Hopeful, contemplative, questioning, and woke. The confirmation class of 2019 gave speeches that will make you feel good about the future.
Joining confirmation class, I was hoping to be more involved in the community that deep down I knew I belonged in. I didn’t have the same path as my peers here. No Hebrew school, no Bat Mitzvah so I wasn’t coming for my beliefs because honestly I didn’t have many. However I learned more about myself over the course of this year than I have ever had in my life.
During class, we did this activity called GodShopping where we talked about different ways that God is or is not involved in our world. Looking at mine I realized it was more directed towards nature, how for me God is not within, but he is above. In my eyes, God isn’t to be asked of. I control my life and what happens in it, if I ask God for things nothing will change, because things change by me doing things.
The one thing that I cannot change no matter how hard I try is how much I think and worry about everything. My mind is always a busy mess except when I’m in nature. When the smell of wildflowers lingers and the sun shines, I know that I’m okay. When my feet are secure on the ground but my heart is light I know this higher power looks over me, protects me, that’s when God is with me.
This class has taught me that there are so many different types of Judaism and that just because mine might be different than everyone else’s, it doesn’t mean I’m any less Jewish, or “worthy” of the religion. Coming into this community later than my peers, I always saw myself as less than everyone else because I didn’t know as many things as the people who grew up learning prayers. I’ve realized that the way I think of God, how God connects me to this earth, isn’t any less religious than the range of people that exist in this beautiful community. And for that I accept who I am as a Jew, knowing that my beliefs matter too.
For as long as I can remember, a part of my Jewish identity has always felt missing. I was told to pray, but I didn’t really know how and I didn’t bother asking. Prayer seemed sort of silly. Why would I confront some far-fetched God figure and ask God for things? It seemed to work for some people, but not me, and I felt guilty. I even felt a little bit of guilt sitting in confirmation class. How was I supposed to confirm my Jewish identity and commit myself to the Jewish people if I couldn’t even pray? Was I lying to myself? Did I deserve to be here? These questions were always in the back of my mind.
A while ago, I heard one of Rabbi Elana’s sermons about prayer. She said that prayer doesn’t always mean that you have to thank God for the fruit that grows on the vine or ask God to heal someone. Instead, it can simply be asking for strength, whether it’s the strength to get through something or strength for someone else. I remember sitting in temple that night and having an ‘aha!’ moment. For the first time, I felt like I could pray. This has been a tough year for me. Now I know that I can find strength from prayer. In just five minutes, my entire perspective on Judaism had changed, and I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
This year in confirmation class, I’ve learned that my Jewish identity doesn’t have to depend on what I pray about, and it doesn’t have to depend on my devotion to God. Instead, I can feel good about the connections I’ve made and everything I’ve learned. I’ve developed stronger friendships and a deeper insight into Judaism. As we move to silent prayer, I encourage you to reflect inward and welcome it with an open mind. There is no right way to pray, so just do whatever feels right.
I may not go to temple enough or keep kosher, but if struggling with G-d is an important part of Judaism, I know I’ve at least got that part down. I struggle with G-d, I think a lot of us do. So many terrible things have happened in this world, and I struggle with a G-d who would stand by and allow these things to happen. I struggle with a G-d who allows people to be persecuted
based on their religious beliefs, because as a Jew I am part of a historically oppressed group, and every time I see a new story about a synagogue shooting in this world, in my country, in my state, I think, that could have been me. That could have been me, forced to carry the memory of what I witnessed, it could have been me, wounded, struck with shrapnel, It could have been me, dead on the floor of my temple. But it wasn’t me, and maybe it doesn’t matter if we have a G-d watching over us or not, because what I do know is that there’s no point in standing by and feeling bad about all the things that happen. Now more than ever I am aware of how short and uncertain our lives are, but thoughts and prayers only go so far and I want to put the time I have on this world to good use. Maybe I should quit struggling with G-d and ask myself how I can become my own G-d, how I can change the world myself. And then I can struggle with that instead.
I turn sixteen tomorrow and I think by now I’ve realized that life is pretty much just one struggle after the other. It’s not as bleak as it sounds, through struggle we become stronger, the Jewish people are a tribute to that sentiment. Pretty much our entire history has revolved around our struggles, I mean, every time I have to explain a Jewish holiday to someone it usually starts off with something along the lines of “Well it all started when the Jews were suffering and being persecuted by…” you can fill in the blank, there are plenty of options. But it’s not only that we’ve struggled and suffered, the most important piece of it is that we always persevered, and that’s why any of us are even here today.
I didn’t actually know what confirmation was when I started preparing for it last year, but I think I’ve kind of got it figured out now. What I’m here to confirm today is that I am willing to struggle for my Judaism. I am willing to face whatever comes my way to keep these traditions and my history alive. Because while it comes with its fair share of trouble, my connection to Judaism also inspires me to grow and learn and help others, and it’s provided me with a strong community of like minded people who I know are all doing their best to make our world a little better everyday, even though we have to struggle for it.
