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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism—30 Stories
Section III. Celebrating the Jewish Cycle of Life

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RJ: What has been your most meaningful Jewish holiday experience?

Martin Graffman: My most meaningful holiday has always been Passover. It speaks to the modern and existential problems of living: slavery (of any kind), destiny, freedom, responsibility, the role of God, joy, suffering, family, evil, and goodness.

John Planer: For me Shabbat and Pesach are the most meaningful. Shabbat is the day of rest when I can devote time to the study of sacred Jewish texts, reflect on my rich heritage, and ponder life’s meaning. Pesach links me with my immediate and distant ancestors, with my children, and hopefully their descendants, with the Jewish people, and with all peoples. Our seder table is filled with fresh flowers, silver kiddush cups, holiday dishes and table service—objects which once adorned the Passover table of my parents and grandparents. In retelling the Exodus story I relate who I am and where I came from, and underscore my obligations to my fellow human beings.

Chanukah means very little to me; it is a minor, non-biblical holiday whose importance we have greatly inflated to counterbalance Christmas. Sukkot and Shavuot likewise hold little importance for me; we live in an agricultural cycle far removed from biblical harvests and pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand I wish we would place more emphasis on Tisha b’Av—not so much because of the destruction of the Temple—heaven forbid we should return to sacrificial rituals!—but rather because we would do well to contemplate sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred), especially in preparation for Elul and the High Holy Days.

Photo by Enid Bloch

In my view the holidays bear no inherent meaning, even though their sources are Torah commandments. It is we who endow them with meaning.

Mary Hofmann: My favorite holiday is Tu B’Shvat. No frantic preparations, none of the harried flurry of gift buying, just the blessed planting of new trees and flowers and a delightful seder we’ve adapted that centers on the youngest of our children and their introduction to growing things. It’s often the happiest holiday of my year!

Dawn Mollenkopf: I find holiday observances meaningful, but lonely. Although I was born Jewish, my mom joined a church when I was 6, so I was raised as a Christian. My Jewish grandparents ignored Jewish festivals, and my immediate family has always celebrated Christian holidays. My mother expresses her hope that I will go back to the “way I was raised” rather than practice the religion of my birth. So when I celebrate, I find that the Jewish community stands in as my family because I am essentially cut off from mine.

Jennifer Warriner: There’s an old joke that sums up the Jewish holidays in nine words: “They tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat.” Some people focus too much on the first part—that someone tried to kill us—forgetting the real point: Jewish holidays consistently remind us to celebrate life, even if the circumstances are not what we would have wanted them to be. When I approach holidays remembering they are an opportunity to celebrate life, every holiday experience is meaningful.

RJ: How do you observe/enjoy Shabbat these days?

Steve Arnold: For me the border between Shabbat and the rest of week comes about two thirds of the way through the erev Shabbat service, after the few moments of silent prayer. In those moments I focus my mind not on the troubles of the week, which tend to occupy me, but rather on the blessings that make my life worth living. I “reset” my mind, shedding worry and embracing peace. I pray not for blessings but to give thanks for those I already have. The only thing I ever ask in prayer is for the strength, courage, and wisdom to be the person I should be.

Ellen Morrow: On Friday mornings I place dough in my bread machine and set the timer so a challah will be baked and hot by dinnertime. We have a nice dinner complete with blessings over candles and grape juice (rather than wine). I’ve tried to introduce the longer version of kiddush and the birkat hamazon (blessing after the meal), as well as “extras” like talking about what each of us is grateful for this week, but the rest of the family isn’t interested or finds it too uncomfortable, so I bow to the majority.

I make a real effort not to do work-related activities or think about work on Shabbat, or to do unpleasant, mundane chores such as laundry, grocery shopping, and cleaning. I would love to incorporate a modified version of cholent (just put up a meal in my crockpot so it’s available as desired) so there’s minimal cooking on Shabbat, but I haven’t yet figured out how to work that into my week. Similarly, I would love to have the house clean and sparkling, but again, how do I make the time?

Barbara K. Shuman: Frankly, it has been difficult for us to enjoy Shabbat as fully as we would like because we don’t celebrate it in community, perhaps because it’s not part of the culture of our congregation. My husband and I have rarely—twice in 8 years!—been invited to someone’s home for a Shabbat meal, and I confess we have only rarely invited others to share a Shabbat meal in our home. On Saturdays we do participate in the alternative Shabbat morning informal minyan that meets in the basement of our temple; unfortunately the regular sanctuary service is devoted to the bar mitzvah and his family, causing uninvited guests to feel somewhat unwelcome. We try to refrain from work and take long walks on Shabbat afternoon if the weather permits.

Several years ago we had as houseguests a family that was far more Shabbat observant than we were. During the month they lived with us we adopted their customs. Every Friday my friend and I would shop and prepare a Shabbat evening meal, as well as food for Saturday lunch. Our two families then all sat down together to Shabbat dinner, after which we recited a full birkat hamazon and sang zmirot (songs). On Shabbat morning we all walked to their Conservative congregation for services; sat down to a lovely leisurely lunch; and spent the afternoon talking, reading, going to the nearby park, or visiting friends. No TV or phone interrupted the peacefulness of the day, which ended with havdalah. This is close to the vision I have of a better Shabbat, perhaps with the addition of a small study group in someone’s home later in the afternoon. I don’t know why, but we have never tried to recreate these Shabbat customs on our own. Just having the support of one other family made it seem so easy.

