Updated: Dec 15, 2020




Several years ago, on a lazy Sunday morning toward the end of a weekend getaway, my husband and I were strolling down the main street in Annapolis. The quiet was a presence in itself since shops were still closed, and the street was bereft of its usual bumper to bumper traffic. We took in how different the sleepy street seemed compared to the hustle and bustle of the night before.

As we approached a nondescript brick-faced building this amazing jazzy music from a live band filled the sidewalk space with inviting and energetic sounds. Saxophone and trumpet, along with piano and drums rhythmically provided a counterpoint to the quiet.


I wondered aloud what bar would possibly be open on a Sunday morning. I looked above the glass doors for some signage, but there was none. Not a single hint of what was inside. This was so strange.


But the music didn't let me go.


So we lingered awhile, taking in the phenomenal music. I guess we might have been there a bit too long, because a bouncer-type person approached us through the closed glass doors, his arms muscular and huge, wearing a crisp white shirt and necktie with pressed pants.


Opening the door, he asked if we wanted to come in.


Since I couldn't actually tell whether he was, in a nice way, asking us to move along and leave, or offering a genuine invitation to enter, my expression most likely said 'thanks, but no thanks'.


All kinds of things ran through my head. Was this a gambling hall? An illicit private party?


Curiosity got the better of me. Almost as we were getting ready to move along I asked "What's inside?", probably a little too naïvely and not hiding the doubtful look on my face.


"Ma'am, we're a Baptist church, wanna come in?"


What, a church??? Not what I thought at all.


"Uh, we were just listening to the music, it's fantastic...so amazing....but we're Jewish, but thank you...."

"You sure? It's not a problem, you can come in and visit anyway."


"But we'd be interrupting...isn't there a service? Besides, we can't stay long...we would have to leave....." Of course, I was envisioning the services I was used to, when on Shabbat it would be almost pointless to arrive after the Torah service. We didn't want to be disrespectful.


"It's no matter at all, stay as long as you like, leave when you want. No pressure."


Wow, this was a different concept.


So we entered slowly as he ushered us through heavy wooden doors. We found ourselves in a wide open room, filled with long wooden pews speckled with about 100 people or so. I was relieved to see that the surrounding walls were totally bare, no visuals or images that would have made us feel instantly uncomfortable, prompting us not to stay.


We sat in an unoccupied pew, toward the back of the room, trying to be inconspicuous. Right. We looked around and instantly felt so underdressed in our athleisure wear. We were a stark contrast to everyone's Sunday best. Both women and men wore hats, and the women's were works of art; feathers, sequins, and netting. We were also the only white people in the room.

This was another world entirely. A spirited chorus on the stage (bimah?), dressed in white robes, joined in for the next rhythmic rendition of a prayer, and everyone started clapping, slowly rising from their seats, energetically singing along. The lyrics melted into each other but nothing of what we heard was squirm-worthy for us. In fact, I hear more objectionable music around the winter holidays than I did that morning.


The music picked up and the excitement was palpable as the oak floor pulsed with the beat and as the stomping grew louder. Arms waved to the rhythm and it was evident that each person was making the experience personal. There seemed to be no peer pressure to behave in a certain way. This was striking.


Everyone was 'all in' and personalizing their experience. They were communing with a higher power, and it seemed as if that's what they cared about and what they were there for. No one was looking around to see if their behavior was out of line, or too spirited.


There was no way I wanted to leave, even though I was an observer, because before my eyes were deeply spiritual people who were so involved in their prayer experience that I was mesmerized. I had never experienced anything like it.


The service continued in that way while people began noticing us. Some turned toward us and smiled, with kind and understanding looks that seemed to say "yup, we know you're the only white people here, but don't you bother about that, just enjoy."


So we did. We listened to the minister preach as his arms emphatically gestured through the ups and downs of his message, which was about love and being true to the Lord and true to yourself. His passion grew to a crescendo, and his sermon ended with more singing and praise. If I took the word "Jesus" out of it, the message had meaning for all.


For the rest of the time that we were there (we didn't stay for too long after that) there was no part of the service that wasn't energetically sung or swayed to. They were there to gain spiritual nourishment not approval.


We left with an indescribable fulfilled feeling, and an appreciation for what we just witnessed, people who were enthralled with their faith and not shy about showing it, even to two outsiders.


When immersed in a truly spiritual experience, you are lost to thinking about time and the judgment of others. The purity of what you're feeling surely carries you, and I think it is what we all strive for in our prayers, an untainted experience of the Divine so powerful that others can feel it.

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Updated: Feb 7


For years, I’ve used the term “Jewish identity”, and never gave it too much thought. As a Jewish educator, the talk among my colleagues was often about how to instill our teenagers with a strong sense of their Jewish identity. This was so that they would feel a part of the Jewish community and continue that connection throughout college and beyond.


Recently, I started to think about this descriptor more deeply. It seems like an “add-on”—as if identity can be carved up into little pieces and assigned categories. Isn’t your identity just who you are?


