My partner Jon and I just returned from a trip to Jerusalem. We had a super-busy itinerary, as the first objective was to find an apartment as I begin study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Year in Israel Program in June. Fortunately, we got that squared away on the first full day in Jerusalem, leaving us a few days to explore the city. We spent a lot of time in the Old City. If you have never been there, it is difficult to fully describe the immersive environment. We were completely surrounded by buildings as we wandered the narrow streets. There were plenty of tourists, from just about every corner of the world, but this is also working neighborhood of Jerusalem. In between shops selling Judaica, Christian religious objects, and general souvenirs, were butchers, hardware shops, and clothing merchants. While my partner and I tended to wander, we saw plenty of people walking at a surprisingly quick pace, seeming to glide over the smooth stone with frequent steps, as if they were on skates.
While we were amazed by the many sites, sounds, tastes and smells of the Old City, we were especially drawn to the Kotel, or the Western Wall. It has also been called the Wailing Wall. A short summary of the site: the Kotel is the closest remaining retaining wall to the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and was never rebuilt. The Temple was the center of Jewish religious practice and its destruction forever changed the practice of Judaism. Today the Kotel is a place where people come to pray, because tradition says this site is closest to the holiest point in the Temple.
Jon and I visited on four occasions during our time in Jerusalem. There is a lot of religious complexity to this place, most significantly that women are not treated with the respect and equality that every soul in Creation is entitled to because they are forced to pray separately from men, and they have also been prohibited from chanting from the Torah. Nevertheless, it is also a beautiful place with praying, and singing and the amazing diversity of Jews and everyone else from every corner of the world. Jon took some beautiful photos, some of which I am sharing here.
We'll back soon.
In a few short days I will pull up stakes, leaving my comfortable and predictable life in Minnesota, and travel to Jerusalem, where I will spend the next year living in as I begin rabbinical study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. So, why does a 47-year old man, who has been Jewish for only five years, choose to uproot his life as well as the life of his beloved partner, change careers and leave a holy community that has become attached to his soul? It’s been a long journey that’s led me to this point.
Becoming Part of the Community
It started on a summer evening in 2009. I entered Shir Tikvah, a reform temple in Minneapolis, to remember the victims of an attack that occurred two days earlier in Israel. It was the first time I had come for an event other than Shabbat services—and the first time I had come alone. Rabbi Michael Latz rushed in, greeting the two or three other early arrivals. He greeted me warmly, “Hey, I could use some help…would you mind giving these programs to people as they come in?” The rabbi handed me a stack of programs, thanked me, and he was off. And I had a job to do. I felt included and I had the opportunity to say hello to everyone in the synagogue.
Although I didn’t recognize it that evening, this was my first experience of hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests. I wasn’t simply greeted and invited to stay for the oneg. Rather, I was enlisted in the work of this kehillah kedosha, this holy community. In being welcomed, I was asked to welcome others. Some of those I met at the service that night, and many others over the intervening months and years have become my community. We’ve prayed together, worked for social justice together, cried together, celebrated the joys of life, supported each other in illness and adversity, and comforted each other in memory of our dead.
This community supported me as I discovered Jewish life, studied text, learned Hebrew, and emerged from the mikvah joyously Jewish. This community embraced my Catholic mother and invited her to the bimah to stand beside me as I was given the Priestly Blessing to mark my conversion, and again two years later as I chanted Torah as a bar mitzvah. This community has welcomed my partner, showered him with inclusion, and given him space and support to find his own opportunities to contribute to the community’s holy work.
To say that I have been blessed abundantly by the kehillah kedosha of Shir Tikvah is accurate, but it only begins to describe the journey on which I found new life as a Jew in the Reform Movement. From the seeds scattered by my rabbi’s simple act of hachnasat orchim, I have been inspired to discover my capacity for service and leadership. The experiences I have had on this journey led me to request admission to the Rabbinical School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion so that I may study to be a rabbi.
Following a New Path
In the months and years that passed after my emergence from the mikvah, I gradually realized that something was changing inside my heart and my soul. I began to feel a hunger that would not be sated. My work, while satisfying and meaningful, began to occupy a different place in my heart. I grew restless.
I sought out Rabbi Latz to talk about this experience. “I don’t know what’s going on. I am feeling drawn somewhere that I don’t understand,” I told him. “I have been a counselor, a teacher, a non-profit leader, and I have a great gig. But I’m also feeling like I want to do Jewish all the time. I want to be able to bring these different parts of me together, and I want to work with the Jewish People.”
The rabbi was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “You know, that sounds a lot like what I do.” And there it was, sitting in the space between us, out in the open. And I felt relief. That was only a beginning, and my discernment continued. But from that moment forward, I felt energized with new purpose. Over the next several years, I deepened my involvement in my congregation: serving on the board and as a music leader and lay service leader, among other activities. And I began to work on the things that I would need to learn in order to qualify for admission to HUC.
This Year in Jerusalem
And so now I am off to Jerusalem to begin five years of study that I am hopeful will culminate in being ordained as a rabbi. I will be blogging about my experiences with Israel and its peoples and cultures.
I hope to spend the remaining decades of my career serving the Jewish People, and everyone else, as a rabbi. I have been abundantly blessed by the welcoming, teaching and friendship of my synagogue and my holy community. They have inspired me as a person from quite literally outside of Judaism who has been given the tremendous opportunity to build a Jewish life that has come to define me. As a rabbi, I hope to share with others the gifts I have been given. Next post from Jerusalem!
Image: Montreal Botanical Garden
Is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. He recently left his day job as a therapist, counselor, and consultant to follow his surprising dream of becoming a rabbi, and will be writing about his experiences during his year in Israel.