18 Elul 5776
by Jack Holmes
by Jack Holmes
My journey to becoming a “Jew by Choice” was a difficult one. Along the way I met with betrayal, half truths and outright lies. By the grace of God, I discovered Judaism and a path through life based on actions, moral values and philosophy. It is a path that is community oriented and not based on blind faith to an anthropomorphized figurehead.
My journey began, as most do, when I was exposed to the beliefs and values of my parents. Coming from a split family, I watched as my parents struggled to find their spiritual path. At various times, my parents were Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, and Jehovah’s Witness. Early in my life it became clear I could not find spiritual guidance through my parents.
As a young adult I joined the Air Force and moved out on my own. No longer was there societal, familial or peer pressure to participate in organized religion. This was a great relief to me. During this phase of my life, I had no interest in Christian based “organized religion”. I could not, and cannot, accept the concept of “original sin”; how can a newborn come into this world tainted? Neither could I embrace the concept of sinning all week and going to confession to be cleansed. How can a religion designate a man in a box as God’s proxy – what supreme arrogance? After all I reasoned, one of the most important relationships between man and God is accountability. I couldn’t fathom God delegating something so important to man. Needless to say, when I left the military I remained jaded and God was not part of my life.
After my military service concluded I began looking for work. One day I went into a car dealership to see if any positions were available. Lo and behold I ran into a friend from my high school football team. He was the assistant manager of the body shop and boy did he have an opportunity for me. The manager of the body shop happened to be a Baptist minister. If I agreed to attend one bible study session each week they would hire me and teach me auto body repair. To say I was skeptical is an understatement, but the opportunity to learn a trade while getting paid was too good to pass up.
Each week I “faithfully” attended the bible study meeting led by the manager. Two years went by. I learned a trade, I let my religious guard down and I realized I was working with a wonderful group of people. However, the shock of my religious life was soon to be upon me. One day the manager asked us to help him move over the weekend. We were told his wife was finally able to afford the move to the west coast and he was getting a bigger apartment.
That Saturday my fellow trainees and I went to the manager’s apartment to help him move. When we got there an ugly truth was revealed; the minister had been living with his “girlfriend” and he needed our help getting out of town before his wife arrived. To this day it is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words how I felt at that moment. The feelings of betrayal, anger, and hypocrisy were only a part of it. How could I, the skeptical one, let my guard down and be deceived so badly? What I was about to learn next galvanized my abhorrence to organized religion.
When we returned to work the following Monday morning, the manager was nowhere to be found. We all assumed he high tailed it out of town before his wife got there. However, there was more, a lot more, to the story. As it turns out, the manager, the Baptist minister, was on the lam from the feds as well as his wife. The entire time he was leading us in bible study, he was under investigation for defrauding and stealing from orphanages in the Philippines and Tijuana. It was at that moment I decided I would never expose myself to “organized religion” again. It was simply too painful and I found no room in my heart to trust religion. After all the person who had been teaching me the lessons of the bible was cheating on his wife and stealing from orphans, he was a disgusting snake oil salesman; how much worse could it be?
Fast forward 20 or so years, I had absolutely no involvement in religion since the Baptist minister incident and, frankly, did not miss it in the least. My wife, who is a “Jew by birth”, and granddaughter decided they wanted to explore their Jewish roots. They both signed up for the Introduction to Judaism class at TBS led by Rabbi Stephen Einstein. They immediately fell in love with the philosophy, the rituals and traditions, the people and, of course, the Rabbi. I had no intention of wasting my time in, what my experiences had taught me, were futile and meaningless endeavors so I did not attend the classes with them. How could this be different than what I had already experienced?
On the final evening of the 12 month Introduction class, I finally relented and went with the girls to see what the fuss was all about. Ironically, the subject of the final class was “death”. How appropriate. Initially I was guarded but I tried to have an open mind. Rabbi Einstein is passionate, learned and his classes were fun. Notably absent was an anthropomorphic figurehead, a religious lesson calculated to let me know how bad a sinner I was. There were no rigid demands for me to participate and I let down my guard a bit. For the first time in my religious life I didn’t feel like I was being sold something.
Rabbi Einstein’s lesson on death was not the typical “fire and brimstone” lecture that I had grown accustomed to as a young person. In fact, a large portion of the class was dedicated to how the community renders aid to families and friends who suffered a loss and the rituals of grieving. What a wonderful concept. I took a leap of faith and decided I would take the Introduction class for myself. I have never looked back.
Over the course of the yearlong class, I began attending Shabbat services at TBS on a weekly basis. I met a wonderful Rabbi, Heidi Cohen, who is a compassionate, intellectual teacher with an infectious laugh and a kind heart. I now had a teacher, a partner in Jewish learning, something I never had before. The feeling of community, spirituality, and peace that I experienced at Shabbat services was life changing. In Judaism I don’t feel I am being sold a bill of goods or given empty promises. I have finally found faith and the true journey can begin.