by Caitlyn Brennan
If Judaism were a talk radio program, these past High Holidays and Sukkot were me phoning in to finally comment on the show. “Hey guys, I’m Caitlyn, first time caller, long time listener...” “Hey, Caitlyn! Welcome to the show!“ Judaism replied.
I was raised in a household that was at once quite Catholic and quite secular, jumping through the Catholic sacrament hoops of communion, confession, confirmation, etc., but never believing. For whatever reason, since I was very young, it was always Judaism and Jewishness to which I felt connected.
This year (Gregorian, not lunar), after much serious contemplation and consulting with more than a few Jews of Authority (i.e. a couple rabbis, my most enthusiastic Jewish friends, and some Israelis for good measure), I decided to begin my conversion process.
I began the process in August, working with Rabbi Arianna Gordon of Temple Israel, but had begun delving deeper into the local Jewish community in Detroit months earlier. It was at an event for Pesach at the Detroit Institute of Arts that I first met Rabbi Dan Horwitz, whose organization, The Well, was hosting the event. I immediately liked what Rabbi Dan and The Well were doing, helping to foster inclusive Jewish community across demographics.
Before I knew it, I was discussing converting over coffee with Rabbi Dan, and within weeks I decided to take the plunge. As I eventually began the formal process, the High Holidays were quickly approaching. My first Rosh Hashanah was lovely, celebrated with the Jewish family that I nanny for. The following Friday morning, before Yom Kippur began, I saw a Facebook post from Rabbi Dan asking if anyone was around that could come help with a project. I commented immediately, happening to be in the area at the time. “It’s messy. And involves opening a lot of cans of soda,” he messaged me.
And so I spent the better part of the morning and afternoon popping open hundreds -- literally hundreds and hundreds -- of cans of donated, expired Pepsi Fire (I didn’t know it was a thing either), which would then be emptied, rinsed, and constructed into the walls of The Well’s sukkah for downtown Detroit. We listened to music, chatted, and methodically opened nearly 1,000 soda cans. Rabbi Dan posted a video of us using Facebook Live. After we finished, my hands ached and my hamstrings burned from all the can-opening and squatting. It felt good. I was a part of something. I was doing what I believed in.
That night, after Kol Nidre services, I got it. I got why Judaism clicked for me, why it had always appealed to me so much. “Judaism is about practice more than just belief!” I texted my enthusiastically Jewish friend Haley.
I had struggled until then with my secular leanings, and a perceived conflict between them and my lifelong attraction to Judaism. How would I reconcile the two? Why did no one else, even my rabbi, seem concerned about this? “I can’t just believe in something I don’t actually believe in,” I’d say. “I consider myself secular but I love so much about Judaism beyond just the God part. The social justice, the community, the progressivism, the tradition…” And everyone would nod their heads as if to say, “Right, yep. That’s okay, that’s it. That’s good!”
Last Thursday, I got to see what my handiwork helped create: A Sukkah of (Molson) Ice and (Pepsi) Fire - an attempt at an eco-friendly nod to Game of Thrones - standing tall and proud in the heart of Downtown Detroit in front of the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library. I dwelled in the sukkah with Rabbi Dan and his teammates Matt and Avery, sharing coffee with whomever happened to stop by, sometimes answering questions about what exactly the sukkah was and what it represented, other times simply enjoying a morning cuppa with new acquaintances, snapping selfies with a plush toy lulav and etrog. A few nights ago, I shared a lovely Shabbat dinner in a sukkah, and Tuesday, I’ll join The Well again for a “Lunch and Learn” in the sukkah I helped to build.
On Yom Kippur, mid-fast, my mother called me, near tears. She had seen the video Rabbi Dan posted the day before. “All your life you’ve wanted this, to be part of something bigger, a community, to do good. I think you finally found it with Judaism and I’m just so happy,” she told me, crying. And she’s right. While I didn’t need Judaism to theoretically understand the importance of community and intention, it has undeniably helped me find and understand the practical importance of those things, and so much more. As my first Sukkot comes to an end, I can happily say, “I get it.” Judaism is about practice. I’m so happy I finally decided to phone in.