As the Jewish New Year is about to commence, I thought I’d share with you an experience that happened to me today, the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
First, let me explain to those of you who don’t know, what the high holidays represent.
It’s tradition that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is the time to ask forgiveness and 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, is the last opportunity to repent for your sins of the prior year and to ask your friends and family for forgiveness for any transgressions you may, or may not have, been aware of.
Essentially the next two days are designed for the Jewish people to come together as a community and pray to God for redemption and salvation and to be transcribed in the book of good life. All good, right?
There’s typically a lot of homemade (and not so healthy) food, – although there are apples! – Yes, we dip the apple in honey to truly symbolize a sweet new year and let’s not forget the symbolism of eating the pomegranate fruit, which holds 613 seeds, the exact same amount of mitzvot (good deeds) that the Jewish people believe everyone should fulfill. But holidays are celebrated with food, family and friends, so calories don’t count, right?
And for the 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, which literally means head of the year, implying that this is the beginning of a fresh start to be a better Jew, or as I’ve always learned, to be a better person, we are on a probation type status- in the sense that we should take the extra time to really reflect on the past and contemplate how to transform and improve the future, or at least, the year ahead….while there’s still time- because on Yom Kippur the decision is sealed – will you have a good, healthy, year ahead or will this year bring you to your ultimate demise?
Most other religions have a New Year and celebrate the start of something new and positive and it’s a really beautiful tradition in its literal sense.
I grew up in a very religious household.
I went to Orthodox Jewish Day school, followed all the rules (and believe me there are several) and essentially was a good girl most of my young life.
I’m still a good girl, but I’m no longer Orthodox.
I wouldn’t even label myself as religious, as I do not connect to religion as a whole, I personalize my spirituality and beliefs.
I find myself connecting more and more to nature and the spiritual connection I get from walking on the beach and overlooking the ocean at its vast under world that is just so miraculous to me.
I thank God every morning while I’m riding my spin bike and fully appreciate my healthy body, my functioning legs, the blood pumping through my heart and how everything – my organs, my joints, my muscles, my bones – are all connected to work together to keep me healthy and functioning.
I thank God every time I tuck my kids into bed (or realistically when they tuck me in, as I go to sleep much earlier than these teens do… mama’s gotta get her sleep!)
I believe that being a good Jew means being an honest, moral and good person – to everyone – no matter what race, color, religion or political affiliation.
So flash forward to today:
I decided I wanted to join the volunteer committee called the Chevra Kadisha – which literally translates as “holy society”- as they are a group of people that clean freshly dead bodies and prepare them for burial.
I was a member of this group when I lived in NJ and always felt a spiritual connection – almost a super hyped, elevated type of connection to the souls as they were leaving their physical bodies. On some level, it truly was an out of body experience as I would envision and almost feel the soul of the body still standing in the room among us until the body is sealed in its casket awaiting the burial.
To me, connecting to a person’s soul on its way to the next world, regardless if you believe it’s up or down, was still the ultimate way to give back and I considered it an honor to take part in such a big mitzvah (good deed).
But when I moved to Florida I wanted to get my kids involved in doing good deeds too, so we made our mitzvah to visit the local nursing home every week and actually sit and talk to the elderly – those who were one step away from meeting the next world.
We would spend time with those who had dementia and although they had no idea who we were, nevertheless we helped them smile, if only for a short part of their day, their week, or their month. Old people are sweet and gracious and so appreciative.
But now that my kids are a little older, we still visit the nursing home, but I decided I wanted to go back to the chevra kadisha to prepare bodies for burial. I missed the spiritual connection and fullfillment it provided to me. So what better day to call the group leader than the day before the holiest day of the year?
So I called up the woman in charge, I explained my experience and my desire to join and volunteer.
Within minutes of speaking to her, a lovely and polite woman no less, she asked me several questions regarding my lifestyle,
such as where do my children go to school? (I told her public school). Where do I attend synagogue? ( I told her I don’t).
And after a few minutes it became obvious she was holding something back until she finally said she appreciated my effort but she didn’t think I would be accepted into the group.
In a little bit of shock at what I was hearing, I asked her why – isn’t this a well needed volunteer group- and possibly a very limited amount of people are actually willing or able to clean dead bodies- surely there was need for another volunteer?
Her response was that I would not be accepted because I’m not Orthodox.
Needless to say I was flabbergasted, and I asked her what my level of observance has anything to do with cleaning dead bodies?
Her answer was that she simply couldn’t fight the “politics ” of the synagogue that the group was affiliated with and they don’t accept non Orthodox people, it was just the way things were.
On the verge of tears, I stood my ground and insisted that they consider me – a young healthy body that can undertake the physical role of preparing for funerals – not to mention my deep spiritual belief and asked her, how is it possible she would deny me from doing what some consider the “biggest mitzvah possible”??
Unfortunately she had no answer other than that’s just the way it was.
And here we are, the Eve of the Holiest day of the year and I’m left wondering ; what has religion become? I can’t help thinking that Orthodoxy- in any religion- is not unlike the Taliban- with such scrutiny and strictness of rules and regulations and such exclusivity and judgement on others who are unlike you.
Where has the beauty and inclusiveness of religion gone?
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a very religious home, yet my best friend was Irish Catholic, my parents were always hosting friends from all religions races and backgrounds in our home.
I put my kids in public school for a better education than what they were getting at the local Jewish Day school, but without even realizing it, they are getting the best part of learning I could’ve asked for: the ability to befriend kids from so many backgrounds and cultures. They are truly diverse and well rounded and I consider them much more worldly at their young age than I was even as an adult.
I’ve always been, and will continue to be, open minded and non judgemental. I try and include rather than exclude. I try and ask questions rather than make assumptions.
I stay away from conversations regarding anything political, as I try and keep a positive environment and part of that is positive mental space. I am a Holistic Health Practitioner and am a strong believer in the healing powers of clean eating, clean living and keeping a clean mind.
All I ask from my community this coming New Year- and to all communities regardless of race, color, religion or background, is to consider what would happen if you opened up your mind to acceptance – even just a little. I personally think, and hope, that the tiny world around you – would be a much bigger – and better – place.