These are my people

The High Holidays are arguably the biggest deal out of all the Jewish holidays. (Nope, not Chanukah, that’s just added hype from the proximity to Christmas.) Yet I have not consistently observed Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur since leaving college.

This year, I made an effort to observe Rosh Hashannah (the first of the 10 days of the “New Year”) and, while sitting in a sanctuary of a temple that I had never entered before, I kept thinking, “These are my people.” The strong sense of familiarity and belonging heightened my intention to self-reflect on behaviors I want to change and reminded me that I am not alone in facing life’s challenges. The connection to God was there, too, but for me that sense of God or a greater power is directly linked to the idea that I am just a small part of something huge.

The whole day of observance —including non-traditional routines like yoga— left me thinking about how we all search for communities and what that found sense of belonging does to us.

For Rosh Hashannah, I brought my two young kids to a children’s service at a synagogue that I had not attended before. I immediately felt a bit of recognition hearing looped Jewish chants as we walked to the sanctuary. Music is of course such a powerful emotional medium. No surprise that religious movements incorporate songs and music into practices. My guess is that participants develop an emotional connection to the religion through the music, and that this in turn triggers comfort and joy when they hear the music again.

What is interesting to me about Judaism is that the emotional comfort come to me not only when I hear and sing prayers and songs that are completely familiar, but also when I listen to new tunes that are just in the same style — contemporary or more traditional. It’s like my soul recognizes the tones and rhythms and says, “Ah, yes, that is what I know. Play more of that so I can go back to my roots.”

I am grateful to have Judaism and its beautiful songs and community to share with my kids. At the kids Rosh Hashannah service, my 1-year-old toddled around, introducing himself to strangers, and dancing to the music. My 4-year-old daughter wanted to sit right up front and was singing “Apples dipped in honey” and shouting “Shana tova!” in the car ride home.

I found myself trying to explain to the older one what it means to be Jewish. This will take more conversations as she and her brother grow, but basically what I said in that car ride was: “We went to a temple because we are Jewish and we wanted to celebrate Rosh Hashannah with other people who are Jewish too. Other people go to churches or other buildings to celebrate their holidays.”

I did not talk about God. That seemed too big of a concept for the moment. What I did focus on were two key concepts: 1) these are your people, automatically, and 2) temples are places you can celebrate, sing and feel good.

These feel simple and true enough messages for a preschooler. Underlying these messages is what I kept feeling that day: that we need reminders that we are not alone and in fact belong to a group (Jewish community, humanity) which means we have support for our own growth and have obligations to supports others in their paths.

Today for Yom Kippur I again found belonging and shared responsibility as I sat in yet another temple. This time I was by myself at an adult service. The prayers, the songs, the readings, the symbols (tallit, prayer books, Torah)… it all came together again and I said to myself “These are my people” and “We belong to each other.”

The rabbi, in a call to social justice action, reminded us that we belong not just to other Jews and Jewish community but to all of humanity. When others suffer, we suffer. When we do harm, it is others’ partial responsibility too, and when others fail, we are partly responsible. This, I think, is one of the important parts of community. We are in this together — we can’t make it on our own and we are responsible for helping others along the way.

I have my concerns about organized religion. I am not sure what exactly I believe about God. But I know that in my soul, I expand when I practice Judaism. Or, more specifically, when I am in a room with other people singing Jewish songs and praying Jewish prayers. So I will return to temple more this year, 5777.

I also found a sense of belonging and mutual effort in a yoga class later that morning. The teacher happened to be Jewish and started the class by explaining the meaning and significance of Rosh Hashannah: a time of reflection, naming the things we want to change about ourselves. Like after any exercise class, I usually leave yoga with more awareness of my body. That day I was also especially energized looking around the room at these other people who were showing up to make themselves — their body and mind — better. Shared struggle and commitment is powerful for building community.

The High Holidays, the “Days of Awe”, this year were full of unexpected joy and meaning. When I have attempted to “observe” the High Holidays on my own — not attending services or classes — I have been unsatisfied. Staying solitary could make it easier to reflect inward, but, for me, I find it earlier when surrounded by others who are trying to do the same thing.

I hope that my children find a place for themselves in Judaism, and if not there, in some other community where they will know they are loved, accepted, supported, and — importantly — have responsibility to others around them.