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Reflections on a Jewish Encounter

Seeing first-hand how Jews have kept their traditions and communities over millennia, even while enduring persecution, impressed me deeply.
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January 24, 2024
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I was born in Nicaragua, where I lived what may be considered a normal life within the Catholic faith. On one side was my mother, very devout, and on the other side, an agnostic father. Religion and spirituality were a big part of my childhood and early adolescence. Looking back, as my mother became even more dedicated to a spiritual life, my sense of something bigger than myself was always present. But that feeling lay dormant for many years, as I pretended not to care about it. 

Life happened. I left my country for the United States at the age of 16. When I was 49 I came upon a book on mindfulness. That led to an interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. Later I discovered that many practicing America Buddhists were also Jewish, which led me to want to know more about the Jewish religion and its approach to the spiritual life.

In this pursuit, I read the book “Introduction to Judaism” by Dr. Shai Cherry. This book showed me that, while Judaism allows for serious discussions and disagreements, its traditions over millennia have kept the Jewish people united. At the time, I shared my curiosity about Judaism with my colleague and friend, Joel Stern, to find out more, and asked if it was acceptable to go to a synagogue and learn more.

Then, Oct. 7th happened. Both my wife and I felt this as an attack on humanity. Our hearts went out to the victims and their families, and against the perpetrators of this horrendous act. An attack on innocent people is just an evil act, period. This sentiment, I hoped, would be shared by the rest of the world, as no violent act toward innocent people should ever be tolerated.

Over time, blind and ignorant people started to turn the blame against the Jewish people. Soon after, I started to notice synagogues and Jewish schools increasing their security. Saying good morning to my Jewish neighbors was strained, until smiles were exchanged. Why should my neighbors have to be concerned about a guy walking his dog? Why should any Jewish man or woman feel that they must be careful when meeting someone on the street?

After Oct. 7th, I wanted to feel what Jewish people were feeling, and at the same time, and more importantly, to show my Jewish friends and neighbors that they were not alone.

I felt that I needed to do something personally to show my support for the Jewish people. It was at this time that my desire to attend a Jewish service became more than religious research or curiosity. I wanted to feel what Jewish people were feeling, and at the same time, and more importantly, to show my Jewish friends and neighbors that they were not alone. So, as an act of support and respect, I asked Joel if he would accompany me to a Jewish service. I knew that this experience would be special yet anxiety provoking, as I didn’t know what to expect. 

I prepared as best I could for that day. I went to sleep early Friday night and woke up early Saturday morning. I went through some Buddhist mantras, as well as recited the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, I arrived at 9:30 AM at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue near my home in Valley Village. Joel had told security to expect me, which should not have been a precaution necessary to enter any place, but especially a house of worship. His warm welcome was my first experience. He found a kippah for me, then began introducing me — first to Rabbi Schuldenfrei, who greeted me kindly, then to many others whom he knew there. Throughout the service Joel was always present, carefully explaining what was happening at every point with love and pride for the Jewish tradition.

Here are some reflections on my experience:

• I respect any tradition that does not require me to go against any other group. At this service I heard only messages of hope, with no hatred toward anyone. 

• I heard different interpretations of the Torah being expressed, and was surprised at the wide spectrum of acceptable opinion. I was amazed by the bat mitzvah girl’s intellectual discourse on the weekly Torah reading.

• Seeing first-hand how Jews have kept their traditions and communities over millennia, even while enduring persecution, impressed me deeply. 

• I was moved at the sight of men swaying back and forth, absorbed in prayer. I asked Joel if they were rabbis, and he told me that Jews don’t need to be rabbis in order to enter a prayerful space.

• The Hebrew prayers sounded so powerful to me that I stopped following in English and just listened to the Hebrew.

• A special feeling of faith started to overwhelm me. More than a feeling, it was a conviction that God was present, the God as portrayed in the Old Testament that my mother had talked so much about.

• I was moved when meeting the retired rabbi, Moshe Rothblum, from whose gaze I felt peace, acceptance and love.

• As the Torah was marched around, I joined others in showing love and respect by touching it and kissing my hand.

This was a life-changing experience. I was so overwhelmed that my heart did not fit within my chest. The rest of the day was full of peace in a way that I have not felt in years. 

After many years of not attending church, I’ve decided to start going again. At the end of a recent service the priest condemned college leaders for not standing clearly against hatred. Upon hearing that, the entire congregation applauded. This confirmed my conviction that most people feel as I do, and that their voices should not be drowned out by the noise of a few.

I invite anyone with a desire for peace to reach out to a local synagogue. I hope they will discover the power of community, spirituality and tradition, as I did.


Ricardo Moncada is a software engineer from Nicaragua who lives in Valley Village.

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