Even as a child, lighting candles on Shabbat with my grandmother and mother as a ritual held a meaningful place in my heart. While my family never strictly adhered to every single rule of Shabbat, we observed it through the importance with which we regarded it and through the effort we put into recognizing it each week. Growing up in Israel where Shabbat is a seamless part of life taught me its value, but it also led me to take for granted how easy it was to observe Shabbat. I had, after all, always been supported by my environment and family to keep Shabbat alive in both spirit and tradition.
Things changed very quickly when I moved to college. I spent all of last year living in the dorms, isolated from other Jews. If there were any on the Hill, they were practically invisible, and I was far too reserved to dare venturing to Hillel by myself, despite my parents’ nagging. I stopped lighting candles on Shabbat because of the “no fire” policy (and was only rewarded for my compliance with multiple false fire alarms at 5 a.m. or earlier throughout the year). I felt it was pointless to recite Kabbalat Shabbat on my own and eventually Shabbat became practically nonexistent.
Yom Kippur that year was the first I had spent fasting alone. I underestimated how difficult it would be. It wasn’t long before I could no longer bear my roommate’s unsuccessful (but very kind) attempts at suppressing the crunch of each snack. I was bored out of my mind and so existentially deprived that by noon, I didn’t care that if I left the dorm I wouldn’t be able to return because of the electric locks.
I spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly, searching in vain for anyone wearing a fancy suit and tennis shoes, hoping I could follow them to wherever the Jews are. That was the point when I knew I would do everything in my power to make sure the following year would be different.
And I succeeded a little too well.
The experience of moving into the Westwood Bayit has exceeded my expectations. Bayitniks — a term that refers to those who live in the Bayit — are such a lovely, diverse bunch, and frankly, I find them inspiring. They’ve connected me to Hillel, JAM and all the other incredible Jewish organizations and groups on campus. I rediscovered Judaism and my connection to its values and traditions, but it was more than just that. Up until that point Judaism has always seemed very personal and solely introspective. For the first time, I began to experience and consider Judaism as a community and a unifier. I started regularly attending Shabbat dinners and participating in events and gatherings, like JewQ, JAM challah bakes and Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF). These days, I find that I eat absurd amounts of challah, and I’m weirdly okay with that.
I find it admirable every time I see even those who don’t consider themselves to be particularly religious, drop whatever it is they’re doing to help complete a minyan, simply because they’re needed. It’s emblematic of who we are as a people.
And it’s funny, I don’t think at any point I felt any pressure or assertion from my surroundings to become “more religious” but having gained a better insight into the values behind the traditions, customs and laws, I find myself wanting to live up to them. I’m mostly talking about Shabbat. However, I’ve come to learn that Shabbat isn’t so much kept as it is earned. Unfortunately, I’ve been doing a rather terrible job at earning it.
Every Saturday I wake up telling myself in vain, that ‘today is the first Shabbat of the rest of my life.’ It’s obnoxiously difficult to give up Saturday as a catch up day for everything that hadn’t been achieved throughout the week. I’d really like to blame it on the workload and crushing pressure toward academic excellence brought on by the competitive atmosphere generated by a productivity-oriented capitalist society. In truth, that’s probably not it.
I used to think “earning Shabbat” was a matter of time management. I’ve come to realize it has a lot more to do with priorities. I’ve been spending so many many hours at Hillel and JAM and so many late hours hanging out with Bayitniks, that work and productivity have been forcefully crunched into the short intervals in between. Yes, including on Shabbat.
I mean, of course, it’s not just that. I’ve been juggling school work with my job, an internship, an extensive research thesis, Ha’Am and my unhealthy obsession with DC Comics, (just to name a few). You know how it is. We’re all busy. With my growing desire to keep Shabbat, I’ve had to evaluate which activity would be most worthy of sacrifice. Having already boxed up the comics for less stressful times and with school, work and internships holding non-negotiable importance, the most obvious thing to cut back on is my involvement in the Jewish community.
I find it ironic that the same community that’s inspired me to keep Shabbat is the same community I would, to some extent, need to distance myself from in order to do so. I’ve been going back and forth trying to decide what’s more important. As you may have guessed, in the moment, I usually choose the former. However, while I have yet to earn Shabbat, I’m grateful for the way it has forced me to examine my own values and priorities more deeply. Who knows? Maybe that’s the first step.