Tag Archives: faith

My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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Prayer, Anyone?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

When the fate of the world
lies not in our own hands,
when chaos is loosed upon the land,
can the power of prayer
move mountains and men?

Can appeal to the heavens
restrain madmen from their fury?

Would that the weight of all prayers,
Jewish and otherwise,
tip the scales in favor of sanity.

When bombs rained down in WWII,
when people were herded into camps,
when others in charge carve our destinies,
when disasters, man-made or natural, strike now,
the only recourse in our own hands comes
when those hands clasp together in prayer.

I may be the paragon of doubt,
a stranger to formal ritual,
but when catastrophe throws its thunderbolt,
I am the first to utter, “Oh, my God!”
and proceed to direct my prayers skyward.

Do you not do the same?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Facing The Wilderness

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

Twelve scouts went into Canaan.
Ten saw giants too big to fight
while two saw grapes too big to carry.
“We are like grasshoppers in the land,”
the ten cried, “sure to be crushed.”
“Not true,” Joshua and Caleb argued.

Steadfast, they predicted victory
while the rest shrieked and mourned
imagined defeat. In the end,
only the two survived
to stand on promised land.

An instructive tale for me
as I consider the faith needed
to see grapes instead of giants
in the wilderness waiting ahead.

Jacqueline Jules is the author of many Jewish children’s books including Never Say a Mean Word Again, The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, and the forthcoming Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Facing the Wilderness” appear in her poetry book, Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For more about the book, visit Evening Street Press at http://eveningstreetpress.com/jacqueline-jules-2016.html

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Worms in the Flour

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

The sweet smell of baking bread
widened your nostrils, then your eyes.
“A girl who bakes bread!” Your face,
a nomad finding water in the desert.
It was the seventies.
Men were afraid to open doors, afraid not to.
You were ten years my senior.
“Challah,” I corrected. “Sabbath bread.
An expression of faith.”

When time allows and mood demands,
I still set out bowls and measuring cups,
yeast, eggs, and flour on the kitchen counter,
determined to knead a sticky white mess
into something smooth and solid.
It’s a noisy process. The first time
you heard the sound
of something being punched and beaten,
you ran to the kitchen to watch.

It requires more strength now,
in the house alone.
Finding the cabinet empty of yeast,
I can’t ask you to put down the newspaper
and run to the store. I almost quit today—
opening the flour tin, finding worms.

But there were empty bowls
on the counter, waiting
beside sugar, yeast, and eggs.
They taunted me, dared me to continue.
I grabbed my coat and keys.

Not long after, I came back
with new flour, ready
to start over.

Jacqueline Jules is the author of many Jewish children’s books including The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, Miriam in the Desert, and Goodnight Sh’ma. Visit her at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Worms in the Flour” appears in Stronger Than Cleopatra, a collection of poems about going forward in the face of loss. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. For more more about the book, visit: 

http://www.booknook-eljpublications.com/store/p4/Stronger_Than_Cleopatra.html

 

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What Is A Jew?

by Amy Krakovitz,(Charlotte, NC)

With the diversity of students we have at the Consolidated High School of Jewish Studies in Charlotte, NC, I got a variety of answers to the question that I asked my 8th and 9th grade students: “What is a Jew?”

One Orthodox student adamantly claimed that a Jew was someone whose mother was Jewish. Other students, whose mothers weren’t Jewish, were equally as adamant about their own Jewish identity. The discussion that ensued was lively, animated, and expressive.

“What if you don’t believe in God,” I asked?

Some students were sure that it didn’t matter. The same Orthodox boy, however, was positive that you couldn’t be Jewish if you didn’t believe in God.

“But what if your mother is Jewish and you don’t believe in God?” I asked him.

He couldn’t answer.

“You see, it’s not that simple,” I replied.

What I wanted from them, I explained, was what they thought, not what someone else taught them.

Are you still a Jew if you don’t observe certain mitzvot? Can you be a Jew if you cheat, hurt, or even murder someone? And what is it in your soul, that essential spark, that makes you a Jew?

Underlying all the questions was my need to answer that one question: what is it that makes a Yiddishe neshama?

Here are my students’ responses:

Who is a Jew? For the past 4,000 years, we have believed that someone is Jewish according to their mother. But let me ask you something: If your mother is a lesbian, are you automatically one as well? If your mother is Democrat, can you not be a Republican? Of course not! You are whatever you believe. That’s all religion is: belief and faith.

Belief is not passed on by genes. Neither is faith. These are the result of who you are, your God-given soul. So if you like the color blue, but it’s not allowed because your mother likes red, is that something you’ll stand for? Most people say no. Yet they still say your religion is based off what your mother is.

I believe that religion is your faith in God, your personal connection with Adonai. We’re not cells that are 100% identical to the parent. The connection you have with God is yours, and yours to keep. It’s not based on your parents’ beliefs. It’s because it’s YOUR belief. – Sam Cohen, Weddington, NC (9th Grade)

A Jew is defined by his or her personal beliefs. If a person believes in the core values of Judaism, such as one God, the Torah, etc., she is defined as a Jew. It does not matter what  her parents are, although if someone is raised Jewish that may affect her values and beliefs. If someone is raised one religion, no matter how extreme, and she decides she would rather practice Judaism, then she becomes Jewish and she is entitled to Jewish rights.

