Shema... Hear O’ Israel... Jewish education: How, what, when?

During this tumultuous year, I have spent much time learning, reflecting, and contemplating about my Judaism and what it means to me. I’ve always been a proud Jew and never questioned why I believe or what I believe.

In the past, when I felt most confused, perplexed, or even content, I did not consider Judaism as a source of comfort or inspiration. However, having all this alone time these past 10 months gave me time to reflect. I began to ponder my faith, why I do what I do and believe the way I do. Through this personal searching and isolation, I have found comfort in our tradition.  

Growing up, I went to Hebrew school three afternoons a week at a conservative shul, excelled, and enjoyed the experience. I furthered my studies by going to Gratz College to get a teaching certificate. Now, I wonder, what did I actually learn and what has made my Jewish learning a positive one? On reflection, I feel it was the connection with the rabbi and cantor. They were always warm, welcoming, and positive. Synagogue felt like home.

As I remember, I also enjoyed the socializing. Of course in those days, many of us did not have the plethora of activities competing for our time and attention at the same time, as many kids do today. Life was less complicated. So, Hebrew school was just extended school time without worrying about missing soccer, baseball, or gymnastics practice. It was a time to be together with other Jewish kids. And being in community was enough.

So, why my search now? I think I was looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the chaotic and scary upheaval we’re in these days. My search has unfolded a world of knowledge for me. Today, I practice differently. I have taken on new rituals which provide a routine to anchor me. I read Tehillim every morning and get inspired by King David’s writings. I’ve learned a lot about Mussar and middot, soul traits. Understanding the meaning and connection with our texts has been illuminating and revealing. Trying to live these traits has been challenging and stimulating. I’m in a Torah study group.

And finally, I say Modeh Ani every morning, thanking G-d for returning my soul back to me. Committing to these new habits have provided me with meaning and purpose and a way to have a renewed perspective.

This week, I have been reading about the Shema which I learned by rote as a child (a success was reading it in record time!) but never really delved into the meaning behind this prayer. I have recently learned that it is one of only two prayers that are specifically commanded in the Torah. It is the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayer and is considered by some to be the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. Consisting of three biblical passages, the Shema starts with Judaism’s defining statement: Hear O’ Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, The L-rd is one. It then goes on to discuss the love of G-d, the principle of divine reward and punishment, and our exodus from Egypt.
I also learned that covering one’s eyes during the first verse is to eliminate distractions and enhance our concentration. As stated by Mordechai Rubin, “During the Shema prayer we declare that everything is G-d, so that when we uncover our eyes we discover a new reality. A reality that centers on G-dliness. The physical world that we see is not all that exists, there is a greater reality above the mundane.”

The Shema is also about love. In the first paragraph, we are commanded to “Love G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Thus, we should not only dedicate our soul to Him but use our entire strength to serve G-d.

Finally, I learned that the Talmud tells us it is proper to go to sleep with words of Torah on our lips and saying the Shema at bedtime is a way to end the day in introspection, a chance to look back at our day and see what can be improved. I found this very soothing and have recently started saying the Shema each night at bedtime.

I had a wonderful experience a couple of weeks ago when I was thrilled to be asked to join KU Chabad’s semester graduation for Jewish U and Sinai Scholars. These are programs we at Federation support through our allocations process. Forty-six students from a cross section of denominational backgrounds attended classes like Do the Right Thing, Challah Braiding, and Paradigm Shift, led by Rabbi Zalman and Nechama Tiechtel, this semester. Hearing some of the students share a meaningful moment from this semester warmed by heart and filled me with hope for our future.

“Everything in life has a positive and negative and with the right paradigm shift it could be positive” shared one student. “G-d will forgive you for all sins except when you’ve hurt others,” and “Do something holy to change your life,” and “There are different ways of loving yourself and others,” are other comments shared. Thanks to Ryan, Ariel, Dawson, Josh, Suzy, Molly, Jordon, Allie, Ian, Benji and Laura for sharing their learnings with me. I’m elated that they are enriching their lives through Jewish teachings still in their young adult years.

All in all, what I’ve learned these past 10 months is that Judaism is filled with deep meaning and responsibility that we have the opportunity to return to again and again over the course of our lives. It is not just about our values which have always been central for me. It is not about saying prayers by rote. There is reason and meaning behind our customs and we can spend our lives, especially during difficult times, uncovering new ways to understand what it means to be Jewish.

I wish I would have learned this much earlier in my life. But, it is never too late to learn. I enjoy the enhanced knowledge. It has brought a sense of peace, clarity and richness to my life