In My Own Backyard: A Profound Moment

by Marsha Weinraub, presented at Sep. 2, 2011 Shabbat service

My profound moment happened right here, at RS. First, let me provide some context. I grew up a secular Jew in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia. I trained at a Jewish University, and I became a member of a very Jewish profession. Yet, Judaism had no meaning for me. By the time I was 19 years old, I knew that there was no God. I had already figured out that the concept of God was a creation of human weakness in the face of the Great Unknown; I knew that God was an attempt to explain what could not yet be explained. Marx had called religion an opiate of the people. Clearly, this was not my drug of choice.

Certain I had to leave Phila to find any meaning in life, I left as soon as I could. I searched for meaning through travel, work, Buddhist and Buddhist-like retreats, and Esalen-like weekends. I spent time alone in the snowy heights of Lake Tahoe where I built my own shelter, found my own food, and danced gloriously in the moonlight. I was amazed that the shadows of a full moon were as distinct as those of the strongest sun. I searched the remote islands of Greece, where I downed ouzo, ate fresh fish by the Mediterranean, and talked and laughed into the early morning hours. I taught in schools where even some of the most privileged of children were unloved, unwanted, and ignored. I experienced the many pleasures and pains of being alive. I had a lot of fun, but there was no deep meaning.

Eventually, I returned to Phila. In my 40’s, I joined a community—not RS. That community brought me spirituality, meaning, and happiness. We struggled together. We laughed together, we cried together, and we ate together. We experienced the death of one of our friends and saw the importance of having each other. The group not only offered me spirituality, caring, friends, and rituals, it also helped me conquer many challenges. Unfortunately, the group was small, and its roots were shallow. We met only once a month. There was no intellectual substance, no history. And the members came and went, as other things in their lives beckoned.

My life also changed. When our children reached the age of formal schooling, my husband Stuart and I began the search for synagogues in which to educate them. Flash forward a few years to my time at RS. After becoming chair of the Religious School Committee, I found myself on the Executive Board of the Congregation, a VP in charge of Education. And here, in a musty room that is now the renovated RS kitchen, I had my profound moment.

The Exec Board was discussing personnel benefits. I was used to the kinds of political and financial decisions that administrators make. I had just come out of a difficult professors’ union strike, and I had seen the way that administrators make financial decisions, especially those pertaining to employees. So I was stunned to hear the RS leaders talking about the staff with fairness and with respect. These administrators cared about providing for the staff members in their eventual retirements, and they wanted to act properly.

This was a revelation. I had never seen such behavior. No sarcasm, no meanness, no trying to see what they could legally get away with. No, they were trying to determine the fair and generous way to contribute to our employees’ retirement funds. I was moved by this moment. This was a group of people trying to live by their values, and these values were worth living by. There were normal Jewish people, living Jewishly. [As an aside, I need to say that, of course, many of my academic colleagues strive to live with integrity, and most of them are very successful at it.] But these people’s actions in that room were different. The behavior I observed was “holy.” There was no ego. There was a united goal of pure goodness. (Note to self: I’m still thinking about this one…)

I came to understand from this profound moment that Judaism offered me everything that the previous group had offered, and much more. Judaism offered the possibility of religious texts, optional rituals rooted in ancient traditions, and great music. Most of all, Judaism, and the RS members who lived according to it, offered me a community where people share the same ideals for goodness, fair treatment of others, and kindness. There may be times when we fall short, but we pick each other up and we continue the journey, together.

Using words from the famous sermon of the Temple University Founder, Russell Conwell, this revelation was like finding acres of diamonds in my own backyard. If God is what gives our lives true meaning and sets the true path, what unites us humans in shared goals of goodness toward each other, or, in the words of our prayer book, peace, then, in this place, I had found God. In that moment downstairs in the meeting room, I found God in my colleagues’ actions toward one another.

As I opened my eyes wider, I found this God embodied in the shared desire to be the best we could be, at the same time honoring each other’s contributions and accepting each other’s limitations. I came to understand that this behavior was part of a long and well-chronicled struggle. I found my place in that struggle, here among all of you. It is here at RS that I find God. God hovers over and between us, like a mist, as we celebrate Shabbat and our life’s milestones together. God is here as we share a knowing glance, a sly smile, or a gentle touch. The beauty of the music highlights the sanctity of the moments we share together. The meaning that I had searched for all my life was right here, in the religion into which I was lucky enough to be born. It was here all the time; I just had to open my eyes to it, like Moses to the burning bush… And so it is that the words of Israel echo in my mind – God IS in THIS place, and I know it.