Here's a mystery for you to ponder:
On May 22nd at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood/Westwood, there was an extremely full sanctuary because three fascinating women were having an Adult Bat Mitzvah. All of these three diverse women were extremely articulate and inspiring about their complicated and non-linear spiritual path in life that resulted in their mature decision to explore their Jewishness more deeply.
One of the women, Laurel Gord, said something which has spun my brain around and caused me to wonder what is random and what is connected in the way things happen in this world. Here's what she explained:
Like many modern Jews, Laurel was raised in a household where her one Jewish parent emphasized the importance of repairing the world but this parent was very skeptical about religion or belief. So Laurel became a helping professional and volunteer working for many years on numerous heartfelt social issues, but she stayed away from temples or synagogues for the most part.
Then a few years ago when Laurel had just begun to start learning more about Judaism, she was talking with a Sufi Muslim friend named Noor-Malika Chishti at an Interfaith event. When Noor-Malika heard that Laurel hadn't yet found a congregation or a rabbi that felt comfortable to her, she decided to tell Laurel about the "wonderful and welcoming Jewish congregation that shares the same building on Saturdays with a church group that worships on Sundays and with a Sufi Muslim Masalah that meets there weekly on a different day as well."
That one informal conversation between a compassionate Sufi Muslim woman and a compassionate secular Jewish-by-birth woman resulted in Laurel showing up a while later for the 9 am Saturday Mussar (ethics) class at Ahavat Torah. Then Laurel found that she enjoyed the singing and the warmth at the weekly Shabbat services. Eventually she became interested in studying with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the congregation's in-house Bat Mitzvah tutor Rena Jaffe to prepare for an extremely empowering and life-affirming Adult Bat Mitzvah.
As they say in Yiddish, "Go figure." If you connect the dots, you will find that Noor-Malika has been in a "Cousins Club" dialogue of Jewish women and Muslim women for the past 8 years with a number of remarkable women who belong to Ahavat Torah, including Jean Katz, Vivian Gold, Linda Schorin, Rinat Amir, Shayna Lester, and Rabbi Miriam Hamrell. The women in the "Cousins Club" mostly thought they were building bridges for peace and mutual understanding. Probably no one imagined that the Jewish-Muslim Women's Dialogue would result in a referral for a wonderful new member for the congregation.
Laurel's spiritual journey to reclaim her Jewishness and the unexpected match-making by Noor-Malika got me thinking and wondering--what key events in our lives are random coincidence and what key events are a holy moment of beshert ("meant to be") that mysteriously connects us to some awesome higher energies? What is "accidental" and what is part of a bigger picture that we humans can't fully fathom?
AN ENTHUSIASTIC CONVERSATION
Laurel's story of how she found her way to a congregation and a rabbi that she grew to love, caused me to remember the moment when I first heard about Ahavat Torah. In the summer of 2004, I was giving a workshop to a group of Jewish adults about my recent book "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People." Two of the people attending the workshop told me enthusiastically during the snacks portion of the event, "Hey, there's this relatively new congregation called Ahavat Torah that has an extremely warm and approachable Rabbi, terrific music, some great classes and celebrations, along with a very warm, creative membership and not a lot of egos."
A few weeks later my wife Linda and I decided to sample one of the congregation's events that was being held at the Rabbi's home. We were amazed at how participatory, unpretentious, welcoming, and deep in wisdom the event was. A few weeks later we began attending High Holyday services and Shabbat services with this new congregation and eventually we became members.
I sometimes stop and wonder, "What if those two people hadn't told me their enthusiasm for Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and the 'One Torah, One People, Many Teachers' approach at Ahavat Torah? Linguistic scholars say that the word "theos" or "God" is contained in the word "enthusiasm." But can we know for certain if those two enthusiastic people were doing God's work, or was it just a random event completely devoid of any meaning or beshert-ness?
What do you think? Do you believe that you are sometimes a vessel or a conduit for specific awesome energies that are bigger than we'll ever know? Do you ever wonder if our heartfelt conversations (or our I-Thou moments as described by Martin Buber) contain sparks of the Divine Presence? Do you ever feel as if you are part of a holy chain of events when you tell someone about a beautiful work of art, an exquisite piece of music, a wonderful Rabbi or congregation, or a possible soul mate that he or she should meet? Or is it just random luck and trivial small-talk, but nothing more?
