Moving to live and work in China for a month, writes Deborah Grayson Riegel in the [New York] Jewish Week, was a lot like her late-life immersion in Judaism. When she moved to China, she was unable to speak the language and lived “in a culture that had social customs that didn’t make sense.” It was overwhelming, she writes, to be so culturally and functionally “illiterate.”
These challenges reminded Riegel of the Jewish journey she had embarked on after college. She had once felt like a stranger in the Jewish community, wondering if she would ever be “Jewish enough.” She went to synagogue, observed Shabbat, and decided to keep kosher. But with each decision came an even deeper feeling of alienation. Each decision pushed her further out of her comfort zone.
Eventually Riegel came to realize that the “Great Wall” of Judaism was not too high to climb.
Sitting in a synagogue in China, she writes, she felt like she was “home.” But her story could be one of almost any individual who comes to Judaism later in life – either as a Jew-by-choice, someone who has married in, or someone returning after a long absence.
Trying to navigate the unique cultural and religious elements of the Jewish community can be a terrifying and intimidating experience. There are so many rules that don’t seem to make any sense, so many customs that are difficult to integrate into your daily life. When we hear a story like Riegel’s, we wonder, what are we doing to ensure these barriers to participation don’t become insurmountable? If we want people to come closer to the Jewish community, how are we making it easier to do so?
For JOI, it means taking Judaism outside of the walls of our institutions and finding people where they are – what we call Public Space Judaism. We believe Judaism should be more accessible, more affordable, more convenient and more meaningful for all who choose to join us. The Jewish community won’t grow and strengthen if we keep barriers in place that discourage people from engaging in Jewish life. Let’s make sure newcomers, however they have come to stand under our Big Tent, don’t feel like strangers in their new home.
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