Yesterday I posted a picture of Kedem grape juice on facebook. The picture got immediate “likes” and excited responses. It was an ordinary bottle of grape juice…except for the fact that it cost $3.99- a stellar price for a large bottle- especially, when you live in Charleston, South Carolina.
Someone in the community responded that they bet I never imagined I would be posting pictures of grape juice bottles online, before moving here. They’re probably right. But in truth, of all the things about the way my life looks now, posting cheap bottles of grape juice is the least of it.
At our wedding nine years ago, my husband and I wrote a letter to our guests, thanking them for being a part of our journey in becoming the people we were then, and thanked them in advance for accompanying us on our future path- as we stated, “wherever we may go, wherever we may stop over, on our way to Eretz Yisrael”. We often repeat that line and laugh- we never thought at the time that our “stop over”- would be South Carolina!
In high school, I was obsessed with Israeli politics (I still am). My e-mail address was zionist15. Whereas other kids talk about being President one day, I wanted to be the Prime Minister of Israel (insanity). When I got my first cell phone in college (yes, clearly I’m old), I changed the ring to Hatikvah. And when I dated, I only went out with boys who were interested in making aliyah. And here I am, thirty-two years old, living in America with no plans on the radar to move to Israel anytime soon.
I don’t feel like a hypocrite. At times, I do feel sad. Like when I hear songs about Yerushalayim and see a picture of the golden city aglow in my mind- so familiar to me that it’s almost tangible, or hear that yet another one of our friends is making aliyah. Not to mention, the few occasions when I go to Israel and after feeling immersed in the culture, land and language that I love, feel like my legs are in the chains of exile as I drag my feet onto the El Al plane taking me from the place I feel most at home, to the place where I reside.
When we made the decision to live in the U.S., we did it because we wanted to give- and we felt that we were needed more in America than in Israel. Instead of being on the front lines of building the Jewish future in our homeland, we chose to be on the front lines of fighting for the Jewish future, period. And while we love living in Charleston and find our work incredibly rewarding, I didn’t realize how heartbreaking it could sometimes be. Or how enlightening.
In this historic town which has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the history of the U.S., the Jewish future sometimes seems challenging. My husband is the rabbi of a beautiful and historic shul in the heart of downtown Charleston, which offers fascinating and multi-level classes and innovative programming for all ages. We consider ourselves fortunate that our shul membership is diverse- made up of young and old, of frequent shul-goers and once-a-year Jews, learned and not as learned. There’s an excitement felt in our walls as we grow and it seems like every week there is another new person in shul, eager to learn more about Judaism. The fact that our shul has three minyanim a day is incredible- that between ten and fifty men (and a few women too!)- some of whom are not observant, are so committed to either prayer, G-d, someone they are reciting Kaddish for, or just to our shul, is incredibly inspiring to me.
And there are other synagogues as well. But not everyone in Charleston belongs to a synagogue. Not everyone sends their kids to Charleston’s fantastic Jewish community day school. The vast majority of Charleston Jewry is unaffiliated, or once-a-year Jews. And when I hear a person say that Jewish day school is not worth the financial investment, or that they don’t have time to learn about Judaism, or that going to Israel is not a priority for them, it is heart wrenching and keeps me up at night. I am not one to judge another person’s decisions and priorities, but I can’t help but feel sad. In a place like Charleston, those that do not take advantage of the opportunities that our Jewish institutions offer, very often drift away in the sea of assimilation. Not always, but very often. Perhaps one day, I will grow immune to the pain of losing another Jew, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But when I get frustrated or sad, I focus on the overall growth of our community. And I focus on the important lesson I have learned since leaving the homogeneity of my all-Orthodox hometown in New York. And that is: we all have what to learn from each other. Inspiration is gleaned from those that come in all forms and colors and religious affiliations. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe in living a life of halachic observance, but I don’t have to agree with every religious choice a person makes, in order to learn from them. And I hope in turn that someone who doesn’t agree with every one of my religious choices can still learn from me.
I have met women who are not observant but who are far better mothers than I am – and I try to incorporate some of their parenting techniques. I have met people who are not shomer Shabbat but whose Shabbat experience is calm, spiritual and family-oriented- and I try to include those qualities in my own Shabbat experience. I know a woman who is not Orthodox but is shomer Shabbat. One weekend, she stayed at someone else’s house and walked a far distance to enable her children to participate in a school activity that was taking place late on Friday so her kids would not resent having to give up this activity. When I heard that story, I marveled at the difficulty she willingly undertook to ensure that her family kept Shabbat- and her sensitivity and wisdom in balancing her religious commitment, with the care that her child should not see Judaism as a burden. And then there is the incredible woman who is my daily inspiration- she is a young mother who is battling cancer but spends much of her free time volunteering at the school and looks for more and more opportunities to give. She has the most incredible attitude, despite the treatments she needs to endure. On days when I feel frustrated by the small things, thinking of her courage makes me put a smile back on my face. If she can do it, I have no excuse. She does not have to be observant in order for her to be a mentor for me in the lesson of growth.
Since moving to Charleston, I have become friends with many people who are strongly committed to the Jewish community. People who devote countless hours to our shul, and who donate generously. People who are strongly committed to Israel. People who are strongly committed to Jewish education. People who have spent hours fundraising for our school and who have donated large amounts of money, because they believe that Jewish education is the Jewish future. Some are observant. Some are not. All of them have served as a tremendous inspiration for me.
As a teacher, I have always believed in the adage, that from my students I have learned most of all. And while the Jewish community of Charleston is certainly not “my students”, I have found that while we came to give, I am the one who walks away from encounters, more enriched. And at moments like these, I realize that the future of Jewish Charleston is bright. Just sometimes, I need to look with different glasses than the ones I’m used to.