Moral of the story: Participating in Eser has been a meaningful, refreshing, and healing experience.
The story: I’ve been in and out of Jewish communities for much of my young life. As a preteen, I convinced my parents to join a synagogue because I’d watched my cousins lead services, read from the Torah, and generally be the center of attention at their b’nai mitvah ceremonies. My family had always celebrated the major holidays together, but we’d never joined a synagogue. I don’t remember caring one way or the other about the party afterwards, but I thought, “Dang, you get to stand up there on the stage thingy, sound cool speaking a different language, and everyone has to listen to you…sweet!” (yes, that’s the vocabulary I used as a preteen).
One thing led to another, and within two years, I had indeed followed in their footsteps. I studied with my rabbi and became a bat mitzvah, got a scholarship to the URJ’s leadership camp, and got voted in as my temple youth group’s vice president (small town, not much competition). I’d even (briefly) set my sights on the rabbinate. Four years later, I had led many a youth service, Sunday school singalong, and summer camp massage circle, and I was off to Brandeis. Now, some of you may have heard of Brandeis. Lots of Jews, lots of “kinds” of Jews, lots of non-Jews, plenty to explore. I dabbled in various parts of the Jewish community and outside of it, never fully settling anywhere but always staying connected.
After graduation is when things got sticky. Full-time job hours were long, variable, taxing, and far from Boston, and for me, were not conducive to establishing a connection with my local Jewish community. My company, a non-profit that provides a variety of services for children with autism, had recently opened a school in the Middle East. Not the heavily Jewishly-populated corner of the desert, but Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. My interests in traveling, helping to open a school for an underserved population, and saving money for my future propelled me to apply for a transfer, pick my jaw up off the floor when I found out the proposed one year commitment was – woops! – two years, fit my life into two overweight suitcases and a massive carry-on, say goodbye to my beloved Boston Terrier (and family and friends), and embark on the journey of a lifetime.
Jump ahead two years…no not two, three…that’s right, my two year engagement was so phenomenal that I signed up for a third! I found my job to be rewarding and meaningful, I was in grad school, and I visited a new country every month or two. There were always things to do, people to meet, and experiences to be had. Go dune bashing in the Empty Quarter? Sure! Cage diving with great whites in South Africa? Why not! Sleep with nothing but a thin layer of nylon between my fragile organs and the laughing hyenas on the savannah? No problem!
If you’ve read this far, have you figured out what’s been missing? The J-word! I spent three years loving every minute of my life, yet I all but denied an essential part of who I am: a Jewish woman. I was fairly open with my American friends and eventually some of my other expat friends, as well as a few Muslim friends and coworkers, but usually if the topic of religion came up, I just said that I wasn’t religious. My friends there of ALL religions and nationalities were generally very warm, welcoming, and open-minded, so perhaps I could have been less cautious. Jews weren’t explicitly excluded from the UAE, but rather existed in small, silent pockets without any organizing body. However, I never fully ascertained my level of comfort. I quietly contemplated the Jewish holidays, but rarely did anything further to recognize them. (On a side note, the Muslim prohibition on pork consumption was quite convenient for me, and upon my fulltime return to the USofA, I was disappointed to rediscover just how omnipresent pork is here.)
After three years in the UAE, it was time to move home and pursue new job responsibilities. This new position had its benefits and many character-building moments, but as with my job straight out of college, the hours were long, late, irregular, and not conducive to establishing routines or getting involved in a community.
Now, fast forward just one more time, to present day. Let’s return to the moral of my story. I’m working in a job that I love, with fairly regular hours, and it’s time to get involved. My closest friends in Boston aren’t involved in Jewish communities, and I’m not particularly looking for nosh-n-niceties events right now. I want to learn something in an informal but regularly scheduled setting, and because I’m pretty much continuously in some sort of grad school or another, only certain nights work for me. I work an hour from home, so location is also essential. With all of these factors combined, I’m high maintenance!
I can’t remember now who introduced me to Eser, but I’m ever so grateful. From our first group meeting in Newton, I felt that all group members were accepted, any level of prior knowledge or lack thereof was acceptable, and our leaders create an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect. The text excerpts we use are from a variety of sources and help the topics become accesible to everyone. Almost-Rabbi Seth knows when to listen, when to draw out more, and when to have everyone in the circle share. Jason is great with the transitions and historical context, and Becky is an excellent all-around hostess, organizer, and participant who poses insightful questions. Eser is what I needed to draw me back into my Jewish community. It doesn’t require a big commitment or push for further commitments, and it involves a variety of people who aren’t necessarily or solely “professional Jews,” but who all have an interest in learning with one another. Our group includes teachers, IT guys, HR peeps, nannies, kung fu artists, engineers, Supermen, Wonderwomen, and others. Eser is bringing me back to a piece of myself.
Last Monday, April 15 and the days following were a time that none of us will soon forget. Between Monday and our group’s meeting on Wednesday, I’d talked to a few friends and coworkers about what had happened, but not extensively. I work in a school, and we keep our eyes and ears open for how the kids are affected when faced with tragedy, but as much as possible, we attempt to provide normalcy and routine in times of turmoil, which in turn provides me with normalcy and routine. By Wednesday night though, my head and heart were bursting with sadness and frustration and anger and even joy (that had been my first Marathon Monday, and the spirit of the day and the heroes of the aftermath continue to fill me with lightness and positivity). Almost-Rabbi Seth made the well-timed executive decision to have us share our experience of Monday and the aftermath. No one was forced to speak, but we went in a circle and talked for the first hour of our meeting. We had some varying opinions on the importance of the events on Monday, but no matter what was said or which beliefs are held to be true by whom, and without realizing it until afterwards, this was the catharsis I needed. Again, Eser helped to bring me back to myself.
If any bit of this resonates with you, your goals, your history, or your interests, Eser might be for you. And even if none of this rings a bell, talk to other participants. We are each having our own experience of these groups, and perhaps you will find another aspect of Eser that helps fill in a piece of your story.
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