A Lay Leader’s Journey Into The Jewish Faith

Lance Allen Wang, Assoc. Editor

I remember it clear as day. Our Jewish lay leader at Victory Base in Baghdad was redeploying, and she asked the 10-12 of us, located in a small room off to the side of a plywood Chapel surrounded by blast walls, furnished with a few folding chairs and a small wooden ark with a toy Torah (a souvenir from Israel), if any of us would be interested in taking over as lay leader. There was nary a peep from the “congregation” – a collection of men and women from different services, plus a few contractors for good measure. I was hardly in a position to consider myself qualified to take over. Although I didn’t want to be a lay leader, I was unable to stomach the thought that in a war zone some young Jew might not be able to pray at a time that he may want or need to the most, all because I decided not to volunteer. I pulled the lay leader to the side, and said that I’d be happy to volunteer, as long as she understands that my only qualifications were that I’m Jewish.

At the time, I was hardly an observant Jew. Although fiercely proud of my ethnicity and cultural heritage, I was mostly secular in my outlook and lifestyle. I’d been to services a handful of times during the twenty years or so that I’d been in the military, and the last time I’d led a service was when I became a Bar Mitzvah over a quarter century before. I wasn’t a member of a Shul – we had briefly joined one, but it was clear that we had very little in common with the congregation. There were lots of imported European cars in the parking lot in contrast with my dirty pickup truck, and pretty much no one who wore fatigues to work. It was a very Reform shul, but the kind that eschewed kippot and Hebrew in their services. We didn’t stay very long.

Needless to say, I ended up taking on the role. It turned out to be one of the most transformational experiences of my life. I’m sure many people perform that role daily in civilian and military congregations and find it rewarding or mundane, depending upon their circumstances. But as for myself, my time as lay leader became a period of personal spiritual exploration that coincidentally took place during a period of trial and vulnerability.

I’ve always said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. While I felt that my skills as a prayer leader were greatly lacking, it was clear that within the small congregation there were those who knew less about Judaism than me. Some were not Jewish at all, but were in the process of converting at home or were considering it. We had others who recollected bits and pieces of the service from their youth – but most attended for the same reason I did, to share the company of fellow Jews on Shabbat for a couple of hours. I began to study how to lead a service. I would pick the brains of the Jewish Chaplains that would occasionally visit for a few days. Then something else happened.

I’d been lay leading for a bit over a month and I was in my unit’s headquarters talking with several other officers when there was a rocket attack. It was much larger than the usual 107 millimeter rockets, and this one was far too close for comfort – it roared overhead like a freight train and landed just beyond our blast walls, killing one civilian and injuring several soldiers. Plaster rained down in our headquarters, but other than a blown out window and some shrapnel scattered about the area, we were shaken but no worse for wear. But I was troubled, and I was fortunate that a week later we had a visiting Rabbi, a reservist from Pittsburgh, I think.  I asked him if I could speak with him privately, and he quickly agreed. I think he knew I needed guidance.

We grabbed some coffee and sat in the plywood Chapel. I told him I didn’t get it- as a Jew, as a lay leader, I thought I was doing all the right things. But then there was the rocket attack and I felt nothing. No divine presence, no sheltering hand. Nothing! In retrospect, silly as it sounds, I felt like a spiritual failure and wholly unqualified to lead anyone in prayer.

The Rabbi thought for a moment, and then said, “I’m going to respond to you, but before I do, I want you to be willing to sit and listen to the entire answer.” I wish I could do justice to the way the Rabbi explained it, so I will forego attempting to say what he said, but I will instead tell you what I heard. These may be completely different things, but I internalized what I heard, and in the end, I suppose that is the most important.

He asked me if I believed in God. I knew I couldn’t just dismiss this with a shrug. I’d never really considered the question as a grown-up. I still took many things for granted as though I’d just learned them in Hebrew School, when in fact, that was a long time ago and I’d grown quite a bit since I’d had any form of formal Jewish education. I could no longer take things for granted. God could no longer be seen as the “cosmic Santa Claus” such as children see Him.  But I needed to find a way to fit an adult understanding of God into the crazy quilt my life had become. So I responded with the old standby, “I’m not sure, but I have spiritual feelings.” Truth be told, I sure wanted to believe in God, and if was going to help me avoid the feeling of spiritual emptiness that I was feeling at my most alone, I was all ears.

We discussed the concept of spirituality, and its connection to faith.  What I realized was that spirituality is those things that touch the soul and our ability to feel and appreciate them, while other creatures cannot, is part of our evidence of the divine. But in the end, faith is not a solid line.  The divine is not “provable.”  Nor is absence of the divine “provable.” That’s why it’s called “faith” and not “fact.” To watchers of “Law and Order” – “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Those spiritual things help connect the “doing and saying the right things” to the divine. Faith helps makes the “doing and saying the right things” mean something.

He then offered me some suggestions. “Talk to God,” he said. He asked me if I pray. . “I lead prayer,” I told him. “Yes,” he said, “But do you pray?”

I told him I did when I was leading services, but it felt like a one-way conversation, and I never did on my own. He said, “Talk to God. It need not always be in the context of prayer. Watch Teviah in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ – he’s constantly talking to God. He even kvetches at God.” In retrospect, this was helpful advice. Judaism is often so connected with the concept of communal prayer and gathering, we forget our own personal relationship with the divine. In the privacy of the small trailer I called home, the gentle swaying of prayer became the embrace of an omnipresent parent.

Discovering faith and the need for an adult understanding of God helped me become a better lay leader. I was able to lead short discussions with the congregation, conversations which were sorely needed to share the extraordinary circumstances in which we found ourselves. These discussions dealt with hard topics, like the loss of one of our own to a roadside bomb. Another member was a military police officer, who was coming to terms with cleaning blood out of one of her vehicles after a particularly difficult patrol.

It’s almost ten years to the day since I was sent to Iraq. Since then, I’ve retired and settled down outside a small rural village in upstate New York. I still pray twice a day – I make time for spiritual exercise as well as physical. I spent four years as President of my congregation, and still lead a service once a month.

Do I approach faith with the surety of a child? No, I don’t. I’m challenged by it, intrigued by it, and know that whatever it is, it is a part of me. I still wrestle with it – but doesn’t the word “Israel” mean “wrestled with God?” Much like with the regular cycle of reading Torah, we read the same scripture repeatedly, and while the words don’t change over time, we and our world do.   So we tease out new meaning, new relevance, and new ways to use it as a prism with which to view ourselves, our lives, and God.   So long as I continue to do that, I find myself in a good place.

Volume 71.  Number 2. Summer 2017

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