In March, I spoke at TempleBeth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. I worked with Rabbi Rachel R. Saphire on the event. During one of our pre-program conversations, she shared a sermon she gave on Yom Kippur 2013 in which she discussed being a child of intermarriage and her Jewish journey. An excerpt of her inspiring words follows and is reprinted with permission.
Whether you see it or not, you've made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, "I don't have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It's what I do. It's what I've always done." You may observe to support your loved one or family. Maybe you're a teenager or child, and your parents said, “You’re coming.” Regardless the reason, you’re here and by being here, you’ve made a choice.
Our Yom Kippur Torah portion comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy. In a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.
“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…
Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea - that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the instruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live."
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health) but about choosing to Jewishly in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that, which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is that this strong charge does not explicitly say how we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way, the text only states that the choice is not far out of reach. What I think this means is that the choice is within each of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves how we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. The pathway to choosing Jewish life can be different for each one of us!
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day–men, women, and children. Even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek often refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him or her a Jew by Choice. I think the Torah is teaching us that we all can be Jews by Choice! What would it look like if every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I've thought about this question from a young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom was Jewish, and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I recall decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, eating Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents. I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home and a few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.
In my hometown, being Jewish was something different. My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade, and my mom was our school's "Jewish mom." She would go room-to-room teaching about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house. All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. To fit in with my classmates, I called myself and considered myself “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and he was Jewish! I made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they discussed. The new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend fascinated me.
I began to explore my identity and ask questions. Who am I really and what is important to me? If my friend is Jewish, and he goes to temple, why don't I? Can I celebrate the "new" Jewish holidays that his family celebrates? Can I attend religious school, too? Can you help me learn Hebrew? Can we go to services? How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop? Why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish? Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do? Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur? Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m 17? Can I study with the rabbi more?
My brother and I did form a youth group at our temple and built our sense of Jewish community. I did have a Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday. I did find a sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could–even if it meant skipping the high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made, and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine and my choices allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to me. My choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose, and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Our Torah portion reminds us that existing is easy, but living demands active participation and choice. Living Jewishly requires more than just existing as a Jew, it requires 365 days of choosing, whatever that looks like.