy sauce. It looked like a picture out of an Olive Garden menu, and I trailed after, casually stalking my prey-soon-to-be-dinner.

The server placed the tray in the heater and propped a little name card in front. “Lingiuni pasta with clam sauce.”

Clam sauce. My hand was halfway to the serving spoon already. Immediately, the excuses began flooding my mind. Well, it’s shellfish not pork I can make this one exception once if I say a brachot over it maybe it’s still good? I debated with myself for a quick five seconds before scooping it into a to-go box and making off with my spoils.

Fast forward two months- I’m out to eat at Red Lobster with four Jewish friends. They know that I am converting but not yet Jewish.

They all proceed to order from the menu and begin recommending dishes to me- shrimp bathed in this, crab alongside that, etc. I want to pipe up and say that I keep kosher, but I felt as though it wouldn’t be taken well. My friends, who have been Jewish their whole lives, don’t want to hear that I am keeping kosher and won’t eat their food. They might think I am trying to out-Jew them.

So, I put on a good face and order the crab something or the other. Mmm, delicious I tell them. I resent myself a little with each mouthful.

Jump to two days ago when I ordered roast beef and accidentally got a ham sandwich instead, which I did not realize until I was back in my office. I’ve been carefully budgeting lately because I have a limited amount of money, and there’s a while until my next paycheck comes in.

After the first bite I realized two things- 1. Ham is not as good as I remember and 2. I’m going to finish this sandwich and even bring home the leftovers so that I’m not wasteful.

It was that night that we talked about the laws of kashrut in my conversion class, and I slunk down into my seat, guiltily thinking about the half a ham sandwich crouching in my fridge and whatever remains still sitting in my belly.

I’ve been thinking about the laws of kashrut and why we keep them. Certainly not because health is still a concern- the animals are now cleaned and prepared just as any other would be. Certainly not because G-d will smite me if I do not (if I die from a lightning strike tonight though, y’all know what happened). And certainly not because the high priests tell me to. Darn it, I thought. Why do I keep kosher? What happens if I don’t?

All the mitzvot are here to help. Here to help us lead better lives, interact peaceably with others, and treat our bodies right. I thought about all the stupid exceptions, all the times that I’ve slipped up and felt like I was doing this Jew thing wrong. I love good food and want to enjoy it. Feeling guilty about what I’m eating just sours the whole meal. So how can I make peace with my desires and my morals?

I don’t really have all the answers. Each day I try to redefine who I am and what I put into my body. It’s not easy. When I cook for myself, I have no problem making kosher meals because I only buy kosher ingredients. It’s eating out and eating at home that still trips me up.

All I know is that G-d doesn’t want perfection. He just wants goodness. Keeping kosher helps me achieve goodness because it makes me mindful. It keeps me honest. It reminds me to be careful about what I put in my body. As long as I’m doing that, it’s all kosher with me.

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You Know Better Than I

A humbling prayer and a much needed reminder (the lyrics are everything).

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Dear Mom and Dad

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I sat surrounded by family this Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but ask: Why have a family? Other than the biological impulse to reproduce, it’s an expression of love, fulfillment, and a way to carry on one’s legacy. Every human being is someday going to die, so we need those who will continue to embody our own core values after we are gone. In that way, we live on through our ideals. Descendants are one way to make sure that the goodness we attempted to plant in the world grows and flourishes.

Someday, I hope to continue your legacy so that your love will never die. You have taught me well and impressed on me your most important values, which now guide my life as an adult. Love G-d and seek always to do his will. Offer praise through a life of gratitude. Respect all life for it is sacred. Honor those who are older and wiser. Show goodness and charity and kindness to all that you meet. Make a place for art and beauty in your life. Maybe you never said these things to me, but they were loud and clear in your actions.

Without your love and upbringing, I never would have found myself in Judaism. I know that when you first became parents, you had hoped also to pass down your Catholicism, for it not only embodies your values, but shapes who you are as faith-filled adults. I respect that greatly, and I also hope to pass on my religion to my children and allow it to guide their lives.

The way in which I wish to live my life- a prayerful, impactful, meaningful life full of kindness- calls me to a Jewish life, just as Jeanne is called to be a nun. I have decided to convert to Judaism. The decision I make is not rash, but well-thought out and shaped by the experiences I have had. Judaism allows me to not only live as you taught but to live as I am. I am the woman who chants in Hebrew every Friday night to welcome the day of rest. I am the woman who shares in the rich cultural and historical tradition of a resilient people. I am the woman who stays up late debating the ethics and morality of modern-day issues and conflict in Israel. I am the woman who braids challah, bakes hamantaschen, spreads lox over bagels, and sips matzo ball soup. I am the woman who believes in a G-d who invites me to follow his commandments. I am the woman whose soul dwells here but also in heaven each night as I sleep, whose heart belongs with the Jewish people, and whose mind accepts their teachings. I am the woman who has been shaped by your love and will in turn shape the world lovingly.

I promise to continue your legacy. I can not change my values any more than I can change my blue eyes or my love of potatoes. I can mask both those things behind colored contacts and a starch-free diet, but it’s still me underneath. Likewise, I can not change who I have become. I have found myself and a way to live ethically and lovingly. Your values guided me along, and the love for G-d you instilled in me helped me to search for G-d in everything that I did. I am more than happy to have found him, and I know as the years go on, I will not only turn to my values but to both of you as I struggle to make a career, raise a family, and do good for this world.

I understand this letter is bold and a lot to grasp. Please do not think that I am hiding behind words. You know I am much more articulate in my writing than in my speaking, and I am always open for future discussion. Above all, I love you and appreciate everything that you have done for me. Thank you.

Love Your Daughter,


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Hebron: Finding the Good in the Bad and the Ugly

Hebron. A place and a people to be reckoned with.

When we started talking about Hebron in my last ethics class, I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. From a Biblical perspective, Abraham purchased this little plot of land from the Hittites so he could bury his wife, Sarah. This place is said to be the resting place of our ancestors- Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and all the others that follow. Fast forward through a history in which the Jews are exiled and the land falls under Muslim, Egyptian, and British rule. The Jews once again reclaim Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967. Shortest history lesson ever. You’re welcome. Mollie brought me up to date in her blog Treasure Your Being, and I highly recommend you check out the rest of her fascinating post, Tiyul to Hebron.

To put it mildly, things are not good in Hebron. There is rock throwing and use of tear gas and all sorts of violence that makes me sick just thinking about it. Doors smeared with stars of David and slogans like “Arabs to the gas chambers” echo with a haunting sneer from own bloody past. I struggle with the injustices of Hebron and with the disdain that I feel for this deep-set hatred.

Before I go on, let’s return to the text because there’s a lot we can learn from our forefathers about where we went wrong in this modern day conflict. A narrative in Midrash HaGadol says the following:

“Come and see Avraham Avinu’s humility – the Almighty had promised to give the land to him and his offspring forever, and now he could not even find a burial spot for his wife without paying a huge sum of money. Yet, he did not question the attributes of the Almighty or protest. What more, he spoke with the inhabitants of the land only in modesty…Said the Almighty, You lowered yourself – I swear that I will make you a master and prince over them!'”

The act of purchasing the land is not the key in this narrative. It is the way in which Abraham handles himself when negotiating his purchase. The Biblical law states that the land belongs to us, but the ethics imply that we are to be humble, fair, and respectful when dealing with the Hebron’s native inhabitants. Regardless of the situation or who has the authority, Judaism teaches that we treat people fairly.

Violence occurs because the “law” is being upheld- namely the regulations stipulated in a scared text- without considering the way in which we should ethically uphold them. Claiming that Hebron is ours without showing love, humility, and respect does not only blatantly disregard the most important part of the teaching, it also fails to embody the values of Judaism. If we disregard the values, we are not living Jewishly, nor are we acting in a just way as human beings.

What can we do with this knowledge? How can we begin to combat today’s violence? I’m not naive- I know peace is not easy, nor is it immediately feasible. How can we restore the balance between justice and ethical practice in a world where we value ethics so little?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answers for you. But discussion is a place to start. If I am permitted to quote Micah (the leader of my ethics class), he suggests that we initiate friendly relations “one day at time, building one relationship, one smile, one act of kindness, and mobilizing and organizing the shit out of other people to do the same.”

Breaking the Silence (BTS) is working to do just that. Many Jewish people are unaware of the conditions in Hebron, so BTS collects testimonies and leads tours in order to raise awareness of the issues on both sides. BTS activists refuse to take a side in the issue, but they recognize that the status quo is intolerable and SOMETHING needs to be done.

The rest of us need to acknowledge what is happening and do our part in resolving the conflict. There are many that stand with Israel regardless of its policy or actions, and I understand your steadfastness. But I am more of agreement with Michael Goldin when he says, “our institutions are only worth having if they promote what is just and fair. If they stand with Israel regardless of what it does and ignore which direction its political winds are blowing, there is little point to their existence.” Justice. Fairness. Empathy. Humility. These are the directions we need to head towards. If we refuse to acknowledge the validity and the humanity of the other side, we will never have peace, and the fight is over before it has begun.


Pavane For a Bullet-proof Soul

Sometimes, the very thing that’s about to send you over the edge is the same thing that keeps you from jumping.

Mashup of two pieces, Pavane and Titanium.

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Different Hats

It’s getting cold outside, and that means sweaters and hot chocolate and HATS. I’m really in love with and especially particular about my hats. They have to fit just so. And if it doesn’t frame my face just right, I won’t buy it. Please don’t ever try and buy one for me. I own a grand total of 5 hats, and no, you can not try them on. MINE.

I’ve considered wearing a lot of hats throughout the years. The jobs I’ve thought about settling on my head are as varied as any hat fanatic’s collection. Astronaut. English teacher. Lawyer. Scientist. Violist in a Broadway orchestra. Nature center worker. Cantor. When I finally get to try one on, I’ll know for sure if I’ve found the perfect match or not.

There are also a lot of different “Jewish” hats out there: types of Judaism that people practice, the main ones being reform, conservative, and orthodox. I’d argue each Jew wears a hat unique to himself, an interesting blend of upbringing, family history, and synagogue influence. Someone asked me today how I decided I wanted to convert to conservative Judaism. Different hats. It has to fit just right, I tell them. It’s a lifestyle, a culture, and a community. While I quite enjoy attending the services at reform temples and meeting Jewish people from all backgrounds, I settle most comfortably into the conservative mold. It frames my soul just right. The melodies of the prayers, the feeling of being bound to the law, the traditional community… It all makes a lot of sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried on the reform and orthodox hats as well. Even the reconstructionist hat with its colorful wool edges and bouncing pom pom took a trial run atop my head for a weekend. And I don’t dislike the spiritual reflection I see in the mirror as I try each one. I stand there scrutinizing my soul, striking different poses, looking at each hat from different angles. I’m just happy to have found one that fits better than all the rest. And who knows? I’ll probably be making some alterations as I go.

