You don’t need religion to be a good person. I would be the last to argue that. However, growing up Jewish certainly didn’t do any harm.
I attribute much of how I am now to the lessons my religion taught me. Here’s a few of them.
1. It taught me compassion.
One of the biggest tenants of Judaism is compassion. We strive to be a mensch – to live a good life, do good deeds and be a good person. From a young age, I was taught core values – from a Jewish perspective. Things like giving to charity, or tzedakah, were introduced to me before I could even speak. To this day, I believe Judaism and its influence made me a better person.
2. It taught me empathy.
There was a part of Hebrew school growing up that I will never forget. It was called “Empathy in Tefillah.” During Empathy in Tefillah, we took the lessons that we learned from the Torah (our holy book, the Old Testament of the bible) and applied them to our everyday lives. We would speak about an instance where we put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.
Growing up in a minority religion, where I was often bullied and teased by people who didn’t understand me, also helped me be more empathetic towards people. It was deeper than being able to sympathize with how somebody felt. I could actually feel it myself. Because I learned it. And I lived it.
3. It challenged me to think for myself.
Growing up, my religion was never a series of answers and commands, but a series of questions and individual thinking. In Hebrew school, we were encouraged to discuss among ourselves what being Jewish meant to us personally. Everybody had a different answer, and nobody was wrong. And as an adult, that trend continued. Everywhere I went, no matter what temple or Jewish organization, lively discussion and debate was encouraged, and all points of view were respected. There was never a “right” or “wrong” way to think – or to be Jewish.
Judaism taught me the importance of thinking for myself, instead of blindly following what everybody else said and did. It taught me how to think, not what to think. To this day, I don’t take things at face value. I think. I question.
4. It taught me hard work and perseverance.
Have you ever had to study for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Probably not.
I’ll go ahead and tell you: it is a lot of work. I studied for an entire year to be able to do everything I needed to do. At the age of 12, by the way. Looking back, it was the hardest thing I ever did.
Having a Bat Mitzvah, and being a part of Judaism, helped me learn that self-discipline and hard work will only ever bring you success in life.
5. It taught me the importance of family.
Judaism has tons of holidays, and they’re all vastly different. But the one thing they have the most in common? Family. Spending time in the home.
For Sukkot, we all sit around under the sukkah that we build together.
For Passover, we sit around the sedar plate as a family to celebrate our people’s exodus from Egypt.
For Rosh Hashanah, we dip apples and honey together to celebrate the sweetness of the new year – as a family.
For Yom Kippur, we go to synagogue as a family, and apologize to all those we have wronged that year, and ask for forgiveness together.
For Hanukkah, we eat latkes and applesauce and huddle around the menorah together as a family.
These countless family memories over the year have brought me nothing but joy. I feel a connection and closeness to my family. We all have this one, beautiful thing in common. Something that’s bigger and more beautiful than just us.
I’ll never forget the lessons my Judaism has taught me, and I will continue to live them for the rest of my life.