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When I applied to be a part of the Youth Professional 101 Fellowship (YP101), I expected opportunities to strengthen congregational youth programming and gain valuable tools for engagement. I anticipated learning from mentors who have been working in the field for years and building a cohort of fellows that I could utilize as resources. I did not foresee however, that I would find a connection to God. I have always wished that I felt something deep within my soul when I prayed at the Western Wall, one of our holiest sites. I ached to be able to connect with God the way that others say that they do. I would love to be able to feel that God speaks to me or gives me advice. I long for a connection to Something Greater Than Myself, but it has never come, until now.
The YP101 Fellowship began with a conference earlier this fall at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Cincinnati campus. I volunteered with four other Jewish professionals to lead Ma'ariv (evening) services at the conference. Our group spoke online briefly before the conference about options for the service and what sort of outline we wished to follow, but due to our busy schedules, we were unable to plan the entire service before arriving in Cincinnati. Much of the planning ended up taking place over dinner, only an hour before the service.
At this point, most us were exhausted. We had traveled from all over to get there and had been running from session to session all day. We weren’t sure our participants would be interested in a traditional Ma'ariv service. There was a discussion about whether it would be better to have a more traditional service, or if we should take an alternative route and host a short service followed by an upbeat song session. In the end, we decided to push past the exhaustion and hope that the Jewish professionals in the room would be willing contributors in a traditional Ma’ariv service with us.
As service leaders, we executed the service with all our hearts. I sang like I've never sung before. Our voices filled the room, and in that moment, I felt something awaken inside of me, something inspiring. Fifty amazing youth professionals who were all here for a common purpose, to help the Jewish people thrive, surrounded me. I have never experienced such a sensation before. It was overwhelming. I began to realize that maybe a connection with God doesn’t have to be the sensation that God is talking to me. Perhaps personal prayer doesn’t always build a relationship with God, and such a rapport may be created in a different setting. There is a possibility that it is the sensation of being in a community, each directed towards the same purpose, that can connect me to God. Maybe it was being in a room with fifty fellow Jewish professionals all raising our voices in prayer. Whatever the reason, I felt God in that sanctuary at the HUC-JIR Cincinnati campus.
As Jewish professionals and educators, we expect our students and congregants to partake in weekly Shabbat services or Sunday School tefillah, and we hope that they feel connected to Judaism and to God. The reality is that many people find prayer boring or mundane. Prayer can be difficult or awkward, and connecting to God through prayer can be an enigmatic concept. Feeling a connection may not occur under the same circumstances for everyone, and as Jewish professionals, I hope that we can offer a variety of ways for people to find one. I find God within the Jewish community and when I am around like-minded individuals. Others connect to God during song sessions at summer camp or while practicing yoga. There are so many ways to connect with your Higher Power. May you find your own path to God and enjoy the journey.
Rachel Opatowsky is the Temple Educator at Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Rachel has undergraduate degrees in Modern Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from California State University in Northridge and a Master’s degree in Education from American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Rachel is an alumna of the Pardes Summer Institute for Hillel Professionals and she is currently a part of the Youth Professional 101 Fellowship through the Union of Reform Judaism. Rachel lives in with her husband, Joshua, and her cat Yzma. When she is not inspiring Jewish youth, you can find her running on the trails of Lake Hefner.