This drash was delivered by Builder Linda Kinning at our August 25th service in which we officially welcomed our recent conversion cohort into our community as newly minted Jews. You can hear this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast.
Approximately 8 hours ago, I walked into Lake Michigan and walked out a proud Jew. The story of how I came to this moment in time can be told a million different ways, with even more characters, and stories of revelation and reflection. And I hope to tell all those stories eventually and see how they shine and patina with age. But this story could have a million more permutations and end the same way, because when you’ve found a home for your spirit and people, you want to show up for and work to heal the world with, you join them.
I’ve spent the past year learning and studying and practicing to join the Jewish people and in some ways it feels vulnerable to stand up here and say “HI! I’m new here!” when I want to just blend in like I’ve always been here. But, right now, I think the most Jewish thing I can do to mark this transition is to give voice to the outsider perspective I carry with me and to honor the journey of learning that brought me to today.
The very first Shabbat service I attended was in San Francisco at Sha’ar Zahav and the parshat that week was Lech Lecha — “Go Forth.” I remember laughing with God because at the time I was weeks away from putting everything I owned in storage and living out of a suitcase. I was about to go forth on a journey from California to Tokyo, maybe South America, and eventually Chicago, and I had no idea how long I’d be gone. I spent the next 6 months wandering geographically, but coming home spiritually and Mishkan has been a big part of that homecoming.
I spent years searching for divine practice and community in my travels and my life, and I’d pick up a few things. Meditation from Buddhism, connection with divinity in the woods, crafting my own rituals of reflection and song and often candle light. Last month, I was in Bali watching priests perform beautiful rituals with incense and rice and colors and chants, and while I could appreciate it, what I remember most is the overwhelming sense of home I feel in Judaism — the sense that I’m not searching anymore. I wasn’t looking for spiritual belonging and community in the rice fields of Bali because I had already found it.
For people who inherited this home — you’re lucky. But I understand that there may be baggage stored in the basement that has been passed down over the generations and you are intimately aware of the cobwebs and the ghosts and the parts of the house that you don’t love. I admit that there’s a benefit to moving into a new house — there’s a freshness and a freedom in choosing where to live and put down roots. For folks who inherited Judaism, I’d like to share what this house looks like from the outside to illuminate the features that make it worth it to learn a new language and work with a spiritual Realtor for a year before being allowed to move in.
In the early days, I asked a lot of questions and read a lot of books (which I was delighted to know was a very Jewish approach to learning). The book Surprised by God, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg was especially transformative. I was reading page after page that felt like it was written right out of my own experience. Reading about different, expansive conceptions of God that I thought I had just made up on my own that fit with, and stemmed from Judaism was like finding out that there are other, native speakers, of the language I made up in my bedroom. My understanding of divinity as the force that connects all life together and here I was reading a RABBI say the same thing but with more depth and possibility and even textual support!
Here was a whole community of people who, yes, defined God in infinitely nuanced and sometimes even contradictory ways, and yet the religion and concept of divinity itself was strong enough to hold all that complexity and diversity. Here was a tradition that required wrestling with God and is seldom satisfied with simple answers. It was like describing the ideal party I want to be invited to and realizing my neighbor has been hosting it for the last 5783 years.
In San Francisco, I had found a beautiful Jewish community to learn with and to help me make sense of this steady call to Judaism that had left me feeling excited and surprised. I had lived all of my adult life happily and enthusiastically non-religious after a childhood of difficult religious experiences. Adopting a religious practice and identity is not the obvious move for a 30-something urbanite. I asked myself if I could just be content with the theoretical understanding of divinity that I found in Judaism. Maybe I could just be content with my newfound understanding of divinity as action and breath and connection.
But one of the ways I feel most at home in Judaism is the emphasis on practice and collective action. We pray with a minyan because we know that we need each other to heal the world and we honor our interdependence. We talk about practice more than faith because we know that how we live out our values is more important than what we profess. I had finally found a community of practice to make meaning with and I was about to leave it. I was about to be a stranger in a strange land and I was scared I’d lose the tether of Judaism I was so ready to wrap myself in.
But Judaism is exceptionally good at comforting strangers in a strange land. The tools we have, torah, mitzvot, shabbat, prayers and rituals for marking time and change are exceptionally well suited for making meaning in times of transition. This home is made to be portable, adaptable, and resilient. We honor this home, and our ability to make it wherever jews are, with the sukkah, the Mishkan, and the shabbat table.
So I went forth, and I found home in celebrating Shabbat in Tokyo every week with candles and a visit to the public baths on Friday night — I called it Shabbath and I took the long, slow way back home. I visited the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and felt Hashem dwelling in those quiet, holy places too. I celebrated Rosh Hashana in a hotel room in Shibuya, tuning into services streamed out of Australia, feeling out of sync with every Jew I knew, reflecting on the new year and meditatively counting the seeds of a pomegranate (there were more than 613). I said hamotzi on donuts, and croissants, and French baguettes and every bread that could get me closer to challah. I said the shehecheyanu for cherry blossoms, the juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, and for climbing Mt. Fuji for the first time. Judaism was my home for making meaning and finding joyful rhythms in a new place.
But this past year for me has held lots of grief and hardships too. After I lived in a country I can’t communicate in, I moved back to Chicago — a city that holds a lifetime of history for me, and I’m trying to start fresh. I have experienced more loneliness and uncertainty about the future than I’d like. I feel the weight of the climate crisis everyday and if I read too much of the news it can feel like the world is ending.
But Judaism knows how to hold both joy and grief at the same time — we have a 2500 year old playbook of living through what feels like the end times. As we prepare for the High Holidays I’m reminded of the first time I learned that the celebratory Jewish new year was in such close proximity to the somber Yom Kippur. I couldn’t remember which came first, but coming from a Christian culture the redemption sequence of ‘hard time’ followed by ‘newness and celebration’ made sense to me. The narrative of ‘there’s a light at the end of the tunnel” made me assume that the High Holidays would end with Rosh Hashanah. When I learned that Rosh Hashanah, a day of apples and honey and cheer and delight was followed by 9 days of Awe culminating in a 25 hour fast and a dress code reminiscent of funeral attire, I was surprised. Why would this ‘dress rehearsal for our deaths’ follow the celebration of the new year?
After a year spent living and learning to view the world with jewish eyes — this sequence now makes sense to me. This sequence says, “Wake up! Celebrate the sweetness of life! Hug your loved ones! We know death is coming and we aren’t perfect and we may not know how the book of life ends for us — but we have an obligation to choose life and practice, every day, to make this place on earth more divine.”
I’m choosing a Jewish life because this practice in living is the best way I know how to make meaning and understand divinity.
I’m choosing this Jewish home because I can see my values on the mantle and the doorposts.
Because the kitchen smells like challah and always has extra chairs to welcome and feed the stranger
Because the walls are covered in history that can be peeled back like wallpaper to reveal generational wisdom
Because I know I could spend a lifetime exploring this house and still find new things to learn
I’m choosing this Jewish home because the neighbors rock and together we have a strong foundation to weather uncertainty and find joy and divinity in everyday home maintenance.
Today marks one of the happiest days of my life. Thanks for celebrating it with me.