Kavannah of Transformation

If you had asked me just five years ago to define my Jewish practice, I am not totally sure how I might have answered. I am confident, however, that my answer would not have included going up to the bima during services, receiving an aliyah, reading from the Torah, or leading services. I grew up Modern Orthodox in a town that is filled with observant Jews. I attended an Orthodox day school, an Orthodox sleepaway camp, and, until I went to college, I had only met those who practiced a similar Judaism. I love my Jewish upbringing, but still find purpose in challenging the norm.

Over the last five years, I have attended, and worked at, Jewish institutions where, surrounded by colleagues and friends, I had the space to truly begin exploring my evolving Jewish identity. In the spring of 2017, I was working as a youth director, preparing my teens to read Torah on a Saturday morning. During one of their practice sessions, a teen turned to me and asked why I wasn’t reading with them. She jokingly mentioned that she was struggling to learn her verses, and would happily share them with me. The problem in that moment was that I could not articulate why I didn’t want to read from the torah with them. I shared with them the truth that, while I was bat mitzvahed, I still had never read from the torah before, and was nervous to start. This amazing group of teens then challenged me to read with them that Saturday morning, and, after a few sleepless nights of internal debate, I decided to give it a go. They supported me where I would normally support them. I have never felt more nervous than I did that Saturday, but I’m so grateful to have had that experience with those teens. Change can be hard, and we sometimes stick to what we know because it feels comfortable. This moment made me realize that I was opting out of certain aspects of Jewish practice solely because they were unfamiliar to me. I felt I had to hold on to the practices that I was raised with, even if I did not believe in all of them. It was then that I decided to experience everything at least once before deciding whether it was the right fit for me.

In this month of Elul, as we’re reminded that change is indeed possible, I look back on these experiences with gratitude and appreciation for the transformation I have experienced. I have arrived at this point in my Jewish journey thanks to my traditional upbringing, my deep love for facilitating Jewish spaces for others, and, most of all, because of those who have challenged me along the way. My colleagues, friends, and students continue to be my guides. They have challenged me, supported me, and encouraged me to keep learning and growing. They’ve given me the groundwork I needed to jumpstart my lifelong journey converting passion into profession.

Rachel Barnehama

Written By Rachel Barnehama

Rachel Barnehama is the Associate Director of Family Life and Learning at BJ. She previously served as the Director of Education and Engagement at Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington, NY. Rachel ...