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She found meaning where she least expected it — her childhood faith

Sarah Hurwitz grew up in what she would describe as a culturally Jewish home. But it wasn't until she reached her 30s that she really connected with the spiritual identity she was raised with.
Sarah Hurwitz
Sarah Hurwitz grew up in what she would describe as a culturally Jewish home. But it wasn't until she reached her 30s that she really connected with the spiritual identity she was raised with.

I was set up on a friend date recently with a woman named Sarah Hurwitz. Mutual friends had been telling me about Sarah for years. She was one of the few women to serve as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama in the West Wing before she transitioned to lead speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama. So she's this accomplished person with some good anecdotes for a dinner party, for sure. But people kept saying we should meet because she's interested in all the spiritual stuff that I'm leaning into these days.

So we met at a Lebanese restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., and proceeded to talk about the meaning of life over stuffed grape leaves, hummus and way too many other side dishes.

Hurwitz grew up in what she would describe as a culturally Jewish home. Her parents weren't religious, but they sent her to Hebrew school because that's sort of what was expected. And they genuinely wanted her to understand her heritage and to feel part of a Jewish community. But it didn't really take, and by the time she was 13 and had gone through the rituals of her bat mitzvah, she was like, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Religion wasn't for her, and if she was going to get spiritual nourishment, it would have to come from somewhere else. But that somewhere else never materialized.

Then, in her 30s, after reaching the pinnacle of her career writing for the president of the United States, Hurwitz was craving a deeper sense of meaning in her own life, and she found it right back where she started.

I wanted to understand what that spiritual circle was like, because I'm doing my own searching right now. And I too was raised in a religious tradition: Protestant Christian. Presbyterian, to be exact.

There are elements of that faith and those rituals that still move me. But it doesn't feel like it represents the whole of what I want my spiritual identity to be.

The older I've gotten, the more I feel like I've grown out of that religious tradition. And here's Hurwitz — after decades of her own questioning — realizing that she had grown into the spiritual identity she was raised with.

Part of me is envious of that. It must feel like a homecoming in some way. But I also wanted to understand whether it felt limiting — as going home sometimes does.

So that's what we talked about: what it's like to get back on the same spiritual path you were born onto — and go all in.

Hurwitz tells her story in a book called Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

One of the many things that's great about Hurwitz is that she doesn't make her discovery of Judaism into some big epiphany.

Hurwitz and Michelle Obama.
Chuck Kennedy / White House
/
White House
Hurwitz and Michelle Obama.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Hurwitz: What happened was at the age of 36, I broke up with a guy I was dating and I was kind of lonely and anxious. I happened to hear about an intro to Judaism class being offered at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and I thought, "Oh, that will fill a Wednesday night." I swear it could have been ceramics or it could have been karate. It was just a total fluke.

What blew me away was studying the text in class. Texts about Jewish ethics, about life cycle rituals and holidays and spirituality. I thought, "Where has this been all my life?" This is 4,000 years of crowdsourced wisdom from millions of my ancestors about what it means to be human, about how to be a good person, about how to live a worthy life.

Rachel Martin: You eventually signed up for a silent retreat, right?

Hurwitz: Yeah, I found this Jewish meditation retreat online called Awake. I was very hesitant, and I remember talking to a retreat manager and really grilling her. I was like, "How weird is this? Is it really weird?" She kind of talked me down, and I swallowed my skepticism and it turned out to be quite amazing.

Martin: And as part of this experience, they introduce you to the practice of hitbodedut. Explain what that is.

Hurwitz: Hitbodedut is a Jewish practice that was developed by an 18th-century rabbi named Rebbe Nachman. The idea is that you go out into nature, somewhere where no one can hear you, and you speak out loud to the divine without stopping. It has to be out loud, not in your head, and you don't stop. If you run out of things to say, you say, "I've run out of things to say. Nothing to say." You just keep talking.

Martin: For how long?

Hurwitz: On that retreat, we did it for maybe half an hour.

Martin: That's a long time. Especially if you don't believe anything is out there.

Hurwitz: Totally. I mean, I thought this was so stupid. You know, I troop out into the woods and I'm like, "Hi, God, you don't exist, and I don't believe in you. What am I doing? This is stupid."

Martin: This is what you said?

Hurwitz: Yeah, I was like, "The nature is nice. You did good work." I was kind of being a jerk, and I found myself getting really agitated and upset and getting more and more emotional. And I was like, "I don't know." That's all I could say: "I don't know. I don't know." I was saying that over and over again until I said, "I don't know, but I can't do this alone."

It was a moment of openness, of some surrender. I was so astounded that I started to cry and I thought, "I don't know what that was about."

It makes me almost hesitant to share because it will imply to some people that I finally realized I need to depend on God for things and realize that God is in control, that there is someone in charge and they're planning out everything and I just have to accept it. I don't buy that. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now.

Martin: I was interested in what you said to the rabbi when you got back from that first experience in the woods. Tell me what he said to you.

Hurwitz: I said, "This is absurd. I don't believe in a god. What am I doing?" And he said, "Sarah, have you ever been to a Black church?" I don't think he knew I had worked in Democratic politics for years, so I'm like, "Of course. I've been to many of them." And he said, "What do you think they're doing there?" And I said, "They're talking to God." He said, "Do you think that's absurd or ridiculous?" And I said, "No. I think it's beautiful. I love visiting churches where people are so into it and doing something very deep." He said, "Why is what you were doing any different than that?"

