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Fear and Faith

Bernadette Miller's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 29, 2019

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Bernadette Miller headshot.jpg

Bernadette Miller


I grew up religiously confused. I was born to parents with very different upbringings — a New York Jew and an old world Irish-Catholic lass. Despite my mom’s conversion before they married, she returned to her Catholic culture after their divorce when I was a young child. As such I was fortunate enough to experience both Jewish and Catholic cultures and holidays but never really felt an affinity to the religious side of either. I was “technically” Jewish but ended up confused more than anything. As I aged, the Jewish side tended to pull me more. Jewish Gateways has provided a wonderful opportunity to explore my interest and engage more with Judaism.

Today’s Torah reading confronts the tension between faith and fear – a tension I have been living with myself over the past year and a half. At this time in my life I have been full of fear, and I have struggled to find solace in faith – faith in myself, faith that things would turn out OK, faith in any notion of God, faith in a Higher Power. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself turning to two spiritual programs to find the strength to deal with something bigger than myself.  


In today’s Torah portion, two of the Israelites, Joshua and Caleb, became beacons of faith to their community, which was crippled by fear. I found beacons of my own this past year in both Al-Anon and Rabbi Bridget who helped me confront and work through my own crippling fear. 


How did I arrive here today? In truth, I have always been intimidated by Judaism. It seemed so complicated, with Hebrew adding another layer of confusion. I didn’t go to temple as a child and have gone only minimally as an adult. In fact, I spent many more Sundays in Catholic church with my Irish grandmother than I ever did in temple. I can vividly recall my dad’s horror when I made the sign of the cross at my Catholic cousin’s funeral! Oy gevalt.   


As a result, I’ve always felt more comfortable in a church than a synagogue. I had never picked up the Torah and was completely baffled by what was happening at any temple service – even during the year I belonged to a synagogue. Over the past 9 months with Rabbi Bridget and my new Jewbie friends, I have actually read and studied parts of the Torah, learned Jewish prayers, and studied the Jewish prayer book.  


I feel fortunate to have had this unique opportunity with a group of similar “newbie Jews” to learn in a safe environment about how the Torah, Shabbat, religious history, prayers, songs and holidays all fit into Jewish traditions. I feel a greater kinship with this side of my history and now know I can walk into any synagogue and feel comfortable and confident given the knowledge I’ve gained. Judaism now seems more approachable and accessible for all type of Jews – even one that does not believe in the traditional definition of God. This class has introduced me to the notion of the “questioning Jew” – that it’s OK to maintain a degree of skepticism while still being considered a member of the tribe. With all this knowledge, I feel a greater link to Jewish culture, which is what I most wanted when I signed up for the class. I never imagined becoming a bat mitzvah, but my curiosity helped me overcome skepticism and intimidation and I found myself diving right in. 


As an active member of Al-Anon over the past 18 months, I’ve struggled with the program’s core tenet of a Higher Power. This struggle has held me back from getting what I want out of it. Our bar and bat mitzvah class helped me address those struggles and feel more connected in my quest to find gratitude, serenity, and even accept the notion of a Higher Power.


Prayer was always something that someone else did in church or synagogue. I saw it as a rote following of a religious leader with little connection to what really mattered to me. This program helped me learn more about the power of prayer, which for me might be a walk with my dog, the serenity prayer, a quiet moment reading Al-Anon literature, or a stroll on the beach. I’ve even started keeping a gratitude list to capture what I’m grateful for – which thankfully of late has gotten longer. I came to realize that if I can get in touch with more gratitude and serenity I can combat my fear and minimize the anxiety and stress that pervades my life. I may eventually integrate more Jewish prayer into my life, but this is more “prayer” than I ever expected to do.  


Within Judaism and Al-Anon, I’ve discovered that I can define my Higher Power in a way that makes sense to me and still be accepted and even embraced. Affirmed in this way, I can draw on faith to combat fear, similarly to Joshua and Caleb in today’s story, in my unique, non-traditional but spiritual way.


I am a person full of contradiction (who names their kid Bernadette Cohen?) and internal conflict, which also comes to life in this Torah portion. It relates the Israelites’ debate about whether or not to seize control of the promised land. I struggle with the history of conflict over the sacred land of Israel – a land meaningful to so many religions. This passage from the Torah addresses an aspect of faith that makes me particularly uncomfortable – the notion of religious conquest. But if I focus on the symbolism and allegory in the story rather than assuming a literal interpretation, I have much to gain.   


I have learned and grown so much more than I expected in our bar and bat mitzvah class. I have made strides in controlling fear when my life feels out of control. I have discovered how to talk more freely about my fear and to be open to new ways of addressing it. I’m very grateful for my newfound appreciation of spirituality and faith and the relief it has brought me, and an even greater appreciation for all of you – both those in my class and in my loving, extended community – for being with my on my journey.    

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