The Torah is full of stories of the struggles of our ancestors. Even after all the time we spent as slaves in Egypt we still survived and persevered, and as the story goes, we even found the strength to sing as we crossed the Red sea, out of oppression and into uncertainty. And as we sing that same prayer tonight I hope that we can all keep in mind the strength we have as a people and our ability to overcome any struggles we face.
Nearly 3 years ago to this day, I stood here as a bar mitzvah, facing a crowd lit by the gorgeous sunbeams shining through this stained glass window. As I taught the crowd of around 130 strong about parashat B’har, I glimpsed at the faces of various clergy and family members, as well as many, many friends. In that instant, one which I would without any doubt identify as the happiest moment of my life thus far, I felt an overwhelming sense of togetherness and community. This moment, as I have now realized, represented all that I love and appreciate about Judaism. Regardless of the setting, whether it’s at religious school, my Bar Mitzvah, or the recent Washington D.C trip our confirmation group went on, the wonderful sense of community Judaism provides is, to me, meaningful beyond measure.
The first time I truly experienced this feeling was at Camp Newman in 4th grade. I sat on the concrete steps up to my cabin in boys row, crying, incredibly homesick - it was my first sleep-away summer camp. The sun had almost set, and our cabin had left for the upper field, for a few activities followed by the closing prayer for the night. After my counselor Kevin attempted to cheer me up, we walked down boys row towards the field. They had finished the activity and were standing in a circle as the counselors were quieting down all the kids. I made my way reluctantly to the circle, and as I arrived I was welcomed by two fellow campers I had never met. We wrapped our arms around each other’s shoulders, as the thirty or so of us sang Hashkiveinu, accompanied by the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar, and lit solely by the crescent moon. I remember looking up at the magen david on the boulder way up on the hill, as the sky above it turned a subtle crimson color. I distinctly remember smiling, something I hadn’t done since I arrived at camp, thanks to the pure sense of togetherness.
My most recent and most inspirational experience in the Jewish community came on our trip to Washington D.C last January, as part of the L’taken conference. Before this trip, I hadn’t participated in anything in the realm of political activism, nor had I been to an organized gathering of Jewish youth outside of Rodef. The trip was magical. Within the first hour of our arrival at the hotel, we joined the hundreds of other Jewish teens from all over the U.S - from Arizona, New York, Texas, Virginia, Michigan, and many other states. After mingling around for half an hour, we all walked into this massive ballroom to begin Shabbat services. Surrounded by the hundreds of Jewish teens and chaperones, I had no idea how many friendships I would forge over the weekend, and more significantly, how much I would learn about social justice through a Jewish lense. Then the service started, and although there were seven or so different melodies oddly mixing together for each prayer, the entire room sang each prayer in unison, led by two rabbi’s on the stage, one from California and the other New York. It was beautiful, not only the sheer volume of the voices themselves, but the fact that hundreds of us, all from different backgrounds and states, were singing the same songs and chanting the same prayers I always had from my childhood.
I truly have been blessed to be a part of this Jewish community in my life. Confirmation class has created for me lifelong friendships, a positive environment to discuss my thoughts on G-d and the Torah, and most importantly, has given me the knowledge that wherever life takes me, there will always be a Jewish community there to welcome me with open arms/home.
I have struggled throughout my life to understand why I go to temple, why I study Judaism, why being Jewish is special, and so on. Is God real? Is the story of the Torah accurate? Is the process of learning my religion, my culture, of any actual significance? While attending my first confirmation class, I hoped to soon find some answers to these questions.
Throughout this past year, confirmation class has let us all focus on Judaism from various different platforms. We’ve discussed Judaism through political, ethical, and moral lenses as we’ve compared traditional Jewish law with modern legislation. We’ve argued over societal dilemmas and shared our own opinions on each issue, learning from each other and looking at all sides of the debate, leaving no voice unheard.
Studying with this group this year reinforced in me the concept that Judaism can be what you want it to be. There is no right or wrong stance a Jewish individual can take on any single conflict. Being a member of the Jewish community can be a unique experience for us all. I think that this aspect of Judaism, which isn’t religious or spiritual, is what resonates with me the most at this time in my life. Who I can be here is a special side of me that I don’t share with many of my peers or friends outside of the temple. I cannot be given a bad grade for my performance in confirmation class. I cannot be criticized for a particular stance I take on a topic we are discussing. On Wednesday nights, we are all free to interpret life’s issues in our own way, and we are able to grow as individuals from it, learning from our teachers, and of course, each other. We’ve formed bonds, friendships, and many inside jokes over the course of this past year’s classes. In whatever community I end up in the future, as I move forward in my life as a Jew, I will make certain to continue to search for and experience my own new versions of these Wednesday nights.
Though Judaism has been an important part of my life since before I can remember, it has always seemed decidedly separate from the rest of my identity. For example, in third grade, there was poetry, and also religious school. In seventh grade, there was band, and also my Bat Mitzvah. And, more recently, it’s been a passion for law and justice...and also Judaism. It was just difficult for me to synthesize two things that seemed to be completely separate in so many ways.
