Morasha Kehilla: Why I started using my Hebrew name (full version)

I was born into my Jewish family in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, around the time modern Americans were celebrating 200 years since Christian pioneers formally took control of the land they conquered from previous inhabitants.

Though my religious great-grandparents fled our enemies in Europe and emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, my family, like many others, gradually became entrenched in a seemingly permanent pseudo-secular existence.

Within just one generation, like the majority of Jews who came to America, there was almost no understanding of what it means to be and live as a Jew.

While the Jewish people have observed Torah for more than three millennia across many lands, after being expelled twice from our own homeland, we fled to Spain, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, the U.S. and literally every corner of the world — in what became known for us as the Diaspora. (My son attends a school in Israel with Jewish kids from Kenya, Germany, Panama, Japan and dozens of other countries.)

With a little perspective and insight, one sees her place in this world beyond the house, the city, the state, and the country where she started, and begins to understand there is a greater purpose to existence.

It may feel a bit complex and heavy at first glance, but it’s really as simple as the breath in my lungs, the heart beating within my chest, and the fingers moving across my keyboard. My body has life in it, so what am I meant to do with my thoughts, speech and ability to act?

I began to wonder in my teens and then into adulthood what it means to be a Jew. It wasn’t discussed — existing only in the periphery like an elephant in the room. But I longed to know, to understand.

Why was I sent for Bat Mitzvah lessons? Who was the God mentioned in the prayer book at my Temple? Why do those closest to me say they have chosen not to believe in God? Who are the patriarchs and matriarchs talked about in Sunday School, and how do their lives have relevance for me?

Since I was one of the only Jewish kids at my public school, I knew I was different, and there must have been more to what I was learning in that Sunday School classroom.

Why are there other Jews all over the world all using the exact-same Torah? Why was everyone I knew and loved in America marrying non-Jews? Something was nagging at me from the inside to figure it out.

How does a group of people, scattered across the globe, retain its identity, customs, and overall sense of people-hood? It hasn’t happened with anyone else, ever. Many great minds have pondered this Jewish phenomenon and written about it.

Being a Jew is a great responsibility, and the other nations of the world are, through terrorism, pogroms and persecution, reminding us of our purpose — that we are messengers of the Source of Life.

Antisemitism, as it exists in every place and time, is our ongoing wake-up call to remember we are different, and we have a job to do.

But sadly, many of us live most of our lives in a state of denial and distraction, largely because we didn’t properly learn about our mission. Still, it cannot fully be ignored.

Every single Jewish soul, regardless of what he or she learned or does, or how tired he or she is, has this spark and potential within. We feel it, stirring. It’s impossible to deny. Yet we try.

During my journey, I have learned that existence in this body is temporary, but there is something beyond, and within, that is eternal, infinite. It can be understood innately, a dimension beyond our physical, felt within, the deep heart-and-soul knowing that connects each of us to our true selves, to each other, and to our Source.

Going back to my family of origin here in this lifetime, my parents had come to the Tampa Bay area because my grandfather, William Tanenbaum, was a radiation oncologist, a pioneer in his field, and he opened a cancer treatment center at a medical facility in Largo, Florida. And so this is where I came to be born, at Suncoast Hospital, in the idyllic town on the beautiful west coast of the sunshine state.

They had moved from Philadelphia and Detroit and before that from Russia and Ukraine, where my great-grandparents fled persecution and violence. They came to America, where they could have the freedom to live openly as Jews, to safely raise their families with a life of Torah.

My great-grandparents, Moshe and Kayla (Morris and Katie) Tanenbaum, for whom I’m named, came from rabbinical families and tried to preserve their Jewish lifestyle and to serve G-d. Katy’s father, Fishel, had been a rabbi in Europe.

My Hebrew name, chosen by the rabbi my parents sought out when I was born, is Morasha Kehilla. Every single time I tell someone this name, they say, “That’s not a name.” Every. Single. Time. But I love it. Morasha means legacy. Khaliah means collective, or community.

Our Rabbis taught that, when a child begins to speak, her father must teach her Torah and Shema. What is Torah? Torah Tziva lanu Moshe Morasha Kehillat Yaakov” (Talmud Sukka 42a). This verse is the foundation of the principle of the acceptance of Torah from one person to the next all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu.

Morasha means an inheritance, an heirloom – lovingly passing something from generation to generation, throughout time. This object — Torah — connects ancestor and descendant in an unbroken chain.

It is Torah that makes up the chain connecting all Jewish generations. The Torah which G-d gifted us through Moses, is an inheritance to the entire congregation of Israel.

My maternal great-grandmother, Leah (Lizzie) Greenstein, also tried to remain Torah observant after fleeing Europe. And up until my grandmother Sadie, the women in my family were still lighting Shabbat candles and keeping kosher, connecting the links in our chain for thousands of years, all the way back to Sarah, our original Jewish mother.

When I discovered Torah Judaism at the age of 30, I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a goldmine — my inheritance. Over the next 16 years, I have sought to learn as much as possible about my background, my heritage and my legacy as a Jewish woman.

I have tried to instill this in my own children, though I haven’t always been successful. I’m still learning it myself, but my connection to a loving God and desire to know the mystical secrets of the Torah keeps me striving, searching within myself and beyond. I sometimes fall into the human trap of complacency. Until something wakes me up and reminds me why I’m here in this world.

And now I am living in the Holy Land with my husband and children. It went from a dream to reality in the blink of an eye. I still can’t really fathom that I’m actually here in this special place. My great-grandparents could only dream of being able to live here, and now it’s reality. So I have decided to use my Hebrew name, continuing the legacy of those who have come before me, kindling the flames of redemption, one Shabbat candle at a time.

God really is bringing us all home, as the end of our days here approaches. Like childbirth, the world is contracting, getting ready for the final delivery, the birth of a new existence.

As a mother, I have felt those labor pains with my own body and know intimately how, in an instant, it goes from seemingly unbearable pain to heavenly bliss. There was a start to us as humans in this form and there will be an end—a new beginning.

I’m grateful to be living here now in Eretz Yisrael, so when I pass, my body will be buried in this land. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But my soul, like all of our souls, is eternal.

Why not make good use of these holy skin-and-bone vessels while we have them? Feed them, nourish them, enjoy the material world — but always remember, our ultimate purpose is to unite the physical and the spiritual, to bring a little Heaven down here to Earth. To prepare us for what’s awaiting us in the exquisite World to Come.

It doesn’t take much these days. Every little bit of goodness helps potentially tip the scales in our favor.

Morasha (Mindy) Rubenstein has worked as a professional writer for more than two decades. Her essays and articles have appeared in publications around the world. She also serves as founding editor of Nishei, a literary and arts magazine for Jewish women. Mindy is a mom of four living in the hills of northern Israel. Read more here.

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