I sat in the parking lot of the Baptist church. Five minutes until the service would begin, and it was time to go inside. I stared at the huge stucco building; it was much more grand and modern than my Conservative shul, and I was surprised to see so many worshippers on a Tuesday night. I was vaguely uncomfortable about walking in alone. I didn’t know what to expect of the ceremony that I’d be witnessing, and I anticipated feeling uncomfortable in a non-Jewish service. But I was there for a good reason. I was attending a dear friend’s baptism.
I walked in and took a seat in the rear of the sanctuary. It looked like a professional theater, with camera and lighting crews, and a vast stage with large screen TVs flanking the sides. People slowly filled in the hundreds of seats, and I was no longer inconspicuous in the back. I’d rehearsed in my head what I would say if asked why I was there. My sense of not belonging made me sure I’d stand out. Me and my Big Jewish Neuroses. But no one questioned my presence. The people in front of me turned around, introduced themselves, and welcomed me. No one cared why I was there, and I began to relax.
I’d accepted the last-minute baptism invitation because I knew how much it meant to my friend. She is one of my favorite people, with her gentle southern drawl and big heart. I’ve long admired the incredible faith she showed as she met many of her life’s challenges, confident in a master plan that it would all work out for her. I’m not sure that I could have mustered the fortitude and grace she displayed during a several-year health crisis. I knew she had been working to get her nerve up to be baptized for many years, and since she was finally taking the plunge (pun intended), she wanted to share it with her family and friends. I was glad I’d decided to come.
Cue the lights darkening, the dramatic music, and the theatrical entrance of the pastor and choir. I sat back, listening to the beautiful choir voices, and felt the palpable excitement in the room. People were so present and engaged. It was very different than the disconnected feeling I often experience in my own temple, where there is rampant whispering during the service, and limited participation. Why were these worshippers so emotionally invested?
In his booming voice, the pastor addressed the eager congregation. My ears perked up when he reminded them that the origins of their religion dated back to the Jews in the Old Testament. People nodded in affirmation as he credited Jews with founding the ideals and values that they hold dear today. I was impressed with his acknowledgment of Judaism, and suddenly felt less an interloper, and more a part of the group. And what I was about to witness was an amazing insight into a religion that I’d mistakenly assumed was not like my own.
A second pastor appeared in what I took to be a balcony, adjacent to the main stage. Wearing a white robe, he descended a short staircase. When the first baptismal candidate descended the same stairs, I realized they were both standing in a small pool. I was mesmerized as she told the abridged story of her struggles, and how her acceptance of Jesus had changed her life. Stories that other candidates offered were heart-wrenching and difficult to hear. People opened their hearts to share lives defined by abuse, drugs, violence, sickness, and cruelty. I was very touched and sobbed more loudly than I would have liked.
In that moment, we were all just human beings, not divided by race or religion or background. We were sharing the experience of watching people triumph over the most difficult circumstances, and finding something of beauty to help them—their faith.
As each candidate told his or her story and was ceremoniously dunked backwards in the small pool, I thought about how faith can really change a person’s life. It can be the difference between feeling utterly alone, and having a reason to move forward. It occurred to me that this Baptist ceremony was akin to many of our Jewish rituals. The Baptists publicly admitted their sins and were cleansed of their wrongdoing with the baptismal waters. As Jews, we also have ritual cleansing in the form of the
. Each Yom Kippur, we also publicly confess our sins, and purge our guilt as we chant the vidui (confession) prayer. Both the baptism and our Jewish New Year are essentially opportunities to reboot and change undesirable behavioral patterns. Both religions recognize the importance of self-understanding, and making a choice to improve as we move forward. We really aren’t so different after all.
Watching the baptisms, it became apparent to me that the mechanism of performing a religious ritual and surrendering to the process could foster the value and meaning I was missing. Being vulnerable and participating in an act of faith—in any religion—opens the door for hope. I realized that at the end of the solemn day of Yom Kippur, if I committed to taking a deep emotional inventory and making changes, I could potentially become more emotionally engaged in Judaism. I hoped the feeling of disconnection could be replaced by the same lightness and joy I’d witnessed in church.
As my friend stepped into the pool and began her confessional speech, I was filled with pride and admiration for her. I knew what it meant for her to declare her faith publicly and finally complete this ritual. After she was dipped in the small pool, and stood beaming with the water running down her face, mixing with her happy tears, I cheered her accomplishment along with her entire church.
Together as a group, we couldn’t have been happier for her.