This year’s Eser course has largely focused on journeys—the journey of Judaism through surprising and enlightening moments in history, the journey of the Jewish people as they defined their relationship to and place within the religion, and the Jewish journeys of the Eser participants. Every week there was one brave volunteer who informed us of their Jewish journey. Each story was unique, quite often non-linear, and always a reflective moment for those of us listening.
My Jewish journey is one of displacement and belonging. I grew up in suburban New Jersey just outside of New York City in a large and vibrant Jewish community. Just as I was growing into understanding my Jewish identity, I was abruptly transplanted to Florida. Not just Florida, but a conspicuously non-Jewish area of the state and one with limited tolerance for those considered outsiders.
During the years I spent in the area, I was openly maligned for being Jewish. Among a high school population of 5,000 students, I was one of three Jews—within a year I was one of two. My time in Florida quite effectively distanced me from Judaism and the Jewish community. While I held firmly to my Jewish identity, I lost my sense of belonging within it.
Fast forward to now. When I attended the first Eser meeting, I was delighted to be in the presence of Jewish peers of similar age. I felt I had finally gotten a foothold in the community I had been looking for, the one I had been physically and spiritually displaced from for so many years.
Then the pandemic happened, and the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing were enforced.
Initially, I couldn’t imagine that virtual learning would be anywhere near as enriching as being in the presence of others. To me, distance was the antithesis of community, and I assumed virtual meetings would loosen my already tenuous grasp on my Jewish belonging. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The virtual Eser meetings took on a significance of their own. They not only punctuated my week but also provided a unique gathering of people who were both bonded by their Jewishness and connected by the shared experience of living through a pandemic. The virtual platform for these meetings shed new light on what it means to commune, to connect and to share.
For me, the 10-week Eser course was a journey of its own. Each week was spent discussing a surprising moment in Jewish history while relaying our personal journeys to one another. Looking back, the course represents yet another surprising moment in my Jewish journey: finding belonging and community from an acceptable social distance.
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