There is a midrash about how the Jews came to be known as the Chosen People. It is said that God went to all the other nations of the world and asked them to accept the Torah, but they all refused. The Israelites were the last group God approached and when he asked them, they also refused. So, God held Mount Sinai over their heads and asked again. They had two choices: either become one with the mountain and forever be flattened or accept the Torah and enjoy the continued use of their limbs. Needless to say, they quickly changed their tune.
This is one of my favorite midrashim because it brings up some interesting questions about choice, specifically do we ever really have a choice when it comes to major life decisions? As someone who chose Judaism, in hindsight, I can see the clues throughout my life that pointed my way here, but I actively chose to take that leap of faith and come to Temple where I knew no one and was surrounded by a culture and faith I knew little about. Ultimately, I do think we have the last say in our decisions, but God certainly has a mysterious (and sometimes annoying and/or infuriating) way of guiding us in the right direction.
In August 2011, I was struggling. I had finished my Masters degree the previous year and was stuck in a job I hated that had little upward mobility. My depression had deepened, getting to the point where I was seriously considering suicide because it felt like the world didn’t have space for me. I’ll never really understand why I felt the need to go to Google and search for the nearest synagogue, but that search led me to Temple, which just happens to sit next to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I sent an email to Temple inquiring about conversion, which led to enrolling in Stepping Stones, the precursor to Introduction to Judaism. Around that same time, I had started my library science degree and found a volunteer position at the Tycher Library, which eventually turned into a full time job that I held for three years before coming to work here 7.5 years ago. I had no idea what to expect when I sent that first email, yet somehow I found my way here and things began to slowly fall into place.
The people I met in the year and a half before my conversion was completed hold a special place in my heart. They welcomed me into the community and taught me through their words and actions what it means to be a Jew, from Debbie, who answered that first email, to Shelly Gammieri, who was the staff person overseeing Stepping Stones at the time and hosted me for my first Passover Seder, to Nina Stenzler, Melissa Bernstein, Rivae Campo, Linda Blasnik, and Judy Borejdo, of blessed memory, my coworkers at the Center for Jewish Education, to Renee Karp, Robin Kosberg, Phillip Einsohn, Penny Coney, and Rabbi Kim who were my teachers and guides throughout the conversion journey, just to name a few.
When I came out of the mikvah ten years ago, I could not have imagined the numerous ways in which my life would be transformed, which is not to say the journey has been smooth by any means. There have been countless times when I questioned why I converted and wondered if I would ever truly feel and be part of the community. My Jewish story started later than most and does not include formative experiences like summer camp or a bat mitzvah. Sometimes it felt like I was running a marathon, trying to jam in any and all Jewish experience I could find, hoping that one day I would no longer worry about being Jewish enough. It was the JewV’Nation Fellowship and the wonderful people who were in my cohort that finally made me realize that I was enough and that I have a place at the table. My story is inexplicably intertwined with the community and both are better because of that.
And this was all made possible by a leap of faith, much like Nachshon. The rabbis teach us that Nachshon was the first person who stepped into the Red Sea at the end of the Exodus story. When the Israelites stood on the banks of the Red Sea, it did not automatically part. They were scared and full of despair, convinced that the Egyptians would catch up and drag them back into slavery, but unwilling to take that leap of faith. So, it was Nachshon stepped in and began walking until the water came up to his nose, which is when the sea parted and the Israelites were able to begin their journey.
The past two and a half years, and in particular the last nine months, have been the hardest of my life. My mom was seriously hurt in a work accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury, was diagnosed with breast cancer seven months later, and slowly declined until her death last month.
One of the things that drew me to Judaism was the sense of community. I am the only child of a single mom, so the idea of having a global family excited me. I love the community deeply but I never really knew or understood how much that love was reciprocated.
When my mom went into the hospital last July, it was Temple that I first contacted. I think I understood then, at least on an unconscious level, that I was beginning to lose my mom, but Temple and the community created a safe place for me to land. One of the memories that I hold close from that time was when Rabbi Kim came to visit my mom in the hospital. My mom wasn’t in the best place cognitively and I worried about her reaction, but she just listened quietly as Rabbi Kim sang Mi Shebeirach while rubbing her back as she fell asleep.
