Who was I? I’ve always been a Jew. I was born a Jew, and that meant I went to Sunday school at our Reform congregation, had a confirmation, joined my parents at services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrated Pesach at my grandmother’s house, ate matzah ball soup and gefilte fish, and didn’t sing the really Christ-ish parts of the Christmas carols. I knew the Union Prayerbook for High Holidays, and the old Union Haggadah almost by heart, but when I attended services with my friends at the Conservative shul, I had no idea what was going on. I was Jewish, but I didn’t feel that I belonged.
Who was I? I’ve always loved to sing. I was a member of the choir all through high school and for part of college. I sang in the chorus of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and Broadway shows. I played a tree in “The Wizard of Oz”, and I even played Lucy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. My friends were singers, and musicians, and composers and arrangers. I wasn’t as good as they were, but they tolerated me. I loved to sing, but I wasn’t a singer.
My sense of myself as a Jew changed when I found Reconstructionist Judaism. I was struck by what the Rabbi said on Rosh Hashanah about the difference between a welcoming community and an inclusive community. I felt welcomed here from the beginning, and I was also included. The prayerbook explained itself it to me – there were even stage directions telling me when to step forward and back with the Amidah, and when to bow during Aleynu. The rabbis and congregants never judged my fumbles or mistakes. I wasn’t afraid to try.
And there was singing! Wonderful singing. Everyone sang. People turned around and smiled when I sang, and complimented me on my voice, so of course I sang louder. I’d been singing with a community choir and had started to feel better about my ability, but there was something different about singing this music.
When I was invited to learn to leyn Torah, I was scared and skeptical. When the rabbi told us we’d wear tallisim during that service, I was terrified. I wasn’t good enough, or educated enough, or authentic enough to wear a tallit and kipah. I learned that, for me, authentic belonging came from doing. I claimed my Judaism that day, and I reclaim it every time I sing in services, every time I leyn Torah – and especially when I chant Kol Nidre.
I first heard the Kol Nidre melody when I was 15, played on a cello, and that was the first time I felt an emotional connection to anything Jewish outside of my family. I am grateful every year for the unbelievable gift this congregation has given me, that I am able to stand before them and chant the music that is most meaningful to me. This is who I am. This is where I belong.