The Geography of Religion: Finding My Spiritual Home in Judaism

September 29, 2021Caitlin Finlayson

I have always been drawn to Judaism.

As a cultural geographer, I study the ways in which societies are impacted by and shape their local environments. I've always been interested in religion and have spent much of my academic career exploring the intersection between geography and religious expression. I particularly enjoyed researching Judaism and Jewish history. But as interested as I was in Judaism, I had assumed that becoming part of the Jewish community was not an option for me. For a long time, I thought that one could only be part of the Jewish community through Jewish ancestry or marriage to a Jewish partner. 

And as someone who’s struggled with anxiety, it felt easier to decide not to be religious rather than make myself vulnerable and engage with a religious community. It’s hard to hear that you’re supposed to be feeling something that you’re not feeling or believe something that just doesn’t resonate with you. It seems easier to stay disengaged and not open yourself up to criticism or judgment. Still, I felt like there was something missing in my life and longed for more.

I stumbled across an article on ReformJudaism.org, Do You Have to Believe in God to Be a Jew? by Rabbi John Rosove. It was the first time I had read a piece by a religious leader who portrayed God and the human experience in a way I could relate to, and it felt like an invitation into Judaism. I began to seek out more Jewish writings and found more and more ideas about life and faith that resonated deeply.

Around that time a friend invited our family to attend virtual High Holiday services offered through our local synagogue, Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg: Virginia. I was deeply moved during the Kol Nidrei Kol Nidreכָּל נִדְרֵי"All Vows;" prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; service on Yom Kippur. during a discussion about how one of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls was from a community in Nymburk, Czechoslovakia that was devastated in the Holocaust and how we were participating in the same rituals and standing to recite the same prayers that their ancestors and our ancestors have said for centuries. Rather than feeling like an outsider whose ancestors had not participated in those same rituals or recited those same prayers, I immediately thought of the Nymburk Jews who had been murdered and had no descendants to carry on these traditions. I felt honored to be able to stand in their place.

When I first reached out to Rabbi Rachael Bregman at Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, Georgia about the possibility of converting to Judaism, she encouraged me to “dabble” – to jump in and try things and see what resonated with me. So, I did.

I also enrolled in the URJ's Introduction to Judaism online course. My classmates were wonderful. We represented a diverse array of perspectives and personal experiences, and I loved that what someone believed or didn’t believe or whom they loved didn’t make them any less Jewish. We were encouraged to ask questions and explore a multiplicity of responses – something many of us weren’t used to in a religious setting!

I love that in Reform Judaism we are encouraged to do what resonates with us and makes us feel more connected to God. I love that we can adapt rituals to fit our family (We even challenged our kids to add something symbolic to our Passover seder plate, and they added a honeycomb as a symbol of hard work and never giving up). As a family, sometimes we observe Shabbat by lighting candles and making challah together; other times, we observe with a leisurely walk or a relaxed outdoor meal. We look forward to getting more involved with our local community.

For me, Judaism speaks to the importance of embracing the totality of the human experience - of slowing down, connecting with others, reflecting on what brings meaning, and remembering that we are connected to an ancient community. Judaism has provided me with so many opportunities to remember: “This is what really matters.”

I know that no matter where my life leads, I always want Judaism to be a part of it.

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