In Israel, I Found My Faith
In summer 2022, my family visited Israel on a temple tour with our reformed synagogue. It redefined Judaism for me. I learned about pluralistic and progressive Judaism. It’s the Judaism I have practiced all my life but did not understand what it represented. They are Jewish denominations that focus on the evolution and ethics of faith in contrast to the fundamentalist adherence to strict Jewish law. Reformed Judaism makes religion personal. I practice Reformed Judaism and go to a reformed synagogue. Pluralistic Judaism represents all the ways to be Jewish. It recognizes that there are many ways to live an authentic Jewish life. Judaism is more than a religion. It is ethnic history and culture. It is a way of life and it is a community.
I plan to live a proud Jewish life, upholding Jewish values and principles. I recognize how fortunate I am to practice my faith in peace. Practicing faith is vital because it reminds me of the history of my people and the millions of Jews before me who suffered for theirs. I have a responsibility to remember and honor them.
My view of Judaism is reflected in my progressive synagogue. At my temple, I belong. When I pray, I feel the presence of God and a sense of community. When I pray or sing, I am happy and full of light. I am proud to be Jewish and I am surrounded by progressive Jews who share my values. Our faith accepts people of all diversities: race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. It is a welcoming faith.
But, my most intense sense of belonging happened in Israel in the summer of 2022. There, I directly connected with my religion and my heritage, especially in Jerusalem. It is the only place in the world where Judaism is central and proud and strong. It is the only place in the world where Jews are a national community.
It is the only Jewish state.
But it was visiting the Western Wall changed me forever. The Western Wall is the holiest site in the world for Jewish people. Because of the wall’s significance, people must dress modestly. Women cover their shoulders and knees, while men cover their heads. I wanted to be respectful and was nervous about what to wear. I chose a white shirt that covered my collarbone and shoulders, with a pair of dark-washed, high-waisted, wide-leg blue jeans. I brought a sarong in case a make-do skirt over my jeans was needed (it wasn’t). Before our visit, each of us wrote prayers to put into the wall. This is a practice where visitors slip pieces of paper containing written prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall. The faithful believe that the Wall will take their prayers directly to God. To enter the grounds, we must walk through gates. Just inside, our rabbi told us about the meaning of the Western Wall. She asked those who had been to the wall before to hold a first-timer’s hand. We closed our eyes and were guided by them through the crowd. When we opened our eyes, we stood before it.
The beautiful Western Wall.
As we moved closer to the wall men and women separated. I was about fifteen feet away when I began to pray. I closed my eyes and prayed silently. It was crowded, so I waited for a chance to move forward to touch it. I heard the prayers of many men on the other side. I caught the scent of a familiar perfume. It reminded me of my grandmother. Grandma perfume. It was not strong, but I was surrounded by women who wore it.
Thirty minutes. That’s how long I stood there. It felt like both less and more time had passed. I was in a deep meditation. It was serene. It was safe. On my own, I could have stayed for hours. I did not realize it at first, but when I prayed, I gently swayed.
When I opened my eyes and looked around, I was surrounded by praying women. Yet, I felt I was the only one there. I want to remember that feeling. I moved to the wall and put my hand on it. It was cold even in the hot summer. With my hand on the wall, I prayed for a few more moments, silently reading my written prayers, before carefully folding them into tiny squares and placing them into perfect slots. I looked around and imagined what others prayed for. I wondered if we had wishes in common. I liked to think that we did. The idea gives me hope and connects me to my people. I backed away from the wall so that I did not turn my back on it. I soaked up the moment, honored to share such a sacred part of my heritage with so many others while I reveled in my own experience.
Israel changed me. It changed my feelings about my faith, my community, and my heritage. I had never connected with so many Jews in one place before—a place where Jews were not a minority.
Two weeks in Israel and my faith was changed; it was strengthened. I discovered that there are many ways to be Jewish and all of them are valid. In fact, I understand that there are infinite ways to be Jewish and that should be celebrated. Faith is personal because Judaism (and other religions) hold special meaning for each person.
Judaism in the United States is different than Israel. The progressive movement is not as prevalent there as it is in the United States. But, progressive Judaism is part of my culture, my life. Pluralistic Judaism showed me how Jews in America practice faith differently than Jews in Israel. We practice different levels of observance, too. Some go to synagogue only on high holy days, and some go every Shabbat (Saturday is Judaism’s Day of rest, the seventh day of the week). Some go every day. Some don’t even belong to a synagogue. Their practice (or not) is their own.
The Head Rabbi in my synagogue is a woman, but in Orthodox Judaism, that is not permitted. In Israel, I realized that I have privileges that many other Jewish women do not. Pluralistic Judaism allowed me to see the opportunities for women in the Reformed Movement that they do not have in Orthodox faith—like becoming a rabbi.
For example, my Bat Mitzvah. A Bat Mitzvah is a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony where twelve or thirteen-year-old girls get called to the Torah (The Old Testament, our religious scripture) to read for the first time. The Bat Mitzvah (which is also what the young woman is called during the service) is surrounded by loved ones, and through this ceremony, recognized as an adult. It is a celebration. Almost all Jewish boys have a Bar Mitzvah (the same ceremony for young men) but in Israel, it is unusual for girls to read from the Torah. Many Orthodox Jewish girls do not have a Bat Mitzvah. In my community, Bat Mitzvahs are common. My version of Judaism grants women the freedom to be who they are and to live as they choose. It believes in the empowerment of women.
Then again, Orthodox Jewish women typically receive a better education than men in because the men devote their lives to studying the Torah and prayer. Women work. Women attend a school where they learn math, history, English, and science or they learn a trade. This prepares them to financially support their families. They provide for their families, and their husbands pray. I didn’t know.
Activist Anat Hoffman spoke at an event I attended. She is an Israeli fighting for women's rights by promoting the progressive movement. For many years, women in Israel were told to sit in the back of the bus to not disturb Orthodox Jewish men seated in the front. Many Orthodox Jewish men will not sit next to or touch any woman that is not their wife. Even on airplanes, women who paid for first-class seats were asked to move so that no man was “uncomfortable.”
She sued to end gender discrimination in public transportation, among other things. Women can now take the seats they’ve chosen and paid for.
Hoffman is spreading Jewish values of acceptance and inclusivity.
Her work to gain rights and respect for women in Israel inspired me.
The progressive movement is spreading and creating an inclusive community where women are treated with respect and dignity. It is my responsibility to spread love and empathy, to understand their challenges and applaud their success. I will do this through my faith and through my life.
The Pluralistic movement is centered on celebrating Jewish values of love and kindness for humanity. It shows that there is no single way to be Jewish.
I want to make the world a kinder and more loving place.
That’s what I learned in Israel in the summer of 2022.
About the Author: Beatriz Lindemann is a fifteen-year-old writer who lives in Miami Beach, Florida. Beatriz’s list of published stories includes; The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid which was published in TheTellingRoom.Org and won first place in Florida Writer’s Association’s Youth Royal Palm Literary Award. Her story Actual Dads was published in stonesoup.com. Beatriz’s poem “What Is it to be Human?” was published on kidspiritonline.com. Her story Why I Need My Cellphone was published on skippingstones.org. Her most recent publication was her story What Happened to the Separation of Church and State which was published on womensmediacenter.com. She is a varsity rower on her school’s crew team and hopes to study journalism, political science, and law in college.