Recently, a congregant told me about a wonderful program in which she participated as a teenager. While on a youth group retreat, the attendees were asked to reflect on big, defining moments for their involvement in Judaism. They were asked if they could identify one event which was a turning point, which led them to say to themselves, “Hey, I like this Judaism thing, and I want it to be a part of my life.”
Oprah Winfrey, of course, popularized the term, “Aha! Moment,” but Dictionary.com notes that the term’s etymology goes back to 1939. These moments are the big ones that become turning points for us. Perhaps we discover something novel about ourselves. Perhaps we understand our paths or what we’re “meant to do” in our lives in a different way. Perhaps a topic, area of study, or problem suddenly clicks in a new way, and we are able to approach it with a new perspective. Naturally, after hearing my congregant’s story, I began to ponder my own Jewish “Aha Moments.”
In my own life, a few powerful experiences come to mind. First, when I was 7 years old, my mother began serving as the cantor at my home synagogue in Skokie, Illinois. I went with her to services, and I was scared to sit alone, so she let me sit on the bimah with her. I sat there, next to my mother, and I watched the congregation rise and sit, sing and speak. Hearing all those voices coming towards me was profoundly moving, and it was the first time I remember truly appreciating the power of group worship.
Conversely, I also treasure the first time I was given permission to pray alone. I was at camp (Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, the Reform Jewish overnight camp I attended as a child), and the counselor leading services handed out the prayerbooks, just as she did every morning for services, but this time, she told us that we had twenty minutes to go anywhere in camp, and to pray how we wanted to pray. We could be silent, we could sing, we could move, we could make up our own prayers. I remember walking over to the stables, and singing the prayers to myself as I watched the majestic horses walk around the ring. At that moment, I understood that I could also pray alone, and that my connection with God could take place on my own terms.
A third moment that feels significant was a youth group “shul-in” that I attended in high school. I was on the board of my temple’s youth group, and I was surrounded by my closest friends from school and religious school. We were all quite active in the youth group, and we were excited to sleep overnight in the synagogue’s youth lounge. As the hours went on, I loved the feeling of being snuggled up in the safe walls of the synagogue, with my best friends, and that we were all enjoying being Jewish together. I realized at that moment that the various circles of my life could overlap and that I could be proudly Jewish both internally and externally.
So, if I were to ask you, what would your Jewish Aha Moment be? Was there a significant event or experience in which you realized the importance of Judaism in your life? If you asked your family members or friends, what do you think they might say? I asked this question of a group gathered for our Simchat Torah Morning Service, just to get a sense of what these moments might look like.
For many in the room, the moment involved a worship experience: “The first time I read from the Torah;” “When I finally became a Bat Mitzvah as an adult;” “When I attended a national URJ Biennial and prayed with thousands of other involved Jews.” For some, their Aha Moment included learning: “The first time I realized that I could interpret Torah myself;” “The first time I delivered a D’var Torah;” “When I finally understood what all those prayers meant.”
As I listened, I noticed the simplicity of many of these examples. They weren’t showy, and they weren’t complicated. Rather, they were beautiful moments grounded in our rich, moving, and meaningful tradition. They highlighted a connection with the Jewish community, with our sacred texts, and with feeling a sense of personal ownership and empowerment with regards to our heritage.
Too often, we wonder why more adults and children aren’t inspired by the role of Judaism in their lives. Could it be that clergy and congregational leadership aren’t enabling them to experience more of these significant moments? Could it be, likewise, that the families in our communities, whether they are affiliated or not, aren’t making room in their lives to give these moments a chance?
I hope that you’ll feel inspired to ponder your own significant Jewish moments, and, if you haven’t yet felt a true “Aha Moment,” that you’ll seek one out!
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004