Tracing my Jewish path (so far)

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

I used to consider myself to be an “educated, but distant Jew.” Now though, I have begun to consider myself a “passionate Jew.” I would like to take some time to talk about my Judaic path, how I got from point A to point B.

I started my Jewish schooling at age three at Temple Emanu-El’s preschool in my hometown of Atlanta, Ga. My class was called the “Busy Bees” and we truly were busy. We made fake seder plates and menorahs, and learned a fun hand-jive to the prayer “David melech Yisrael chai, chai v’kayam,” which I’m fairly certain I could still perform today.    

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When I graduated from the Busy Bees, I started as a kindergartener at Davis Academy, a Jewish day school, also in Atlanta. It began my first of nine years filled with Judaic education, consideration, and participation. I learned aleph, bet, gimel, along with my ABCs. I explored Israeli and American history. My teachers talked about elections in the United States, and also the ones in Israel. I had an English name and a Hebrew name, an English birthday and a birthday according to the Jewish calendar, and I celebrated two New Years. Judaism was very much a part of my life, but it was a part of my life that had been forced upon me. I had to sit on the floor every Friday for Kabbalat Shabbat, had to do my Hebrew homework every night, had to look up news articles from Israel for Morah Levy. The choice to do these things was never mine, and I never fully engaged. My plan to get through those years was simple: I did what I had to, and nothing more.

It must have worked because in 2008, I graduated from Davis and started at the Westminster Schools: a top-ranked Christian private school. I had been yearning for a change, so I greeted the transition with open arms. I was overwhelmed by the amount of tall, blond boys in my classes. They were attractive, no denying that. I loved it, all of it. I was proud to say I was Jewish, but at the same time I felt a strange glimmer of joy when the boys told me I didn’t “look Jewish.” My new friends were regular church go-ers and they talked about fun Christian retreats and events. I told my Grandpa Jack at Passover that year that I couldn’t promise him I would be Jewish for the rest of my life. I wasn’t sure what I believed.

But it wasn’t long before I missed being surrounded by Judaism. Each time I flipped through my planner to find I’d missed a minor Jewish holiday, it felt as though I’d gotten a little jab in the stomach. I would remember how Rabbi Ballaban used to unravel the Torah around the whole gymnasium on Simchat Torah, and how Morah Sigal used to take us out into the sukkah to shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot. It was an awful feeling to know that I had missed those holidays.

In my sophomore year of high school, I lost a friend to cancer. It was tragic and upsetting and I was angry. And I was surprised because I wasn’t angry with doctors or nurses, but with G-d. That may sound like a bad thing, but it was also reassuring. Being angry with G-d meant that I still instinctively turned to G-d in times of loss. I began to pray for my friend and pray that G-d would take care of her. I said the Mourner’s Kaddish in her honor, a prayer I had recited many times back in my days of Judaic chores. Those prayers became a conduit for more conversation with G-d, and more prayers. It became a daily occurrence, talking to Him, and as I spoke with Him I wanted to learn more. As I learned more, I became more confused about applying Judaic laws into my life, which led to more prayer and more questions. From my anger with G-d, I quickly developed into a “passionate Jew.”

This is supposed to be a D’var Torah and this week’s parshah is Vayeira. It starts with G-d visiting Abraham after his circumcision. It’s in this parshah that Abraham argues with G-d about destroying Sodom, and Sarah gives birth to Isaac, but neither of those are my topic of conversation this week. I would like to take note of one line: “Abraham build an inn in Beer-Sheba and called out in the name of the Lord, the G-d of the world” (Genesis 21:33).

The Midrash talks more about Abraham’s inn, saying that he would provide extraordinary meals for his guests, but would not charge them. At the end of the meal, he would ask them to thank G-d. If a guest refused, Abraham would serve him with a somewhat unfair bill and ask them to reconsider praising G-d. Most guests, obviously, would say the words and praise G-d. I could go so far as to say that their forced gratitude to G-d is similar to my forced education of the Jewish faith, neither is filled with a love for G-d.

Why does G-d condone such behavior? Why would He allow Abraham to coerce men into prayer? The Midrash says that G-d told Abraham, “My Name was not recognized by My creations. You caused my Name to be recognized by My creations and I thus consider it as if you had been a partner with Me in the world’s creation.” It says Abraham’s actions did actually affect the men who came by him.

So, is it possible that the men from the inn reacted similarly to me? At first, were the practices forced and monotonous, but later became embedded in their hearts? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that even though the men came to Abraham’s inn with no belief in G-d and probably left with no belief in G-d, that some day down the road they needed someone to thank for a miraculous event in their lives, and they remembered thanking G-d at the inn, and so they thanked G-d again. And they continued to thank G-d, talk to G-d, and question G-d for the rest of their lives. I suppose this week’s message may be geared towards younger people, particularly students: do the forced work because even if you graduate without a passionate love for G-d, you will probably come to a point in your life where you need Him for something.