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Finding My Own Way to Jewish Ritual

A first-year college student reflects on making Judaism her own

Along with graduating high school, this past spring, I also graduated from my favorite extracurricular activity: the youth program at my synagogue. My Jewish education at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has provided a foundation for me that makes me feel confident in the Reform tradition.  I not only learned the Hebrew School curriculum, but I also sought out more opportunities, such as an adult learning Talmud class in my congregation and pluralistic teen programs in the New England area. Between Jewish feminist blogging, leadership and Israel-related programs, and reading Great Jewish Books, I pretty much covered all the bases.

I might sound like the poster child for Successful Jewish Teen Engagement, but I have to let you in on a secret: I’m getting a little bored with Friday night services. Lately, more often than not, I would much rather be sitting on the countertop in the women’s bathroom, chatting with a friend. (Not that we have ever done that before, of course!) 

After 18 years at my temple, I know all the words to the regular service at my synagogue. I can recite the English readings without glancing at the page, and even know to expect a sports reference in the sermon—our rabbi loves the Philadelphia Eagles! I prefer to flip through the siddur at my own pace, finding readings and prayers that allow me to enter into a spiritual mindset.

Then, a few weeks ago, I attended services with my grandparents at their summer congregation. It is a much smaller group of mostly older couples that all choose to spend the warmer months on Cape Cod. Because it is a much smaller congregation, the rabbi there is able to “customize” the service each week. He can choose each melody and reading almost on a whim, to fit the mood of the room. I loved the free flowing, almost personalized vibe of that community because, while the prayers were the same, the presentation allowed for revised interpretation. Without expecting or anticipating the next melody or reading, I was fully able to experience and appreciate the beauty of welcoming Shabbat.

Throughout my Hebrew school experience, Reform Jewish camp, and many pluralistic programs, I have begun to discover my beliefs. I have learned so much from my local Jewish community and I am ready to use this knowledge to define my Jewish traditions. I am excited to plan and lead services in my new college community and to create my own Judaism. I believe that I should always be learning and growing in my Jewish practice. My experience at this congregation on Cape Cod reinvigorated me, reminding me how much of my Jewish practice I can define for myself.

Going forward I will take the solid foundation offered to me throughout my childhood and go to college and out into the world. In college, I know I will encounter people whose belief systems are radically different from the ones I currently hold. We will push each other, learn from each other, and I hope, come to a greater understanding of what it means to be a Jew and a good person.

I am incredibly grateful for the Jewish education I got from Temple Beth Elohim. I can see now that the twinges of boredom on Friday nights aren’t a bad thing—they’re a sign that I’ve soaked all of this up like a sponge, and now I have a solid foundation on which to create new Jewish rituals for myself. My wonderful, nurturing congregation will always be home to me. I am certain I will come visit often, but right now, I am excited to seek out new experiences, create my own Jewish rituals, and wrestle with them in the tradition of Jews throughout the ages.

Hannah Elbaum is a first-year student at Smith College. She spent her summer exploring and writing about Jewish ritual as the Communications Intern for Advah Designs, offering a collection of handcrafted tallitot and huppot.

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