As the months progressed, more pieces of my life began falling apart, but it was always my friends and this community that kept me going. During the Atid Rosh Hashanah service, Cantor Niren offered “Song for the Divine Mother of the Universe” as an alternative to Avinu Malkeinu. As much as I love that song, it was too much combined with my mom’s condition and her recent transfer to a residential care home and I ended up bolting out and collapsing into tears in Tycher. It was my friends and coworkers who came out to check on me, comforting and holding me as I cried.
When I moved from my childhood home in December, it was this community that held me together, whether it was friends helping me move, clergy checking in on me, or people offering their assistance. And when I received the call that my mom’s death was imminent, my first reaction was to run upstairs to find a clergy person. Rabbi Robbins and Rabbi Kim sat with me as I cried and Alice drove me to the care home so I could be with my mom, while Rabbi Lewis came the next day to sit with me as I told my mom everything I needed to say in what turned out to be the last time I saw her.
Saturday will mark the end of shloshim, or 30 days since my mom was buried. When Rabbi Kim and I talked in late January, I saw this ceremony as a way to mark a new beginning, as I had just moved and so many things in my life had changed drastically. However, when Mom died, I struggled with whether or not to move forward with this ceremony.
Many of you have heard the story of the morning of the mikvah, but for those who haven’t, while my mom was initially supportive of my decision to convert, as the day drew closer, she began asking more questions and seemed uncertain about where she fit into my new Jewish life. This culminated in a screaming match in the car in the parking lot of Tiferet. My mom had been present at every major milestone up until then, but I went in without her and finished my conversion. Now that I’m older, I know her reluctance stemmed from a fear that the community would replace her and I was going down a path she knew nothing about, one where she couldn’t help or protect me from. But she still came to my ceremony later that afternoon because she knew how important this was to me.
In the past two years, I think she came to understand how supportive the community was and how important that would be when she was gone. In a way, I wonder if her last act of protecting me was her slow decline during the past two years, allowing my relationship with the community to deepen and me to build out the support system that has sustained me during these painful weeks. It was this thought that convinced me to move forward with this ceremony. Mom never wanted to be the reason that I didn’t do something and, honestly, I can just picture her getting mad and haunting me if I put my life on hold because I miss her. So, Rabbi Kim and I created this ceremony to mark this important anniversary and honor my mom.
When she was younger, my mom loved catching and mounting butterflies. Some of my happiest memories with her are from when we went to the garden at Fair Park and watched the monarch butterflies hatch from their cocoons. To honor her and mark the end of shloshim, I decided to, under the very false notion that I have an abundant amount of free time, make a new tallit for this occasion. I made butterflies from pieces of my mom’s clothing and affixed them to my tallit. I also made a line of butterflies from cloth that I bought, which represents this new chapter of my life. It’s not perfect by any means (please don’t judge the underside of the tallit when/if you see it and don’t mind the thin remnants of hot glue or the crooked stitches, I could really just go on), but I think she would be proud.
As I worked on this tallit, I thought about my Hebrew name. I specifically chose my name, Miriam Ora Tikvah, to reflect different pieces of my identity and history. Miriam is for my grandma, Maria, who has influenced my life even though she has been gone for 25 years now. It also means “rebellious” or “strong willed,” which keeps in line with my mom’s spirit.
Ora means “light”; I often describe some of the toughest times in my life as “going down the rabbit hole” or “moving around in darkness”, but Temple has brought light to my life and has made my soul light by teaching me to let go of things that were weighing me down.
Tikvah means “hope.” I didn’t know what to expect when I sent that first email, but a tiny piece of hope evidently went with it and blossomed. Even though it feels right now like I won’t ever overcome the grief of losing my mom, I know that Temple is providing that light and giving me hope, even if I don’t feel it, as I navigate this new chapter.
Most of you never met my mom and I wasn’t expecting many people at the burial, memorial service, or shiva, but so many of you showed up in person and online. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to honor my mom in the way she deserved, so I am grateful this was made possible by Temple, particularly the clergy, Meredith Fried, Meredith Pryzant, and Jeff Friedman. Rabbi Kim captured my mom’s spirit beautifully and when I started having a panic attack as the casket was lowered, it was Rabbi Stern who quietly told me to breathe, creating an anchor that calmed me.
Whether you hugged me, sent food, gave to the SPCA and Temple in honor of my mom or are simply just a part of my life, you are part of my chosen family. I have lost so much in such a short amount of time, but I think my mom knew she was leaving me in good hands because it is all of you that have kept me afloat. I will never be able to fully convey how much that means to me.