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A breakup led this former White House speechwriter to rediscover her Jewish faith

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're going to hand things right off now to our colleague Rachel Martin for another conversation from her series about building a life of meaning. It's called Enlighten Me.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Sarah 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.

SARAH HURWITZ: By the time I became a bat mitzvah, I was like, you know, thank you. It's been great, but there's really nothing to see here, right? That was my feeling at age 13. It's like I did what I needed to do, and then it was - I was ready. And if I wanted to find meaning or spirituality, I figured I'd just have to look elsewhere.

MARTIN: But elsewhere never materialized. In her 30s, Sarah was at the pinnacle of her career as a political speechwriter, working in the White House, writing for President Barack Obama. Despite all that, she was craving a deeper sense of meaning in her own life, and she found it right back where she started. She told her story in a book. It's called "Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, And A Deeper Connection To Life - In Judaism (After Finally Choosing To Look There)." Yes, it's a long title. Even she knows that. And one of the many things that's great about Sarah Hurwitz is that she doesn't make her discovery of Judaism into some big epiphany.

HURWITZ: What actually happened is at the age of 36, I broke up with a guy I was dating. I was just 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, like, oh, that'll fill a Wednesday night.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HURWITZ: I swear. It could have been ceramics. It could have been karate. I literally thought, that will fill a Wednesday night.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HURWITZ: And I thought, well, I'm a cultural Jew. I guess I should know something about my culture. And, you know, what blew me away was studying the texts that we were studying in that class - texts about Jewish ethics, about life cycle rituals and holidays and spirituality. And 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, how to live a worthy life.

MARTIN: She started to dabble - a few classes here and there when she could fit it in - she was still working at the White House - conversations with some rabbis, a lot of books. And then she started looking around online for what she thought was maybe the next step for her in this exploration.

HURWITZ: I happened to search meditation retreat, and I found this Jewish meditation retreat online entitled Awakening the Divine, which struck me as such a ridiculous title. I was like, I cannot tell my White House colleagues, like, oh, I'm going to a retreat called - I mean, I sort of, you know, swallowed my skepticism and signed up. And it turned out to be quite amazing.

MARTIN: So you decide that you're going to do this, and as part of this experience, they introduce you to the practice of hitbodedut.

HURWITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Explain what that is.

HURWITZ: So 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. So has to be out loud - not in your head.

MARTIN: For how long?

HURWITZ: I think we did it for maybe half an hour.

MARTIN: That's a long time.

HURWITZ: Yeah. I mean, I thought this was so stupid. I couldn't - you know, I troop out to the woods, and I'm like, hi, God. You don't exist. I don't believe in you. There's no you. What am I doing? This is stupid.

MARTIN: That is what you said...

HURWITZ: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...As part of your - yeah.

HURWITZ: I was like, the nature is nice. You do good work. I mean, I was just kind of being a jerk.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HURWITZ: I was like - I don't know - just snide. And I just got, like, more and more frustrated. I was like, this is stupid. Why am I here? I found myself getting really agitated and upset and just getting more and more emotional, and I was like, I don't know. That's all I could say. I was like, I don't know. I don't know. And I just was saying that over and over again until I just said, like, I don't know, but I just - like, I can't do this alone. And I was so astounded. And I started to cry, and I just thought, like, I don't know what that was about. It makes me almost hesitant because it will imply, I think, to some people - it's like, finally she realized she needed to depend on God for things and ask God for things and realize that God is in control of things and is - you know...

MARTIN: Jesus, take the wheel.

HURWITZ: Right. And that is...

MARTIN: Or not Jesus for you, but yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HURWITZ: But that's the idea. But that's exactly the idea - right? - that there is someone in charge, and they're planning everything out, and I just have to accept it. And I don't buy that. I didn't then. I don't now.

MARTIN: I was interested in what you said to the rabbi when you got back from that first experience in the woods. You told him, like, that didn't feel good. I don't know what I'm doing. It still feels ridiculous to talk out loud to some God...

HURWITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Thing.

HURWITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell me what he said.

HURWITZ: He just said, Sarah, have you ever been to a Black church? And I don't think he knew I had I worked in Democratic politics for years, so I was taken aback. And I felt - I said, yes. I've actually been to many of them. And he said, what do you think they're doing there? I was like, well, I mean, they're talking to God, right? And he said, do you think that's absurd or ridiculous? I was like, no. I think it's beautiful. And he said, so why is what you were doing any different than that? And I thought, that's so interesting that I can be so moved and impressed by other people doing this, but somehow, I've so internalized this idea that there's something foreign about it. And there's not, right? This is native to my tradition as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You acknowledge that you've learned a lot from other spiritual traditions, but you don't love 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 as, like, God-fearing Presbyterians, and that doesn't fit with me anymore. And so I'm, like, eating at the spiritual buffet, Sarah. I'm like, a little Buddhist meditation over here, a little side of Catholic guilt over here...

HURWITZ: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Some Jewish mysticism. So talk to me about what you do not love about that idea.

HURWITZ: Ultimately, what makes me a little bit nervous about the spiritual buffet is what you're kind of doing is you're like, oh, I'm going to take this thing from Buddhism that's so me and this thing from Judaism that's so me and this thing from Catholicism. It's just so me.

MARTIN: A hundred percent. That's what I'm doing.

HURWITZ: No, and this is - and right. This is what so many of us do. And at the end of the day, you're kind of just reinforcing you. You are kind of - you're deifying yourself, right? Like, you're kind of saying, like, OK, what, you know - it's like, what reinforces my preexisting beliefs...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HURWITZ: ...Which is how we consume social media, right? It's like, I want to follow the people who I like and who tell me how great I am, but that's not really the purpose of these great spiritual traditions. The purpose is actually to say, you know what? You are infinitely worthy. You are amazing. And also, like, you sometimes do things that are actually unkind or that are cruel or that are insensitive or impatient. And we're going to actually gently and lovingly show that to you and invite you to do better.

MARTIN: So you think you don't get that accountability mechanism.

HURWITZ: You don't.

MARTIN: You think that you don't self-select into those parts of the faith...

HURWITZ: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: ...When you're at the spiritual buffet.

HURWITZ: You know, you're picking and choosing the parts that move you - right? - that are - that make you feel good. And that's not the only purpose of these spiritual traditions. The purpose is actually to challenge you, to push you, to kind of help you see where you're falling short a little bit. And look. We don't like to hear that. We don't. You know, we just don't. And I think any of these, you know, very old, vetted traditions - I think any of them - if you kind of step into them as a complete system, they're going to give that to you. You may not like it, but they are going to give it to you.

MARTIN: Yeah. The book is called - it's long, Sarah.

HURWITZ: Rookie mistake.

MARTIN: The book is called "Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, And A Deeper Connection To Life - In Judaism (After Finally Choosing To Look There)." It was such a pleasure to talk with you.

HURWITZ: Such a pleasure.

MARTIN: Thank you.

HURWITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.