My life has always been so Jewish that I find it funny that I really am a baalat teshuva. Isn’t that reserved for those dear friends of mine who grew up never setting foot inside a synagogue?
One of my first baby pictures attests to the fact that my family always went to synagogue. My dad, with a satin kippah given to him by my grandfather perched on his head, holding me after my naming ceremony at our synagogue. Granted, the ceremony took place in a Progressive synagogue in South Africa, but still. They took me to have the ceremony.
My dad grew up Methodist, and my mom says that she found the only non-Jewish guy in the room when they met. My dad, a student at the local medical school, proposed to my mom in a letter while he was on a rotation in London, miserable from missing her. My mother’s parents, Orthodox themselves although my mother had become Reform a few years before, were only concerned that he would convert, which he did.
Throughout our time in South Africa, we were active in the Jewish community. I went to a Jewish preschool, and my mom ran the religious school. However, things in South Africa were precarious, and when I was seven years old, my parents made the decision to immigrate to a small town in Canada. The only problem was the total lack of Jewish community. We did the best we could, and managed pretty well. My mom came to my class at school to talk about the Jewish holidays. In fact, she was legendary for bringing matzah with chocolate frosting to school the first year we were there. I have no idea where she got the matzah from, nor the Hebrew books she taught me with for those three years. We made a diorama sukkah, since it was already snowing and freezing by the time Sukkot came around, and we have a videotape of me reading the four questions in preparation for Passover. By the time we left, we had a family that we would always invite to celebrate with us.
After three years in Canada, we moved to a small town in Illinois so that my dad could get his American medical license. At the time, with a Reform synagogue of 60 families, it seemed like a veritable Jewish metropolis. Once we lived there, however, I faced the reality of being one of only two Jewish kids in my school until I graduated high school.
Synagogue was my lifeline. I went to services, taught religious school, had a Bat Mitzvah and was Confirmed. Then, at the beginning of my junior year, I tried out NFTY, and it was like drinking water for the first time in years. Almost all my Jewish friends in high school were through NFTY, and I learned so much about being Jewish. My friends and I wept at the last NFTY event we would attend as participants. Needless to say, my experience with NFTY and my experience with my synagogue pushed me to want to be involved in the on campus Jewish community, but what I found there was nothing like I expected.
Coming on Monday: Why do I feel like a stranger in a strange religion?