OPEN OUR LIPS THAT OUR MOUTHS MAY DECLARE
Whether or not you believe you are an instrument that is breathed into each day by an Infinite Breath is up to you. I can't prove it to you one way or the other. In fact, in Judaism there is a lot of room for varying beliefs. Some Jews believe it is all orchestrated. Other Jews believe there is a Presence which gives us clues, but that we are quite free to miss or rebel against the clues. Other Jews believe we are guided by the teachings of a Great Teacher who usually does not intervene in daily life. Other Jews believe there is a Shefa or flow from a compassionate Source, but that it is up to us to align ourselves with that flow.
The one thing that nearly all Jews agree upon is that we human beings don't yet know the whole picture. In the Kaddish prayer and in many other places, it says that the Eternal One is "beyond any words or concepts that we humans can describe." It's quite humbling to be a human being.
So when you tell someone about a beautiful work of art, an exquisite piece of music, a wonderful Rabbi or congregation, or a possible soul mate that he or she should meet, there probably needs to be both enthusiasm and humility. Enthusiasm means being open to the possibility that a spark of the Infinite Creative Source is contained in your conversation. Humility means you don't know for sure and you therefore have the gracefulness to not twist someone's arm mercilessly because of your enthusiasm.
But it still seems like one of the great mysteries of life how we find a mate, a creative path, a spiritual home, or a wonderful series of friends because of one humble and enthusiastic comment from another human being at an unexpected moment.
If you think about Laurel Gord's story or your own unique story, does it make you wonder how each of us finds a place that eventually becomes an inspiring spiritual home? Over the past few months I've asked many members of Ahavat Torah, "How did you first hear about the congregation?" Depending on your belief system, the answers can sound extremely random or extremely beshert and mystical.
One congregant told me she heard about this lively place to sing, learn, and connect from a doctor who liked to converse while she was in stirrups.
Another congregant told me she happened to spontaneously ask her neighbor to suggest where might be an inspiring place to reconnect with High Holyday services after many years away.
Yet another congregant told me she was dating a divorced man who told her about his wonderful rabbi and an extremely friendly and unpretentious congregation. This woman eventually got free of the guy but became very involved with the congregation.
Another congregant told me he was at a social activism event and he was curious about why such a small and new congregation had such a sizable presence at this important event.
Finally, another active member of Ahavat Torah told me she was congregation-less for many years (and happily so, she said) until she happened to come to an Adult Bat Mitzvah several years ago where she was inspired by the honesty, the depth, and the caring she saw in the congregation. She said, "I don't usually join groups," but this time she made an exception.
In the next three months, lots of women and men in Los Angeles will begin trying to figure out where they could feel most comfortable and most inspired for the High Holydays this September (especially since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive quite early on the calendar this year). Some of these individuals are our family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Others are complete strangers with whom we might be sharing a meaningful conversation at the most unexpected moments.
If you happen to be talking to any of these individuals and you want to share your enthusiasm about the pleasures you have found at an inspiring congregation where there is abundant singing, learning, celebrating, and a healthy sense of community, please be humble and graceful in your enthusiasm.
And if it is meant to be, we can all look forward to meeting these individuals at the Mussar class, or at Shabbat services, or at other upcoming events, or at High Holydays services.
Maybe even in a few years you will be sitting in a packed sanctuary at an Adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration and hearing this individual tell the story of a surprising moment when someone talked about a growing congregation and a light flipped on for this person. Will it seem random to you or will it seem blessed by a Source that is beyond words?
For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation, please visit www.ahavattorahcongregation.org or request a free weekly newsletter of events by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or if you are interested in learning the steps toward an inspiring Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah, please speak with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell or Rena Jaffe.
Or if you want to sample the weekly Mussar/ethics class (9-10am each Saturday) or the lively Shabbat services (10am-12:30pm each Saturday followed by a free pot-luck dairy lunch), please visit the congregation at 343 Church Lane (near Montana Avenue and the 405). During the Sunset Boulevard construction, it's best to go north from Wilshire along Sepulveda until you reach Montana. Turn left on Montana and go under the 405 Freeway. Then turn right on Church Lane and look for parking.