This past month, I’ve been trying to get my life under control. As a writing tutor, office assistant, musical director, and undergraduate student, I’ve been juggling a lot of hats. I’m so bundled that you can barely see my face. You’ll catch a glimpse of my conservative kippah under all those hats, if you look closely.

So, I tip my hat(s) to you and wish you all a lovely day. It’s good to be back.


HHD Meditation #5

Wow. Yom Kippur starts tomorrow. Tomorrow night. I can hardly believe it. I’ve been preparing all week, and yet somehow, the time still managed to slip away.

Wake up, Jenn! Yom Kippur is here whether you're ready or not. Props to Ben, who blew the shofar over Rosh Hashanah and Hannah for taking the pic.

Wake up, Jenn! Yom Kippur is here whether you’re ready or not. Props to Ben, who blew the shofar over Rosh Hashanah and Hannah for taking the picture.

I’m really quite excited. Rabbi Lyle knows a reform rabbi, Rabbi Judy, and she invited me to her house for dinner and her synagogue for services. So I’m going there tomorrow, spending Saturday at the conservative shul in East Meadow, and then breaking the fast with Hillel Saturday night. Then it’s on to Parker Nursing Home for Chai Notes’ first community service gig on Sunday morning and Lulav/Etrog shopping in Flushing Sunday afternoon followed by a dinner of falafel and shwarma. It’s basically a Jewish paradise this weekend, and I’m trying to get all my work done tonight/tomorrow morning so I can truly enjoy it.

Maybe the day of atonement shouldn’t elicit such joyful feelings of anticipation, but I think they’re okay. I’m determined to move forward this year, determined to have a good day and meaningful fast, determined to become a better person. I think I can do that without feeling gloomy or beating myself up. I know in Catholicism, fasting on Good Friday was always associated with pain and mutual suffering. We were meant to feel guilty for causing the death of a god who didn’t deserve to bear our pain but did. It was a heart-rending kind of fast, but not one like this. I feel Yom Kippur to be more cleansing, the turning of a new leaf, and my sincere apology to do better. I don’t feel sad or guilt-ridden about my sins. I feel a resolution to spiritually improve myself.

I want to close this short series with a heartfelt thank you. I’m thankful for the people in my life who make all of these wonderful opportunities and days possible. I’m thankful that G-d has been so good to me recently. I’m thankful for the chance to enjoy simple pleasures- a beautiful song, a piece of blue sky, a chocolate cookie after dinner, a five minute walk with a friend. I’m so thankful to be in a country and a place where I can choose to be who I am. I can choose a Jewish life. And I choose it with all of my heart.

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HHD Meditation #4

Today when I had a short break, I went back to my room and literally meditated. I laid facedown on my bed and thought about nothing. And just was. Wasn’t asleep. More like daydreaming where the occasional picture would flit across my mind, but no conscious thoughts.

Then I returned to being aware of time, wondered how long I had been there, and got up. It was so nice and so rare for me to take half an hour and not think about anything because I am definitely the over-thinking type. Always. Before I took a break, I felt really dead inside. Overwhelmed, overworked, and unhappy. Now I feel peacefully content and ready to keep chugging along.

So, I don’t have much to say today. I don’t want words to clutter up the open space that I feel inside. Instead, here’s a song I found afterwards that brought me to tears, and I still don’t know why. Childhood nostalgia, the poignancy of Joseph seeing his mother for the last time, the simple melody. Something touching.

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HHD Meditation #3

Planting flowers at bubbe's house.

Planting flowers at bubbe’s house two summers ago.

When I was in the Hillel office today, my friend cut his finger on a paper cutter. After watching him search the office for a few minutes for a bandaid, I spoke up. “I have one in my backpack if you want.”

You have no idea how many times I’ve used that line so far just this year and how many bandaids are now plastered on various students’ fingers/backs/toes/miscellaneous body parts. And I’m happy to help. I’m the girl who’s got hand sanitizer, tissues, pens, and first aid supplies on her ALWAYS. Cause you never know when you’ll need it or when you can help someone else.

My other friend, the one without the blood dripping from his finger, watched me with an admiring smile as I produced the latex panacea from my backpack. “Look at you, always so prepared. You’re going to make a great mother some day.” A compliment that means more to this care-taker of a woman than you can ever know.

He then launches into a story from his weekend. Apparently, the cantor at his temple was sick for Rosh Hashanah. And the sub was… not even close to up to par, by which I mean she had trouble carrying a tune. A few minutes into the first song, he turns to the guy next to him and says, “Gosh, we need Jenn here. She could do this.” Not five more minutes had passed before the girl on his other side tapped his shoulder and said the exact same thing.

My heart warmed in a matter of seconds, and those were the best compliments I received all day.

You know what makes me want to be a cantor? Sunday night, I cooked dinner for my entire a cappella group. I rarely cook for myself because it’s so much work and I don’t enjoy eating the food alone. It’s so much more rewarding to cook for others, and a meal tastes better when I share it with people who appreciate my labor. It means so much to me to be able to give someone something wonderful that I’ve made.

I truly enjoy Shabbat services. I really do. And if I can not only celebrate them every week but give them to someone else, then I would be a million times happier sharing my joy with others rather than just reveling in it all by myself. The other parts of cantorial duties are appealing as well. Spreading knowledge and music. Preparing young children to become adults. Teaching adults about themselves  and helping them along the same journey that I currently am on. Sharing sharing sharing. Please just let me share with you.

I feel like I only just comprehended for the first time what a life of service truly is.

Each week, I feel so happy as Shabbat approaches. All I wish for my friends is that they can find some rest each Shabbos. And I want to be the one to bring that comfort to them. Some cookies, a hug, and a listening ear is all I am qualified to provide right now. Maybe some day, I can provide the same nurturing spiritually? Or at least a Biblical kind of bandaid, a hot meal from heaven? I hope so.

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HHD Meditation #2

Janine Jankovitz, WCU Hillel's rabbinic intern from RRC, leads us in Rosh Hashanah morning services.

Janine Jankovitz, WCU Hillel’s rabbinic intern from RRC, leads us in Rosh Hashanah morning services. Photo credit to Hannah at WCU.

I spent this Rosh Hashanah at West Chester University, celebrating with Hillel, their Jewish student organization. There was no Torah reading, but there was a Torah. Or a piece of one at least. A few years ago, the Holocaust and Genocide Prevention Club visited Poland, and they brought a treasure back with them: a piece of the Warsaw Torah discovered buried in a wall, a fragment of G-d’s word that survived the fires of Hell. Knowing that it didn’t belong in a pawn shop, the students pooled their money, brought it back to West Chester, and donated it to the library. You can read the full story here.

For Rosh Hashanah, a few of the students and I helped move it through the pouring rain to the student center building where it sat on display for the day. We prayed the service with it sitting at the front of the room, the glass case crouching over the tired block letters that trudged across the page.

As we prayed through the service, I thought about all of the Jews that have come before me. Thought of the men and women and children who heard words chanted from that very scroll. Heard the faint echoing of their voices in ours, like overtones in a scale. Saw them fade one by one into an ashen past. Imagined that their descendants sat around me as students, praying in front of the same scroll that their ancestors davned in front of even as the sky overhead darkened.

The fragment of Torah that was hidden in a wall in Warsaw, Poland during WWII.

The fragment of Torah that was hidden in a wall in Warsaw, Poland during WWII. Photo credit to Hannah at WCU.

I often worry that I don’t have enough of a connection to the Jewish people, that I don’t feel enough like one of the fold, one of the chosen. But sitting there staring at that Torah, I felt my aching heart cry for what happened and glow proudly at what we’ve become. Despite all odds, a fragment of the Torah survived. So did a fragment of the Jewish population.

In one of my conversion classes, Rabbi Art Vernon put some of my fears about connecting to the Jewish people at rest. He pointed out that most of our ancestors are not Native American, yet we feel a strong and tangible connection to the United States. We know the national anthem, we fly our flag proudly, and we have some sense of belonging to this country. So too with Jews and Israel. Some of them can trace their ancestry way back to the Israelites, but the others… Who knows? Regardless of where they come from, all Jews have a connection to the Jewish people and nation. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t matter whose blood we have running through our veins or who had ancestors at Mount Sinai. What matters is the love that we foster as we grow closer together.

Connection. Oh so important as human beings and as Jews. Something I hope to create more of as I grow in the coming year. More friendships, more Jewish acquaintances (need to up my Jewish geography score), and more love for a people that I am proud to call my own.

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L’shana tova…

Sorry, I had to. This was definitely me in high school when I first heard about a Jewish holiday other than Hanukkah. Say what? There’s more to Judaism than dreidels and menorahs? Tell me more…

Shana Tova


HHD Meditation #1

Zinnias are my favorite flowers. This is one of the many I planted during Summer 2014.

Zinnias are my favorite flowers. This is one of the many I planted during Summer 2014.

I’ve decided that between now and Yom Kippur, I am going to do my best to post one High Holy Days (HHD) meditation per day- something that I’ve learned about myself, the holiday, or the world around me. Hopefully, by the time the sun goes down on Oct 3rd, I’ll have my introspective game face on and be ready to reflect and renew.

I noticed over the course of Rosh Hashanah that I’m a country girl at heart. Not the stereotypical flannel-wearing, leather-boot-sporting, country-music-loving (I strongly dislike the musical genre) girl. Not even the girl who goes to state fairs or rides horses or drives a pick-up (though I wouldn’t say no to one).

I’m a girl who belongs in nature. The girl who has spent summer nights stretched out in the middle of the asphalt road soaking in the moon beams and getting lost in the stars. The girl who has stroked the backs of bumblebees and let spiders cling to her finger as they trail a silky thread back to the ground. The girl who relishes clear blue skies, a glowing sun, and lush green leafiness.

I can’t live without nature and I am forever grateful for it. Whether you believe in G-d or not, you can see that there is so much beauty in the natural world surrounding us, and its perfection is greater than any human design. While I like the idea of a well-manicured lawn and nice rows of trees (even I have to cut the grass and trim the hedges), there’s also a part of me that likes the untamed beauty of a twisting forest and the murkiness of a lake and the wildness in the ocean. I love the bit of me I see in nature, and my heart often aches when I spy a bird soaring in the sky. How I wish I had wings. I see a lot of G-d in nature, in the beauty and intricacy of its design and the forever cyclical pattern of the world. And I yearn to be a part of that design, part of that wholeness, and one with that beauty. I need greenness and sunlight the way I need water and air. It’s essential to my very makeup and impossible to live without.

