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Sharing Our Religion

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My unique Jewish identity continues to guide me

Ashley Kolpak photo

At a recent event I came across a vibrant, expressive man in the midst of a "mid-life opportunity," surely not be confounded with a "mid-life crisis." Ears perked, I asked him directly what brought him to this event. His eyes were perfectly still and fixated on mine as the words left his mouth." After spending my whole life in the church, I'm leaving. I left. I'm making a clean break."

Up until this point, church was a daily part of his life. He was a graduate of primary and secondary religious schooling followed by an undergraduate degree in theology from seminary. As a gay man, he felt the right thing to do was pursue a different path.  

While religion, as it existed for him in the past, no longer appealed to him, he made another very interesting point. He said regardless of belief, he sees faith as a foundation for a moral compass. For him, this was a choice arrived at with major difficulty.

Naturally, this opened up a discussion of how others approach faith and their own personal experiences. It was clear that religion, in its many varieties, denominations and levels of observation, affected everyone in a deeply personal way.

I didn't grow up in a synagogue, not really anyway. I went to Hebrew school for a few years, learned about religion, culture, Hebrew and all that jazz. I don't keep kosher and I'm not observant. I connect to Judaism in my own way and that's what matters most to me. I like to look at my Jewish life as a carefully crafted mosaic, filled in with colorful moments that might seem disparate at the time, but when looked at from afar, are all connected to illustrate the larger picture.

Moments like my dad explaining the story of Anne Frank to me when I was very young; the countless hours spent learning the rudiments of my first second language at Hebrew school; my time in Israel on Birthright; my first Mourner's Kaddish for a family member; my eighth grade turn as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof at a the local children's community theater; the fun, funny, frivolity of "bar and bat mitzvah season;" taking part in traditions that were passed down to my family from generations ago; and sharing those traditions with those closest to me and starting new ones.

Some fleeting and some enduring, these moments come together as my perfectly imperfect Jewish identity. They have and will continue to shape me and how I find my way in the world.

Sharing concerns and experiences surrounding religion can bring about a quiet, overwhelming empathy. While I may not pray every day, when I see a post from one of my favorite lifestyle bloggers concerned for the medical condition of her young child asking for prayers, it's only natural to oblige. To make someone feel better in even the tiniest of ways, thousands of miles away, for someone who believes in a far different way than I do, is always worth it.

Thinking along these lines draws me back to my absolute favorite storyline from this season of Orange is the New Black. (Spoiler alert ahead, sorry!) Basically, for the uninitiated, many of the inmates figured out a loophole to get the best food in prison: asking for a kosher meal. Eventually, the administration got wise and cracked down on those deemed "non-observant". One of the inmates, even though turned away, embraced Judaism as her own in a very real way and gave an incredibly touching speech in the finale episode. I may or may not have teared up a bit? She found her people. And isn't that what it's all about? In the end, it's compassion that rules.

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