As in, “I don’t have a Jewish identity, I am Jewish”. Period.


This might sound a bit silly or trivial, but our language speaks volumes about our situation in life and sometimes even the choices we make.


I remember hearing a question asked by one Jewish person to another with the intention of clarifying a position on an issue: “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?”


The person answered, “I am not falling into that trap. I’m Jewish. I'm an American. That's it, anything more is unnecessary”.


What exactly is a Jewish identity? Is it a sense of obligation to tradition? Is it a commitment to continue to study our texts and glean meaning from them? Is it a commitment to keep certain mitzvot or to undertake more? Is it a desire to socialize only with other Jews?


What is your own Jewish identity? What are your some of your core values in terms of the choices you make regarding your heritage? When do you 'feel' Jewish--are you moved to own your identity by being spurred on by negative prompts, like Anti-Semitic comments or acts? Or do you experience a sense of belonging while participating in culturally "Jewish" activities? What prompts your Jewish identification?


Historically, Jews did not have to make any of these distinctions. Being Jewish needed no further descriptor. Our ancestors “did” Jewish because they were Jewish. Being Jewish meant that you participated in Jewish activities that felt natural to you and your community [prayer, acts of loving kindness, monetary donations, visiting the sick (pre-covid), etc.].


Now, in some communities, we seek to “do” Jewish in order to “feel” Jewish.


Dennis Prager, national speaker and author, often says that there are only two kinds of Jews, "those who identify as Jews and those who do not (or do so only when forced to do so by outsiders)." He calls the latter "non-Jewish Jews", those who might be Jewish by birth (by either parent) and might have a Jewish name, but does not identify at all with the Jewish community (Ella Harris, for example). Among those who identify as Jewish, he further classifies this group into religious and secular.


Where do you fall on this continuum? Do the parameters of this definition suit you? What are you doing that is “Jewish”? What prompts your connection to your heritage, to your people? Are you satisfied with things as they are? If not, are there little changes could you make that would strengthen you as a Jew?



Gratitude is being present in order to experience awe


When we are truly present we experience something riveting. The timeless nature of the moment and the fleeting quality of time are simultaneously in our awareness, and in that, we experience a sense of awe. Our recognition of the Creator, the One who binds everything together, often moves us to mark the moment with a blessing.


When we say a blessing, we’re not blessing God. God does not ‘need’ our blessing, we need to bless. In participating in the act of recognition/blessing, we are acknowledging that God is the Source. The act of blessing, a form of gratitude, is supposed to change us.

Blessing arouses the part within us that yearns for connection on a deeper level

Saying a blessing awakens our desire to connect with the Source. During the Amidah (silent prayer), the beautiful opportunity to express our gratitude comes before the conclusion and is known as “Modim Anachnu Lach”. Here is a portion:


We are grateful to you as we recount your praises, for our lives are entrusted in your hand, and our souls are in your safekeeping–for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good works that are with us at all times: evening, morning, and midday.


The term for Gratitude in Hebrew involves more than just a definition, it is part of who we are as a people (we are Yehudim, Jews, from the root word to thank).


There is a gift in knowing that we don’t take life for granted and as we pull our egos aside we allow ourselves to recognize the greatness of the moment. That very pulling away is alluded to in the parsha of Vayetzei, when Jacob dreams of Messengers/Angels going up and down a ladder to the heavens. God grants him an enormous and generous blessing. Jacob, upon awakening says:

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

Jacob awoke from his sleep and says, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I, I did not know!”

It is a sudden awareness of God’s presence in the universe and as if to wake us up to that moment, there is an extra “I” [וְאָנֹכִ֖י] in the text that is not necessary, since yadati [יָדָֽעְתִּי ] already means “I did not know”. What is the purpose of the additional “I”? What about our own selves prevents us from recognizing the obvious, that God is in all places.


When we are filled with ego, there is no room for awe


There have been many interpretations* of this verse, but the one I relate to the most is from the school of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) that says the first “I” represents our being filled with ourselves, our own ego.

As the recipient of his father Isaac’s chosen blessing, favored over Esau, Jacob’s importance inflated. In that state, he was unable to envision the nature of God in the world. That is the “I” that didn’t know God.

HaMakom – The Place and Everyplace

At the end of the dream, Jacob is aware of God’s presence everywhere. Jacob refers to “Bamakom” [ בַּמָּק֖וֹם ] meaning “in this place” and the word for place is used several verses earlier. Some commentators mention that it refers to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, where Abraham took Isaac to be bound.

Rabban Gamliel, in times after the destruction of the Second Temple 70 C.E., noted that even God can be found in a bush, as in Moses’ vision. That idea, that God is All-Encompassing and Ever-Present is embedded in the term we use for one of the names of God, “HaMakom“. God was as close to Jacob, appearing in his heart and mind, and occupying all possible space.

May we all merit the opportunity to experience a sense of awe, expressing our gratitude to our Source with a blessing for being alive at this time.

Much appreciation to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of God was in this place and I, i did not know where I first encountered ideas about the small “i” with its many interpretations and meanings.

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