By Margaret Jacobs

Good morning and Shana Tova to you all. Rabbi has asked me to speak about this last year of my life – not an easy task because so much has happened. Let me explain.

I was raised with nothing more than a nodding acquaintance of Judaism. We did not attend synagogue, I have no Torah school experience, and we generally went to other people’s homes for the holidays.  Most of the time, I felt out of synch with the religious community in which I lived and that feeling has stayed with me for nearly a half century. Then, in the summer of 2015, at a luncheon in the Laurentians, Rabbi casually mentioned that an adult bnei mitzvah class would be starting in October. I was conflicted because I knew so little. Yet that throw away line filled me with a longing I did not quite understand.

From the first moment of class, I knew that I could ask questions without feeling embarrassed at my lack of knowledge because there were no boundaries and no question was ever turned aside. I img_2167am a curious person and when I feel safe, I feel neither shame nor inhibition about satisfying my need to know. I’ve been a school teacher for nearly 50 years and of course, have learned to think in a certain way; we all have patterns of thought that are part of our professions and reflect our training. But in class, I discovered that my imagination could be inspired by other ways of thinking. Early in January 2016, I asked a question and was told that I had two weeks – during my vacation I might add – to prepare an answer to my query. I got suckered! Nonetheless, I tackled the exercise of trying to understand Eugene Borowitz’s concept of our covenant with God and its place in Reform Judaism. Even though I struggled, it was incredibly satisfying to think in a totally different manner while I fussed and fumed over Borowitz’s philosophy and tried to present my thoughts in a cogent manner. In other words, my brains exploded and it was fun.

What else happened during those months? I knew that my longing was real; I just didn’t know what it meant. When I started going to services, I felt awkward, at times even tender and hopelessly vulnerable in face of some of our traditions.  But since then I have become part of the community, part of the service, and part of the ritual. When we sing the Mishebeirach, for instance, I am so deeply touched that I am frequently taken aback. For centuries, this time of year in the Jewish calendar has been an introspective and a solemn time.  From Tisha B’Av to Yom Kippur, we face ourselves squarely and deal with what we see; it is a period of transformation based on a certain kind of openness and enough humility to accept ourselves as we are. I didn’t know all of this in quite the same way last year. But, then again, I am not in the same place I was last October. This time of year is also sweetly refreshing and hopeful. What would be the point of “turning” and repenting if it were not to improve, forgive ourselves and others, and then move forward with a sense of well-being?

Out of the wonder of learning all of this and out of the beautiful, moving bnei mitzvah service that all of us will cherish forever, comes my understanding of the tallit. I feel the inclusiveness of wrapping myself in the same prayer shawl as my ancestors did; it draws the thousand of years of our history together from either end, and it hugs us.  Tomorrow, we will pray, live and work, make mistakes, forgive and recover.  The tallit represents all of this – our singularity and our sense of community.

Some of us might never resolve the tension between believing or not believing, but why stay away from Temple? Believing is not required to be part of our community. Going through the motions doesn’t make us Jews; belonging does. Staying away does not make our lives fuller; we all know that isolation never works. If nothing else, my 72 years have taught me over and over that being “part of” is richer, more powerful and intensely more satisfying than not belonging.

In years past, I have asked myself why I came to High Holiday services.  The only answer that has satisfied me thus far, is that I think, in our heart of hearts, we know we are a people.  We know it intuitively, with or without a faith in God.  We know it by continuing our traditions, no matter what shape or form they take in our lives; we know it whether we come to Temple or not.  We know it at this time of year by sitting still, thinking about our actions, gathering as families and looking to the new year with hope, and at the very least, a trust in the power of our heritage and culture.

I needed to know why we raise our pinkie when the Torah is returned to the arc, why some cover their heads with tallit when in prayer, why some bow and others do not.  I still want to know the difference between personal and communal prayer in our tradition.  I want to be able to read Hebrew, understand what I am reading and know why.  I want to be a better person, to be part of the covenant with God, not to harm others, and to continue learning. It’s late in my life, but not too late at all. So what has happened these last months?  My curiosity is even more demanding, and the need to know is even stronger. I belong, and I care. My mind is humming, my heart is full, and my longing is at rest.