This coming year, I hope to never take nature for granted, to be grateful for its never-ending beauty, and to do everything I can to grow closer to the world around me.


I’m fairly limited with which pictures I can share because I only have what’s on my computer. Hopefully, these will capture some of what I feel is most precious in the world.

Morning sunlight shines through the trees in PA.

Morning sunlight shines through the trees in PA.

Photo credit goes to my sister Jeanne on this one, a dragonfly resting near the water.

Photo credit goes to my sister Jeanne on this one, a dragonfly resting near the water.

Robins built a nest on our back porch this summer. I spent a good couple hours watching the mom and dad take turns feeding their babies.

Robins built a nest on our back porch this summer. I spent a good couple hours watching the mom and dad take turns feeding their babies.

Double rainbow from our backyard.

Double rainbow from our backyard.

So. Much. Orange.

So. Much. Orange.

Cucumber Falls. Later renamed "Jojo Falls" because she fell in.

Cucumber Falls. Later renamed “Jojo Falls” because she fell in.

These bendy flowers have some personality, that's for sure.

These bendy flowers have some personality, that’s for sure.

New snow, new daylight, new trees.

New snow, new daylight, new trees.

Sunrise from the 12th floor of Axinn Library.

Sunrise from the 12th floor of Axinn Library.

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Where Am I Coming From?

When I think back on Rosh Hashanah last year, the rabbi’s sermon comes to mind. He focused on the questions “Where are we coming from?” and “Where are we going?” Every time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, these are good questions to ask ourselves. A year ago, I was celebrating the high holidays for the first time. I was a college sophomore taking my first music classes. I was a young woman who essentially had no idea what she was doing. And I still am, so that’s a good thing, right? Gotta be consistent.

Luckily, I kept a journal on my experience last year, and I am so glad I did. I like having that reminder of where I am coming from. I can open to a page and see exactly where I was a year ago. Normally, I don’t share my journal entries online. It would be a frightening experience for everyone. But just this once, I’ll tell you openly and unabashedly what was going through my mind last year. No editing either. Just you, me, and my past self. Don’t judge her too harshly. After all, present self is baring her soul to you right now…


9/4/13 Erev Rosh Hashanah: Right now, I am grateful, renewed, and refreshed. Ready to start out the new year right. Above all, tonight leaves me with a feeling of peace. Peace within my community, peace in the safety of G-d’s arms, peace within the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers, peace between every person, every smile, every shana tova. 

9/5/13 Morning before shul: G-d, you are everywhere. You fill everything. It’s so easy for me to get distracted with the cares and worries of the world. But when I sit with you and put my fears to the side, you put your arm around me like a best friend. I’m just happy to sit here quietly with you. This morning, nature was my shul. There, in the sun dappled shade beneath a dancing tree, I was happy to live. To be. To breathe huge lungfuls of fresh morning air. Nature oozed beauty out of every pore, and I felt G-d’s smile on a world and woman reborn. 

9/5/13 Afternoon: Then, shul itself. A musty red book filled with page after page of dark hebrew letters. A room full of chairs that filled as the day went on. A lot of chanting, standing, and sitting. Most times, I had trouble keeping up. I felt a little out of place and lost. It helped to not focus on the individual words and just get lost in the booming voice of the hazan. Later, the rabbi and cantor brought the Torah into the congregation. I stretched out my worn prayerbook to its golden plate, then brought the cover back to my lips. That was one of my favorite moments.

9/5/13 Night: Tonight was beyond beautiful. Abby and I went to a friend’s house to join her family for dinner. I have never met a more loving funny, kind, Jewish family in my whole life. I immediately felt like a part of their family the way they welcomed me to their table. The food was so good. Homemade, warm challah, matzoh ball soup, fish, chicken, brisket, apple pie… Everything was delicious. Her entire family was just so warm and welcoming. I hope more than anything my future family will be like that some day. Out of everything I’ve experienced this holiday, a meal with these 14 people has by far been the best. So much warmth in their eyes. I couldn’t get enough. G-d, I am so blessed. Thank you. Thank you so much.

9/6/13 Afternoon: Returning to shul was like returning home.Already, it felt less strange, and I felt more comfortable with the people and the prayers. Listened to Torah, prayed, kissed book/Torah, and then left. My life is starting to feel like the cycle Jay talked about yesterday, “I go to shul, come home and eat, go to sleep, get up and go to shul, eat, sleep, and then do it all over again.” It’s such a natural, peaceful life. I can’t believe the holiday is over and my life resumes tomorrow. I feel like a richer, fuller person after two days of renewal.

My heart, soul, and being are content.


It’s easy to see where I’m coming from. It’s a good place. Where I am going… That’s a little bit harder to answer. I plan on going in a direction that allows me to continue to grow as a Jew, as a young adult, and as a scholar. I think I’m on the right track. Here’s hoping.

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Reflections For A New Year

I’m sitting down at 11:37PM the day before Erev Rosh Hashanah trying to collect myself and do some introspection.

And it ain’t working.

This hectic lifestyle leaves me no time to breathe, and that’s how I like it. A busy life is rich, exciting, and fulfilling. At least, that’s what I tell myself to get me through the sleepless nights, 12 hours days, and color-coded craziness.

A new year, a new start. I can think of some things I did very well this past year and some great accomplishments. Becoming more of an empathetic and active listener. Increasing my knowledge about Judaism, life, and music through both formal and informal learning. Fostering friendships, trying new foods, and traveling to new places.

And I can think of some things that still need improvement. There’s one thing that needs some serious work. To be honest, I don’t do a very good job taking care of myself. My natural instinct is to take care of others- thoughts like send that care package, text her back, plan our rehearsals, help him with his homework, and make dinner for them run through my head every day on a constant basis. I often end up at the bottom of the list. While it’s important to be selfless and giving, it’s also important to take care of your own physical, mental, and emotional well-being. That’s hard for me because I’m not particularly fond of myself. I have an abundant affection for my friends and family, but Ellie? She can wait another day.

This year, I’ve decided that I have waited long enough. Time to take some time for myself. Of course it’s easier to indulge in my hobbies during the summer because there’s more time for leisure than during the school year. But when it becomes hard to find time for meals, sleep, and health, that’s how I know I’m struggling. Being a little selfish every now and then will only better equip me to continue to be the friend/lover/classmate/supporter that I want to be for everyone else.

I’m going to start tomorrow- the world can wait. You, G-d,  and I have some prayers to say, a dinner to eat, and a train to catch. This year, I’ll start basic- eat three meals a day, get eight hours of sleep, take medicine when you’re sick (yep, I avoid even that)- and once I’ve achieved a good state of physical well-being, then I can focus on the mental and spiritual. Then, only then, will I be ready to help everyone else. Fix yourself. Really fix yourself. And then we can fix the world.

Shana tova. May your coming new year be sweet and full of life’s blessings.

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A Little Jewish Humor

In my second Intro to Judaism class, we focused on Chapter 23 in Leviticus. Though maybe focus isn’t the right word. We went off on tangents about redemption, marriage, The Frisco Kid (guess I have something to add to my movie list), and a book called The Carp in the Bathtub. As a diligent note-taker, I wrote down everything that we learned about each holiday. I can now tell you where the different sounds of the shofar come from, the true meaning of a scapegoat, why we use a citron for Rosh Hashanah, and the process of Teshuva. And I will, in a couple of posts to follow.

However, there is much to be learned from this rabbi in his humor, his jokes and stories. He is an amazing storyteller, with a vibrant, passionate voice that makes every fact seem like some kind of unknown secret we are all just discovering for the first time. He’s also very humorous, interjecting his own life experiences and  jokes into his teaching.

It’s amidst the laughter and the lightness of the situation that we learn something, and the funny parts that stick with you. So, I’ve got a few one-liners to share. The learning and the serious stuff will come later. Even if these jokes don’t make sense, they’ll at least make you pause. And I hope they make you smile.

Everyone says youth is wasted on the young. Youth is NOT wasted on the young. It is a gift given to the young so that they can raise children. (This got an appreciative chuckle from all the parents and some nervous laughter from the young adults.)

Yom Kippur is not an endurance test. It’s not about being the last one standing after everyone else has passed out.

Hey G-d, I’m doing my part. Look at me! I’m here! Now you do yours.

You know the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So their pet fish becomes gefilte fish, and you can imagine the kids are a little upset.

We ALL go over the finish line together. I’m talking about collective redemption. 

So we have our willows, our myrtles, and our etrog. What do we do with them? Shaky shaky shaky shaky, shaky shaky shaky shaky shaky, shaky shaky shaky shaky…

Scene from The Frisco Kid: They have just announced the marriage of the rabbi to another man’s daughter. Someone shouts “Drinks for everyone!” Another person asks, “How are we [the synagogue] going to pay for this?” To which a man replies, “Take it out of the building fund!” (After telling this story, my rabbi just looks at everyone and says, Board members.)

It might be a holiday for you, but it certainly won’t be the holidays for me! 23 days and what, 9 sermons?!


My First Class

One class down, many more to go!

Tuesday night, I had my first Introduction to Judaism class at East Meadow Jewish Center with Rabbi Art Vernon, who is quite the lively individual. Between his 20+ years of teaching and his five grown children, he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to share with us. Obviously, he doesn’t know me very well yet, but I’m hoping as the weeks progress we can form some kind of teacher/student relationship.

Even more interesting than the rabbi are the students. Jews from Syria and Turkey and Florida accompany their equally diverse partners. There’s about 10 of us total. Some of my classmates have been keeping a kosher home and raising their children “Jewish” for the past ten years and are now deciding to make it official. Others just want to see what this Jewish stuff is all about. Regardless of background, everyone has been touched by Judaism in some way and is now taking a definite and firm step to make it a part of their lives. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.

We didn’t learn much the first day- mostly intros, getting the syllabus and materials, and starting to talk about Rosh Hashanah. I learned that the most important holiday, agriculturally speaking, in Judaism is Pesach, or Passover. The high holidays only became important after Christianity- we needed something to compete with Lent, Christmas, and Easter. Who knew?

