When do you feel most Jewish?

by | Mar 22, 2013 | Torah Thought

For me, it was at summer camp. I was able to find a connection with the divine under the trees and in the hills of Northern California, with other young, liberal Jews. I felt like I belonged; that the universe was safe; that I could touch something almost magical in the Judaism we celebrated throughout the day. It built an appreciation in me for living a more fully Jewish life all of the time—not just in synagogue or around the holiday meal—but at every moment of the day, I felt Jewish.

I am privileged to spend about two weeks as faculty at summer camp each year. There, I’m tempted to live my summer camp childhood again, but it’s really about bringing Judaism alive for the next generation. I get to share my experiences with, and provide experiences for, the active Jews who will be running our synagogues in a few years. Together we get to share, as Martin Buber would say, “moments of religious consciousness,” connecting Jews with their Judaism.

Holidays can make me feel especially Jewish. Gathered around the Seder table, it’s not just an early dinner, it’s a spiritual affair. To paraphrase Sheila Panitz, one of my son’s teachers at Hebrew Academy of Tidewater, the Passover Seder is a multisensory experience. With our eyes, we look around at the beautiful ritual objects, we gaze at the door we open in hopes of seeing Elijah the Prophet, and we peer into the faces of family and friends. Our ears help us to sense the beautiful holiday melodies and the main point of the Seder ritual—the telling of the story of our redemption from Egypt. Our lips and noses sense the sweet wine (four times!) and the delicious holiday foods of our family traditions, and we feel the crunchy matzah with our hands and teeth. The Passover Seder embodies the style of education I feel works so well at summer camp and everywhere—we jump into the role of a character in the story, and our senses help us to experience life “as if we, too, were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”.

This week we read from Exodus 33:12—34:26 and Numbers 28:19-25, the traditional portion for the Sabbath during Passover week. In it, God lets Moses see God’s back, and Moses carves a new set of stone tablets for God to inscribe, to replace the ones Moses smashed. Talk about building holy relationships! We then hear the commandment to observe Passover in its time on the calendar and the commandment to redeem each firstborn male issue of the womb—both animal and human—as a further reminder of the Exodus experience. Additionally, we read about the special Passover sacrifices to be offered each day of the holiday. While the sacrifices are not practiced today, each Pesach day we have an opportunity to connect with something holy by eating the matzah, refraining from eating leavened items, and living our lives a little bit differently from the rest of the year.

Through experiences such as summer camp, youth group activities, and educational synagogue opportunities, we feel Jewish by connecting to other Jews. In gathering at the Passover table, we feel Jewish by connecting as a family. When we eat and act differently for the Pesach week, we feel Jewish by connecting to our higher selves and God.

May you use all of your senses to enhance your Jewish experiences, as you more fully enjoy Passover, make Jewish summer plans, and build divine relationships!

—Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin, Ohef Sholom Temple