Rosh Hashana Morning 5780
Temple B’rith Kodesh
Rabbi Rochelle Tulik
I am a Jew by choice.
I am also a Jew by birth.
I was born Jewish but have become, throughout my life, truly a Jew by choice.
I wish all Jews felt they too were Jews by choice. I work each day to help empower those I meet to feel the same love and connection to their Jewish identity that the convert feels. In a professional position often judged by attendance and numbers, I work to remember to focus on each individual and help create an environment for anyone to grow to be a Jew they can be proud of and truly a Jew by choice.
Being a Jew by choice means pushing back against what many feel is the most Jewish feeling - guilt. Being a Jew by choice means understanding and accepting that Judaism can and SHOULD work for you. Without apologizing for it. Without always thinking you should be doing more. Conversion students work toward a goal - mikveh and a certificate of geirut/conversion. But the ultimate goal is the life that happens after - the life lived as a Jew. Conversion students come to Judaism filled with hope and excitement. They are filled with potential and the freedom to become the Jew they want to be. Too often, Jews by birth seem to lack that same sense of hope and potential.
At the conclusion of a conversion, our tradition offers the following affirmation - a public statement of intent:
Of my own free will, I choose to enter the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel and to become a Jew. I accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices. Under all circumstances, I will be loyal to the Jewish people and to Judaism. I promise to establish a Jewish home and to participate actively in the life of the synagogue and of the Jewish community. I commit myself to the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge. If I should choose to have and am blessed with children, I promise to raise them as Jews. This is a beautiful statement - how much more so if every Jew, born or by choice, could stand with such conviction and recite those words.
Of my own free will, I choose to enter the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel and to become a Jew. In Hilchot Teshuvah, Maimonides tells us, “Free will is given to every human being. If we wish to incline ourselves toward goodness and righteousness, we are free to do so; and if we wish to incline ourselves toward evil, we are also free to do that. Nothing holds us back from making this choice between good and evil – the power is in our hands.” The same logic then clearly extends to the choice to live Jewishly or not. It is in each person’s power to choose Judaism. Just a couple of days ago we recited the words from Parshat Nitzavim: atem nitzavim hayom kulchem - All of you stand here today - l’avracha b’vrit adonai - to enter into God’s covenant - u’vacharta ba’chayim - and to choose life. Each of us was given a choice to be in covenant with God, the choice to be part of this beautiful Jewish tradition and community. It really is up to each of us to make that choice. I accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices. Under all circumstances, I will be loyal to the Jewish people and to Judaism. Being loyal to the Jewish people means seeing the beauty of Jewish diversity, appreciating the multitude of varying voices. Choosing Judaism is an act of acceptance. Choosing to engage and participate in this community binds each of us together in love and shared values. Choosing to be part of the Jewish community, however, does not mean rejecting the larger community. We are not Jews in a vacuum. We are part of a complicated and intricately interwoven community of all types of people. Choosing Judaism is an act of love, not rejection. The choice to live Jewishly encompasses a love for others and the understanding that we must engage with others with acceptance. I promise to establish a Jewish home and to participate actively in the life of the synagogue and of the Jewish community. I commit myself to the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge. What is a Jewish home? What does it look like to participate actively in the life of the Jewish community? What does it mean to commit to the pursuit of Torah? I believe this is the stumbling block so many of us can’t get around. When we go to choose, we sometimes feel our choices aren’t good enough.
Imagine this scene:
It is Shabbat on any given Friday night. I’m standing in the foyer greeting people. “Shabbat shalom. How are you? It’s great to see you” Maybe it’s been a little while since you were
last here. Maybe you were out of town. Maybe you had family visiting. Maybe it’s been a long while since you were last here. Maybe you can’t remember the last time you came to Shabbat. I say, “Shabbat shalom! It’s so great to see you.” Even if you are a regular attendee but have missed recently, what is your immediate response? What do you feel in that moment? “Shabbat Shalom. So great to see you.” I see it on your faces.
Shame. Guilt. Judgment.
No matter what tone or inflection I use to greet you - you feel bad. I can say with confidence that one of the most common things I will hear over the next ten days will be “I’m so sorry, Rabbi, I know I haven’t been here as much as I should.”
Stop it. I only want you to be here more if it is meaningful to you. It is, of course, my goal to work with you to create meaningful engagement opportunities. But do not come here just because you feel guilty. There are countless ways to live a fulfilling Jewish life engaged with us here that don’t depend merely on Shabbat attendance or the most basic ritual observance. Keeping kosher by itself doesn’t make you a better Jew. Living a life of integrity and honesty, treating others with dignity and kindness, these are the things that matter most. Making a hard ethical decision might be the most Jewish choice you make.
Many of us were raised to believe that there was only one right way to be Jewish. We were raised understanding that a certain level of practice or observance was required and that not adhering to certain standards made us “bad Jews”. If you don’t keep kosher, you are a bad Jew. If you don’t come to services, you are a bad Jew. How many High Holy Day sermons have you listened to telling you you had to do more, be more, believe more? This is not that sermon. Reform Judaism is built on the value of choice. Choice through knowledge, informed choice. We *should* all be Jews by choice. And yet, so often born Jews have a harder time embracing their choices. Jewish guilt we understand, Jewish choice, not as much.
Establishing a Jewish home might look different in every house we enter. Participating actively in the life of the synagogue and Jewish community might be different for every person in this room. That is okay. It is more than okay. In a society built on keeping up with the Jones’s and constantly comparing ourselves to others, I want to encourage you to make Judaism a part of you that is truly yours.
I want you to choose Judaism. I want you to choose to engage with our community and our tradition. I want you to embrace the magnificence of Judaism. Because I believe it is magnificent. Judaism is beautiful. Our traditions, our history, our commitment to
community and tikkun olam. But Judaism is also challenging. I want you to choose to struggle with Judaism - not write it off. I want you to tell your kids you are helping at a food pantry because being Jewish taught you how important it is. I want you to call your mother - not because of Jewish guilt but because of Jewish love. I want you to argue with me, share your passions with me, learn with me. Come on Shabbat, or Simchat Torah, or Sukkot. Sign up for Biennial, volunteer with Tempro. Make a difference because you are Jewish.
The Jewish tradition is like a splendid old tree on a windy plain. Age and weather have twisted its branches, thickened its bark, but its roots go deep, and the twigs are green and alive. Under its shade, there is room for all. Whatever you observance level, whatever your participation level. When you enter this building, please come through our doors with your head held high. We are always happy to see you. Whether you come twice a year, five times a year, thirty times a year, every time the doors are open. I believe in the value of Jewish community and the beauty of coming together with others. I believe that Judaism enriches my life and the lives of the people I meet. I believe that being Jewish is part of who I am not just what I do.
I am a Jew by choice.