L’shanah Tovah.  My name is Steve Weil; I’m honored to be sharing a bit of my Jewish Journey with you.

I was not really raised Jewish, nor did I have to make a conscious choice to convert. My path was not so direct.

My maternal grandparents were holocaust escapees who fled from Austria in the buildup to WW II. They arrived as refugees in NYC with my toddler mother and teen age uncle. Growing up we’d visit them and get Christmas presents. I assumed they were never observant, or else had left that chapter of their lives behind.

My father’s family was Jewish. He had some Jewish education, and was “confirmed” but he never talked about it much either.

Growing up, we occasionally lit Chanukah candles and sang a few songs, but that was about it. In general, we had a typical progressive democratic distrust of organized religion.

The topic of religion first came up for me personally in 4th grade when I started at new school in rural Nashville and kids asked me what religion I was.  When I answered “None” their first response was incredulity – “That’s impossible.”

But “Do you believe in God?” Um, not really.

So early on religion was a difficult topic and one I mostly avoided.

My first real exposure to religious practice was at a Quaker summer camp in North Carolina. On Sundays we’d walk barefoot down the gravel road to the modest meeting house where we would sing and occasionally contemplate in silence. There was peace activism literature on the tables and the whole experience left a positive impression. I also respected the Quakers for housing and supporting my grandparents during their year of transition between Austria and the U.S.

Later I attended a private school in Nashville with many Jewish kids. But I wasn’t really part of that affluent crowd. In the lunchroom, the boys would complain about how much Hebrew they had to learn for their Bar Mitzvahs, although maybe it was worth it for the gifts – but so many pens. Nothing in that environment either welcomed or attracted me to the faith.

Years later, my college girlfriend attended a High Holy Day service with another friend of mine. It seemed they both felt a sense of duty to go. They invited me as well; I declined, not knowing anything about it. They didn’t return particularly uplifted, so I didn’t feel that I had missed out. (Fun fact: I was living across the hall from our member Marian Naden at this time and I remember a discussion with her about the difference between religious Jews and social Jews.)

As a 20 year old college student, I’d pretty much lost the thread of being Jewish. While I knew it was part of my heritage, it was a remote concept and held little appeal.

The door to Judaism first cracked open, when my father was dating a woman who invited us over for a Sukkot dinner. Then I attended my first Seder with them at my great uncle’s house. At first I was taken aback by my uncle’s humor and irreverence – and all the wine. It felt very disrespectful to me. I guess I believed that all religious practice had to be solemn.

We attended several more Seders and I appreciated that they usually invited a non-Jewish family to participate as well. Now I was seeing a warmer and more inclusive side of Judaism. It had both tradition and community.

When Susan and I got engaged, my Grandparents made note of the fact that she wasn’t Jewish. (Susan was raised Catholic, though had little attachment to that religion.) Their reaction surprised me, since it was the first time I could remember them discussing religion in any way. Also, their son was married to a Catholic and I knew they had needed to defend that relationship to other members of their family.

This was the only time I felt any expectation of Judaism from my family, and I didn’t like it, especially since seemed to come completely out of the blue.

As adults however, religion was a non-issue in our lives. It might have remained that way, but for a very difficult time about 17 years ago. We had just moved to Seattle and were unable to sell our house in Oakland. We were at risk of foreclosure and staring bankruptcy in the face. Months passed with no resolution. At the depths of this trauma, Susan said to me: “We’ve tried everything else, how about faith?” Frankly, I was pretty skeptical, but – what the heck, I was in no position to argue.

My cousin was a member of Temple B’nai Torah and we attended a few services, and then joined. At this time they were a small congregation in the forest on Mercer Island.

We took a few adult classes and enrolled the kids in religious school.

This was the start of my Jewish life. I remember a moment in an intro to Judaism class when the Rabbi clarified that “No, you don’t have to believe in God to be a Jew.” There were several audible sighs of relief in the room – including my own.

We made a few friends and Susan converted. Our older son, Ethan, had his Bar Mitzvah at TBT. But despite years of trying, I never truly felt part of a community. There were echoes of my high school experience and I felt I didn’t quite fit in, or measure up. In all fairness, this was probably as much about me, as them.

