The Unexpected Path Home

For much of my life, being Jewish was a fancy heirloom I placed on a shelf and glanced at a few times a year. I’d peer at it when Hanukkah came around or when my mother reminded me it was Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover. I’d say, “Oh yeah, what do we do for that one again?” 

I grew up in an interfaith, secular family in a small town in Connecticut where there were very few Jews. When the Jewish holidays came along, we celebrated them as we did with the Catholic holidays on my dad’s side. 

Admittedly, I had no clue what to do with being Jewish, and for a long time, I was fine with this. After college, I had a recurring dream where I was in a house I’d previously lived in, finding rooms and doors I never knew were there. I assumed this meant some type of possibility, opportunity, or new beginning was upon me. If you’d told me back then that the new path would involve embracing Judaism as an active, essential part of my life, the idea would have amused me.

Today things look quite different, and my small town is not so small anymore. My family recently spent Shabbat lunch at the home of the local rabbi, something I would never have imagined when I was growing up. During lunch, my friend, who is also the rebbetzin, talked to my daughter about the weekly parsha (Torah portion). “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” This was the response from Hillel when a non-Jew asked him to teach him the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot. Our lunch conversation evolved into the teaching and action of kindness, and how above all else, this is the most important part of Torah. 

I was called home to Judaism at a time when the world didn’t feel so kind: the COVID-19 pandemic. People I had known for years, acquaintances, and colleagues alike, began comparing masks and vaccinations to the Holocaust, and this completely blindsided me. It awakened a fire within me lying dormant. Quite pregnant with my second child at this point in time, I started down the path of a Baal Teshuvah, someone returning to Judaism. This path has been safeguarded and nourished by acts of loving kindness from rabbis, teachers, friends, and strangers.

Chesed, or loving kindness, pulses through the beating heart of Jewish existence. During Passover, we are reminded to welcome the stranger, as we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. When we count the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot, we explore seven emotional attributes, beginning with Chesed. Throughout the Torah, kindness towards strangers is mentioned more than any other commandment. 

Upon my first few visits to the synagogue, I was nervous. I went alone and knew no one. Yet I was welcomed by strangers whom I’ll never forget, who let me sit with them, showed me around the prayer book, and told me when to stand. To this day, I notice how our synagogue’s former president never misses an opportunity to greet every new person who walks through the door with warmth and kindness. I watch and learn, knowing I must also learn to welcome the stranger in our midst. 

An unexpected place I found inspiration was at my uncle’s funeral. It was there I knew my days of disconnection had undoubtedly come to an end. Suddenly, something I’d never felt strongly about seemed so important, and I couldn’t imagine not having a Jewish burial. I wasn’t close with this uncle; in fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’d seen him in my life, but he was my mom’s brother. This was only the second Jewish burial I’d been to in my life, the first being my grandfather when I was far too young to remember details. 

The Jewish approach to death and mourning calls to me on a visceral level. It is a mitzvah (a sacred obligation, a kindness) to take part in covering the grave, shoveling the dirt — often with the back side of the shovel, to represent that we don’t do it easily. We are taught that the person’s neshama (soul) bears witness to their loved ones escorting them on. What a beautiful moment. 


By this point in time, I had already been a member of a synagogue for about a month, when a friend said to me, “Your mother is Jewish, and if you want to be Jewish, you are. Period.” (Traditionally, Jewishness has been passed down maternally.)

I had long felt like my claim to Judaism had expired as I’d look at it on the shelf year after year. For a few years I’d even tell people, “My mom is Jewish” instead of “I’m Jewish,” because I truly felt that if I didn't do anything or know anything, how could I claim to be Jewish? 

This friend, whether they meant to be kind, direct, or both, reminded me that this was not so — and that Judaism was there for me regardless of how far I’d gone from it.

Whether religious, secular, or somewhere in between, I’ve found that being passively Jewish is not an attainable act, at least not long-term. Judaism calls upon us to be aware of ourselves, other beings, and of course, of G-d. Many Jewish traditions, such as counting the Omer, call upon us to engage in self-improvement and awareness. When we are aware, we are able to cultivate loving kindness. When the world felt not so kind, I found my way back to Judaism. I wouldn’t have been able to stay the course on this path without the kindness of friends and strangers alike. 

So I urge you: never underestimate the power of even a small, seemingly insignificant act of kindness and its ability to create change, and never forget to welcome the stranger.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Loving the Stranger, My Jewish Learning

On One Foot,

Filling the Grave, My Jewish Learning

Who Is a Jew: Matrilineal Descent, My Jewish Learning

The Unexpected Path Home
Phoenix Matosian
Phoenix Matosian

Phoenix owns a yoga, pilates, and barre studio in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is currently in graduate school for Jewish Professional Studies at Gratz College.

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