by Emily Goldberg (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)
I am extremely motivated and determined to explore the things that fascinate me in life. From faith-based experiences to leadership opportunities, I am constantly involving myself in programs and groups that will inspire me to be an open-minded Jewish leader in the future. Throughout my years as a high school student, I have chosen to surround myself with driven people who share the same values as me. I am different from other teens my age, however, in the sense that I do not believe that anything in life is out of reach. But my belief was tested recently when reading an incredible book that has both changed my spiritual perspective and enabled me to grow in my faith.
The book, My Jesus Year, chronicles the spiritual journey of Benyamin Cohen, a modern Orthodox Jew who sought inspiration in his daily religious life by exploring the various denominations of Christianity. From interviewing Mormon missionaries to standing among thousands in acclaimed Baptist mega-churches, Cohen, with a yarmulke on his head, compares his “Jesus-filled” experiences with those of Orthodox Judaism. In the end, Cohen realizes his underlying passion for his own faith, but now approaches spirituality with a new and open-minded perspective.
Benyamin Cohen is unlike typical observant Jews for he dared to expand his faith in unimaginable ways. Determined and passionate, Cohen dared to discover the places and people that fascinated him. He opened himself to unique opportunities that would have otherwise remained unattainable if ignored; he then recorded those memorable experiences and shared them with readers all over the world, leaving an impact on spiritual seekers like me.
His book inspired me to take my faith to new boundaries; my Jewish beliefs needed to be taken to new locations, new levels, and new directions. After reading about Cohen’s ability to grow as a Jew through his encounters with non-Jews, I realized that Judaism is not about attempting to come as close as possible to the line without crossing it; it’s about seeing that line and turning in the entirely opposite direction.
Judaism is a religion that’s filled with lines and limits. Practicing Jews find themselves in situations every day where their religious values are challenged. Whether it’s refusing to indulge in a slice of pepperoni pizza or an opportunity to see a popular concert on a Friday night, Jews face cultural issues that affect their personal practices on a daily basis. Intermarriage, conversions, and future non-Jewish generations are just a few of the deeper “lines” that devout Jews try to avoid. Today, the biggest misconception that faithful Jews have is the idea that they must always fit themselves somewhere within these lines. Like Benyamin Cohen, I am a spiritual seeker, always searching for theological enlightenment in some of the most daring ways, whether it is standing among thousands of worshippers at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale or sitting on the floor of a local Hindu temple, willingly coexisting with other faiths in order to discover my own.
I vividly remember my unique “crossing the line” experience when I first entered Calvary Chapel, the most dominant mega-church in the area. This worship center, filled with large screens, innumerable seats, and people of all ages and backgrounds, serves as a weekly spiritual haven for Christians all over South Florida. I stood among hundreds of church goers, a neophyte to the concert-like service that united everyone around me. As the band on stage began to play popular gospel songs, congregants sang along with the lyrics projected on the peripheral screens. I watched in awe as average people suddenly felt humbled by the communal voice that echoed through the church walls. Connected to the powerful music, some people began to raise their hands in the air, while others fell to their knees in prayer. Of course, I first felt uncomfortable and out of place. Growing up in a Jewish bubble, I had never once stood before a large conspicuous cross glowing in a dimmed sanctuary. In fact, I had always been told at my Jewish school to refrain from speaking about “J.C.” or Christmas. I had never known that Jews were even allowed to stand inside of a church.
But there I was, surrounded by hundreds of worshipers who believed in a savior and theological being that differed from my own. I realized that I had stepped outside of my limited Jewish bubble to experience a new form of spirituality, and it was ok that I was not surrounded by hundreds of religious Jews. While I initially worried about my Jewish friends’ reactions to my church visit, I quickly put those thoughts aside as I focused on the service that was taking place before me. It was truly amazing to see all types of people uniting to worship something greater and more empowering than themselves. Communal faith not only connects worshipers of one religious practice, but also people of different beliefs. Religion is truly beautiful when it unifies people.
Some of my friends considered my church visits threatening to my Jewish identity. They assumed that my one visit in church would lead to a life of Christianity, intermarriage, and church membership. Since I had been known among my friends as the “super Jew” or “future rabbi” because of my passion for Judaism, many assumed that my one visit to a new worship service meant I was no longer interested in pursuing a career in the rabbinate or Jewish education. My fellow classmates even asked me if I had converted to Christianity. Amused and entertained by the terrified looks on their faces, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, “I like it. You should come with me next time.”
While I am appalled by the abundance of ignorance toward other religions in my own community, I have become more motivated to explore new religious practices in order to be more open- minded. After undergoing what seemed like apoplectic shock, all of my friends and family decided that I am and will forever be that spiritual seeker who “goes against the grain” in order to find her purpose in the world. I refuse to recognize the boundaries and limits of faith that others fear.
Why did I seek opportunities to cross these lines? I explored new spiritual havens and worship services in order to reconnect to my own. Standing among hundreds of Christians made me truly appreciate the significance of a tight knit Jewish community. When I took my faith out of the familiar lines I had grown up with my whole life, I became more inspired to reconnect myself to them. Suddenly, those meticulous lines, like kashrut and Shabbat observances, reminded me of home, where I truly belong. I dared to step outside of my Jewish lifestyle in order to truly appreciate it.
There are aspects of Jewish faith that cannot be found in any other religious “bubble.” While listening to the popular gospel rock songs, I longed to see congregants wearing kippot and tallitot, and I missed the uniqueness of the Hebrew language that unifies the Jewish world. I once considered these practices to be second nature; today, because of my experiences at church, I cherish them. My spiritually enlightening experiences at Calvary Chapel cannot be traded or ignored; I would have never discovered my passion and respect for faith if I had stayed within the lines of my own religion. Sometimes, the greatest spiritual experiences in life can only be found by walking in the opposite direction, limitless and unbounded.
Through my explorations of faith, I proved to myself that Judaism is ever evolving, and there is no one way to connect with your faith. I learned to appreciate Judaism when it was not right in front of me. I needed to see how other people connect to their religions before truly understanding my own. Spiritual seekers do not settle for the bare minimums in life. They dare to step outside their personal comfort zones in order to reach inner peace and understanding. Benjamin Cohen and his book, My Jesus Year, inspired me to expand my boundaries of faith while gaining a deeper love and understanding for Judaism.
Emily Goldberg is a high school student at the David Posnack Jewish Day School in South Florida. She loves sharing her unorthodox ideas regarding faith and spirituality through her writing. In the future, she hopes to pursue rabbinics, interfaith studies, creative writing, and social work. Also, she hopes to lead a Jewish community of her own some day, one that encourages creative dialogue similar to that in The Jewish Writing Project.
You can read more of her work at her blog, A Leap of Faith: http://www.faithleaping.blogspot.com/