Embracing a Jewish Life and Values
by Kenneth David Shoji
At my Bet Din, one of three Rabbis who interviewed me told me that Judaism has been described as a faith of “Pots and Pans.” She further explained that Judaism was about doing and acting in everyday life, not just having a belief but carrying out actions and practices as part of your identity. Reflecting back on this discussion I am reminded of my mother, who showed me that it is smart to make cleaning up part of the preparation of the meal, taking care of all aspects, the fun and the not so fun, of being in the kitchen. Both teachings speak to the importance of acting to take care of the all things around you giving thought to what you can do here and now. I was attracted to Judaism because of its recognition of all aspects of Life be they mundane or miraculous. I decided to live a Jewish life with an aspiration to bring together the very practical aspects of everyday life within the larger spiritual context of what it means to be an individual human being and part of an ancient tradition and community.
The idea of community was not something I tried to understand until I reached 30, and my work for an American Indian Tribe led me to consider the many dimensions of community that can be part of a person’s identity. Having to interact within an environment where culture and customs are not spelled out in a book, but define a person’s everyday existence, impressed upon me that community is a vital force that has can see a person through all of life’s stages. Because my mother is Jewish I have grown up taking part in some lifecycle events in the Jewish tradition, but each time I was a visitor in the Jewish community and I sought through my conversion to join and contribute to this community and faith.
The idea that we are made in G-d’s image is a belief, which affirms that human beings have an intrinsic value linking us all together. I wish to more fully embrace this belief, to guide my actions to do what is right on a path illuminated by the examples documented in Jewish history and through the Torah. The idea that we are all connected in the most fundamental way and that our actions and our individual beings really matter is something that more than appeals to me, I believe it is the basis for all that is meaningful and good in life. More than a mere comforting thought, the belief that we are essentially connected to G-d and each other is fundamental to my belief of what it means to live as a human being.
I believe the practices of Judaism can help me to embrace what it means to be part of the broader human family. To follow Mitzvot, as opposed to selfish, fleeting wants, appeals to me as a person who wishes to accept responsibility for my life and my actions. To grow up as it were, means to wake up to the effect your actions have on others and how each of us as individuals comes to define the world we live in. I would like to seek out the practices of Judaism that take the decisions we face in everyday life and turn them into an opportunity to do something holy. By embracing these practices I believe that I can fully realize what it means to be made in G-d’s image.
I was adopted at birth, and not converted as a child. My connection to Judaism was reinforced through my extended family and out trips to visit them in New York. My father’s family is Japanese Buddhist and I grew up with rituals dedicated to venerating our ancestors. Both of these traditions share a call to do what is ethical and to act on it here and now. My decision to convert was a personal choice to declare my faith and join a community that like my parents, who raised me, will encourage me to stand up for what is right.
While I believe there are parallels between the faiths, I believe that creation has its source in G-d and that we are all connected through and by G-d. For me I have come to realize that I cannot rationalize my belief in G-d, but rather accept that it is an emotional, spiritual need that cannot reduced any further. I hold that Judaism is a way of life that affirms my belief and supports it through the actions and practices of its teachings and people. The Jewish community offers me a path to confirm this belief on a daily basis by supporting a life of Jewish learning, observance and right action.
I wish to embrace Tzedakah, which calls Jews to act for the benefit of others through charity and justice. I believe this mitzvah will allow me to affirm the common humanity as defined by being created in G-d’s image. For me, acting on Tzedakah can be as small as a kind word or as involved as standing against injustices that plague our world. Furthermore, I believe because of my life experience which has brought me into contact with many different cultures and peoples, that this mitzvah can further connect me to the diversity of humanity. Before converting I attending classes at the temple and had taken part in holidays with my Jewish friends and girlfriend Jackie. The presence of Judaism has become a welcome part of my life and something I miss when time passes without coming into contact with some aspect of Jewish life. The holidays in particular have imparted a sense of specialness to the passage of the seasons. The Pesach holiday in particular connects Jewish peoples through time, so that the experience of liberation, personal and communal, is felt across the ages. I look forward to taking part in these holidays here at Temple Beth EI.
There will come times in my life when I will need the support of G-d and community and a commitment to prayer, services and the work of the community will offer needed support and comfort. And similarly I can be of support to others through their lives journeys. The prayers and religious services of the Jewish people, like tonight’s Shabbat service have been a source of strength and comfort throughout the generations. It is my hope that I will over time I will grow to make the practices and observances of Judaism part of my own life cycle and that of my Jewish family.
Kenneth David Shoji is a member of Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.