Returning to Judaism as an Adult: Why Come Home?

Temple Beth El in Glens Falls, N.Y., is privileged to have actor Josh Gray and his family as part of its congregational family. We recently caught up with Josh to chat with him about his career, his infectious enthusiasm and passion for Judaism, and more. What prompted you to return to Shabbat services after so many years away?

Joshua Gray: I was raised in Glens Falls, N.Y., and then, as a classically trained singer, dancer, and actor, I felt the call of New York City and the lights of Broadway. My years in the theater were exciting and fulfilling, yet consciously or otherwise, there was always something missing. I had not had much religious school education, but the call of Judaism, deep in my DNA, hovered.

In my 20s, not really knowing why, I purchased and perused a copy of the Tanach. When I returned to Glens Falls to raise my own family, my decision to attend services one Friday night after many years away, brought me “home” in the deepest sense of the word.

As a creative and expressive artist, were religion and spirituality separate for you?

Until that fateful Shabbat evening they were. As I stepped back into Temple Beth El, I felt the filling in of a space that I did not really know had existed since I was a child. I recalled the b’nei mitzvah celebrations of my cousins that I attended, longing for something intangible as I watched them read from the Torah.

That Shabbat evening, Meghan, my wife and soulmate, and I knew we were home. Since then, we've joined the congregation and choir, and I volunteer to help in the religious school. Returning to temple as an adult, listening to our rabbi, I realize how perfectly my values aligned with Reform Judaism.

On erev Yom Kippur, you chanted Kol Nidrei, bringing congregants to tears as your deep emotions were palpable. On Simchat Torah, you read from Torah. What did these experiences mean to you?

When I sing the Jewish liturgy, I feel as if I am using my creative gifts in the most meaningful way possible.

When reading the siddur (prayer book)my creative background helps me to see and interpret the text in myriad ways that keep the words fresh, vibrant, and profound. I used to perform the same show eight times per week, and the challenge was to keep things meaningful, even in the face of repetition. As an actor, in becoming familiar with lines of dialogue or the movements required, you explore different approaches.

I have used these creative findings in my spiritual life. Reciting the same prayer every day or every week can be experienced in an almost-infinite number of ways. I think my creative mind and background help me to see the bigger picture.”

What inspired you to study to become an adult bar mitzvah?

I started out with a beginner Hebrew book I ordered online, and I just kept practicing until I could read comfortably before I met with the rabbi to set a date for my bar mitzvah. Once the date was set, I made sure I read my Torah and Haftarah portions at least once a day, and I looked forward to meetings with the rabbi. We would discuss the meaning of the Torah portion and how I felt it applied to my own life and experiences. I was lucky to stumble upon the perfect situation.

The rabbi was so supportive and made me feel as though I could accomplish so much without pressure from anyone. He constantly reminded me about the meaning of the ceremony, which allowed me never to lose sight of the reason I was doing all the study and preparation.

I am glad I had my bar mitzvah at the age of 33 and was privileged to stand next to my grandparents during their aliyah – just as my cousins had done with them all those years ago. I have so much more life experience now than I did at 13, and the ceremony and all it symbolizes was so much more meaningful to me now than it would have been 20 years ago. Judaism is a living, breathing, and dynamic religion to which I now commit myself earnestly.

What’s next for you in the Jewish realm?

Remembering my vocal training, I try to sing with the passion that Pavarotti brought to his own performances, an intensity I now recognize as kavannah (intention). Now that I have become a bar mitzvah, I commit to continue reading Jewish literature and studying Hebrew to become proficient.

Whatever I do in the future, I will always carry my Jewish values with me. Whether or not rabbinical or cantorial school is on the horizon, I am overjoyed with the fact that I love the study, the festivals, and Judaism itself enough to feel this way.

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Heather Mendel, a South African born author, artist, and consciousness counselor, is drawn to the call of the mystical where myth and metaphor reside. Her books, Dancing In the Footsteps of Eve and Towards Freedom: A Feminist Haggadah for Men and Women, and other writings in feminist and spiritual journals continue to awaken an interest in Judaism, feminism, and spirituality. She is married to Rabbi Norman Mendel, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Glens Fall, NY, and they live in Saratoga County, NY.

View all posts by Heather Mendel