You cannot inherit a religion, so you cannot say that you are automatically whatever religion your parents are, especially just your mother. You can be a Jew no matter how much or little you practice or study your religion. You do not have to go to temple every day, or cover your head, or eat kosher. A religion is defined by beliefs.

A Jew is also not defined by values. A horrible person can still claim to be Jewish, even if she doesn’t exactly follow Jewish values; she may have a different interpretation, although an outsider’s view of Judaism might be affected by her behavior.

A Jew is defined by beliefs, and can interpret the values and teachings of Judaism in her own way and still remain Jewish. — Isabelle Katz, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

What is a Jew? Jews can be defined by many things, such as physical features, morals and a common belief in a single God. What one word can describe Judaism? Purity. In Judaism we try to keep our actions pure through the morals that are taught to us. I think that the most important part of Judaism is its moral component and the moral values we espouse. They create, define, and shape a lot of our day-to-day decisions. I do not think that Judaism is the same for everyone, but for me the one word would be “pure,” though for someone else it might be different. — Roy Kasher, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

A Jew is not restricted by the jewelry they wear,

A Jew is not defined as someone who keeps kosher, or wears a kippah,

A Jew is not limited to having dark hair and a big nose,

A Jew is not labeled by stereotypes,

A Jew is simply a person. — Ivy Gold, Charlotte, NC (9th grade)

What is a Jew? This is a very controversial question, as it can be argued many different ways. Different people may have varying opinions as to how Judaism is defined. Some would say that religion is acquired through inheritance, and people take on the beliefs of their parents. Others would say that one’s religion is determined through actions and practices such as prayer, eating habits, or other religious rituals. In my opinion, the second group is correct. Though some may be Jews from birth and practice Judaism throughout life, others may simply hold an “empty title.” These people may identify themselves as Jewish without taking part in the values and expectations of the religion. True Jews may not follow every word of the Torah, or eat kosher, but if they stay involved and connected to God through prayer and righteous values, they can proudly and rightly call themselves Jewish. — Olivia Weidner, Charlotte, NC  (9th grade)

I was brought up by a mother who claims relation to the ancient tribe of Levi and traces her origin back to Ukrainian Jews who fled to America because of the Russian pogroms. I was brought up by a man of Christian birth, although he was given a Jewish name and circumcision; his mother urged him not to marry my mother, a Jew. But he did and he converted.

The question of “who is a Jew” brings ups the conundrum of whether Judaism is a faith or an ethnicity. I believe Judaism to be a faith. I do not believe religion can be passed down through family lines, but believe, instead, that faith is taught by the parents and passed down through tradition and not passed down through ritual. To be Jewish, you do not have to light candles on Shabbat, or go to temple. Most Fridays, I dine across from a mother whose laptop is set up and being typed on, and I lay my plate on a table covered with papers from both our lives.

Judaism is a system of belief. And belief is all that’s required to be Jewish.– Sally Parker, Waxhaw, NC (8th grade)

A Jew is a person who actively practices Judaism and holds all of the traditions of the Jewish culture. They believe in one God and practice the traditions. Judaism is a religion where people practice their faith and have a personal relationship with God.– Isaac Turtletaub, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Do you identify as a Jew?

Yes? You’re a Jew.

No? You’re not. — Leah Kwiatkowski, Harrisburg, NC (8th grade)

A Jew is a holy person who follows the holy teachings of God and has a connection to Jerusalem as the holy homeland of the Jewish people. Jews are required to do as God commands them. I believe Jews were the chosen ones by God and are metaphorically “the branches of God,” for they take what God showed and taught them, and they pass it on to future generations.

To be Jewish, your mother must be Jewish. If the mother isn’t Jewish, then the children can’t be Jewish unless they decide to convert.

Judaism is more of a tradition than a religion. We practice the original ways of our ancestors and bring them into our modern world.– Elliot Adler, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Judaism is a matrilineal chain of people connected by a shared set of beliefs, values, or communities.

Judaism is so much more than a religion: it’s an ethnicity. Judaism is a word used to describe people with a common heritage.

Jews are technically born Jewish and must be part of a long line of people to be ethnically classified as “Jewish.”

However, people convert to Judaism all the time; does this mean that they are not Jewish?   — Sam Friedman, Charlotte, NC (8th grade)

Amy Krakovitz, an instructor in “Writing for Good” at the Consolidated High School for Jewish Studies, Charlotte, NC, worked with her 8th and 9th grade students to prepare these essays for publication. They are reprinted here with the permission of the students and their parents.

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The Old Synagogue

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

The old synagogue sits stubbornly closed
amid the open stores along Ave. U.,
its two main doors locked shut
as passersby speak Russian and Chinese.
For me, the shul  might as well lie
on the other side of a mountain pass,
requiring a leap of faith I am unable to make
since the days long ago when punch ball
prevailed over prayer and time spent inside
seemed more detention than worship.
Maybe if the doors were open just a bit,
and I could peek inside, the deep dovening
would entice, but because the doors are closed,
mostly in my own mind, I’ll walk on by,
sit at my favorite diner seat and contemplate
why my life spins in spiritual confusion.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Expanding the Boundaries of Faith

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/

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