October 03, 2011
Posted in Religious Life, Student Life
The following guest post is by Erika Rief, a junior from Baltimore, MD in the Goizueta Business School. Erika delivered this message at Hillel's Rosh Hashanah morning Conservative service. It is cross-posted at Erika's blog, Rik Rief's Travel Log
To all you freshmen out there, welcome to Rosh Hashana at college. Yes, it is definitely different. For many of you, this will be the first time celebrating the High Holidays away from home. If you haven’t already realized, I just want to warn you, the food is not going to taste the same. The gefilte fish will either be to sweet or too fishy, the matzah balls will be too soft or too firm. And, at least for me, the biggest deal, is that mandel bread doesn’t seem to have caught on in Atlanta yet. This year, to cope, I finally made my own. Of course, more importantly, this will be the first time where instead of sitting next to family or Hebrew school friends in the synagogue you grew up in your entire life, you are sitting here, in Glenn Memorial Church of all places, next to people you may have just met less than a month ago or may not know at all. Feeling out of your comfort zone to begin with, how are you suppose to get in the mindset of Rosh Hashana? Even for those of us who aren’t freshmen anymore, it seems as though without Hebrew school or Jewish day school to prep us for the high holidays, they seem to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we are supposed to sit here, proclaim God’s kingship, and act as though we believe in what we are saying.
Now, for a bunch of college students, this concept of proclaiming God’s kingship can be extremely difficult. Instead of focusing on the replacement of phrases like “HaMelech HaKadosh,” holy king, for “HaEl HaKadosh” Holy God, we are more concerned with who showed up, what people are wearing, and where the meal is going to be and the type of food it entails. Even if we manage to follow along with the service, most of us even struggle with the thought of God’s very existence. And to be honest, so do I. I’d say I’m a pretty observant Conservative Jew and extremely involved in the Jewish community both in Atlanta and Baltimore. However, to be honest, God isn’t necessarily the reason why. It’s hard to feel connected to an all-powerful being when communication isn’t exactly a two-way street. Especially today, when we seem to be the ones doing all of the talking.
Preparing for this sermon, I’ve been reflecting on how I can connect to God this Rosh Hashana. I’ve tried to look for God’s intervention in my life over the past few months. Whether or not I realized it before, it seems as though he has been in the picture more than I thought. By sharing my story, I hope to encourage you to reflect on how maybe God has slipped his way into your lives without you noticing.
Although I am a junior, and have not been home for Rosh Hashana the past two years, on this Rosh Hashana, I feel as though I am in the freshmens’ shoes. Usually, the Emory community during the holidays satisfies the need for family around this time of year. This year though, something is different. While I am here, speaking to you, I know that not only is my seat vacant at my synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland but so is the infamous seat on the aisle. It is the seat where my paternal grandfather has sat for as long as I or anyone else in the synagogue can remember.
The theme of Rosh Hashana, today’s torah portion, and haftorah reading all contain stories of birth. Rosh Hashana marks the sixth day of creation, the day on which Adam and Chava were created. The parsha just read speaks about Sara giving birth to Yitzchak after many barren years. Similarly, the haftorah speaks of Chana, finally giving birth to a son, Shmuel, who was to become a prophet and anoint the first king of Israel. So although this is a time concentrated on birth and renewal, I struggle to connect to that theme with that empty chair imprinted in my mind.
Instead of always focusing on the negative, I have tried to turn my family’s recent loss into some sort of rebirth. Shiva sparked a new fervor for discovering the ‘Rief’ family history, sending me on an incredible journey with some newly reacquainted relatives. In just a few short months, we have pieced together the ‘Rief’ story, a story I can call my own.