So, the night was full of little tidbits of information like that. I now have a really nifty calendar that tells me what day it is in the Jewish year, all the holidays, and the candle lighting times. I’m also the only single, childless, young(er) person there, but that’s okay. You find Judaism at whatever part in your life makes the most sense, and I don’t think age is a determining factor.

Mostly, I’m just excited to get to know everyone better and learn more. Day one = success.

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Sounds of Shabbat

Shabbat began with the sounds of the shofar, tekiahhh… Long and wailing, then short, piercing, and urgent. The notes wavered and flickered as we lit the candles and ushered in a Shabbat that was soon to be full of sound.

I realized I had picked the best seat for davening as soon as the first prayer began. I sat surrounded by men who could harmonize. And, my goodness, there’s nothing more intimate. The words of the prayers are all wrapped up in a beautiful melody, and then someone adds an extra layer. Picture a wool sweater, all knit together by threads- these threads are Hebrew words that form the whole prayer. The harmonizing voices form a layer of fuzz, the way you can see the little fuzzies of a sweater standing out like frizzy hair. A frizzy golden glow to our evening prayer.

At dinner, Chai Notes provided musical accompaniment to the sounds of 100 people enjoying delightful food and company. Even though our group had greatly diminished and our repertoire was small,  we sang quietly, our light voices filled with both vital energy and calm serenity. Our small size created not only precision, but an joyous reverberation that can only be found between those who are both good friends and good musicians.

The last notes of Matisyahu’s One Day had only just dissipated when Birkat began. I’d never heard 40 people sing Birkat at the top of their voices until Friday night, and I can assure you there’s nothing like it. The same harmonies that had woven themselves into the service now squirmed their way back into the after-dinner songs and split the seams of everything I had ever heard before. My mind could not grasp how vibrant the whole room sounded. The very walls were pounding.

The sun preserved some of this thrumming intensity, beating down on us the next morning as we walked to services. Sweat dripped from our foreheads as vowels dripped from our mouths. We paused only to wipe one melody from our lips before the next one could spill over and begin anew. Broadway tunes melted into humid air that had already soaked  in notes from Jewish a cappella tunes and pop songs. Our voices were as soupy and strong as the air we breathed and provided us with the sustenance we needed to walk 3 miles to shul and back. The spring in our step was matched only by our boisterous voices. Singing, singing, singing. You couldn’t stop us if you tried (and trust me, when we all started singing songs from Avenue Q, Rabbi Dave tried).

The cool hum of the air-conditioned synagogue muted our joyful whoops and sobered us all up a bit. As the rabbi delivered his sermon, his solemn words stacked up like a brick wall around my ears. He lifted the weighty words from his mind with much effort. Slavery. Child labor. Immigration. Ancient Egypt. Oppression. When he urged us to think of donating, raising awareness, and being conscious consumers, I knew our compassionate efforts could help erode a wall built on thousands of years of hate.

I decided to break down some of my own walls and head to the local chabad house for lunch. I’d never experienced the Orthodox community first hand, and I figured it was about time. I arrived still slightly skeptical, and the screeching voices of children greeted me as soon as I opened the door. I developed an immediate affection for them, these youngsters ranging in the ages of 2 to about 8. And it was the voices of children and their rabbinical father that carried me through the meal. Little Sholom delivering his d’var Torah first in Yiddish and then in English. Rachel asking politely for the brownies and Rivka screaming for them. Mendel’s serious, excitable voice that asked questions and told us about all the wonders of being oldest of 6- he beamed when I told him I was the oldest of 5. All of the children banged on the table as their father preached or sang with gusto. While I was unaccustomed to some rules (the rabbi’s aversion to shaking my hand) and uncomfortable with some of the questions (what is your last name?), I found the entire family very warm and welcoming. I left Rivka giggling in the front lawn as she tried to follow me back to campus. Orthodoxy often echoes of the past, but I heard only the sounds of new life and vitality in that house. And it made me very happy.

This Shabbat was restful, musical, and rejuvenating. How else can I describe it? I hope to have many more as wonderful as this. As we enter into a new week, I wish you all peace and happiness. Shavua tov.


Back to the Grind

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I last blogged. Let me catch you up on the excitement that’s happening now that I’m back in NY:

-I start my official conversion classes IN TWO DAYS! Can’t wait. I spent all of last fall searching the surrounding area for a class that best fits my needs, and the one at East Meadow Jewish center seems like the best way to go. Wish me luck as I continue my learning.

-I had an incredibly restful, amazing Shabbat. Separate blog post on that later.

-My a cappella group is holding auditions this week, and we had our first performance of the semester at Hillel’s Shabbat dinner. I’m excited to see the group grow and make beautiful music together.

-I’ve met some wonderful first-year students and have already formed some great friendships.

-I am partaking in the #sukkahchallenge set up by Rabbi Lyle, our director of Jewish Life on campus. It’s a 5 in 5 challenge: five chapters of the Mishnah Sukkah in five weeks. We read, study with a chevruta (partner), and then get together for a group discussion.

I am really, really looking forward to the holidays. I hope that the revitalized energy I feel at the start of this new school year is a harbinger for all the goods things to come in the new year.


Promised Bird

“But I was part of the chain of the tradition now, as much a guardian of the sacred Promise as Rav Kalman and the Hasidim were, and it would be a different kind of fight from now on. I had won the right to make my own beginning”
(The Promise by Chaim Potok, p. 342).

I really long for this right. In Potok’s book, Reuven earns this right after receiving smicha (Rabbinic Ordination) at Hirsch University. I don’t necessarily want to become a rabbi like Reuven, but I want the right to make my own beginning. A right to my own Jewish interpretations once I am a member of the fold.

Judaism shapes its people, and the people in turn shape Judaism. While I believe in G-d, I also believe religion is a complex collection of beliefs and practices created by men and women.

I want the right to my own piece of Judaism: a little fluttering bird that I can ornament as I wish. I breathe light and life into it, and it flies back into the piece of sky from whence it came.

A bird with wings that are sparkling, sharp, and smooth like glass. Wings layered in tiny, crisp feathers, blurring only when in motion. Grace and beauty coalesce in every tilt, every gesture.

A bird bright and brilliant, capturing radiant sunbeams that spin themselves off the wingtips and go shooting into the great blue yonder, dissolving before clearing the heavens.

A birdish kind of bird with flip flap flying wings.

Made, born, created, raised, blessed, and sent away with a benediction into the great vast sky, humming of a loving kiss.

My own and yet an entity all its own, never mine to keep but mine to care for, this bright blue bird that smells of summer sky and dewy mornings. My own, but not for keepsies. And me, a Guardian of this sacred Promise.

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Robin Williams

I’m sorry to post something so sad after my last post about Tisha B’Av, but it’s necessary. These are mixed times that we live in, full of both heartbreak and joy. Right now, a little heartbreak.

When I first heard about Robin Williams’ death, I felt shock. Disbelief. A man whom I associated with joking, laughter, and priceless voice imitations lost his battle with depression. It’s like finding out a friend has stage IV cancer after he’s died. I didn’t know. But how could I?

I felt angry. Why would God, who spared my life two years ago by sending me someone to talk me out of suicide, not send a person, a voice, a hand for this man who was a light in the world? Why me, small, insignificant and struggling, and not him?

Just as my perspective is only one among many Jewish ones, so is my voice only one representation of those who are depressed. I don’t like to talk about my depression because I don’t want people to see me as different or sick and treat me as thus. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with Seasonal Afffective Disorder (SAD), which is slightly different in itself. But still the same struggles, the same battle every winter that many face every day.

Robin Williams has always been an actor I’ve admired. From The Dead Poet’s Society to Good Morning Vietnam to Aladdin, there was such a spark that he brought to the screen that made me fall in love with not just his acting but the entire feature. When people ask me what my favorite Disney movie is, I say Aladdin. Then they assume because I like Jasmine, or the story, but it’s always the big blue Genie (and later the voice behind him) that draws me to the screen and that particular VHS tape time and time again.

I don’t want to talk about how he died. But I do want to tell you that my surprise over his death taught me an important lesson, one worth sharing. People who are sick ARE normal people. We picture a depressed person as the one sitting in the corner by himself- moping, sad, and alone. But depressed people make jokes. They feel good some days. They put up a freaking good fight just so we don’t have to see them when they fall. They hide behind funny faces because they’re afraid that the one true face, their own, is too miserable to share with those around them.

Sure, some people are more susceptible to depression than others, but don’t be fooled by stereotypes. And though I’ve just spent an entire blog post on it, don’t remember Robin Williams by his depression. There is so much more in his life that is worth sharing and remembering, so much more that I hope far exceeds his life.

I thank God often for sending someone to save me that day, and I’m eternally grateful to the human being who saved my life down by the train tracks two years ago. I’ll never understand why some people die and some live, who decides, and why the world is unfair. But I have learned to celebrate life, to be sensitive to others, to reach out when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my own dark thoughts, and to laugh often. I’m sorry, Robin. Sorry you didn’t win this one. Sorry it had to end like this, sorry you didn’t see in yourself what the rest of the world saw in you. I promise to keep smiling, to keep fighting, and to remind others that they might be the person someone needs.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams, DPS

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Tisha B’Av: A Time of Mourning

This evening marks the end of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month Av on which Jews fast in memory of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a day for general sadness and mourning, and Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, is usually read.

I think I might have gotten it all wrong this year. I almost missed this day just because… I forgot. I should have put a note in my planner or something. It wasn’t until after lunch as I stood in the kitchen baking a cake that I remembered I was supposed to be fasting. Now I’m sitting here trying to grasp all the sadness that goes into this day and somehow make up for forgetting to mourn.

There’s a lot to be sad about. From biblical persecution to the horrors of the Holocaust to the current conflict between Israel and Gaza, sadness has touched every Jewish generation to walk this earth. I often feel connected to this collective sadness, and G-d, it hurts so much. When I listen to bubbe’s stories about the Holocaust or see the faces of the fallen IDF soldiers, the pain scattered throughout Jewish history comes alive in a very real way.

I embrace so much sadness that I don’t know what to do with all of it. I just stand there holding it in my arms as it gnaws away at my heart.

I can relate to the sadness that I see in the world, but it’s harder to connect to the destruction of the temples that occurred years and years ago. I know of a camp counselor who, on Tisha B’Av, asked all her campers to lay out their most prized possessions on the floor. They all sat in a circle and imagined that the item had been destroyed, going around one by one to describe why that particular item was so important.

Destroyed. Obliterated. Your most precious possessions, gone from the face of the Earth. Picturing a loss of this magnitude makes my heart ache and a little panicky, and then I remember that the loss of the temple is real and part of this heart-rending sadness… It’s almost too much to take in.