Outside of temple, I spent time with people who looked at me quizzically when I tried to explain why I spent so much time at temple. At temple, I spent time with people who hardly cared what grades I got or how popular I was. I continued to maintain this mentality of one integral part of me being “separate” from all the rest until this past January. One night, a woman named Mrs. Lamstein visited our confirmation class. An ex-public defender turned educator, she led a fascinating activity comparing amendments to the constitution with Jewish commandments. Because of my interest in law, I was hooked. As the activity progressed, I began to realize the extent of the similarities that existed between the two. Once one eliminated, say, the second amendment (from the constitution) and keeping kosher (from the Torah), they really were remarkably alike. The next week, Mrs. Lamstein visited again. And again, I was fascinated by the seemingly endless similarities between the two philosophies. I was decidedly disappointed when there wasn’t a third visit. But two classes had been enough to leave an impact on me.
I realized after the second visit I had finally connected Judaism to one of my passions. For my entire life, I had thought of Judaism as separate, but I came to the conclusion that it didn’t have to be. My Jewish and secular identities could be one and the same, and they could overlap and coalesce in countless different ways. So, I guess you could say that I learned much more than just the similarities between Jewish and constitutional law through Mrs. Lamstein’s visits. I learned how to recognize Judaism as part of my whole identity.
In fact, synthesizing our identities is a theme present in one of the central prayers of the service. Sometimes, we find it challenging not to divide our identities into separate spheres: work and home; Jewish and secular. The Sh’ma reminds us of our unity with God and Judaism. My interpretation of this, in keeping with recognizing Judaism as part of a whole, is that this prayer also encourages us to find unity between the separate parts of ourselves. Please join us on page 152 for the Sh’ma.
I liked being Jewish. The long services in which I used to resist my boredom by reading the Torah from the beginning with my brother, folding paper airplanes with the programs, staring at the seconds slowly passing by on my mom’s watch that I begged to look at every five minutes. The countless prayers in Hebrew interspersed throughout the service that I barely understood, and honestly had no desire to understand. Being able to feel unique in school, proudly sharing my Judaism and occasionally arguing with my friends over which was better: Hanukkah or Christmas, as if they were rival sports teams. I liked being Jewish, but I did not love it.
These apathetic feelings towards religion culminated in my Bar Mitzvah. Yes, the experience was extremely satisfying once I completed it, but to be honest, it carried little significance in my life despite the months of work that had been put into it by myself and by my family. I began to feel guilty for this lack of connection to the traditions that everyone else in my community cared deeply about.
During our confirmation this year, the main focus was reflecting on our own personal relationship to Judaism. Over the course of this year, through activities in which we dove deep into every aspect of this religion, from a belief in God to the history of Israel, my perspective began to change. Instead of feeling guilty for not having a meaningful connection with the prayers or daydreaming during services, I began to focus on the things that I loved about being Jewish. I used to see my religion as something that I belong to as much as a fan belongs to a sports team, watching from the bleachers with support, but lacking an understanding of what it’s actually like to play the game. Focusing on the aspects that I was passionate about ignited a love for and connection with Judaism that I had never experienced before. I love the community that I have been surrounded with for as long as I can remember whose unwavering strength and optimism serves as a dependable source of inspiration and motivation. I love the incredible music, an opportunity to pray as a community in an incredibly unique and powerful way in which all of our off-key voices join to create a beautiful harmony. I love the delicious food with so much history, family recipes of charoset and double chocolate chip cookies passed down from generation to generation. These are the things that keep me coming back.
I would like to ask you to do one thing, either during this service or in the days to come. Think about why you are here. It is not an easy time to be Jewish, and knowing exactly what you care most about, what you love most about being a part of this community, can be an incredibly powerful tool to give you strength in this difficult time.
As I’ve grown and changed, my perspective of my Judaism and my Jewish life has changed. Attending Sunday school at a young age taught me that being Jewish was important, but I had no idea why. I would complain about my weekends being stolen, sitting in a stuffy classroom being told that I needed to understand what was being taught. At the age of five, this didn’t make sense to me; I wanted my weekends back! Despite how pessimistic I was, I loved the music in our Sunday service. Every single song was something you could clap a rhythm to. My favorite, however, was always Avot V’imahot. As I became older, I wanted to find out what the prayer actually meant, having been my childhood favorite.
While preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, I was able to learn the Hebrew and the significance of the prayer itself. For those of you that don’t know, the title literally means “Fathers and Mothers”. It discusses how Judaism is passed down from generation to generation; how the same God who has ruled over our fathers and our father’s fathers is the same God who rules over us. Learning about this generational passage made me curious about my own Jewish lineage, and I went home with millions of questions. I learned about my mother, her Judaism, and my grandmother, and her mother, and the generations of powerful Jewish women that all live within me today. The most powerful part of this lineage, to me, is that despite our different views of Judaism, we are all part of the same family and the same heritage. All of us in this room tonight see our religion differently, and there is something truly beautiful about that.
My favorite part of being Jewish is how interpretive it is; there is no one way to be Jewish, there is no one way to pray, there is no one way to believe in God. And no matter how we consider our religion, we are all here tonight to pray together. As we do so, I would like you all to think about your ancestors and the power that they have passed down to you through generations. Please turn to page 164 and rise if you’re able for the Amidah.