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.
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.
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 will also share my thoughts about what I am learning during my year in Jerusalem.
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!
1) Notice the small and unimpressive open storefront with a few tables on the sidewalk. There is a crowd gathered in front. This is the place you want.
2) Make eye contact with the Counter Guy. If he nods back at you, sababba -- you're in.
3) Wait patiently for your turn. Other people may try to skip ahead of you in line, so don't be a passive American and let them get away with that. On the other hand, you can trust the Counter Guy. He nodded at you, nachon ?
4) When it's your turn, use as much Hebrew as you can without losing track of what you're actually saying. Counter Guy will answer in English, but it's always nice to make an effort.
5) Give Counter Guy your order and he will gesture for you to step away from the line and wait on the sidewalk. Trust.
6) Select your beverages and have your wallet ready to pay when your order comes out. Counter Guy doesn't actually expect you to pay until you're done… Even though you're sitting on the sidewalk out of view of counter guy. They just don't dine and dash in Israel, I guess.
7) It is now time to go find a place to eat your falafel. If it appears that there are no places to sit, look at the other falafel eaters forlornly, with a hint of anxiety, and they will make room. It's like magic.
8) Enjoy your falafel.
9) When another falafel eater approaches the seating area, be ready to make room. And this may include temporarily holding his falafel while he uses both hands to adjust his chair. He will just hand it to you as if you were his sibling. This is Israel.
10) Finish your falafel with deep satisfaction, knowing that while this is lunch, you may hardly need to eat anything else today, even though chair guy goes up to order another.
11) Pay up, feeling very satisfied that you are a smart and savvy traveler who has just had a great meal, and a cultural experience for only $6 USD.
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.