Round Challah: Looking Back at NFTY

By Jenna Mark, NFTY-TOR Alumna

Reposted with permission

Brace yourself–There was a time when I wanted to be a rabbi.  Not even joking a little bit.  I vividly remember my rabbi scrolling to the wrong Torah portion at my Bat Mitzvah and saying, “What do you think about this one?”  Bam.  That began my desire for rabbinics.  I always wanted to be an actress, but I was convinced that I could make being a rabbi happen too.  Let me tell you…it’s lucky for everyone that I decided on the acting thing, otherwise there would be a lot of sermons with musical numbers and interpretive dances.   No jazz hands or jazz squares, though.  Those will never exist in Jenna choreography.  But I digress…

To reiterate: this rabbi craze was a big part of my teen years.  I come from a fairly religious Reform Jewish household.  My family and I were members of a very large Houston congregation.  We were always at services and involved in the temple’s events.  My mother worked at the preschool at the congregation.  My brothers and I went to religious school from the time we were able to burp ourselves all the way through high school graduation.  My parents were very adamant that Shabbat dinners, religious events, and Jewish ideals had a presence in our “Shalom bayit”.  All this being said, my parents were always supportive of letting their children make their own decisions as long as the decisions were well-educated and supported with good reasoning.  Therefore, after middle school both brothers drifted from the whole organized religion idea, whereas I clung tightly to all things Jewish and spent any spare time I had at temple.  Spotted: Jenna at Torah study with the elders.

Skip to high school.  Senior year.  Religious and Cultural Vice President of NFTY-TOR (North American Federation of Temple Youth-Texas-Oklahoma Region).  Whoa.  I finally nixed the idea of graduate school and decided to forego the rabbinate.  I did, however, want to dip my toe in it while I could…so I ran for TOR Board.  Basically this crazy acronym of a title meant that I was the youth-grouper in charge of services and religious studies/programming for the reform Jewish high-schoolers of Texas and Oklahoma who were in NFTY for 2007-2008.  Sound daunting?  It was.  I was in way over my head, but I didn’t care.  I was so convinced that I knew everything there was to know about Judaism in order to fulfill this job.  Typical seventeen-year-old. 

Ironically enough, a few nights ago I came across the NFTY-TOR Summer Kallah Schmooze–our newsletter given to every TORite at the end of each retreat. This Kallah came right before the High Holy Days of 2007. Each board member was given a page to introduce themselves to the TYGers (Temple Youth Groupers).  I did so and then decided to throw in some words of my “wisdom” saying that I hope everyone was going to take time and appreciate the holidays and yada, yada, yada.  Everything I thought I was supposed to say as I took on the responsibility of TOR’s mini-rabbi.

Rereading this Schmooze made me laugh.  A lot.  Since the rabbi struggle of my adolescence and having such deep roots in a congregation, I have had so many differing High Holy Day experiences.  Six HHD seasons have passed since that newsletter, and each year brings on an experience completely new.

untitledMy college community events were almost non-existent.  I tried the reform congregation in Lincoln out for a year or two.  Each time I felt uncomfortable for reasons of no fault of theirs.  I attempted services in Omaha, which were slightly more welcoming and similar to the services I had grown up with.  However, schlepping to and fro was not always an option.  With the lack of Jewish community in Nebraska, I realized that I had to make the High Holy Days special to me in whatever way possible.  I spent many years baking round challahs for Rosh Hashanah–something my roommates always enjoyed.  The following week I spent preparing Yom Kippur break fast for any friends who wished to join.  Although many of these fellow diners were deeply rooted in their Christian faith, these were my closest friends.  Spending time in their presence made my holiday most special.  Every year I took to the outdoors with my siddurim and reread prayers that I was so incredibly familiar with.  The solidarity and beauty that praying in the middle of nature brought was something I never anticipated to love.

The past six years have been filled with other little traditions of my own.  My reflections have become more and more insightful and mature.  Being on my own and in different environments has reiterated to me just how important it is to find my way in my own way.  When I was younger I assumed that I would grow up to be a part of a congregation and continue to be involved in ways that I was as a kid.  I stopped being so devoted when I realized that doing so was going to take a lot of effort.  College was my trial period, as I am sure it is for many.  Moving forward to a life on my own–I am lucky enough that I am in a city that allows me to make my involvement decisions on my own terms.  I love being in a temple service with hundreds of people around me, AND I love sitting on a rock in the middle of Central Park with my prayer book.  The image probably looks strange, but the serenity is unreal.  I am incredibly lucky to have that opportunity and even luckier to know that I can have both experiences in an equally meaningful way.

I really miss my Emanu El and NFTY days, but what I have now is just as special.  It seems so silly to me now that a girl at seventeen would be given the responsibility of encouraging teenagers to take the holidays seriously.  Many times that seemed unrealistic.  However, without that experience I would never have as much religious clarity as I do now.  I hope that some of those who sat through my off-the-wall services took away some of the clarity that I did.  Seriously…we prayer-ecised.  It was epic.

I may never join the rabbinate (lucky them), but to all who celebrate–may you have a very happy and healthy 5774.

L’shana tova tikatevu–wishing us all a good year!

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