Written and Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
When I turned twenty, I realized something was missing from my life; an element which had once been so natural to me that I was surprised to realize had drifted away so easily. That element was my Judaism.
I spent half my childhood in Jewish places. I went to Jewish day schools until fourth grade, on campuses connected to temples. I learned conversational Hebrew. I went to Jewish summer camps, both day and sleepaway. As I got older, I had my Bat Mitzvah and visited Israel with my temple’s youth group. Judaism was natural to me, even if my family didn’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night.
But after Rabbi Avi Levine (who led my Bat Mitzvah ceremony) died, and Rabbi Ettman (who eventually replaced him) left after only two years, I stopped going to youth group on Tuesday nights. With both Rabbis I had relationships with gone, attending felt like a time sink, better utilized with AP classes; so I decided against it, and just like that, gone were the Torah and Talmud studies with peers I’d known since childhood. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. High school was rough. It took most of my attention, the social drama and difficult classes, college applications, and then the huge transition of leaving my parents’ home behind.
Moving to Santa Cruz last fall, I had one friend on campus. My parents and brother were eight hours away, and the rest of my family even further. I was a stranger in a strange land, learning how to navigate busses and college classes for the first time. Being adrift was new to me. I’d never felt further from my roots, especially my Jewish ones.
At first I felt guilty. Judaism has been a large part of my life and identity, yet this year, I didn’t even eat an apple on Rosh Hashanah. But I’m realizing that it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, or even a bad Jew. Wandering and exploration are part of us, the people who spent forty years traversing the desert in search of a home.
Turning these thoughts over in my head at the beginning of fall quarter, I impulsively asked a couple friends if they would celebrate Shabbat with me sometime. One asked, “Isn’t that a religious thing?” “Yeah, it’s a Jewish thing,” I replied, “But you don’t have to be Jewish to do it with me…to light some candles and have some challah. I was just thinking, maybe I want to be the kind of person that does Shabbat.”
Saying it out loud reminded me of something my mom had always told me: that I could create my own traditions as an adult, and do Shabbat more often in my home. Even though I’ve been a Jewish adult since I was thirteen, it’s only now that I want to be Jewish, take part in the Jewish community, and light the Shabbat candles on Friday nights.
My period of wandering, without a real place I could claim to understand, and doubting my major life changes, has ultimately helped me call myself a Jewish adult. After all, one of my biggest takeaways from my nights spent in discussions at Temple Sinai’s youth group was that questioning is a core part of Judaism. Having done my fair share of asking if I’m making the right decisions and feeling like an outsider to any – and all – communities here in Santa Cruz, I feel that it’s time for me to accept that not belonging is part of life. And so is the ability to belong again.
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