If my ramblings fail to capture some of this sadness that I feel, music tends to evoke an emotional response in me. And whether you listen to these recordings of a cantor chanting the trope from Eicha like I did or you find another minor melody, it’s my final offering of sadness. A last cry in the dark of the night.

It’s so easy to turn a blind eye to suffering. Don’t be like me and so many others. Don’t forget, don’t turn away from the hurt that’s in the world.

Maybe I’m doing this day all wrong. But it’s the best I can do with this broken, imperfect heart of mine.


I Believe In…

I’m reading a book called Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg, and even though it was published over 60 years ago, Judaism hasn’t changed too much since then, comparatively.

Many religions have creeds. Creeds set forth the beliefs of a religion, and by saying them, members are joined together by their common thoughts and bound to their gods in the words they promise. The ones specific to Catholicism are The Apostle’s Creed and The Nicene Creed, one of which is said at every Sunday mass. It begins, “We believe in One God, Father Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible, and in Jesus Christ, the only begotten son…”

Does Judaism have such a creed, an outlining of beliefs, a statement of ideals?

Non-dogmatists would argue that Judaism does not have a creed. Where are these ideals written down? Who created them? Even when Maimonides, a respected Jewish philosopher, proposed Thirteen Principles Of Faith, they were rejected.

Dogmatists claim Judaism does have a creed. What kind of religion could exist without a backbone, a foundation of beliefs on which to build and grow? How could the Jewish people survive against the pagans for so long without a set of ideals holding them together?

Both sides have valid points, but Steinberg suggests that neither has the complete picture. A middle approach would say that Judaism has a specific religious outlook but not a single dogma that professes this outlook. Here are some of the main thoughts outlined by the “moderator” in Steinberg’s argument, the middle of the road interpretation:

– The existence of the Jews does not depend on upholding a creed because they are more than just a religion. They are a nation bound together by tradition. Other religions, such as Christianity, are solely religious groups, comprised of people who are very different but held together by similar beliefs. More similar than different, the Jews all share common rituals, bloodlines, and history and do not need a creed to act as a unifying force.

– Judaism did not have its beginnings in a creed, unlike how the Roman Catholic Church had the Council of Nicea at its formation to declare laws. Rather, the growth of this religion was more organic, and the individuals that practiced it held distinct, personal convictions that are too complex to be captured by any propositions. The natural progression of the entire group cannot be summarized in a declaration of beliefs.

– A formal creed would limit freedom of thought, which is necessary to acquire knowledge and understanding. This is one of the aspects I love most about Judaism- there are no right or wrong answers to questions, everything is left up to interpretation, and people are asked to come to their own conclusions about an issue. Impossible when a doctrine tells you how to think.

– Ethics are of a greater importance than doctrine. It is more important to show justice and mercy than to possess the correct idea, and morals take precedence over logic. In some other religions, the rule leads to moral understanding. There is a rule, and by following it, good things will happen. It yields positive results. In Judaism, the moral leads to the rule that is followed. Judaism teaches how to interact with others and conduct oneself, and then allows Jews to determine how and what they should think. The Christian sentiment “Believe and ye shall be saved” can be turned on its head in Judaism and is in the book of Jeremiah: “Would that men forsook Me,” says G-d, “if only they kept My law”. Conduct over conviction teaches save, and then believe.

The moderator presents us with ideals that are tangible but unwritten. Does Judaism have a core of beliefs that binds it together? I think so. But these beliefs are not set in stone or written on parchment. No, they are impressed upon the hearts of the Jewish people, passed down generation to generation, and kept alive through actions that will always speak louder than any written words.

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Praying for Peace

Drawing by a Palestinian, shared on a Facebook page called Israel Loves Palestine

I just want peace.

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That Jewish (B)oy

When I talk about myself and my Jewish journey, I never ever like to start by talking about my Jewish boyfriend.

Even though he is at the start, he is not the reason. In the past, I’ve tried to leave him out my conversion story entirely whenever possible. Sorry dear.

The truth is, he is certainly an important person in my life and in my decision to embrace Judaism. But so is my sponsoring  rabbi, the Jewish girl who lived across the hall my freshman year, the man who stayed up late discussing philosophy with me, and my current college room mate who is just as inquisitive as I am when it comes to Judaism. There are lots of people I’ve met who have shaped the woman I am.

But it all starts with a boy, and I’m going to face my fears and do the very thing I’ve avoided doing for so long. Tell where it all started, boy included.

We met in my 10th grade Holocaust studies class. Cheerful, right? The teacher was incredibly positive, making the subject matter bearable. And as the token Jewish kid in our class (by token, I mean the only one), David got to answer all the interesting and not-so-tactful questions from my classmates. I sat next to him, and we became friends. I never thought that we would be dating junior year and then into college.

It was David who took me to my first Purim celebration, David who brought in the dreidels to Science class, David who wrote me little Hebrew notes and passed them to me in Latin class. He was Jewish. I was not. It was simple and sweet and an uncomplicated part of our relationship, just like how his eyes were brown and mine were blue.

In college, things began to change. Since both of us were very religious, we agreed to learn about each other’s religions now that we had entered into a more long-term, serious relationship. He would watch documentaries on Catholicism; I joined Hofstra Hillel. At that point, I enjoyed being both Catholic and Jewish. Shabbat dinner on Friday, Mass on Sunday. It was a fun intellectual pursuit at first and nothing more.

Come winter my freshman year, we separated, for various reasons, religious differences being one of them. After David was gone, my friends expected me to lose interest in Judaism. So when my interest only increased, I began to wonder… If I was not doing this for him, then why am I still doing it after he’s gone? I began to have a more spiritual connection to Judaism, a religious interest that hadn’t been there before when I read books. I attended my first services. Went to a Jewish museum. When he was out of the picture, I began to find myself in Judaism.

It was only a few months later that I began to feel the need to choose: Jewish or Catholic? I knew that as fun as being both was, these religions had contradictory messages, different interpretations of G-d, and too many differences for me to do both (Messianic Judaism never really appealed to me, more on that later). David was back in my life, but it was my decision. Jewish or Catholic?

I wish I had a single moment where G-d yelled “JEWISH!” and I suddenly saw the road to Judaism clearly, strewn with challah and lined with kippah clad men waving Israeli flags. But it was more a gradual indication of my soul, heart, and mind that led me to Judaism. Hebrew classes, Shabbat dinners, gaga tournaments, Torah study, Jewish music… All of it spoke to me and who I am, what I love, and how I want to live. It’s only grown more and more clear.

There was a time at a mass on Palm Sunday two years ago where I was so wholly surrounded by people, physically linked by hands and spiritually linked by the central prayer of the Our Father, and I felt disconnected. Alone. Isolated. I nearly started crying at the loss of something beautiful and at the idea that my soul had become foreign in a once familiar environment. After the next week, I stopped going to mass altogether. For the first time in my life, I became a non-practicing Catholic, and I started to truly feel, do, and become Jewish.

So, it all started with a boy. It will continue with this same boy, I hope for a long time. But it is MY choice for ME and for G-D. I make this choice because it is right for me- it is who I am and who I have become. I am so grateful that I have someone special to share this journey with, someone who puts up with all my naive questions. But I am also glad that I do not make this choice for marriage, for children, or for any other external pressure. This is my choice. And this is my story.

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For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

Such a helpful article. I have strong feelings but a limited understanding of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, and I’ve hesitated to write about it in my blog because I fear saying the wrong things. It’s good to know that I can take a step back and find ways to help others and inform myself.

Coffee Shop Rabbi

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of

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Leading Friday Night Services!

I’m happy to announce that Friday night I successfully co-led my first Shabbat service! I am thrilled that the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel gave me this opportunity and happy that David agreed to not only lead the service with me, but also patiently went through each prayer and taught me whatever I didn’t know.

Despite my preparation, punctuality, and the small turnout, I was pretty nervous. I felt distant as I watched people file in from my little carpeted step. When I looked out from the bima, I felt like everyone was counting on me, relying on my voice to guide them through the prayer book and through some kind of spiritual forest.

Mostly, I focused on getting the words right, and I was almost too caught up in leading the service to actually enjoy it myself. The balance between leading and personal spiritual fulfillment will come with practice and time, as I know from previous performance and religious experience. I was a cantor at my church for 6 years, and it took me about a year before I could feel comfortable and truly pray without feeling like I was just going through motions.

However, there was a moment where I felt truly connected to everyone, to G-d, and to what I was doing. When we went through the service beforehand, David and I could not agree on which tune to use for the Barechu. We decided that I would sing the first line myself, and then David would come in with the congregation at the second line. As I stood before the ark, everything just fell into place. My voice came out strong and confident, the words resonated with truth, and I felt as though I was conveying a message older and greater than myself. It just sounded right. It also sounded very Jewish, if that makes sense. Maybe because the tune was traditional, the Torah was staring me in the face, or everything flowed in a wonderful way. I liked it. A lot.

I’ve always liked being up close to the Torah. The last time I prayed up in front was at EMJC during Rosh Hashanah when my friend and I were invited up to open and close the ark. I remember thinking from my seat that when the rabbi and cantor turned their backs to everyone and faced the ark, it was rude. But being up there myself, it felt intimate and beautiful.

After the service, I was shocked to learn it had lasted only half an hour! I try to think how long it actually felt… and it’s almost as if time didn’t exist while I was up there. David and I got lots of positive feedback, and all of the congragants really appreciated our efforts. It felt good to be appreciated, but even better to know I was capable of doing something that is so important to me.

Fingers crossed that this is my first of many more to come!

In other exciting news this week, I’ve officially registered for the Introduction Judaism course at EMJC. First class starts Sept. 9!!


Not Quite Ripley’s: Hidden Righteous Ones

When I think of legends, I think of King Arthur. I think of knights that could have been, men that might have been, and ideals that were certainly real enough to be tangible. Legends shape the world we live in today and linger on in traditions and rituals.

Our visiting rabbi talked about Jewish legends this past week, and he said you could believe it… or not. Up to you.

He focused specifically on legends surrounding Jewish wedding traditions. While many people are familiar with wedding traditions, we don’t always know why we do them. We have a modern interpretation attached to each symbol, but Louis Ginzberg offers us a world of demons in exchange for our own fanciful explanations. According to Ginzberg, Lilith plays quite a large role in our weddings. For those of you who have not heard of this demon woman, type her name into Google. You’re in for a treat.

