People ask me all the time why I became religious. For the longest time I didn’t have an answer. I’d attended public school my whole life. I played varsity sports and was even nominated for Prom Queen. When I told people I had decided to attend Yeshiva University in New York they were flabbergasted. Why hadn’t I decided on UCLA or USC like most of my other friends? What is a yeshiva? Do you want to be a Rabbi? I’d explained to them that I liked the idea of the co-curriculum that Yeshiva University offered. In addition to the Liberal Arts and Science classes that other colleges offer, Yeshiva required all students to take a full course load of secular subjects as well as classes in Judaic studies, Jewish history and philosophy, and the Hebrew language. To be honest, I liked the idea that these classes were required. It wasn’t up to me whether on not to take a class. It was the rule.
Growing up, my parents made sure we knew our heritage. We attended a synagogue with a traditional Rabbi and were sent only to Jewish summer camps. We went to services on the High Holidays and my brothers and I had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at 13. I, mostly for the party and presents, but so be it. We happily ate my Granny’s latkes every holiday whether it be Chanukah, Passover, or Thanksgiving. We were, in my eyes, an ordinary Jewish American family. But to me, going to temple, having a Seder, dancing the horah at my Bat Mitzvah, they were all physical things. I wasn’t connected to the spirituality of these events.
The camp I attended every summer in Southern California was run by an Orthodox group. It was an interesting mix. Half of the kids came from observant homes, the other half were public school kids just like me. So as you can imagine, they infused a lot of Judaism into the camp day. Each morning started with prayer groups. The religious kids were given a prayer book and each one had a chance to pray on their own. The rest of us would sit with a counselor singing Jewish songs and learning a couple of prayers. I remember being so envious of the other kids. I saw them swaying back and forth with their eyes closed murmuring things in Hebrew. I remember thinking, how cool is that? It was as if they were having their own little meeting with God. All I felt like I was doing was singing words to a tune. I wanted to know how to do what they were doing.
Being a typical preteen, when posed with the option of a Shabbat program with my youth group or a Saturday morning softball game I chose softball. An optional prayer class or a trip to the mall and 7/11, I chose the Slurpee. I liked the idea of increasing my understanding of Jewish observance but could not be compelled enough to give up all the other things I enjoyed doing. Therefore, as it came time to choose a college I guess I realized it was time to make things happen. I could choose UCLA with its active Hillel that offers abundant classes on Jewish topics, or I could choose a university where Jewish class attendance was not voluntary but was expected of the student body. Finally at age 18, I decided to opt out of the easy choice. Instead I decided to trek cross country to attend Yeshiva University in New York City and begin my formal Jewish education. It was this choice that changed my life.
While at the University, I attended all the beginners track Judaic studies classes. I took beginners Hebrew, beginners Bible (starting with Genesis, of course), and beginners Jewish philosophy. But the classes that interested me most, were essentially pertaining to how to lead a Jewish life. It was in these classes that I learned what it means to believe in God, how to observe Jewish life cycle events, and the topic that forever intrigued me, how to pray. It reminded me of when I was in camp growing up and how badly I wanted to daven like the other kids. Not only did I learn how to pray and what to pray, but I learned why we pray. Prayer is sometimes referred to as service from the heart. It literally is an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with God. We can praise Him for everything he has done for us. We can ask him for the things we need like good health and sustenance. And we can thank Him for always being there for us and listening to us when we need Him. Before I learned this, the only time I really prayed was while opening my report card or while stepping up to bat at my softball games. I finally understood the spirituality of it all. Its not just murmuring words. Its about feeling what you are saying and speaking from your heart, not just your head.
I’m not saying I’m perfect. No one is. Everyday I feel like I have the opportunity to do more with my life religiously and spiritually. I took my religious growth very slowly. I believe all Jews have a flame ready to burn brightly within them. All they need is a spark to ignite it. I’ve seen people take on too much too quickly on their path towards observance. These individuals were not able to hold on to that spark. I started small, reciting blessings over food, going to synagogue on Shabbat, and most recently, reciting mincha, the afternoon prayers, every single day. Everyday I feel like I have the opportunity to do more with my life religiously and spiritually. Everyone is capable of being a good Jew. It takes just one act, one mitzvah to get started. Go visit a friend that’s in the hospital. Make a commitment to learn Hebrew so you can follow along at services. Give to charity. Whatever it may be, its these little acts that help perfect the world and make living here a more peaceful experience.