Nothing is more intimidating than leaving your comfort zone, facing a mix of new people, routines, and cultures – especially when you're doing it alone. I’ll never forgot how it felt when I left for college, a New York girl heading to school in the Midwest. I really hoped people were kidding about cow-tipping.
By the third week, it hit me. Classes were overwhelming, my dorm didn't feel like home yet, and I hadn't made friends that I felt connected to. And though my school had a large Jewish population, I seemed to meet a lot of kids who had never met a Jew. One guy asked (politely) if Judaism was a religion or a culture.
But it wasn't until the High Holidays approached that I felt a sense of dread. It was too soon and too far to travel home, but fortunately, my resident assistant, Ben, was also Jewish, so I asked him: "Where are our people?" Together, we agreed to check out Friday night services at Hillel.
As soon as I sat down at services and heard the familiar Sabbath melodies, I felt at peace. That night, I met lots of other freshmen, ate Shabbat dinner with upperclassmen, and finally thought, “OK, I can do this.”
During services, they made an announcement that they were looking for people to read Torah blessings during High Holidays services. I felt like a kid: Pick me, pick me! I knew that if I could be up on the bimah (pulpit), chanting the blessings I knew by heart, it would be a great way to make the new year special. It wouldn’t be like being at home at my temple, but I would be in a new home, starting new traditions.
My new friend Jenna, who was from California, was also looking for people to make the High Holidays less lonely. On the morning of Yom Kippur, we woke up early to attend services together. And when I sang the Torah blessings in front of hundreds of students that morning, I finally felt a sense of belonging.
I didn't realize it at the time, but volunteering to participate in services helped me feel connected to my new school in a way that made perfect sense. My love for Judaism was the missing link I needed to feel at home. From that day on, I had much more confidence in myself, and it opened the door to my friendship with Jenna, which remains one of my closest to this day.
Thinking back to being asked whether Judaism was a religion or culture, I came to realize that it was both. No matter where I lived, I could make it home as long as I found "my people." In the four years I spent at Indiana University, so many friends welcomed me into their homes for Shabbat and holidays, reminding me of the warmth of the Jewish community and the philosophy that we must never leave another Jew behind.
That’s why, today, I always keep a seat open at my table for people who don't have anywhere to go for the holidays. In fact, my husband and I keep the whole table open. Each year, we host a pot luck Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur dinner, inviting anyone who would otherwise be alone.
I guess you could say I'm a true Jewish mother in training: Home is where the food and wine are! But home is also any place where Jews can share their prayers, history, traditions, and sense of community.