Getting married under a chuppah? Breaking the glass? We claim that one symbolizes the home to be and the other represents the destruction of the temple and the sadness of the Jewish people. For Ginzberg? The chuppah is a circular, enclosed space to keep the demons out. A veil hides happiness from wicked ones, white  shrouds a living form and masks the true nature of the occasion… And a shattering glass wards off all lingering demons at the sidelines, allowing the married couple to make their quick exit.

We’ve abandoned these old myths for prettier stories. Even as I heard them, I thought to myself It’s just a legend. But isn’t there always a part of us, the small part enthralled by a ghost story, that wants to believe? We hold out hope for fictional characters because their emotion and their struggles are so very real to us.

It’s just a legend and you don’t have to believe anything.

But what if…

There’s always a what if.

There’s another legend in Judaism, one that our rabbi did not cover but I learned about recently, about the tzadikim nistarim, or hidden righteous ones. Some simply refer to them as the 36 men who will save the world.

They don’t “save the world” in a superman sense, but they represent the best of humanity, spare G-d’s wrath, and uphold righteousness. At any one time, there are 36 men living who care for the Earth, and as long as they are alive, G-d will not destroy the world.

And they don’t even know who they are.

A true lamed-vavnik (as they are sometimes called for the Hebrew letters that represent the number 36) is too humble to even consider that he may be one of these special men. If he becomes aware of his true identity, he either dies or the task passes on to someone else. No matter how ugly or cruel the world becomes, as long as these 36 men live, the world will be spared.

This concept of the few righteous sparing the entire world goes back as far as Abraham’s bargain with G-d for Sodom. If 10 people could be found in the city that were good, the Lord would spare everyone. Abraham won the argument but lost the city.

The morals of Abraham’s argument and this legend shape who we are. We never know when we might meet one of these men (or women) or if we might be one ourselves. So, we live AS IF we are one of the hidden righteous by being the best people we can be. Our actions perpetuate the teachings of the legend without necessarily admitting that we know 36 really awesome people who just happen to be keeping us alive. And did I mention? Legend says that one of these 36 men could become the Messiah.

So believe it or not, the lessons of legends impact how you live your life.

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Chai Notes Spring Concert

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but part of the reason for that is due to some technological battles.


The video of my group’s spring concert!

For those of you who don’t know, I am the musical director and President of Hofstra Hillel’s Jewish a cappella group, Chai Notes. We sing Jewish and pop music, and we provide community service as well as perform at campus events. The group was founded four years ago and has grown beautifully since then. I absolutely love the girls, the music, and the wonderful difference that we make in the world. This is our first ever concert (recorded by the Hofstra AV department).


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Challah in the House!

Hooray!! My first attempt at homemade challah!


Aside from being a little darker and denser than I wanted, I think it was a good (and tasty) effort. 🙂

The recipe came from a cookbook my mom owns, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, and the it’s called 400 Year-Old Challah. Works for me.


My Musar

Musar defined:  a spiritual movement founded by Israel Salanter in nineteenth-century Lithuania with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among traditionally-minded Jews (from

Our rabbi compared musar to tikkun olam– fixing the world. Jewish people have a duty to try and repair the world through service, good works, and advocating social justice. However, instead of focusing on fixing the world, we use musar to focus on fixing ourselves. A kind of spiritual self-improvement that uses introspection to reach holiness, as illustrated by the book the rabbi was holding in his hand (Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis). While I haven’t read any of Alan’s book, I can have some of my own ideas about musar. To me, the musar movement requires cultivating a kind of inner light and strength.

I’m often more inclined to want to tackle the problems of the world. But the world is daunting. I’ve been reading fictional books that deal with poverty, corruption, Nazism, rape, abuse, and murder. Just your casual summer reading list. I want to fix so much in the world that scares and angers me. I try to share these aspirations with others, but the horrors are so great that no one wants to heed them. Besides, what can I really do?

When I focus on fixing myself, I make a little more progress. I know, it sounds like the selfish route. Why fix the world when you can focus on yourself? But listen, if I’m heading out into this world in a few years, I want to be armed and ready. And if I’m heading into a Jewish community that struggles to thrive in a troubled world, I want to have the proper arsenal:

– A sharp tongue that knows when to strike and when to build up

– An eager ear ready to accept words without judgment

-Patience when working with souls that range from very young to very old

-A skillful set of hands that can flit about tasking with a certain animating grace that inspires and humbles

-A mind that finds purpose in what I do

– An open disposition

– A connection to my soul that blurs the edges of this world and another- like the comforting grayness of the rain as it smudges against the window and mixes with the palate of gray clouds in the sky, glass blurring the line between divine openness and the closed boundary of this world.

How do I equip myself with these things? Self improvement through inner awareness.

I’ve noticed that the #100happydays campaign focuses on gratitude and appreciation of small blessings. This is the first step in self-improvement: counting blessings.

Then, the second step is turning these little blessings into accomplishments and lessons.

For example, today I became more physically aware of my body through breathing exercises in my voice lesson and built confidence in myself by taking charge of a project in my new work place. I am gathering skills everyday that I can use to help people. My past knowledge of graphic design allowed me to work with a man and make his vision of brochures for the Special Olympics a reality. Developing greater kinesthetic awareness as I work with my voice is a tool I will store away and use in the future.

My goals for self-improvement range from small to large… Making challah from scratch, offering advice to friends when needed, finishing a few sewing projects, and being a better listener.

I am gathering skills every single day. Matched with my goals, my growth can be both exponential and unlimited. I can repair what is inside and save it until I need to use it for the outside. Before we can repair the world, we must first “repair” ourselves. Just wait. The day will come when this introspection transforms more than just myself.

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A Sister Of A Different Kind

This weekend, I visited a Catholic order in Ohio called The Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Because my sister wants to be a nun.

She is visiting this order for two weeks to see if she wants to join, and the family decided we were all going to go with her and check it out.

At first, I didn’t want to go. I’ve been tiptoeing around Catholicism (and consequently, my family) since I stopped identifying as Catholic over a year ago. After my parents’ negative reaction to my announcement about wanting to convert, I lived with a fear that all Catholics would not only ridicule my decision but heartlessly lash out. I’ve happily learned that the reactions are as varied as the people themselves. Many of my Catholic friends do not only show surprise when I tell them, but respect and intrigue for taking my faith so seriously.

But nuns, I thought. That’s a different story.

The order is new and very small, consisting of only 6 people total. They devote their lives to contemplative prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and community service. If you want to learn more details, their website does a better job explaining their purpose than my fumbling words can.

I knew my family was planning to participate in Mass with the other members of the order once we got there. I no longer go to church with my family and can not receive communion since I am not living according to the rules of the Catholic church. I figured that these faith-filled adults would view my abstinence from communion (which they believe to literally be the blood and body of Christ) as the most offensive affront.

The night before we left, I explained to my sister that I wanted to see the place where she might live the rest of her life, but I wouldn’t be fully participating in Mass. She told me I didn’t even have to be in attendance I could take a walk around the lake while everyone else prayed.

I wondered, wouldn’t it be odd for her to introduce me as her sister and then walk away?

Not at all, she assured me. They already know you’re Jewish.

Questions tumbled out of my mouth and tripped over each as they each tried to dominate my attention. When did you tell them what did they say won’t they hate me now?

She reassured me that all the members of the order have family who have left the Catholic faith, so they won’t think any less of me. In fact, they’ll appreciate my attempt to grasp and experience a way of life that isn’t my own. In some sort of weird show of gratitude, I began to explain how I felt about Catholicism and how I didn’t want to offend anyone.

She interrupts me, saying, “Jenn, I know. You don’t hate Catholicism, you just love Judaism.”

On the surface, it would seem like my sister and I have very little in common. There are certainly times when it is hard for me to fully grasp her love and devotion to Jesus. Most days though, we understand each other perfectly. She is one of my closest friends, and she not only accepts my decision to embrace Judaism but understands the why behind my choice. Both of us are choosing paths that are little understood by our families and nearly unheard of in society.

When my uncle asked me “Won’t it be weird having Jeanne become a sister?” I joked that she’s been my sister for the past 18 years. Though said half in jest, I meant it in both the religious kind and blood relation. After meeting the nuns, I can see how well she fits into their world, their prayerful lifestyle and demeanor coming naturally to her. No matter how I feel about her faith or what  I believe, I think she is making the right choice for herself. We both accept each other’s paths and we have the same goal: to grow in our passions and do good for this world.


Friday Night Shabbat Services

There are two things you should know about me if you don’t already:

1. I love to sing, especially prayers/Jewish music

2. I love Shabbat- it’s all the best of Judaism rolled up into 25 hours (food, prayer, community, G-d, rest, learning, giving back, etc.)

You’d think someone who loves singing and praying at shabbat services as much as I do would have had some kind of religious transformation the first day she ever attended services.

But I have to tell you, the first day I went to Jewish services in February 2013, I didn’t like them. Despite being reassured that the service was “easy to follow and mostly in English” by my friend, I found the backwards squiggly Hebrew daunting and the periods of silent reading uncomfortable. My first impression of the rabbi was that he was nice enough, but I kept my eyes glued to the prayer packet most of the time. I didn’t know what the prayers meant, I couldn’t figure out where we were, and I was thrown into this small little mass of people moving and singing and praying in something that was so strange… Yet intriguing in its mystery.

I went back the next week. There was a part of me that was drawn by the foreign language and minor melodies, something that tugged at me and urged me to return. I was able to locate some of the transliterations and hum along with the less manageable prayers. I remember distinctly that the Mourner’s Kaddish terrified me because it all sounded the same to my untrained ear.

Slowly, I began to learn the prayers by listening, and I loved the simple tunes that lingered in my mind long after Shabbat ended. I would hum Lechi Dodi and Mizmor Shir Leyom HaShabat around the house (and still do). I learned the Hebrew alef-bet over the summer and continued studying Hebrew into the fall, which helped immensely. The more I learned- about the Sabbath bride, the soul leaping like a deer to welcome G-d, the extra soul, the Sabbath angels- the more I was able to appreciate the beautiful prayers that were blossoming at my lips. For silent prayers, I knew I could never get through the whole prayer. So, I would read a line in Hebrew, learn its meaning in English, and then just hold it in my heart for a few minutes while everyone swayed back and forth around me.

