Columns, Opinion

GANS: Fish Down Under finds community through religion

My relationship with religion is a strange one. I go through phases when, like most millennials, religion takes a backseat in my life, and traditional religious observance is nothing more than a mere childhood memory.

But I also go through phases — often when I find myself away from home on a Jewish holiday — when I realize that Judaism is a huge part of my identity, even on the days that I don’t recognize it.

I am a Jew, and that statement alone makes me happy and proud of my heritage.

For most of my life, Judaism wasn’t a choice. In fact, for most people, religion isn’t. My parents sent me to Hebrew school, helped me prepare for my bat mitzvah, pushed me to continue through the 10th grade confirmation class and ensured I had the opportunity to travel to Israel in that final year.

Despite my occasional resistance, my parents and my Hebrew school teachers each inspired me to pursue Judaism beyond the classroom. Then, somewhere between the Passover cereal and the Hanukkah menorah, I began to choose Judaism as a lifestyle for myself.

I joined a Jewish youth group in high school called B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and through it, I met Jewish teenagers from across the globe and made best friends. One of whom is Natalie, my college roommate who I’ve written about in past columns. BBYO teaches teens how to find their own connection to Judaism, whether it is through religious observance, crafts or performance or just gaining a sense of community.

Personally, it helped me see beyond the prayers and food restrictions that commonly identify Judaism. It helped me understand that once you’ve finished your Hebrew school education and move to a college campus, religion becomes an option. Your parents won’t be there to forge out the path they want for you anymore. You either forge your own path, finding your own connection to religion, or you turn your back on the tradition of your childhood.

Nowadays, many millennials choose the latter. And I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve been perfect at following the former.

But I’ve tried. And I’d like to think that effort has brought me to where I am today.

I joined Boston University Hillel in my freshman year of college, first working on their Freshman Council and then moving up to their Student Board. Right away, I attended Shabbat services, celebrated holidays at Hillel and surrounded myself by a group of Jewish friends. I created a Jewish community for myself, and I found a path that worked for me. Even if weeks went by without my active participation, I always knew my community would be there when I returned. That’s the beauty of Judaism, and BU Hillel, in particular: Everyone observes the religion differently, and no one holds that difference against you.

For some reason, when I decided to study abroad, the concept of losing my religious community never occurred to me.

My dad sent me information about the Great Synagogue in Sydney before I even arrived, and I figured that once I was here, I’d get involved.

But the weeks went by, and I never did. I never went to a Shabbat service. I never looked for Jewish friends. I barely even kept in touch with my Jewish community in Boston.

My location had changed, and as a result, my Jewish involvement dwindled.

Then, one Wednesday night, I was lying in bed, fully prepared to have a lazy night home, when my friend Jess Facebook messaged me about a Purim party he had been invited to. He wanted me to join him.

My sweatpants and Netflix screamed for me to stay home. It had been a long day, and I had to get up early, and I had a slight headache, and … I ran out of excuses. This was the opportunity I had been looking for.

Ten minutes later, I was out the door.

The party was at the home of a local Orthodox rabbi, and it was exactly what I needed. For the first time since arriving in Australia, I was surrounded by people who not only understood my religion, but understood the community that I had been missing.

Surrounded by strangers, I felt more at home than I had felt in a long, long time. By the time I left that night, I had two invites for Passover Seders and an offer to go food shopping at the best supermarket for Passover food. Lying in bed that night, it hit me — I found my community.

I returned to the rabbi’s house for the first night of Passover on Friday. The room was, once again, filled with strangers of all ages, each one more excited than the next to be celebrating the holiday with as large a community as possible. We were packed tightly into the rabbi’s living room, five tables squished together, and there were lots of kids crawling between the chairs.

The Orthodox Australian Passover Seder, though entirely foreign to me, was comforting. Many prayers had the same tunes I grew up with, and the Passover story was, of course, identical. Spending Passover at the rabbi’s house was more than just enjoyable — it was downright invaluable.

At each Passover Seder, the final phrase spoken is “Shana Haba b’Yerushalayim,” or “Next Year in Jerusalem.” To be honest, the phrase always rubbed me the wrong way. Passover is supposed to be about celebrating our freedom and enjoying our opportunity to relax. Why do we always have to wish we were spending the holiday elsewhere, rather than enjoying the present company?

But sitting in the packed living room, celebrating the holiday with strangers, I understood the phrase for the first time. “Next Year in Jerusalem” isn’t about actually spending next year’s holiday in Israel or even spending the holiday anywhere new. The phrase is about building your own Jerusalem and finding happiness in your community celebration, wherever you may spend it.

For me, next year will be back in the United States, hopefully surrounded by my family whom I’m used to celebrating with. But this year, my Jerusalem was in a small living room in Sydney, Australia.

It turns out Jerusalem isn’t just a geographic location. It’s a community. And the connection I felt to my Jewish community this year, both in Australia and the United States, can’t be found on any map.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing, Felicia. Happy Pesach