I abandoned Jewish education in high school, the moment my parents stopped insisting that I go.
Each Jewish life cycle event, from consecration to b’nai mitzvah to confirmation, had required me to affirm beliefs and commit to practices that I didn’t know if I believed in or planned to continue, and it felt unethical to make promises that I suspected I wouldn’t keep. Adding to the discomfort was that my questions appeared to have no place in the annual cycle of observances or in the liturgies and commentaries that had been written, it seemed, not only in another time, but for an alien audience.
In the years that followed, I hopped from congregation to congregation for Shabbat and High Holiday services. I struggled to find a community where questions were as important as practices and where text-based inquiry combined with progressive values in a way that engaged my mind and heart.
When a friend in similar shoes reported a positive experience with a course offered by Hebrew College, a part of me that had gone dormant perked up its ears: maybe there were others my age who cared about Judaism—its history, practices and relevance to our lives—and who wanted to forge a relationship to it that worked with our relationships to the wider world. Maybe there was room for my thorny questions within Judaism?
It was a stroke of incredible luck that the Eser theme for the year was “Ten Not-So-Small Questions.” I say that it was luck, but now, as a member of the committee that helps to choose Eser themes, I know that it was by design.
Eser is engineered by young adults, for young adults—to offer a plurality of Jewish ways to think about the issues that touch our lives and our senses of self. I am a scientist—analytical, even skeptical, by training and by nature—and I was shocked at the degree to which the structure of Eser helped me to re-imagine a Jewish identity that had not been updated in decades.
Every week—through close textual reading in community with a gifted facilitator—was a fresh invitation to consider something I thought I’d made up my mind about, be it mysticism or the afterlife or the existence of the divine. There was space to be surprised at what my most authentic self, given the space to explore, actually thought or felt. The beautiful reader compiled by educators, the comments of classmates and the insights of the facilitator moved with me through the week, as they have continued to move with me through the weeks since Eser ended.
If you are curious—if you are skeptical!—I cannot recommend Eser highly enough. It is an invitation to a surprising new relationship with your Jewish self.
Meredith Reiches is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her work focuses on adolescence—not only is it a physiologically mind-blowing transition, but the process of becoming an adult is, she is convinced, a much more complicated and context-specific negotiation than we often recognize. A product of the Midwest and South, Meredith has lived in New England for almost 20 years (yikes!), and continues to enjoy observing the natives. She is a member of the Eser committee, which chose the 2019 theme “Ten Millennial Updates to Jewish Living.”
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