I have already shared my enthusiasm for my position as the Associate for Jewish Leadership, but even now I find religion an abstract topic. It has been difficult to wrap my head around, and to believe in. The idea that a supreme being has control over our lives can be scary to think about. I never considered myself a religious person and never truly believed in the existence of God.
Like many of us in nonprofit leadership, I am moved by the notion of a higher purpose or calling, but like many, I struggle with the notion of faith in a divine being. Yet I’m beginning to realize in this role, that for Jewish leaders there can be different paths of faith, and different connections to Jewish identity… During my youth, I wanted to spend my time with friends having fun. One day, I closed my eyes to reflect on my life, and saw my grandmother shaking her head at me. I took it as a sign that my grandmother would not be pleased with the direction I was taking and started changing my life for the better and to make myself happier. I was also beginning to explore my beliefs in order to find fulfilment.
The day that I was accepted to Hofstra University was exactly one year from the day my grandfather passed. Papa, as we called him, always wanted his grandchildren to succeed, to work towards bettering themselves, and to receive a good education. This powerful, spiritual experience pushed me even further to explore the question about my calling. I grew up feeling that, if a God existed, He/She/They would not have made my life so difficult. My disabilities made many tasks daunting. I asked myself why a loving God would do this to me.
My work in the disability field, both Jewish and secular, has led me to question this negative view of my disability. The obstacles I have faced in my life made me the person I am today. They taught me compassion, understanding, and gave me the ability to care for others as I would for myself. In short, it made me the man that I am today.
I always believed strongly in the values and traditions that Judaism teaches us, but not from a religious perspective. When people asked my religion, I would joke and say that I was Jewish with an emphasis on the “ish.” On the journey through life I have met many amazing people with disabilities. People who have accomplished so much in life and are happy to be a contributing member of society and of their Jewish community. This led me to rethink the God question – yet that’s not really necessary.
Only time will tell whether my continued work in the Jewish world will bring me closer to God, or spirituality, but what I see clearly now is that my Jewish connection is bound up in the work. I know that through doing the work, I have met some truly amazing people, and learned tips and tricks to benefit myself and succeed with my disabilities. Through this, my connection to the Jewish world and what it means to be Jewish continues to evolve. I think it is okay, or even good, that each of us doing Jewish leadership work has a different perspective on what Judaism and Jewish leadership mean. They are all different, and despite what this polarized world would teach us, they are all valid.
So I would offer this message to others who may be exploring their connection to Jewish leadership, and what it means as a Jew. Don’t worry so much about someone else’s definition of Judaism, God, or spirituality. Rather, as I did, find the parts of our tradition that resonate with you, engage in the way that connects to you, and then you will understand, just as I am understanding, where you go from there.
As always, if you are a Jew with a disability who is interested in exploring your connection to lead and contribute in the Jewish community, please reach out to me, at Joshuas@respectability.org. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.
Program Associate, RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership