Finding God, Finding Community, Finding Meaning

I had a difficult childhood. I joined a synagogue when I was 30, and I attended services fairly regularly, but I hated God. For me, God was the Old Man in the Sky, distant and remote, and constantly demanding praise. How could I pray? How could I thank a God who had given me my particular childhood?

When I was 40, I moved to Sacramento. My son was in fifth grade at the time, and my daughter was 2. Every Sunday morning, I would drive my son to religious school – it seemed like it was 100 miles from our house – and my daughter and I would hang around the school. Jenny would take her shoes off and play in the sandbox and wander into the classrooms. Everybody welcomed her. For Jenny, religious school was the most wonderful place in the world – the one place where she got to hang out with the big kids. Little by little, I began to see Judaism through her eyes.

Slowly but surely, I began a spiritual journey. It began with joining a temple committee, and serving on the board. Eventually, I became president, and my first week as president, I got a package from the Union for Reform Judaism. It was a sermon by Eric Yoffie, then the newly elected president of the Reform Movement. Rabbi Yoffie said that the primary role of lay leaders is to be life-long Jewish learners and to be role models who put Torah at the center of their lives – people who teach Torah through their every act, their every word, and their every decision. I read his sermon, and I realized that that was the kind of person I wanted to be. In a moment, my whole life changed.

From that moment, I began to study, and I began to teach what I had learned. It seemed like I was studying every waking moment. I began studying Talmud and Chassidic texts, and discovering different images of God – none of them like the Old Man in the Sky. But most importantly, I realized that I had a talent for teaching.  Somehow, I developed a knack for helping others connect their lives to the text, and I had learned how to help them find their own images of God. Little by little, my life began to make sense. If my suffering as a child had started me on a journey, and if my journey had taught me how to help others get closer to God and closer to each other, then the suffering was worth it.

For these last 10 years, God has been with me. But I’ve had a different kind of struggle. Years ago, when I first began studying, my rabbi told me that there was a hazard. “There’s an experience that rabbinic students go through, and it may happen to you,” he told me. “You begin to study Talmud and Midrash, and one day you walk into a room full of Jews and you feel totally alone.  Suddenly, you realize that you’ve started thinking like the rabbis of old. And you feel like a person out of time, because everyone who thinks like you died 2000 years ago.”

I could never understand what he was talking about. And then one day it happened to me, and it was the worst day of my life.   There I was, in a small congregation, with the rabbi on vacation, and I was totally alone.  I wasn’t a rabbi, I wasn’t a rabbinical student, and there I was, surrounded by people who had joined the congregation to “meet other Jews”.  For years, I was the oddball – that nut in the congregation who cared about God when everyone else cared about the Men’s Club or the Sisterhood.

That experience of being alone took me years to get over. Thank God, the congregation elected a president who was my total opposite, a man whose focus was the Men’s Club and the softball team. And thank God, I had the courage to say to Him, “Do me a favor. Before you start your term, let’s sit down and study a text together. And let’s talk about our stories and our dreams and see what happens”.

We discovered that both of us had suffered and both of us had longed to find meaning. Our language was completely different. He talked about finding community and I talked about finding God. But we realized that we were limited by human language. In the end, there is only One, One something greater than ourselves that all of us are searching for. And somehow, as we shared our stories, that One was present. And neither of us felt lonely.

Share your story! Help us to create a community of communities – amovement of a million and a half Reform Jews, listening, caring, and finding meaning ineach other’s words. Submit your stories to the Sacred Conversations project for possible inclusion on the RJ Blog.

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Art Grand

About Art Grand

Art Grand is immediate past chair of the Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living. He is past president of Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale, CA. Art if proud of is wife, who recently completed her PhD, his son who is a PhD candidate and his daughter who is a majoring in political science at UC San Diego.

2 Responses to “Finding God, Finding Community, Finding Meaning”

  1. avatar

    I admire and envy Art’s sense of the sacred, even though I am one of those Jews who is more in tune with finding — and creating — community than in finding an invisible, unknowable, unfathomable God. In keeping with the old story, Art comes to the synagogue to talk to God, and I come to talk to Art.
    I still remember the one-liner Rabbi Zoe Klein shared during the San Diego Biennial — As the kabbalist said to the hot dog vendor, make me one with everything. That quip led me to the insight that our synagogues are Houses of Worship, Houses of Study, and Houses of Gathering — but those are not three things, they are one thing.
    The corollary to that, as Art teaches, is that one person finds his route to the sacred in text and prayer, and another in playing softball with his shul-mates. Or as my rabbi Fred Schwartz z”l always taught us, Don’t scorn the inferior motivation. Im lo lishma, ba lishma. Something may begin for a mundane purpose, but the sacred enters it.
    Finally, everyone who is actively involved in synagogue life owes it to himself or herself, and to the congregation, to read Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s article, The Tent-Peg Business. and especially its coda from Ituray Torah — Moreover, the one who made the Holy Ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who had only made the courtyard tent pegs.

  2. avatar

    Thank you so much for posting this, Art. It was deeply moving. I connected to it on a few levels: for one thing, I also had a somewhat unpleasant childhood which I feel has equipped me with the sensitivity, empathy, and compassion required of a Jewish leader. I went through a non-theistic period as a direct result of my experience. When I got over it, though, God did indeed touch me and begin to pervade my life in unmistakeable ways. As the President of a small, largely apathetic Hillel group at a College with a secularist student body, I particularly appreciate the feeling of being “alone in a room full of Jews”. I have to laugh at myself, though, because when you talked about starting to “think like the Rabbis of old” and complain that “everyone who thinks like you died 2000 years ago”, I immediately thought to myself “Yeah, the same here, except for me it’s about 80 years rather than 2,000!” Those on this forum who know me and my Neo-Classical Reform proclivities will be amused by that quip.
    At any rate, I wish you the best in all your endeavors. I think your congregation was and is lucky to have someone like you in their midst. Kol hakavod!

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