Stories from Our Congregation

What’s in a Name?

I have been on an unexpected and extraordinary Jewish journey the past several years, here at PTS.

Good morning! My name is Heidi Schell. I am honored to serve as First Vice President on the PTS Board.

My Hebrew name is Zahara זהרה , which means “brightness.” I would like to share with you the story of how I became Zahara.

I have been on an unexpected and extraordinary Jewish journey the past several years, here at Peninsula Temple Sholom.

As many of you know, though both my parents were Jewish, I grew up in a very secular household. We didn’t belong to a temple, I didn’t attend religious school, we didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays, I did not have a Hebrew name, and I had no real connection to Judaism. I always felt something was missing and was actively searching for spiritual meaning as an adult.

Fast forward to 2009. My husband, Steve, and I joined PTS when our daughter, Daryn, started preschool. Knowing very little about Judaism, I decided to take an Intro to Judaism class with the hope that I would be able to answer questions my daughter might ask. I confess that I didn’t even know what the Motzi was! While my impetus was to study on Daryn’s behalf, I quickly discovered that Judaism resonated in me, too.

When my father passed away in 2012 and my Mom just last year, I was comforted and my family supported by the remarkable PTS clergy and community. Thanks to the encouragement and guidance of Rabbi Feder, I discovered and was awed by the beauty of our Jewish traditions in mourning and honoring a loved one.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, I was buoyed by the outpouring of prayers and support from this community. My brother, who had become Orthodox, called and asked if I would do him a favor by choosing a Hebrew name for myself. He said “Heidi, it would be more meaningful if I could use your Hebrew name when I recite the Mi Shebeirach prayer for you.” I was beyond touched by his request and agreed without hesitation. Plus, you don’t say “no” to your big brother!

I chose Zahara for two reasons. In facing my breast cancer, I wanted to empower myself by brightening an otherwise scary and difficult journey. “Bright from the Beginning” was my motto. I also chose Zahara because Judaism has been and continues to be such a bright light for me. It has grounded me and allowed me to shine brighter, especially in the face of adversity.

In 2014 I became an adult bat mitzvah and was proudly and humbly called to the Torah as Zahara.

I have been transformed by these experiences. My remarkable husband, Steve, who is not Jewish and is fully supportive of our Jewish family, recognized even before I did that I had found my identity – a fundamental piece of me that had been missing. In addition, my journey sparked curiosity about my own family history. To my great surprise, I discovered a rich Jewish family history including seven (!) successive generations of rabbis, a great-great-great grandfather who founded a temple in Oregon and a great-great grandfather who served as president of his temple in Sacramento for 30 years. (Fortunately, our terms are not as long!)

PTS is where I discovered my Jewish identity, my Jewish community, and where Zahara was born. As stated in its vision, PTS is a place where everyone can find peace, inspiration and their own connection to Judaism. Indeed, I found my connection to Judaism in profound ways I never expected.

I wish you all a sweet, healthy and bright new year.

Shanah tovah.