After high school, I spent a few months in Jerusalem learning Herbew in an Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language program for new immigrants and Palestinians entering the Israeli university system. After growing up in a majority white, Catholic neighborhood in the Midwest, it was a huge and exhilarating change to suddenly be surrounded by classmates from Turkey, East Jerusalem, and Siberia. I quickly found that I was learning just as much from my peers as from my teachers.
One of the first big changes I experienced in moving to Israel was that I was suddenly in the religious majority. All of a sudden, most people around me were Jewish, had grown up with the same holidays as I did, and shared many of the same customs.
But within this basic oneness, as I spent more time in Israel the beauty of Jewish diversity became more and more visible to me. In the chaos of the Central Bus Station on Friday afternoons as everyone scrambled to catch a ride home for Shabbat, I remember pausing to take in the wonder of it all: huge religious families, young secular travelers with their overstuffed daypacks, and Chabad volunteers handing out Shabbat candles to all the women rushing by, Yemenite, French, Ethiopian, and Ukranian.
I quickly began to grasp how much more diverse Jews are than I could have imagined growing up in the US, where the vast majority of Jews are Ashkenazi (of Eastern European descent). In this realization came a simultaneous sense of both connection to my people and disconnect from them. I began to see differences in the foods we eat, our appearances, the histories of our grandparents as immigrants or refugees, and in every facet of our lives.
I remember being shocked one afternoon to learn that bagels and lox, probably the most stereotypical Jewish food in the US, is actually not kosher for Sefardi Jews. “We don’t want to eat that weird Ashkenazi food anyway!” one of my friends from Latin America joked when I started going on about how sad it was to miss out on cream cheese and fish.
Because I had such blonde hair in a place where almost no one is blonde, people took to stopping me in the hallways or on the streets and speaking to me in Russian. “Sorry, I’m American, sorry!” I would respond, feeling a kind of weird sadness, an impossibly wide gap from these people whose families had stayed in Russia when mine had left.
But then other things would happen, and I would be reminded that despite being scattered for so many centuries to so many vastly different regions of the world, Jews really are one people. One day in class, our teacher put on a kids’ song for Rosh HaShanah, and almost all of the Jewish students instantly recognized it, despite the fact that we had learned it by rote growing up, and never really understood the words. It felt almost magical that a song which for me evoked memories of back-to-school time, raking leaves, and apples and honey, brought up a parallel and yet vastly different vision of growing up in Istanbul for the Turkish boys sitting in the back corner.
Among the million little insights I took away from my time in Ulpan, I walked away with a new sense of who Jews are and how we relate to one another. Jews are one people, and yet we are not a monolith; we are diverse in a variety of ways.
And against this diverse backdrop, Jewish unity is accentuated in an entirely unique way. There is new power for me now in shared practice, holy texts, and sacred geography. I feel this in the Kiddush prayer that all Jews chant every Friday night at Shabbat, in the universal holiness of Jerusalem, and in the peace felt in slipping a note in between the stones of the Western Wall.
Question: How has the composition of your faith community growing up impacted your view of your religion? Have you had any experiences where your views on this were expanded?