Steve Arnold: My ideal Shabbat would be a day of complete rest, filled with a chance to read, think, and enjoy the company of close friends. I’ve experienced bits of each, but haven’t yet been able to bring all three together.

Judy Fisher: I continually look for ways to enhance my ability to experience Shabbat as a day of rest, a day of separation from the rest of the week, a day of peace. On Shabbat morning I go to the chapel, sit next to friends, gaze through the stained-glass windows, hear the voices of song and prayer all around me, and feel at peace. Afterwards I go home and read or take a walk, talk to my husband, play with my daughter, visit friends or have friends visit us. When we perform our havdalah service, usually about once a month, I really feel like we have completed Shabbat. I have tried my best, while raising three kids, to stop doing household chores, and especially laundry, which ruined “that Shabbat feeling” for me. More recently I have stopped reading email too. I came to see that when I read a message about a problem I would think and rethink how to solve it, and my aggravation would interfere with my ability to find peace. At times it’s difficult not to check email (the computer is almost beckoning me), but I resist. Twenty-four hours without it….Shabbat peace. Then I’m ready to take on the week with a renewed sense of purpose.

Martin L. Shapiro: As a Reform Jew I can use my time and energy productively without being burdened by the restrictions of ancient practices. So, for example, instead of refraining from engaging in artificially defined “labor” on Shabbat, I have been able to participate in a “labor of love”—meeting with my hometown’s major faith representatives to form “Ashland’s Interfaith Council.” The result has been better understanding among all of the faiths in our Massachusetts town. We’ve held a series of interfaith services, and 500 people participated in our daylong Interfaith Multicultural Fair. At one point, one of our volunteers led a group of about 50 people in a vigorous Israeli line dance. The dancing group included little Hindu children dressed in native clothing, a Catholic priest in a long black robe, and representatives of almost every ethnic group, young and old.

My Shabbat observance is less focused on ritual than on trying to “repair our shattered world” by bringing people together to share the best of our many cultures and show how we can all live in peace.

Joan Pines: I would like someday to be able to be more Sabbath observant in a way that makes sense and is meaningful to me, but I have been unable, thus far, to develop a Shabbat practice that’s comfortable for me. Hopefully, being away in the country and engaging in activities which are completely different than my usual suburban Shabbat day is putting me on a path to Shabbat practice. I am not sure. I need to explore further.

Mary Hofmann: My Shabbat observations are continually evolving and I am, mostly, loving what I’m doing right now. Every Friday evening a group of us meets for a semi-organized potluck dinner and Shabbat service in a room we rent at a local Methodist church. If my kids and grandkids aren’t joining us, I drop by their house on the way so we can light candles, say kiddush, and have a little challah—low-key, relaxing family moments. On Saturday mornings I host Shabbat School at my home for our littlest congregants, mostly preschoolers who are learning Hebrew in part by baking cookies they cut out in the Hebrew letter of the week. Then my co-teacher and I relax and study Torah—this year emphasizing the women’s perspective and using the new Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Sometimes I go to the farmers market, do yoga, play music, read, knit, or write, allowing as few pedestrian activities as possible to encroach on my time. Often the day ends with havdalah in the company of my grandbabies, a beautiful way of setting the Sabbath apart.

Barbara D. Holender: In the past few years I have become increasingly Shabbat observant. On Friday evenings I light candles and say the brachot (blessings) before sitting down to a special dinner. I listen to music and eat slowly while watching the candles burn. Utter peace reigns.

Every Shabbat morning at 9:15 you’ll find me engaged in Torah study at the temple. Our wonderful group of about 14 discusses the parashah of the week using Plaut, Everett Fox, Friedman, and now the new Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and we welcome all guests who stray in to join us. At 10:30 Shabbat morning services begin. Best is when there are no b’nai mitzvot and we can enjoy an intimate service in the chapel. Part of our Shabbat morning liturgy (which our cantor and clergy compiled with input from the congregation) is this prayer I wrote in praise of God:

Praise God for the breath of life
Praise God for the gift of song
Praise God for the open eye
Praise God for the world to see
Praise God for the beating heart
Praise God for the heart to love
Praise God for the hands to hold
Praise God for the hands to give
Praise God for the feet to dance
Praise God for the path to walk
Praise God for the words to praise
Halleluyah, halleluyah.

Shabbat has become the island in my week, a time to withdraw from daily concerns and activities. And if I don’t get that, I’m cluttered all week.

RJ: What has been your most meaningful lifecycle experience?

Jennifer Warriner: I do not think any Jewish lifecycle event will ever mean more to me than my son’s conversion to Judaism. For days afterward I walked on clouds because my son was a “member of the tribe” and would be poised to inherit the great legacy of Judaism. Only as time has passed have I fully understood the profound impact this decision would have on our family.

