By Dena Herrin, RS President
Before I tell you about a profound moment that I had, let me give you some context. As some of you know, my connections to Judaism for most of my life were weak at best. I left Hebrew school, which I hated, at 10 years old and barely stepped in a synagogue for the next 25 years. I occasionally went with my parents for the High Holy Days, but really didn’t understand or engage in the service. The word and concept of God made me very uncomfortable, still does. Our Rosh Hashanah dinners, Yom Kippur breakfasts and Passover Seders were occasions I enjoyed as family gatherings, and to a much lesser extent, cultural events. For me, there really was no spirituality or deep religious context to these holidays. I joined Rodeph Shalom in an effort to find some Jewish connection for my children. We are an interfaith family and my Jewish foundations were simply too shallow to provide relevant content and meaning for my family. I share this background because the moment that I want to tell you about occurred in the sanctuary here, at Rodeph Shalom, at a time when my connections to Judaism and to the synagogue were very superficial.
For the first few years we were here, my involvement was very limited. I was a class parent and attended High Holy Day services, but that was about it. About 10 years ago I was here for a Shabbat service – I must have been here for a Yahrzeit, because I can’t think of any other reason why, at that time, I would have been in this building on a Friday evening. This was also about six months after I had been diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer, one of the less insidious and more treatable cancers. Nonetheless, I was frightened of the disease, especially since I had two small children. So back to the Shabbat. These were the days when, as a community, we were not so welcoming. I came alone, no one said hello to me, I sat by myself, in the middle section on a center aisle seat. I sat through the service, not having much idea about what was happening, being an observer, not a participant. The cancer diagnosis was always in my thoughts – increasingly moving to the back of my mind, but always there hovering, threatening to take over anything else I was thinking about. I’m not sure what I was thinking about that night as I sat through the service. In fact, I can’t even remember who was leading services that evening.
Eventually, the congregation began singing the Mi Sheberach. I had heard it before, thought it was pretty, but hadn’t thought much about it, nor had it ever invoked any particular feeling for me. That night however, as the congregation sang I began to feel the most incredible sensation. I literally felt myself wrapped in what I can only describe as ribbons of warm energy. As I sat there, alone, I absolutely felt that I was being hugged, swaddled, wrapped, not sure, but I was engulfed in warmth and comfort. At that moment, I felt for the first time since my diagnosis that things would be ok. I didn’t know what that meant; I didn’t know if my treatment would be successful, if I would have recurrence? I just knew that whatever the outcome, we, my family would be ok. I have seen Rabbi Maderer smile when I tell this story as I go on to say that I am uncomfortable with even the broadest concept of God. I suppose if I weren’t so worried about what I have sometimes considered the intellectual implications of believing in God, I would let myself believe that the magic I felt that moment could only be explained by a force that is present, intense, relevant and deeply valued, but inexplicable. Sort of the way some people describe God.
While I have never felt that spontaneous sensation again, I can and often intentionally recall the memory and find comfort in it. It’s one of the reasons the sanctuary is so important to me.
The profound moment I just attempted to describe was not a catalyst for my engagement here. It was the religious school, the path to my adult bat mitzvah; work on the alternative high holy services and many other opportunities and people that inspired me to be more involved. The moment that I just described was unique in my experience, and as far as I can tell independent of anything in what at that time was my weak Jewish foundation, even though it occurred in our sanctuary, which makes it that much more inexplicable.