We got to know Rabbi Michael Latz at Temple B’nai Torah, and then, suddenly, he vanished.

Months later I heard about Kol HaNeshamah during a chance conversation with a friend at work. Our family attended a Shabbat service and enjoyed the warm welcome at the door and the intimate environment. We simply felt at home right away. After a brief family discussion that night, we decided to join Kol HaNeshamah

We made a number of friends here. Susan joined the board and grew close to Michael Latz and other leaders. She was treasurer, then VP, and also did all the bookkeeping for several years. Our younger son, Dylan, had one of the first few Bar Mitzvahs here, and both kids taught Hebrew School for a while. Trust me – I never saw that coming!

Later, I joined the board then recently served as Secretary.

So now we are empty nesters and starting to reprioritize and simplify our lives. What keeps us here and involved?

Two aspects of Judaism as practiced at Kol HaNeshamah are unique, and important to keep in my life.

#1: Inspire me to be a better person

We all live busy lives. It is so easy to get swallowed up in the daily struggle and forget to look up or out. I live too much of my life hunkered down and trying to keep it all together. It’s common for me to feel critical and judgmental towards others, or paradoxically, feel stuck and constrained by circumstances myself. I’m not proud of either feeling.

But when I attend services, I’m reminded of the warm and friendly people in the world. I’m inspired by so many congregants who work to repair the world.

More importantly, taking time for mindfulness and ritual prayer helps me feel generous towards those around me. I experience a gentle push to be the best person that I can be – loving and open. This is what being Jewish means to me.

I’m always inspired by the questions from Rabbi Jack Reimer that we read at Rosh Hashanah:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions
For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Was there a real companionship with our children
Or was there a living together and a growing apart?
Were we a help to our mates
Or did we take them for granted?
How was it with our friends:
Were we there when they needed us or not?
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?
Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?

These are difficult questions. Being a practicing Jew at Kol HaNeshamah reminds me that they matter.

Aspect #2: Come as you are – just come anyway

At Kol HaNeshamah, you are welcomed as you are: flawed, questioning, struggling …

Certainly Kol HaNeshamah welcomes, even celebrates, “diversity.” But I think it’s deeper than that. The visible aspects of diversity may be far less important than who you are “inside.”  How you struggle with morality is far more interesting than who you sleep with.

Like many of you, I have two sides.

You may view me as:

  • A moderately successful professional
  • A member of the board & executive committee
  • All too rapidly I’m becoming one of the ‘elders’ here

At the same time, my experience is of:

  • A lot more struggling than I generally let on. I’m prone to doubts, worry, regrets, and depression
  • I’m frequently overwhelmed by life, barely able to keep the piles of dirty laundry and clutter from taking over
  • I’m an introvert, who finds all this social interaction stressful and overwhelming.

Fortunately, I feel equally at home at Kol HaNeshamah if I’m on top of the world, or having a bad day.

I don’t have to pretend.

Kol HaNeshamah is one of the few places in the world where we are welcomed as our complete and authentic selves. The best is expected of us, but we don’t have to hide our weaknesses or troubles.

I believe that’s why Kol HaNeshamah is such a unique community, and why so many of us who aren’t ‘belongers’ have found a home here.

I’ve been a member here for 10 years. My Jewish identity has solidified during my time with this community. For the first time in my life, I don’t hesitate if someone asks me if I’m Jewish.

I’m going to close with a quote from Kol HaNeshamah’s founding president, Ann Eisenberg, in her last newsletter post.  I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

I invite you to become both givers and receivers—to help others and allow them to help you. I invite you to bring your honest selves to services.

Together let’s find ways to let go of fear and doubt, to create spaces where we can risk sharing and accepting deeper parts of who we are. Let’s accept each other’s less-than-perfect-attributes, forgive each other’s blunders, and discover what it means to come together with open and loving hearts. Let’s build the kind of community our ancestors would have been proud of.

Thank you.

Steve Weil
Yom Kippur
October 4, 2014 | 10 Tishrei 5775