Zachary was just over 2 years old when my partner and I decided we would raise him as a Jew. I remembered from my own conversion that the ceremony involved saying the Sh’ma, so Zachary and I practiced until he could repeat each word after me. At the mikveh, with each dunk of Zachary and each prayer or blessing recited, I became more and more overwhelmed by my belief that his conversion to Judaism—if he took full advantage of it—would be the best gift I could ever give to him.

Before his conversion I was the only Jew in our household. (My partner, who gave birth to Zachary, believes in God but practices no particular religion and has no interest in converting to Judaism.) So I would usually light Shabbat candles without much fanfare after Zachary went to bed. Also, before Zachary’s conversion, while we always acknowledged Jewish holidays in some small way, whether we formally celebrated any particular holiday would usually depend on what other family obligations existed around that time.

Zachary’s conversion shook up the order of our family priorities. Suddenly Shabbat was a consistent dinner-table “event,” with candles, juice, challah, blessings, singing, and occasional post-dinner dancing to Jewish kids’ music. Holidays became a priority too, requiring not only food preparation but also age-appropriate educational materials and craft projects. My partner now knows the Hebrew blessings for candles, juice, and challah, and while she still has no interest in converting, she is a full partner in helping me raise Zachary in Judaism.

Zachary’s conversion also changed my mental and emotional perspective on Judaism. Previously I had been focused solely in the past—on learning everything I could about Jewish philosophy, history, and traditions. Upon Zachary’s conversion I became obligated to think about a Jewish future—on handing down traditions and history, on teaching ethics and morals, on showing Zachary a love of learning and of Israel.

My family’s Judaism, just like my own, is still a work in progress. But it’s a labor of love, because now when I learn something new, I get to evaluate, simplify, and pass it on, with great pride, to my Jewish son.

Abbey Shepard-Smith: For me these were the two most meaningful moments…. First, watching my 6-year-old daughter as she inscribed a letter in our temple’s Torah, knowing that she would one day, as a bat mitzvah, read from the Torah scroll she helped to write…. Seven years later, watching her, as a bat mitzvah, read from that same Torah scroll, solidifying her connection with Torah and the Jewish people.

Mary Hofmann: The perfect weekend of 2003: Having survived stage III cancer 4 years before, I found myself not only alive, but one of 8 women celebrating our b’not mitzvah and our beloved Amy Sapowith’s first official act as an ordained rabbi. That was Shabbat. Sunday was even better. Our daughter Cathy married her beloved Ben, who had fallen in love with Judaism as well as our family. Rabbi Sapowith’s second official act, then, was to marry my daughter and her husband in a beautiful garden under a canopy quilted by a congregant and held aloft by both sets of parents.

Steve Arnold: My most meaningful lifecycle experience was my Jewish “birth”—I recited the sacred words of the Sh’ma for the first time as a Jew and emerged from the mikveh into a new life and identity. There was also the moment when I underwent hatafat brit. Shedding even a drop of blood from that part of an adult male’s anatomy in a ritual performed for every Jewish man over the centuries is a moving experience, a physical link to the chain of history.

Ellen Morrow: I find all of the Jewish lifecycle experiences meaningful, with one exception: brit milah. After the ceremony for both my sons, I had the same reaction: it is barbaric. Still, I would do it again, but of all the practices that seal our identity, I believe this one will not keep a single Jew Jewish. If I had to do it a third time, I would, at the very least, find a mohel who administers anesthetic rather than just wine.

John Planer: In December 2006 I celebrated the Jubilee of my bar mitzvah by chanting the Torah and Haftarah of Vayeishev and preparing a critical study of the Hebrew text of Bereishit, chapter 37. In the 50 years since my bar mitzvah I’ve learned and come to appreciate the importance and logic of the ta-amei hamikra (Masoretic cantillation signs), the Torah and Haftarah trope, the structures and meanings underlying the Hebrew texts, the glorious tradition of biblical study, and the beauty of our liturgy. My bar mitzvah was a rite of passage, the Jubilee a rededication of the soul.

Barbara D. Holender: The crowning event of my adult life was my bat mitzvah at age 70. Our cantor, David Goldstein, taught me trope. I learned to chant. And I selected as my Torah portion Parashat Nitzavim because of two words: B’charta ba-chaim.

“Choose Life” is my guiding principle.

I wrote a poem, “Torah,” which I read first, and a d’var Torah, and I chanted Nitzavim with all my heart. I had borrowed my grandsons’ b’nai mitzvah tallit, in a nice reversal of tradition. Would you believe that when I lifted that Torah I felt it in my body as my tree of life, my backbone?

Nothing in my life will ever supersede that experience. With my family and friends and the congregation all sharing my day, and with my heart and soul fully engaged in Torah, it was the culmination of my life’s efforts. Even now, in my 80th year, I can still chant my parashah from beginning to end. It is permanently present in my mind.

The Rabbis Speak

“We mark the milestones of our personal journeys with traditional and creative rites that reveal the holiness in each stage of life.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about lifecycle and holiday observance, visit the Union's holidays page; you’ll find a Jewish calendar as well as an overview, celebration ideas, and age-appropriate resources for each holiday, Chanukah through Yom HaShoah.


Union for Reform Judaism.