Rethinking Religion While Living Abroad

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Rethinking Religion While Living Abroad by Adina Gerwin - Photo by Hannah Rubenstein

When I first decided to move to Germany as a 16-year-old Jewish American, many things crossed my mind. I had just been accepted to participate in the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange, a program run by the State Department which sends 250 American teens to Germany each year. The long and tedious application process had given me time to think about future challenges and potential dynamics. From figuring out kashrut to ordering a new travel size siddur (prayer book) and Tanakh (Jewish scripture), I assumed I had thought of everything. I believed I had figured the religious stuff all out. How wrong was I…

It was not until September or Tishri had officially begun, and I was 4000 miles away from home, hanging up the very bent and crumpled holiday calendar my mother forced me to pack that I realized what was coming; the high holidays.

I was having a hard time. I had just arrived in a new country with a new family, and now I had this to add to my plate. It did not help that my host mother took one look at the calendar and exclaimed, “Wow, the whole month is filled.” Yes, the whole month, I nodded glumly. She then went on to say, “I had a Muslim coworker who celebrated Ramadan, and it was so annoying for the rest of us because he needed accommodations and to reschedule stuff for that entire month.” No comment. This initial attitude of hers made me even more apprehensive, and all I could think about was how they didn’t understand. Nobody understands; I was in a house full of non-Jews and for the first time in my life, feeling completely alone. Moreover, as I tried to prepare myself for the heaviness and tradition-saturated days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, I struggled. I was grappling with both attempting that mental preparation and balancing the move and new family. Needless to say, it was physically and emotionally exhausting.

So, by the time Rosh Hashanah was beginning to roll around, I was freaking out.

But, luckily as time went on, stuff started working out. The local Jewish youth group I had reached out to invited me to join them the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah for a special holiday program. The city of Hamburg’s only synagogue, which was initially not allowing visitors due to the pandemic, approved my application to attend high holiday services.

Things were looking up, but I still had some challenging decisions to make

One of those was about observance and transportation. The synagogue was way too far away to walk, and I had to decide how I wanted to observe. Would it be more meaningful to me to stay at home alone with my siddur or to use transportation and go to the synagogue? After some thought, I realized the choice was obvious; I had to go to synagogue. I decided that while in Germany, I would take prepaid trains and buses.

As I entered the one synagogue, I was highly uncomfortable. I had spent my entire life in a Conservative egalitarian environment and entering a very Orthodox and gendered space was strange. Moreover, the women’s section was on the second floor, it was very hard to see the men or the bima (where the Torah is read), multiple people kept on staring at me, and I was frustrated by my inability to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) during the services.

Still, despite those challenges, I was extremely grateful to be there. When the chazzan (prayer leader) started singing in Hebrew, my knees buckled, weak with relief. I will never forget the feeling of belonging that swept over me during those first few prayers. The songs carried powerful memories of davening (praying) with my father and transported me back to my community at home. I was able to escape within the familiarity of the Hebrew words and dive into the memories each prayer held. Moreover, being able to understand the language around me felt incredible. After days of being fully immersed in German, it was lovely to be around words, sentences, and a language I could actually understand. Amidst that uncomfortable environment, in a synagogue that was so unfamiliar, I was able to find a fragment of home.

After going to synagogue for two days during Rosh Hashanah and explaining to my host family that it was the new year and what that meant, I began to gain more confidence in my ability to describe Jewish practices. I thought I was somewhat prepared for Yom Kippur and the impending avalanche of questions I knew I would receive. As usual, I was utterly wrong.

About two days before Erev Yom Kippur is when it all began. We were in the kitchen, and I explained to my host Mom and siblings that I would be spending that Thursday in the synagogue for a holiday and that I would be fasting all day. Interestingly enough, they had heard about Yom Kippur before and prepared a couple of questions. Starting with my forthright host brother, who asked what could have been a simple question, “Why do you fast?”

I hesitated to respond. At that moment, it’s not that I didn’t have a general understanding of why we fasted, but I could not pinpoint exactly what about that day made us completely deprive our bodies of sustenance. As I went through common descriptors like “it’s the day of judgment” and “we are asking God for forgiveness,” I struggled. None of the things I was saying felt right, and I kept getting bombarded with more questions. Why are you asking God for forgiveness? What is getting judged? The more I spoke, the more questions they asked.

I knew I was not doing a great job at explaining the holiday, but it was not until my host sister asked, “Why do you guys only focus on the bad?” that I realized the extent of my failed explanation. I had no idea what to respond and was desperately trying to decipher my thoughts when suddenly, a random line from Rosh Hashanah services drifted toward the top of my consciousness. The more extended prayer is called the Unetane tokef. But the line that came back to me was,

“בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת,”

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed—how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

What stood out to me, still seared in my mind, was the idea of control. Life is full of the unknown, and we go into each year not knowing who and if the people we love will be with us for the next. Yom Kippur is about acknowledging that the only real thing we can control in this world is our treatment of others, how we behave, and taking responsibility for our choices. That, to me, is why we fast, because it’s part of a process of acknowledging and taking responsibility for both the bad and good decisions from the past year.

After I had that little epiphany, all while sitting at the dinner table, I told my host sister precisely that. Her reaction was expected; she nodded, said something like “interesting,” and started talking about a different topic entirely. She was completely unaware of the moment I had just had.

That moment was just one example of the kind of growth and expansive thinking I have achieved through putting myself in these uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations. By explaining Yom Kippur to my host siblings, I developed a whole new understanding of a holiday that I have studied and thought about for years. Being in that synagogue, with the strange stares and huge mechitza (partition or, in this case, stairs between men and women), made me aware of how grateful I am to speak Hebrew and how special it is that one language is at the core of Judaism. Moreover, that experience made me realize just how valuable my synagogue and community at home are, places I had taken for granted my entire life. Finally, all of these different, nuanced moments allowed me to explore Jewish identity by forcing me to realize what parts of Judaism I genuinely value and helping me deepen my connection to those parts of the religion.

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Adina Gerwin lives in New York City, where she is a member of the class of 2023 at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. She is currently spending her junior year studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany as part of the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) Fellowship. Adina is also an editorial board member and contributing writer of the international online magazine, Kidspirit. These days when she is not writing or practicing her German, you can find her walking along the Elbe River, at the Central Library, or simply reading in a cafe.
Accompanying photo by Adina Gerwin