Jessica’s Story II: Stranger in a Strange Religion

It was the strangest feeling in the world to arrive at Hillel for a Friday night service and feel as though I had dropped into Wonderland. It wasn’t just the feeling of things being strange, but the knowledge that this was Judaism and I had very little idea what was going on. It started innocently enough – the Reform services at Hillel were really enjoyable, and very similar to the NFTY services I had participated in, which was a great point of connection. The problem? Everything else.

Shabbat dinner was an experience. Signing in without writing (they used index cards), singing Shalom Aleichem (which I had only ever sung at services), hand washing (huh?!), and lots and lots of people running around in kippot and tzitziot. I was so intimidated and confused, and yet there were glimmers of hope from a few people that I met. Still, I didn’t start to get involved until almost the end of the semester, when I randomly showed up at a meeting for something at Hillel that sounded interesting. That was the beginning of my involvement in Hillel, which built and built until it culminated my junior year when I became co-president of Hillel. During those two and a half years, I had had a crash course in Jewish religious pluralism. I learned about hand washing, kashrut, being shomer negiah, how to chant Torah, the differences between Reform and Conservative services, and more than I ever hoped to know about what made Hillel tick. My practice hadn’t changed much though. I ate a lot of kosher food, since I was often at Hillel for dinner, but just as often I would run across to the Panera for lunch. At some point, I started hand washing before Friday night dinner, and gradually began increasing my observances.

I was moving towards increased practice, but I’m not sure what exactly would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for R. We started dating late in my junior year, and my friends were worried. He was modern Orthodox, and at that point, I hadn’t even really stopped identifying as Reform. We didn’t think we were serious at the beginning, so it wasn’t of much concern. Soon though, as we became more serious, we began to discuss our religious attitudes and ideas. I was learning about the basics of halacha and living a Modern Orthodox life, and he was learning about what it felt like to be a woman in Judaism.

By the middle of my senior year, we started talking about marriage and all that would entail given our differing levels of observance. We got engaged a few weeks after I graduated from college, and spent the year we were engaged at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. It was that year in Jerusalem that helped us grow together in practice as a couple. We still have our differences of observance, but we make it work. And I still remember what it feels like to feel like a stranger in a strange religion – even when that religion was my own.

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