I thought that was so interesting, that I can be so moved and impressed by other people doing this, but somehow I've internalized this idea that there's something foreign about it. And there's not. This is native to my tradition as well.

Martin: So what changed for you after that experience in the woods?

Hurwitz: It opened me up to something. It wasn't, "Oh, there's a man in the sky taking care of everything." Nope. But it opened me up to a sense of something more that I cannot in any way accurately describe but that gives me a sense that everyone around me is part of it. The idea of a spark of the divine in each of us. I absolutely believe that. It gave me a greater sense of purpose in my own existence. It gave me a greater sense that those around me were part of this sacredness and this holiness. I rarely feel it intensely. I'll have fleeting moments here and there, but it's a sense that there's something that's always there, even if you can't feel it.

Martin: So you weren't actually looking for these big emotionally transcendent experiences. What you really wanted was specific guidance on how to live a good and moral life, and you found that in the Talmud and the Torah and other Jewish texts.

Hurwitz: It's funny — Hebrew school is for children, right? This is the problem: A lot of times in the Jewish community, we stop learning when we're 13, and that's just when you're ready to start learning. Judaism is a very deep, sophisticated, countercultural tradition.

I'll give you an example. There's a lot of Jewish thinking around how we use our speech around things like gossip and shaming people. Let's just say you and I are colleagues and we get into a fight at work. I'm so mad at you, and I go and tell a bunch of people, "Rachel is the worst. I don't think she's ethical. She doesn't work hard." I'm trashing you because I'm so mad, and I feel better because I got it off my chest. And then let's say the next day we come in, and I realize it was a misunderstanding and you had something going on in your personal life, and we make up and apologize. Well, those people I trashed you to may have gone and told another bunch of people how terrible you are. Maybe a month from now you apply to a job at a company where one of those people work and they say, "I've heard bad things about her. Let's hold back on that." I've put those words out into the world, and I can't take it back.

Martin: This feels not theoretical.

Hurwitz: It's a daily occurrence. I've done it countless times. And there are Jewish ethical stories about that exact scenario that lay out the harm you can do. Fluffy sentiments like "be kind" are beautiful, but they're useless in the everyday world unless you act on them very concretely and specifically with the person before you.

Martin: That was something that you wrote. That Judaism isn't about the spiritual highs — it's about the super-mundane details of how you walk through the world every single day.

Hurwitz: This is the thing that people don't understand. Judaism is one big mindfulness practice. It is a constant practice of being present with what's around you. So every time an observant Jew will say a blessing over food, though, it's like you're stopping and you're actually appreciating the miracle of the fact that you have food, which many people in this world do not. Same with saying a blessing after going to the bathroom — you appreciate the miracle of your body working.

And, you know, these ethical laws really push us to notice the person in front of us and ask, "What are you going through? What's going on?"

It is a constant mindfulness practice that is calling you to be present with what's happening and to respond lovingly and kindly and with generosity.

Martin: So did it feel natural to be a so-called newcomer in your own faith, because part of the tradition is to ask these questions anyway?

Hurwitz: I think what I felt was kind of bereft. Unfortunately for a lot of American Jews like me, Judaism has become three holidays, and this was the first time I was exposed to the other 99.99% of Judaism, and I thought, "Where has this been all my life?" I had no idea. I've learned so much from other spiritual traditions that I felt the need to show people what Judaism has to offer the moral conversation of our planet.

Martin: So to that point, you acknowledge that you've learned a lot from other spiritual traditions, but you don't like the idea of a spiritual buffet so to speak. And of course this resonates with me, because as someone who was raised in the Protestant church tradition that doesn't fit with me anymore, I'm eating at the spiritual buffet, Sarah. Like a little Buddhist meditation over here, a side of Catholic guilt over there, some Jewish mysticism. So talk about what you don't love about that idea.

Hurwitz: So first of all, as an exercise and exploration to find a tradition, I actually think what you're doing is a great means to an end. To explore what's out there and get a sense of what the options are. But I think what makes me nervous about the spiritual buffet is that what you're saying is, "I'm going to take this thing from Buddhism that's so me and this thing from Judaism that's so me and this from Catholicism."

Martin: One-hundred percent. That's what I'm doing.

Hurwitz: This is what so many of us do, and at the end of the day you're reinforcing yourself. You're kind of deifying yourself.

Martin: Wow.

Hurwitz: You're saying, "What reinforces my preexisting beliefs?" This is how we consume social media, right? But it's not the purpose of these great spiritual traditions. The purpose is to learn that you are infinitely worthy and also you sometimes do things that are unkind or that are cruel or insensitive or impatient and you need to be lovingly and gently invited to do better.

Martin: So you think you don't get that accountability mechanism if you self-select into parts of the faith?

Hurwitz: Exactly. You're picking and choosing the parts that move you and make you feel good. The purpose is to challenge yourself and push yourself to see where you're falling short, lovingly and kindly. I think that's important. I think a tradition that's based on shame or harshness is not helpful in any way — please do avoid that — but other traditions say, "You've missed the mark, and here's how you can do better." These very old vetted traditions, if you step into them as a complete system, they're going to give that to you. You may not like it, but they're going to give it to you.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.