Some pretty wild coincidences occurred in order for all of the pieces to surface. For instance, I found my great great grandmother’s grave just 20 minutes away from Emory. If not for one click here or one vague memory there, these breakthroughs would never have been possible. Usually these searches take lots of time but the process for us seemed to happen pretty rapidly. Due to the ease of it all, it seemed as though we had someone or something greater pushing us in the right direction. In my blog, where I describe the search in great detail, I expressed my regret in the fact that my grandfather couldn’t have been here physically to share in the journey but knew that his spirit was with me in every step of the way. Obviously, he must be sitting by God’s side, convincing Him, in his obstinate manner, to push us in the right direction. Although God took something from me this summer, he also gave me a lot, a foundation of where I’ve come from and an even greater appreciation for family and time spent together with them.
Coincidentally, I was introduced to the T.V. show Modern Family this summer and it instantly has become a favorite. For those of you are unfamiliar with Modern Family, it is a comedy about an extremely unorthodox family. Yet, despite their many differences, they somehow find a way to appreciate one another for who they are. They support one another’s interests and value respect in the highest regard. The young show even won the GLSEN Respect Award, for its portrayal of "positive images and storylines that reflect a diverse America.” Not many of the top rated T.V. shows today demonstrate such positive messages, especially about the importance of family. Long gone are shows like The Brady Bunch, exhibiting the ideal American Family. Instead, what the creators of Modern Family have accomplished is something greater. They reveal the trials and tribulations of a real, American family, not the ideal. Even so, it is the family itself that keeps us wanting more. As Dillan, the boyfriend of the technology obsessed teenage daughter describes, “I mean she's beautiful and everything, but it's not just that. She's got this killer confidence. You know, the kind of confidence that you get from having a family like this, that's passionate and accepting of hot foreigners, and gay dudes, and nutty people. You know, a family that actually loves each other.”
Hopefully, we can all strive to achieve the ‘killer confidence’ that being in the Modern Family emits. We should all push ourselves to maintain the positive relationships we’ve developed with our families or work on reestablishing those that have faded over time. I share this message with you especially today because although Rosh Hashana might make us long for a stronger connection with our families and hopefully with God, soon the holidays will past, and we will all struggle to find the time to stay connected.
While developing into your own self at college is extremely important, you must remember to stay grounded in your roots. Without knowing or remembering where you’ve come from, you may forget the purpose in your journey and get lost along the way. Therefore, I beg and challenge you to remain close with your families even while you might be thousands of miles away at college. Find a routine and balance that works for you. Whether its calling family members on a specific day of the week or staying in contact through email, make sure, that while you have the chance, you stay connected and ask questions because that opportunity doesn’t last forever. So please, find the time for a phone call, a conversation, it means so much to them and one day it will mean even more to you. In terms of staying connected with Judaism, pick something that you’re passionate about in the Jewish community and get involved. Whether it’s Hillel, Chabad, MEOR, ESI, Challah for Hunger, or an initiative of your own, have some connection. Then, maybe, the awe of today will be a bit less intimidating.
Besides seeing God’s hand in my journey this summer, for one of the first times in my life, I had one of those moments where my questioning about God was silenced, at least for now.
On Saturday, June 4, hours before my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, my dad and aunt were forced to make the all too difficult decision to take my grandfather off of life support. Having never experienced this before, I sat there not knowing what to say or do. As the tubes were taken out, we sat around and waited. Finally, I took my grandfather’s hand and suggested to my dad and aunt that we begin sharing memories. We had no idea how long the process would take and let me just tell you, my grandfather had been quite the fighter all of his life. Hours passed and we continued to wait. Finally, assuming he could hear me, I gathered the courage to ask him to repeat after me. “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elohainu Hashem Echad.” Minutes after, his vital signs began dropping significantly. To me, it seemed like God was saying “it’s okay. Let go. He is in my hands now.”
I can’t even begin count how many times I’ve said Shema in my life but I can guarantee you, it never meant as much before and will never mean the same again.
So, although next week during Ne’ilah, my grandfather won’t physically be watching as I take over his spot next to the Aron, a Rief tradition, I have confidence that he will be watching us from inside the Gates of Heaven.
May this coming year be filled with birth and renewal and may be all have the privilege to feel God’s presence in our lives. And let us together say amen.
Erika, this is beautiful. I had the same experience with my grandfather in June. May you too have a year filled with birth and renewal and feel God's presence.
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