Standing on the bimah, the altar in front of the sanctuary, looking at the massive crowd, I felt so alone. In the minutes before my bat mitzvah began, I knew I was supposed to bask in the moment and relish the end of my Jewish childhood. Instead I wondered, Why am I here? What do I believe? These questions hit me just as I began to roll the first “Baruch” off my tongue; I pushed them aside and pulled myself back into the moment. I couldn’t let down all of these people who loved and cared about me.
But the questions wouldn’t go away, and not long afterward, I became a Jatheist (Jewish atheist), a term I created that accurately describes me.
I had come to the realization that, during the past eight years of Hebrew school, my focus had mainly been on the big day of my bat mitzvah: pronouncing the words of the blessings correctly so that I didn’t embarrass myself or my family, and planning a grand celebration that my friends and relatives would talk about. I knew I loved my temple and all of the people in it, and I relished the idea of leading the congregation in prayer, but the truth was, I hadn’t given much thought to what the words meant. It was easier just to accept that this mystical entity called G-d* existed.
Now that I was being honest with myself, life got hard. I knew I no longer believed in G-d, but I also knew I loved my temple and its traditions. So I started to look more deeply into what I fundamentally believed.
Two words stood out: tzedakah (charitable giving) and mitzvot (good deeds). Both involve giving back to the community, and both were things I still felt were essential. I continued going to temple and helping out at my local shelter, but now I went not because an adult told me to, but because I wanted to make a difference.
I also had long talks with my rabbi, who reassured me that Judaism is a religion with tremendous tolerance for a wide range of perspectives. He promised me that even with my Jatheism, I would still be welcome in the Jewish community. If my temple could accept me in spite of my lack of belief in G-d, I knew I could continue to feel at home there.
Though there may not be many practicing Jatheists, I do not feel alone on my journey. Yes, I was 13 when I made this decision, but it did not end there. The morals I was raised with – to be kind and refrain from judging others – did not lose their value when separated from a belief in a supreme being. While Jatheism doesn’t define me, it is a guiding principle of my life.
I won’t ever again accept something that my faith, government, or community calls the “truth” without a hard and honest appraisal. I feel so fortunate to come from a family and faith that not only supports but invites tough questions. No longer am I that confused girl on the bimah. Instead, I am able to find great wisdom in the Torah without feeling duplicitous, a truth to which I feel certain my rabbi would offer a warmly familiar “And let us say, Amen.”
* Some followers of Judaism believe that written forms of the name of the creator cannot be discarded, so “G-d” is used instead.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.