At Sixth & I, a Shavuot of Storytelling

At Sixth & I Synagogue, from left: Rabbi Nora Feinstein, Rabbi Aaron Potek, Natalie Thomas, Claire Tinsley, Elizabeth Cutler, Mackenzie Webb, David Brown and Les Stark. Photo by Anna Lippe

Natalie Thomas discovered Judaism as a teenager.

“You can imagine my surprise when, at 15, I had this feeling inside me like a breeze, urging me to explore Judaism. I didn’t even know anyone Jewish at the time, I was never interested in looking for religion or faith or spirituality…..And even though I don’t understand Hebrew and didn’t really know the choreography, something felt right in my soul in the way that I didn’t have the words to explain. I felt belonging and settled. I knew then that I really couldn’t imagine a future without Judaism in which I would be fulfilled.”

Thomas was initially afraid to share her discovery with her mom, who Thomas assumed would be unsupportive. But, as Thomas told an audience at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue’s Sinai Slam: An Alternative Shavuot Experience, her mom is traveling to Washington for her upcoming mikvah, when Thomas officially becomes a member of the tribe. Upon hearing this, the audience broke into cheers.

Held on May 25 and 26, the Alternative Shavuot Experience included cheese and wine tasting; ice cream and cheesecake and teaching with Sixth & I’s rabbis.

Thomas was one of six storytellers, all of them converts to Judaism.

Storyteller Elizabeth Cutler told about her mom being in the hospital and how that coincided with her exploration of Judaism. “My head is spinning at this point with every possible terrible outcome,” she told the audience.

“At at this point, I hardly told anyone that I’m exploring Judaism….That night in the ER, I’m really freaking out. And I’m trying not to because I want to do everything I can to help my family navigate whatever is unfolding here. And one friend who’s Jewish asks if I would like to hear the Jewish prayer for healing, and to my surprise, I immediately say yes.”

Fortunately, her mom was discharged from the hospital that night and went home. And Cutler’s Jewish journey continued.

Les Stark spoke about his infertility challenges and journey to fatherhood.

“It wasn’t just the endless appointments or the cost, which was expensive. It was the years of tears and frustration, anger and uncertainty,” he told the audience. “The hormone therapies, the painful surgeries, all which promised initial opportunities, all resulted in more bad news and renewed sense of despair. And honestly, the worst part of all of it was the time. It was two full years before we confirmed that I’d never be able to have children. Those are two years that should have been spent raising my son or daughter. Those were two years watching friends start families of their own with ease.”

With the help of a donor, Stark and his wife finally became parents. “How appropriate that our Jewish daughter be conceived on Christmas morning,” he said.

And he shared the joy, love and relief in holding his daughter for the first time. “I looked down and I saw my daughter and I knew then what I know now. She is my daughter, that I have no doubt.”

David Brown shared his road to sobriety and how Jewish thought helped him find strength and clarity in his darkest moments.

“Every weekend, if I wasn’t sleeping, I was drinking…I was sick, physically, mentally and spiritually,” he said.

He was getting rehab treatment but could not get over Step 3 of AA: “Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

It was reading a book by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, that clicked with him and helped him get past Step 3 and move forward with recovery:

“I’ve always been a friend of the tribe. I have lit my fair share of Chanukah candles, seder dinners, invited myself over to all sorts of events. I have always appreciated the social justice message. But at that moment, the intellectual integrity, that’s what I was looking for….[Kaplan] said that ‘Capital G’ God is not really an entity but more of a symbol or a stamp for the process of creation, and growth and transition. Well, here I was in a place dedicated to just those things. All of a sudden, all of these light bulbs are going off.”

Attendee Jaden Cloobeck, 23, said he came because he was intrigued by the title “Sinai Slam.” “I enjoy storytelling. I enjoy cheesecake and ice cream.”

Rabbi Nora Feinstein explained the connection between Shavuot and conversion. “It’s in large part because we read the book of Ruth from the Bible.”

Ruth, a Moabite, told her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite:

“Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” ■

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