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Accept Us As We Are
by Kira Harland

Around the time of my bat mitzvah, I began feeling embarrassed about my views on God. I’d learned through five years of Hebrew and Sunday school about the biblical God—one who is all-knowing and omniscient—but by no means did I believe in that God, or really any God. I felt that my teachers at the temple were trying to brainwash us into believing in God. I asked myself: “Can an atheist be a Jew?”

And God wasn’t the only part of Judaism I felt forced to accept. We had to chant Hebrew prayers, but we had no idea what most of them meant and we weren’t taught enough Hebrew to figure it out ourselves. I began to feel that to be a Jew I had to believe in things that didn’t make any sense to me. When I asked my teachers about why we prayed in Hebrew, their answers seemed mundane; they told me that Hebrew was the language that God was used to. Sometimes I felt ridiculed because they seemed upset by my continued questions. Eventually I kept my opinions and questions to myself.

Meanwhile, at home my parents never mentioned God, but we did celebrate the main holidays, and my parents taught me that one of the most important parts of being Jewish is being kind to other people. This idea was reinforced for me on my first day of middle school, when I found myself wandering around during lunch, frantic to find a friend. Suddenly I heard my name from across the courtyard. Five kids I knew from temple were calling me over to sit with them. It gave me faith in the kindness of Jews and made me proud to be Jewish.

It was in 10th grade Confirmation class that I fully began to see Judaism in a new light—the deeper life meaning of being Jewish. Instead of focusing on religion, the rabbis looked at Judaism from an intellectual, historical, and cultural perspective. The rules of Judaism teach how to have relationships, when to forgive, what to eat, what values are most important for living a righteous life, and what to do at every new step in life. I began to see that Judaism is about how to live a happy life that benefits the ones around us.

Also, the rabbis allowed me to disagree with certain Jewish traditions. For instance, on the issue of finding a life partner, one rabbi told us to find a Jew for the sake of compatibility. I found this to be inapplicable to the world today. When I disagreed aloud, some peers chimed in to take my side, while others took the rabbi’s. Yet the conversations stayed civil and we learned from each other as we opened our minds to applying the traditions to today’s life. The best part was that I could still call myself Jewish and be accepted by the rabbis, even when I disagreed with their values.

In 8th and 9th grade, I became a board member of the Tikkun Project, a social action youth group that applied the teaching of tikkun olam to our community. The Jewish moral concept to “repair the world” became a guidepost for me. As a Jew, I felt a moral duty to help those around me and to stop injustice. Making a positive impact in the world is important to me, and Judaism was giving me the moral and ethical grounding to carry this out.

My many moments of true connection with Jews around me have proven again and again why being Jewish matters. Most recently, just minutes before I left to go to temple for a Friday night Teen Shabbat Jam, I opened a rejection letter from Stanford University. While I was expecting this news, I cried during the entire car ride. Seeing how upset I was when I arrived at temple, everybody immediately comforted me without even asking what the problem was. They all gave me the love I needed, and by the end of the night, I forgot all about the rejection.

These days I am involved in a temple youth band called Kavannah that leads teen services once a month for about 65 people. We try to show worshipers how musical prayer can bring us closer to one another and help us become better people. We encourage people to be themselves, and the air of the room is full of fun, laughter, and connection. I have watched people change through this experience, going from shy to social in only two hours. I have also come to believe in a God who acts as the spirit of connection between people.

The best way to engage Jewish young people is to not force any beliefs on them and instead allow them to find their own enlightenment by forming their own opinions. Every child learns differently, so telling every child the same abstract idea about God is an ineffective way to keep children interested in Judaism. I always found it more helpful to have an adult tell me his or her individual view of God, and by learning many different perceptions I can formulate my own opinion.

Getting Jewish teens to attend new programs is hard because teens want to feel comfortable and accepted. If more teens realized that a core Jewish value is being friendly and accepting of new people, they would be less inclined to stay away.

At the time of this writing, Kira Harland was a high school senior and member of Temple Solel in Cardiff, California .

What have your Jewish experiences been like? What gets you inspired and what turns you off? Do you agree with these teens' ideas about youth engagement-why/why not? What do adults need to know about how to engage young people in Jewish life?


Union for Reform Judaism.