A few months later, well after I had become a regular at services, I was asked by a student to lead Kiddush because the student who normally led it would be absent. I was so so excited and practiced the tune and the words, finding online recordings and using the both transliteration and Hebrew to make sure my pronunciation was top-notch. I called my boyfriend and sang it to him over the phone ad nauseum. We typically start at “Yom Ha-shi-shi. Va-y’chu-lu Ha-sha-ma-yim…” so it was quite a bit for me to learn in a week

Friday morning, the rabbi asked who would be leading Kiddush that night. When I proudly told him that I had volunteered, he stopped in his tracks. I reassured him that I had been practicing hard and could say it for him now, but he exchanged a worried look with the other rabbi, and they stepped inside his office behind closed doors. When I was brought inside, I was told I could not lead that prayer because I was not Jewish. By saying Kiddush, the leader fulfills the obligation of all the other Jews around him. No Jew, no go. I was crushed.

To this day, I say Kiddush under my breath with the leader to fulfill an obligation for another kind of people: those who are unable to say Kiddush, due to lack of religious freedom, expression, or any other barrier in their hearts or on their lips. I say it for those who feel obligated but are unable, like me.

Now, I’ll be co-leading Friday night services in July, and I could not be more excited or blessed to have this opportunity. I’m meeting with the rabbi tomorrow afternoon to go over everything, and I can’t believe that just over a year ago I was singing these tunes for the first time. I’ve come a long way, and plan on learning more as I go.


Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes, I feel like I don’t belong anywhere.

I’m not sure if it’s my religious situation, my age, or just a feeling that everyone experiences at some point.

However, my straddling both the Catholic and Jewish world at times makes it hard to fit in, and my small town only helps to illustrate the tension. (I’ve always hesitated to call it my hometown- where is home, what does it look like? I’m still trying to find it.)

The ladies from church remember me as a cantor, altar server, Sunday school aide, or all of the above. They accost me at parades and in the store with seemingly harmless smalltalk. What are you studying in school? What do you want to do with your degree? Simple questions meant to be engaging disarm me and signal for a retreat further behind the convenient mask of silence. Coming from a large family who is very active in their church, it’s impossible to go anywhere without being recognized as “oh, you’re the __adjective__ family from St. Jo’s.”

Catholicism is unavoidable when I’m at home. A crucifix in every room, grace before every meal (sometimes a meal consisting of pork sausages), only Christian music in the car. I wrote a draft of this post with a pencil stamped “Diocese of Harrisburg.” I tend to feel like an outsider both in my town and  within the house.

So, you would think I feel at home in the small but tight-knit Jewish community here. However, having grown up in a rural, predominantly Christian town, all of the Jews have known each other since preschool. When I first started to go to the temple here, people either assumed I was 1. not Jewish or 2. not from around here. Once I had been introduced as “David’s girlfriend” by his family, the title and the associations with it stuck.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel like I can never shake the stigmatism that comes with being a shiksa once people know that I am not Jewish. Or rather, I will never be Jewish in their minds, no matter what I believe or feel. Picnics, social gatherings, and other events tend to stress me out because I don’t know anyone and no one bothers with introductions other than “this is David’s girlfriend, Ellie.” How can I ever become anything else if that’s all most people bother to learn? It’s hard to establish yourself where people already have an idea of who they think you are.

Here’s what I do. I blend with the family- head bowed during prayers, properly amused by both retelling of homilies, and familiar with the song lyrics of both hymns and Superchick songs. I go to Jewish services and try to pray without feeling overly self-conscious (which rarely happens) and attend the social events with a smile and a name tag that says “hi, I’m David’s girlfriend and I’m not from here.” There’s a chance it could get better with time. And there’s a chance that I need to get out of here.


Planted From A Seed

When I was 14, I started the Teen Choir at my church. There was a kid’s choir (2nd-7th grade), an adult choir (more of a senior citizen choir if you ask me), and a youth band, which featured a collection of brass, strings, guitars, and a guy on set that we called King Nebuchadnezzar for his role in a local neighborhood play. They only played at one mass each year, graduation mass, in which a handful high school soon-to-be grads would sit in the front row in their robes, bring up the gifts, and exit the sanctuary to a rallying chorus of “Go Make a Difference.”

So, there was never really a place for teens who wanted to sing. And when I’m frustrated about something, I let someone know and I do something about it, if it’s important enough to me. Which is why an ad appeared in the bulletin and I was sitting a few weeks later in the basement of the Catholic school with a box of pizza and one quiet, punk-ish, emo-ish girl. She turned out to be one of my best friends and a lovely singer, and the very first teen choir started as two singers and my mom on piano. By the time I graduated high school, it had grown to about five singers and a flutist, with my mom still on piano.

Just last night, I heard them rehearsing for the first time since I’ve been home from college. The sounds of saxophones, voices, flutes, and cellos drifted up the stairs to my room. I smiled at all the different textures and sounds. How wonderful for something that started so small to grow into something mighty.

Liturgical music, to me, has always been set apart from other forms of music making. It doesn’t really matter about the skill level of the performers or who sings more solos or who looks better. It’s about glorifying God and making beautiful music that will inspire people to sing along with your praises, bringing them closer to God though song. For me, there’s no greater purpose than that. Teaching that to teens gives them the opportunity to use their musical talents in a way that transforms them and their music into something more meaningful than just notes on a page or words of prayer.

As the director of the kids’ choir always said, singing is like praying twice: once for the words and once for the song. A prayer, a song, a single voice is only a seed. My teen choir, small and quiet, started almost afraid to bloom. Purpose, music, and the congregation encouraged growth, and with time, blossoming. Watching others nurture this group with care assures me that it will continue to flourish, allowing the music to take root here and reach out to the heavens, creating a connection to something greater than ourselves.

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Days of Rest

Before last night, I had forgotten how to rest. I’ve been home on vacation for a week starting today, but I didn’t know how to take a break from the busy, hectic life I’d been leading. Rest? What is rest? Even sleeping ten hours a night was a chore, another item to check off my to-do list. Catch up on sleep. Check. I’ve read a book, applied to 10 jobs, and cleaned around the house, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of restlessness that followed me everywhere.

Early Friday afternoon, I was dreading services that evening. Please G-d, can we skip the day of rest this week? You’ve nearly killed me with rest already. I swear, I’m good, I don’t need anymore. Let’s have dinner, sing some songs, and get back to the real work.

I didn’t realize I had forgotten what the real work was. Or whose work I am supposed to be doing.

See, resting involves letting go. Forgetting a schedule, forgoing plans, and letting a lot of things up to chance. And as I sat surrounded by loving people and heartfelt voices and the beauty of the space that is Shabbat, I saw that there’s a lot I need to let go. The past semester and whatever grades I’ve earned. This desire to be constantly moving forward. The fears of the future. Sometimes, I need to relinquish some of that control and just accept whatever happens in the day, and not worry about what’s coming next. Only then can I truly rest.

So today I helped chop wood, went on a few errands, and now I’m sitting listening to the birds. For me, doing no work involved letting G-d set the agenda for the day, enjoying the gorgeous spring weather, and letting nothing other than the cool breeze stir my heart.

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Paschal Flame

My story is already woven into the fabric of the Jewish people. It has been since before I was born. I’ve only just stumbled upon the tapestry now and can only see threads at a time, shimmering and elusive.

Here are a few loose threads from Monday and Tuesday’s seder. Pesach can best be summed up in bursts of light and sensory moments.

Candlelight blurs the edges of time-

Curling around the edges of faces, giving the back of Marc’s kippah-covered head a new lively expression,

Tracing the features of people I love until the edges are left glowing behind my eyelids when  I close them,

Reflecting off Eliyahu’s glass in the middle of the table, sending reddish beams into my own cup.

When I pour the liquid light into my mouth, it dries out my throat, and the contents of the glass beside me  soak through the table amidst much laughter and napkin-mopping.

At the other end of the table, Eric holds the matzah above his head as he says the blessing, the shimmering cloth cover dripping with tassels.

The evening melts away, sliding along silver candlesticks.

Words congeal, passing from mouth to mouth as we try and steal lines of the haggadah from each other, making it into a game.

Smiles flicker, spreading warmth and glow from one person to another,

Wavering in the kitchen where the debate is more heated than even the meatballs.

Only sparks remain from an luminous evening,

Lighting the night

Mixing with flakes of cold, wet snow

Guiding us back home

And fusing us together.

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My Pesach Mishpacha (My Passover Family)

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!

I could write about everything that happened at my first seder in a nice chronological order, but some aspects are more important than others.

Like family.

I could not have asked for a more perfect seder or for a more beautiful representation of the Jewish people. The seder is nothing without a family to share it with, and everything in the haggadah is incredibly family oriented and kid friendly.

Allow me to introduce you to the family I’ve adopted after two nights.

My friend’s mom was the voice of the seder. Every time a song appeared in the haggadah, she would walk over to play the old upright behind me. The room vibrated with minor melodies, her mellifluous voice lingering long after dinner as she continued to spin out the blues, doo-wop, and swing.

After meeting my friend’s dad, I now understand where my friend gets his sense of humor. His dad had no qualms about both making his guests feel welcome and making fun of them. His open-nature and slightly goofy personality put me at ease.

And who could forget about grandma with her soft smile and kind eyes?  She had a bright spirit in the way that she twirled on the living room carpet, grasping her grandson’s hand tightly in her own. She would call out “How are you, my kinderlach?” as we walked in and gently rest her hand on my back throughout the evening.

Oh, kinderlach. That’s us.

The kinderlach

The kinderlach

Traditionally at Passover, there are four types of children: the wise, the wicked, the immature, and the simple. Each child asks different types of questions reflective of his name. It is clear that the wise child is favored over all the others because he asks the best questions and his name “wise” has the most positive connotation. However, the seder would not be possible without all four types of kinderlach, and each of us added something important to the seder.

The wise child: He ended up leading most of the seder and has a quiet control about him.  He knows the ins and outs of Passover and likes to be the one not just with all the answers, but with the most in-depth questions. There’s something calming about someone who is comfortable taking the lead and setting the example.

The wicked child: She doesn’t always see herself in alignment with what everyone else is doing. Sometimes, she is able to take a step back and question herself, asking whether she truly believes what she’s been taught. She has enough self-awareness to remind us of an outsider’s perspective while still fully participating in the traditions she loves.

The simple child: He asks the most important questions like when are we going to eat? What’s for dinner? His warm heart is full of the zest of life. He reminds us that even though we are gathered to celebrate an important holiday, we need also to live in a way that appreciates the simple aspects of life. His slightly maniacal laugh adds an infectious humor that lightens the mood of the entire evening.

The one who does not know what to ask: She is experiencing Passover for the first time. She has read up on the rituals, and her mind is constantly full of questions. However, she would rather take it all in rather than question the beauty she sees unfolding before her eyes. Some might take her silence for stupidity, but she is truly a master observer.

