Tina Kim Sermon
Thank you Rabbi Heath for inviting me to speak today about my experiences with the Sh’ma group program.
I want to start by telling you a little bit about myself, what led me to Beth Am, and ultimately to the Sh’ma groups. I’ve lived near Palo Alto for about 8 years, and it’s become “home” for me and my husband Mark. Mark and I joined Beth Am almost 2 years ago, when I made the decision to convert to Judaism. Of all the synagogues in the area that I researched, Beth Am resonated the most with me, with its strong messages about helping the community, supporting the underprivileged, and accepting people of all backgrounds and faiths. I began my journey by meeting regularly with Rabbi Sarah and enrolling in the Building Blocks of Judaism course with Rabbi Heath. Over the year I learned as much as I could about Judaism through reading books, attending Shabbat services, and participating in the High Holiday services. But it wasn’t until I joined a Sh’ma group that I felt I started to understand on a personal level what it meant to be Jewish.
The first pilot Sh’ma group Mark and I attended was back in February 2017. It was a small gathering of about 10 people, hosted by Steve and Olivia Asch. The theme of this group was for those who had a strong connection with Israel. I was interested in this group as Israel was one aspect of my conversion journey that I had very little experience with – having never been to Israel myself. I got to hear each person’s story about what Israel meant to them - some of them having grown up in Israel or spending long periods of time there, and others only having visited. I remember one person sharing with the group how ‘at home’ they felt there, when they heard the exact same melodies being sung for prayers as they had learned in the US. Listening to these stories helped me understand the personal importance that Israel has for many people in Judaism, which was difficult for me to grasp from just reading about the history in books. And although I didn’t have any experiences of my own to contribute, the members of this small group welcomed me, congratulating me on my decision to convert, and sharing some quintessential advice about becoming Jewish – such as, be prepared for every conversation to turn into a debate.
After this pilot group, we signed up to join our first Sh’ma group in April, “Standing Together”, hosted by Bob and Diane Frankle. The theme of this group is interfaith solidarity, and we have a mix of about 10 both Jewish and non-Jewish members in our group. To be honest, I remember it being quite awkward and difficult at first to open up at these bi-weekly meetings, especially since both my husband and I are naturally reserved and somewhat shy. As a group, we would read the discussion prompts provided by the “Ask Big Questions” curriculum, and then try to have an open conversation based on the question prompts. And afterwards in the car, I’d turn to Mark and ask, “Why didn’t you say anything?” To which he’d respond, “Why didn’t YOU say anything?” But very quickly, in part due to the wonderful personalities of the members of our group, it became much easier to speak freely about our personal stories and opinions. And this I feel is really the essence of what these Sh’ma groups encourage us to do – to examine and question our values while sharing our experiences with others. This is a process I might do in my own head or while at Shabbat services – but it’s something I rarely do or share with other people. And there’s incredible value to having a close group of friends and community members to discuss these ideas with.
During this group’s first set of meetings, we closely followed the recommended curriculum and slowly built our group’s foundations. When the curriculum ended, we had the opportunity to continue the Sh’ma group the following cycle. Mark and I, and many of the original group members along with some new members, decided to continue meeting on a monthly basis. This time around, after a few introductory meetings following the curriculum to get everyone acquainted, we felt comfortable enough with each other to just kind of hang out and talk. Most recently we went on a fantastic hike through the Palo Alto hills, where we watched newts swimming in the water and listened to bird calls. I heard stories about backpacking nightmares in Yosemite and encounters with bears, and discovered how we all share a deep love of nature and traveling. We still plan to interleave meetings where we follow the discussion curriculum with meetings where we just get together and talk over a meal or activity.
Mark and I loved our first Sh’ma group experience so much, that we joined another group hosted again by Steve and Olivia, called “Munch and Mitzvah”. The focus of this group was “Tikkun Olam” – or “repair of the world.” For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism is the commitment and almost necessity to perform mitzvot to help better our society and the world. I remember during our first meeting being wildly impressed by the other members of our group, most of whom had decades of experience in social activism or community engagement, whereas as a Millennial, I was just beginning. And while it’s often difficult in our busy lives to overcome the activation barrier required to participate in some of these projects, by having a community of people to do it with, we found it much easier to engage together. As a group we spent a day gardening in East Palo Alto with the Collective Roots community-based food system, and also had the chance to work with Habitat for Humanity in Fremont. With this Sh’ma group, we were really looking for ways to become more active in our community, which the other members of the group taught us during our time together.
Finally I just want to say that my experience with these Sh’ma groups has really helped me to feel closer to Beth Am, which was my main reason for joining these groups. Already Beth Am is an incredibly warm and inviting place. You all may be used to the kindness that emanates from Beth Am, having been long-time members, but for me as a newcomer, it was just so unexpected the first time we attended Shabbat services and the members surrounding us extended their arms around our backs at the end of the service. I was touched even by this simple act, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had this kind of interaction with a complete stranger. So if you can imagine this closeness and kindness now being amplified by interacting one-on-one in a small group, you can see why the Sh’ma groups are so special to me. Many members of both groups attended my conversion ceremony earlier this year at Beth Am, and I know for certain that my experiences with the Sh’ma groups solidified my desire and commitment to be a part of this community. Thank you for your time, and I hope you’ll consider either joining a Sh’ma group, or even just reaching out to an unfamiliar face and starting a conversation.