I have only known Erica for a short time. During the pandemic Erica sometimes attended the Zoom minyan at KI so we would be in the same virtual room. She has since transitioned to the in-person minyan at Kehillath Israel. The few times that I have spent time with Erica in person, I have been intrigued both by her profession designing play spaces for young children, but also intrigued by her journey to Judaism. We all have stories to tell and we can all learn from other's stories. This is Erica's story and I know we will all learn from it and honor Erica, along with the biblical Ruth and other journeyers who have brought so much to Judaism.
REFLECTIONS ON A JEWISH JOURNEY
by Erica Quigley
On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. It’s associated with Ruth, the prototypical convert, and some interpret Shavuot as a chance for all Jews to see themselves as converts. When I converted, I took the name Ruth Zehava. Ruth honors the Biblical figure as well as my beloved paternal grandmother, who gave me the gift of her Lutheran values. I also have Jewish roots that were interrupted by the Holocaust; my maternal grandparents raised my mother Catholic after emigrating from Hungary to Venezuela. Zehava honors my grandfather Zoltan. For me, choosing Judaism has been an engagement with something that feels entirely new, as well as a re-connection with ancient and recent memory.
What gifts have I received since choosing Judaism? The word revelation is pertinent; it’s been a gradual revealing that could be described in three acts.
Act 1: In the wilderness. What were my thoughts and behaviors before engaging with Judaism?
Act 2: Grasping, or first steps toward Sinai. What were my early experiences?
Act 3: Listening and learning to receive. What continues to be revealed in the present?
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan organizes Jewish practice into three strands – belonging, behaving, and believing - that offer a useful context for my journey.
BELONGING: CONNECTION TO COMMUNITY, CULTURE, AND MEMORY
Act 1: What is this nagging sense of feeling unmoored, even with strong relationships with friends, family, and coworkers? My frisbee team is sort of like a community, right? Is there something I’m missing? Why does civil society seem to be dissolving before our eyes?
Act 2: Wow – there’s a nearly infinite menu of options for engaging with Jewish communal life. How can I find people like me, where I always feel comfortable? What enjoyment and enrichment can I get out of this class/service/event?
Act 3: A synagogue isn’t the only way to transform from “I” to “we” but it sure is the best way I’ve found. A minyan gives us the gift of holding space for people celebrating joy and enduring loss. We bear witness to one another’s raw pain and hold each other close as we see healing occur in real time, day by day and year by year. We nudge each other to show up, physically and spiritually, and hold one another responsible for carrying on millennia of tradition. Receiving tender support and light in my own dark times has been inexpressibly valuable. This is what choosing mutual obligation feels like.
BEHAVING: RITUALS, SACRED OBLIGATIONS, AND PRINCIPLES
Act 1: What am I doing here? How am I supposed to spend my time? How can I express gratitude for everything I’ve been given? If I just read enough self-help books and find the right time management apps, I guess I’ll eventually figure it out on my own.
Act 2: Shabbat seems like an excellent idea. And what a relief not to have to craft a wedding ritual from scratch. Wait, HOW many fasts are there? As a huge nerd, examining the rituals and obligations as an academic interest feels comfortable. I’m joining the world’s oldest book club, analyzing the siddur in historic context, dipping into Jewish meditation practice, and feeling grateful the tradition is to ask more questions.
Act 3: At some undefinable point, rituals and commandments go from academic to embodied practice. The habits go from “extra thing to add” to “something feels missing if I DON’T do this.” New meanings are uncovered, and I can appreciate the texture of ancient practices that have been thoughtfully adapted to modern life. Rather than a set of rules, we are offered an opportunity to see our lives as a conduit for bringing good into the world.
BELIEVING: CONNECTION TO THE DIVINE
Act 1: I’m glad they keep saying you don’t need to believe in God to be Jewish; anyway, hyper-rational types like me can’t connect with “that stuff.” Although…God as an infinitely powerful force of creation makes sense. As a tree-hugging dirt worshiper, I’d like a way to express awe at the wonders of nature. I’ll read some more Heschel and see where this goes.
Act 2: Going from stiff-necked resistance to learning to listen, as a spark is coaxed into a flame. Applying insights from a number of traditions about God’s role in our lives, I go from learning about prayer to actually praying. The pandemic is an accelerant. Struggling to build a family is an accelerant. Seeking kindling, I discover the gift of blessings throughout the day: waking with Modah ani (Grateful am I), paying attention to different kinds of food before eating, touching the mezuzah upon entering and leaving the house. Sacred music and poetry get me out of my head and into my soul. The meaning I receive from these touch points gently urge me onwards to prayer practices that aren’t as easy or comfortable. I begin a practice of hitbodedut (spontaneous conversation with God) and things start to crack open.
Act 3: Attending daily morning prayer services changes everything. The words seem to be inscribing themselves on my heart. It becomes easier, even in the darkest moments, to remember God’s constant presence. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “In prayer we speak to a presence vaster than the unfathomable universe, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves; the God beyond who is also the Voice within…We need space within the soul to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our resolves, bringing our deepest thoughts as an offering to the One who listens, and listening, in turn, to the One who calls.” How astonishing to experience thousands of years of such expression, forged into a vessel that’s given to us anew each day.
DOING AND UNDERSTANDING
I’m grateful to Leann for giving me an opportunity to reflect on the journey. The common thread in Acts 1 and 2 is a desire to understand it all first. It’s seductive to think it will all become clear if we just read one more book or take one more class. The Jewish people said na’aseh v’nishma at Sinai; one interpretation is that they were willing to do the commandments (na’aseh) before fully understanding, internalizing, or listening to them (nishma). Only when I put doing before understanding could I receive the gifts in Act 3. As the journey continues, I relish the chance to deepen my learning and wrestle with meaning within a solid framework. May we all continue to receive the gift of Torah with willing hearts as we move into our next Acts, and may our paths continue to be revealed by the light of our communities, traditions, and connection to the Divine.
Erica Quigley is a landscape designer and educational consultant who specializes in children's play spaces. She lives in Jamaica Plain and spends as much time as she can in gardens and woods.