Kelly Rutta

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 9:56am -- Member Spotlight

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Kelly Rutta

On Shavuot, we invite people who have converted to Judaism to share their story -- how they came to Judaism, why it touched them, how they celebrate being Jewish.

Good morning. When invited to speak today, I started about five different documents on my computer with various tangents discussing different aspects of my journey here today. I had so many thoughts and ways to tell this story, but only having an hour to talk (just kidding), I wanted to get to the core of what I believe, so will be starting with what I know, one of my favorite quotes:

Maya Angelou wrote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I was in love with Judaism well before I even knew it. There were always bits and pieces of it within me floating around my universe, comforting me, challenging me, and urging me to explore.

I grew up the middle child of two Naval pilots in the outskirts of Washington DC…well, grew up in the sense that that’s where we ended up. We traveled every few years or so across the United States, wherever my parents were stationed. Moving from place to place caused me to slip comfortably into my introverted state (needing the right amount of quiet, reflection, and nature) until I was with my people – my siblings. No matter where we moved, we always had each other. My older brother was the leader of the pack, my older sister was perfection, and my young brother and I were the rascals who couldn’t wait to get out of the stuffiness of the suburbs and onto our Dreams – we didn’t know exactly what that meant, but knew we’d feel it once we got there. We packed our cars and drove across country to Los Angeles to pursue careers in Film Production together – he was to be a Cinematographer and I to be a film producer. We called ourselves Dubs & Hugs Forever, we were a team.

Four years later, in 2014, there was a definitive before and after of my “self.” – an out of body paradigm-shift so crucial to who I am today. That year, my brother died unexpectedly and I fell in love with a boy. I hate to (but have to) say that in the same sentence because, that’s the truth, and…that’s what life is. Through the looking glass of Judaism, and with the useful tool of hindsight, slamming into this paradox of extreme despair and love changed me forever. The bits of my life that were ready to see Judaism woke up.

Whatever he was before…to me, this new boy was calm and kind. He was very giving and made everyone feel at ease. He gave me the most encouraging “you’ve got this” smile when we didn’t really know each other. And by the time we did, he’d hold me tightly for as long as I wanted whenever I was grieving. Whenever I am grieving. I thought this might have just been falling in love with a person, but when his entire community mirrored this sense of support and care at every turn, I had an inkling there might be something more here.

Over the course of the next five years, his family (in all their restraint) gave this non-Jewish girl the greatest gift possible – time. They let me ease in to as much of the Jewish religion and culture as I wanted. They answered my questions, ate my undercooked apple / honey bundt cake, and never failed to escort me to Temple and explain that the third guy from the left was the doctor that helped them out a few years back and that we should say hello. To his parents, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, I’ll always be grateful. They knew all the bits of Hebrew, all the appropriate acts in service, all the religious innuendos. I…did not, I liked what I saw, but had a million questions.

This boy and I enrolled in the Introduction to Judaism class together at the American Jewish University. I have to say, it was an amazing experience. Discussing theology, tradition, and Torah, a certain feeling washed over me. Having a week in between each class allowed us time to digest and discuss the subject-matter of things like Jewish Diversity, the essence of God, and Kashrut: The Original Soul Food. The program hit major concepts of Judaism with such nuance - It taught objective history, the different practices of today, and implications for the future. It expanded my mind with thoughts of a universe that is much bigger than all of us, and encouraged me to turn inward to contemplate how I can cultivate the best version of myself within this world. Although there are many different ways to achieve this realization, for me, nothing in my life had been as impactful as studying Torah, experiencing tradition, and applying its lessons in everyday life. Nothing before had made me really think, had encouraged me to really live. The emphasis on self-care and peace in the mind, and the significance of the home as the cornerstone of our lives really resonated with me. The long and struggling history of the Jewish people with never-ending hope filled me with purpose. The epiphany that giving to people will selfishly be a thousand times more rewarding than anything else was refreshing, but seeing this lesson in action year-after-year within this community blew my mind. I liked that Judaism felt alive. It constantly questioned its texts, its people, itself. It aimed to clarify and make sense, it aimed to grow.

