Backpacking involves an invigorating and curious combination of excitement and discomfort. Matter of fact, the excitement of travel always carries with it some risk, whether perceived or real, that tends to cause some discomfort. Even before leaving home, you can’t help but entertain the slew of fears accompanying the thought of flying and upon arrival, a new set of worries arise. Is it safe to travel alone as a tourist with zero knowledge of the area or local tongue? As a foreigner, will I get ripped off, or worse, literally ripped to pieces? Will I get treated differently for appearing different? This thought pattern tends to reinforce a state of insecurity, despite how far from reality that state may be.
Nonetheless, when traveling, there are real differences in culture, surroundings and norms, which rightfully cause us to feel slightly uncomfortable in a new city, in a remote village or in the middle of the woods in Montenegro.
Like my travels, my spiritual journey has taken me many places. As I grow older, it seems to be more and more challenging to dig beyond the surface to connect to the infinite, God, or Jewish prayer and tradition on a deeper level. And yet, there are still moments, however rare, that lift my soul above the mundane and give me a glimpse into the spirituality of my youth. These moments sometimes occur in the most unlikely and remote places. On this trip, I experienced one of those moments in Dubrovnik, a city that has always hosted an extremely small Jewish population— at its height there were about 300— and is currently home to about 45 Jews.
In hopes of finding a Friday night prayer service and learning about Jewish life in Dubrovnik, my girlfriend and I visited the city’s 15th-century synagogue. The synagogue is the second oldest in Europe, one of the most beautiful places of worship I’ve ever seen and is still active. In fact, we were told that the community was meeting that night for services, an event that takes place three times a year.
During services, as the Rabbi led us with familiar tunes, I closed my eyes and imagined those Jews who have stood where I was standing for hundreds of years, sometimes risking their lives, to recite the same words, out of a deep commitment to the Jewish faith and community. I looked around the room at what must have been almost the entire Jewish community of Dubrovnik. I stood in awe of their devotion to Jewish life and tradition.
Suddenly, any feelings of alienation in a foreign place and any appearance of difference between us disappeared. All the discomforts of traveling dissipated in the warmth of our shared commitment to Judaism. Instead of seeing a foreign people, culture or society, I saw a shared history, tradition and destiny. I saw me.