I couldn’t help but grow closer to such wonderful and varied friends. The people I was with truly made my first Passover both sacred and special. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to know them all a little better.

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One Heart, Two Worlds

Last Wednesday, our social justice discussion was about the ten plagues in the Passover story. Should we have shown compassion to the Egyptians? If they came knocking on our doors that had been painted with blood, would we have let them in, knowing they would die? I feel that if we stood by idly and watched the Egyptians suffer, we’d be just as bad as the thousands of “innocent” Egyptians who stood by and watched their fathers, brothers, and friends enslave an entire race.

Micah, our discussion leader, remarked that compassion for both sides is what made Moshe such a good leader. He was raised by Egyptians and alongside Ramses, but he also had a duty to the Jewish people. He was “of both worlds,” as Micah put it.

I am also of both worlds. I’m aware that this coming week is both Passover and Holy Week, even though I will only be celebrating one holiday. I enjoy the pictures of my sisters’ gorgeous Pysanky Easter eggs, even though my own egg is not among them. I can remember the sweet taste of chocolate bunnies, even though the sweeter taste of freedom is what fills my mouth now.

Similarly, I play viola (the alto voice of the orchestra) and sing soprano one in choir. So, I can appreciate the (sometimes dull) harmonies and pick them out in a concert while also tracing the melody line. I am of both musical worlds, the string and vocal, and of the two voice parts.

I may not live in two worlds, but both have shaped me into the woman I am today. Like Moshe, I was raised one way but now live differently. My upbringing may not define me, but it gives me an extra lens from which to see the world. I have a window into one tradition, a home in another, and a loving heart for the people in both. Hopefully, my compassion for both sides can help me approach this holiday season and every situation with openness, love, and understanding.

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Just a little something fun. I described this video to my friend as equal parts impressive and humorous.

My first reaction was something along the lines of “Whoaaaa-hahahahahahahawhoa.” Definitely impressed with the talent and the high level of cuteness.



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Static on the Jewdar

“I had my bat mitzvah in Israel.”

These words shimmy across the office and tug on my ears. I swear, I wasn’t even listening to the conversation happening in a different room until this sentence came and introduced itself to me. “Listen, interesting stuff over here”, it says.

I feel like I’ve developed some kind of Jewdar (my friends use this term when describing the innate sense they have that allows them to tell right away whether someone is Jewish or not or being able to find the nearest Jew in the room). Anytime someone mentions something Jewish, I tune in.

So, I wander over to my co-worker’s office and invite myself into the conversation between him and my friend. She retells her story about birthright, her bat mitzvah, and how she truly discovered herself when she visited her homeland.

Even though she is the one with the interesting stories, she begins to tell Scott how intriguing I am.  My friend only found out a couple days ago that I was not yet “officially” Jewish, I just “do Jew” I suppose you could say. She jokes that I’m more Jewish than she, though I protest. Everyone’s different. I tell Steve about my upcoming Intro to Judaism class in the fall.

While fascinated, he is slightly skeptical. He asks me, “But what if you’re wrong? What if being Catholic was right and now you make the wrong decision and you have to live with that?”

Trust me, I’ve thought about this question a lot. When I first started exploring the beliefs of Judaism and asking myself how it compared to my Christian upbringing, I was terrified. I thought I would get sent to Hell just for even considering that Jesus was not divine. Later, after I had reconciled my own beliefs, I began to question how my family, who is so loving and good, could believe in something that I believed to be falsehood. Why would my sister, who wants to be a nun, devote her life to worshipping a man like a god? How could I accept the divinity of Christ as a child and then lose it in adulthood? Was I a stupid child or a wayward adult?

I told Scott that everyone is right. Or even better, there is no right and wrong, only different ways of expressing interpretations and opinions. If you believe in something and your beliefs help you to become a better person and add goodness to the world, more power to you. If it works for you, then you should do it.

For me, I could live what I was told was “right” my whole childhood. But that would not be true to myself, and THAT is what makes Catholicism wrong for me. Judaism is what connects to me on a deeper, spiritual level and it is the community in which I have made my home. As a child, I believed what I was told, and so it held truth. Now that I do not believe any more, the gospel speaks no truth for me. It is not right for me, and I would be living a lie to say otherwise.

Scott had enough of an open-mind to appreciate my answer, for which I am grateful. I know my reasoning is not popular  in many Christian circles. But that’s okay. I’ll try to stay out of trouble, unless my Jewdar tells me otherwise.

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Taking Off the Costume

Every holiday, I look forward to making new memories.

I experience these little “newborn Jew” moments, or “firsts” as I call them in my head: simple kodak snapshots of a Jewish holiday or ritual that are meaningful to me because I am consciously experiencing them for the first time.

Then, I write them down, much like a parent keeps a scrapbook of her baby’s first steps, first solid food, first toy, first birthday. Not every Jew can remember the first time she went to services, had apples with honey, or plated challah, and these moments  are infinitely special because they can never be recaptured or seen from new eyes ever again.

Even though I’ve celebrated Purim before, I thought today’s “first” would be learning moment, a profound connection, a new food, or an eye-opening experience. But it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Today was the first time I told a rabbi, any rabbi, that I want to be a cantor.

I’ve talked to my friends about my aspirations, other cantors and cantorial students, teachers, my parents (story on that some other time), and even my co-workers. But I’ve always had a deep-set fear of talking to a rabbi about it.

I don’t know why. Maybe I thought he would laugh in my face. Maybe I was afraid of denial or rejection or misunderstanding. But when the rabbi asked me why I was studying music in college, my heart prompted me for an honest response. My face flushed bright red, and I blurted out, “I want to go to cantorial school!”

I felt all the eyes of everyone around me, even though their conversations continued. And the rabbi? His reaction was priceless.


He looked at me with shining blue eyes from under his felt turkey hat, and they were glowing with respect. A little incredulous too, but warm and encouraging. He began to ask me how my conversion process was going, and I told him that I’ve been studying one-on-one and begin formal classes in the fall. He asked which cantorial school I wanted to go to, and we discussed  the different options for women in leadship positions across the movements of Judaism.

It felt so good to be myself. Dressing up is one thing, but concealing your passion is a mask that no one should have to wear. I’d been hiding for a little too long, and today I just wanted a chance to be myself.

Maybe Esther was afraid to tell people she was Jewish. Wait, no, she was terrified. It sure wasn’t easy, and I can understand why. Even though she felt so comfortable in her own skin and she knew who she was, the fact that she would have to reveal herself to an authority figure who held power over her was daunting. I bet she blushed a little or her voice shook. But she couldn’t betray her heart, and neither can I.

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Jeremiah’s Got a MEGAPHONE

Every other Wednesday at Hofstra Hillel, we have a learning session on social justice in Judaism led by Micah, a student at the Yeshiva University, Mechon Hadar.

Tonight’s discussion was filled with delicious hamantaschen, lively conversation, and the importance of tochechah: rebuke.

After sharing stories of times when each of us was called out, we focused on Leviticus 19:17, which says “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Rebuke your kinsman and/but incur no guilt because of him.”

This verse from Leviticus asks us not  to stand by while someone else commits a crime because it is our duty to rebuke him. The Talmud tells us that “Whoever can prevent his household from a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if [he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world, he is responsible for the sings of the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b-55a).

This passage filled me with questions. When are we responsible to rebuke other people? How do we know when we can make a difference? Am I doing enough?

We had plenty of ideas. First, “can” implies that the action is only necessary if we know it will result in an impact or change. If we have power, then we are responsible, and the amount of power is equal to the responsibility. One might argue that by being responsible for a single person, we have the power to change the world, since that person can go on to change his entire life and the lives of others. However, I like to see it in levels: take care of your household, if you can, then take care of the community, then move on to the world. Of course, if you are a world leader with the power to influence many, you might influence the world while neglecting to take responsibility of your household.

In reproving our kinsman, we take responsibility for him and his actions. If we truly care about people, we will rebuke them in a gentle, loving, and kind manner, as Maimonides advises in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot (Ch. 5:7). We do not need to make a public spectacle, but if we approach our kinsmen in the right way, with loving intent, our advice can change their lives and bring them one step closer to paradise.

Towards the end of our discussion, we talked about prophets. And let me tell you, they were masters of giving and receiving rebuke. One minute they’d be advocating repentance; the next, they’d be run out of town for their words. They would stop at nothing to correct the flaws in society because they felt it was their responsibility to do so.

Should we all become prophets then, publicly denouncing the wrong in this world and taking on the responsibility to correct it? If Jeremiah had a megaphone today, what would he say? We all have the power to become prophets, which means we carry on their responsibility. We are responsible for the actions of those we can influence, and if we learn to give and receive rebuke, we begin to lessen the corruption in society.

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This Kippah’s a Keeper

So I have a confession to make.

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was sleeping, I put on his kippah.

I’ve been itching to know what it feels like to have one resting on your head for about a month now. I almost snuck one out of the Hillel office last week. But I would have felt bad just putting it on in front of everyone. “Ellie, what are you doing?!” they would ask.

Anyway. I held it in my hands, velvety and dark. I try to imagine what it feels like, and I hesitate. Who am I, a woman and a Gentile, to put on such a thing? I wonder if there’s a prayer that should be said before putting it on, so I make one up quick. The muttered Hebrew mixes with the sound of snoring.

I pause.

Every tiny milestone in Judaism I wish to savor and enjoy, for you can never do something for the first time again.

Then, I settle it on my head.

My first thought is that it’s lighter than I expected. Whenever I see a Jewish person wearing one, his kippah looks so weighty. The next thing I notice is a sense of gravity and comfort. I comprehend how such a simple article conveys a physical sense of separation between me and G-d. I also find the feeling of being beneath something comforting. Like sleeping under a blanket. Secure and covered. Safe.

Lost in thought, I close my eyes. I suddenly see every Jew back through the history of time: men at the East Meadow Jewish Center on Long Island where I go to shul, those in Europe during the Holocaust, those in Israel, those from biblical times. And I feel connected back through time right up until the moment where I stand there, connected to a people I know so deeply but can barely begin to understand.

I open my eyes.

I take the kippah off, a slight smile warming my face with the morning sun, and put it back where I found it.

I didn’t think wearing it would have such a profound effect on me. I can start to understand now how Jews can make them a part of their everyday wardrobe, why they are worn at Shabbat. Light and nearly weightless, but not invisible enough to forget.

A gentle, firm reminder: that I am commanded, that I am Jewish, and that I am yours.

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