On the holiday that celebrates the receiving of the Torah and the Jewish people’s covenant with God, now would be a good time to mix in a relevant quote from the Torah, and even better say it in Hebrew! But to be honest…I don’t know of any offhand, I’m still new! I hope to one day be able to do that, but today I’ll just keep going to fill the last half hour of my time. ;)

I had planned to do a year of immersive experience and study, resulting in a mikveh and conversion to Judaism. But as I walked up to the Beit Din, my mind raced – with all of my lofty thoughts on Judaism, I still hadn’t gotten to reading that one book I wanted, I’m not fluent in Hebrew, and everyone is going to discover I’m a fraud. It took great effort to pause the world for one minute and think – Judaism takes all the haphazard pieces of me and brings them together in a wholistic, academic, community-minded, relationship-building, self-soothing kind of way. It was something I never knew about growing up, but is a part of me more than many things I’ve ever known. Well it is me, it has always been me, waiting for the right partner, family, and community to help me find myself. It wasn’t until the end of my discussion with the rabbis that something clicked and my apprehension subsided – I now understood this was only the beginning! The best part of it all is that is it an ever-present, ever-expanding experience to be Jewish, and I couldn’t wait to get started. A few months after bawling in a bathtub and singing the Shema, I took the hands of that boy and (committing to living our best version of a good Jewish life), I married him REAL GOOD.

In celebrating Judaism, we love Shabbat. We like to go out in nature, reflecting and taking stock of our lives, and setting goals for the next week to be even better than the last. We (I might get kicked out) use technology to FaceTime the lighting of Shabbat candles if we’re apart, or watch Rabbi Feinstein’s weekly Torah study when we’re out of town or slept in on accident. We love hosting Shabbat dinner for our friends of various backgrounds – they often arrive without previous knowledge of its meaning, but leave having gained respect and admiration for our traditions, and let’s face it, they have a lot of fun. We sit Shiva with loved ones, and eat all the maror on Passover, and we come home to an apartment that is welcome by the mezuzah that was placed in a ceremony witnessed by both of our families.

This past Sunday, we went to the movies, and was reminded of the impact a good one can have on the world. Working at the Walt Disney Studios in Live Action Feature Film Production, my team produces the producers on various films, guiding, advising, and problem-solving from the glimmer of an idea to physical production and onto its release in theaters. There are thousands of details that are determined for every scene, every prop, every person on the film, and I absolutely love it. After exhaustingly working for several years on a film, it is with great hope that we can make the audience feel something that supersedes all of the logistics, we hope to create…a bit of magic. The sort of magic that makes you believe in the good in the world, and in yourself. The sort of reverence that emerges when you relive Passover together, the sort of power when you question the text and meaning of the Torah in today’s world, when you support one another by sitting Shiva. The joy you feel when exchanging pieces of paper with 8 different ways that you love each other in place of Hanukkah gifts. The catharsis in remembering loved ones on their yahrzeit and certain holidays. When you lose someone, you don’t just think of them on their birthday or the day they passed, so why does society limit their support of your grief to just that? Judaism encourages the mourning and celebration of their life on several days throughout the year. How special is that? Nothing short of magical, in my opinion. And by living a Jewish life, for the first time, the magic came to me

Trying to articulate this took pages and pages of cluttered thoughts until I became ok with the ineloquent definition of what Judaism means to me. But, I have the rest of my life to continue working on figuring it out. With all of my recent revelations, am I now the perfect person? No way! I work on it every day, with most days leaving me to trying to be better. But I’m awake now, and I think that awareness is something to celebrate in each and every one of us.

Thinking on Ms. Angelou’s theory - I don’t know all the songs written in the prayer books, I don’t remember all of the actions you’re supposed to do in Temple, but I do know how Judaism makes me feel…and for that I am eternally grateful and eternally growing. Thank you, and Chag Sameach.