Fearlessly Jewish

The kids at my synagogue tend to see me as one of the approachable and silly adults in the room, since I rarely tend to be straight-laced or stodgy. I hang out in the auditorium where we have kiddush with a handful of other adults at the very back by the stage, discussing heavy metal and punk rock and TV shows like “Doctor Who,” instead of what we do for a living or where we bought our clothing. The kids join our conversations without fail every week. And, we encourage the kids to join in or completely change the subject to whatever they choose. We “rebel” adults are very honest and open about things (within reason around the kids) and are comfortable in our own skin, especially about our Judaism. We’ve found our simcha in things. I guess the kids see that the other metalhead and Comic Con adults and I are just doing our thing and know that synagogue is for us, too, and that we see the kids as “one of us” with just as much value and importance.

Teenagers aren’t so easy to impress and keep around at or even after services, though, at least at my synagogue. They feel left out a lot of the time. Most of the teens at my synagogue, up until recently, would follow the trope of: have their bar or bat mitzvah celebration, feel disconnected because they no longer are the right age for the youth service, and stop attending services altogether or loiter in the halls until their parents are ready to go home. Work is being done to change that with a new teen-only service, but it’s going to take time.

Meanwhile, there is one teen who I’ve known for a good while, since a communal Shabbat dinner many years ago which I doubt she even remembers now. She’s a very bright, creative girl who listens to a really eclectic mix of music and loves art. We both love fun jewelry and silly jokes and have really fun conversations. I noticed for a while that she wasn’t coming to synagogue and chalked it up to her just being one of the let-down teens, until on one holiday this past year her mother made her show up and we ran into each other at kiddush.

She met up with me and some of the other “rebel” adults in our corner talking about the usual stuff, and I think I must have been wearing my well-polished Doc Marten combat boots and other eclectic-but-still-presentable-for-services clothing. She said something about not realizing people like us could be at synagogue and be happy with Judaism.

Since then, she’s colored her hair blue and purple and started dressing more eclectic-but-presentable-for-services. She usually wears her Doc Martens — ones in an enviably fabulous shade of burgundy, just like my very first pair, something I never let her forget. And she’s showing up more often to services. I gave her a big bear hug this past Shabbat and complimented her on her hair and Docs as I always do — they look really great and bring back happy memories of high school. She told me that I inspired her to wear the Docs to synagogue. I felt like a proud mama bear.

But, what she said next left me speechless: that I’ve been a good influence on her in a lot of other ways. I’ve helped her see that she can be Jewish and be herself with her hair or how she dresses in a fun, colorful way or with the music she likes, and that there’s no contradiction or conflict in any of that. I taught her that she belongs at services and in Judaism overall. That, of course, boosts my self esteem, but it also humbles me. Even in the midst of me feeling at times like I mess up with my practice as Jew, I’ve done something this important. There’s that bit of the morning prayers again, thanking G-d for waking me up another morning and having that much faith in me to do good in the world, despite all my shortcomings.

I have to give credit where credit is due, though. I never would have felt comfortable in my own Doc Martens, if you will, as a Jew, especially as one who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm of white Ashkenazi wealthy Jew from birth, without the help of the person who has mentored me. Many of us claim to have a rav, a personal rabbi, who is our mentor. Others may identify a parent or grandparent who fills this role. But, the Jew who has had the biggest impact on me, who I’ve spoken with the most and learned the most from over the past six years since I took that swim in the mikvah, is my friend, Shmueli. (Yes, the same one I mentioned in my last article who writes the Hardcore Mesorah blog). I haven’t just learned a lot about how to live as a Sephardic Jew from him. He’s also been a close friend who’s been very honest with me about my behavior. His example with his behavior has had a major impact on me, as well.

Shmueli has given me a lot of big advice over the years, some of which has pulled me out of extremely low points in my life. However, there was something he shared in a conversation a few years ago that had the biggest impact on me of all.

Shmueli’s biography is the following, in a nutshell. His family is anusim (descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492) with roots in Mexico, and he is the first of his family in generations to be observantly Jewish. Today, he is very busy working not just on his blog, which has a very diverse and large following, but also with conversion candidates and fellow anusim worldwide. He also is a community activist in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles and has for years been steeped in the punk subculture. Shmueli never minces words, but he’s not unkind. He tells you things for your own good and does things for the greater good.

One day, Shmueli told me about how he had made a new friend, a fellow Latino who had just discovered through genetic testing that he had Jewish lineage. He went with him on a day trip to a prominent Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles for some schooling. The new friend was astonished by how easily Shmueli could read Hebrew and handle being in a conversation with Jews from a totally different ethnic background other than his own — but not astonished in a good way. On this trip, they had gone into a rug store owned by a Persian Jew, and Shmueli was using his knowledge of Hebrew to talk with this man, who was originally from Tehran, about a particular rug that had caught his eye.

The new friend thought Shmueli was trying to pull a fast one, which was obviously an unnerving thing to hear. Shmueli responded that this new friend needed to toughen up and stand on his own two feet within the Jewish community at large, to be better than thinking this was “putting on some kind of an act”. He was having a conversation with a fellow member of The Tribe and using our mutual language to the best of his ability, period. There was nothing shady about it. But also, Shmueli had nothing to fear, and this new guy didn’t get that yet. He made the point that people can smell fear and react to it quickly with more fear in return, and understandably so. And, nobody wants or needs that.

Much more importantly, though, Shmueli explained that at the end of the day, what truly defines a Jewish person is one’s actions, not “feeling Jewish” or what some genetic test or family tree indicates. After all, when someone wants to convert, this is the only thing that will count with a beit din. It’s all that matters, period. People least want to hear this, Shmueli said, and yet, from this story, it’s the most important thing I learned.

It was crucial for me to hear that what I do is paramount, and that being comfortable in my own skin, being truly me and fearless about it is how behaving like a Jew starts. And, apparently, my following Shmueli’s advice and example is helping another young Jewish woman find a reason to be herself, be happy, and feel like coming to synagogue is worth her time. I’m glad I learned to stand on my own two feet and behave like a Jew and keep working at doing better with it each day. It’s worth seeing the aftermath of it all.


Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

One thought on “Fearlessly Jewish”

  1. Thank you so much for your kind and touching words, and giving me some insight of how I positively influence people on their Jewish journey. Sometimes I feel that I am filling some big Doc Martins, but I’m glad that the community at large has been patient with helping me learn in stride.

    You know, when I got to shul more often that not I also come in my Doc Martins and dressed like a hardcore punk, rudeboy styled… with an anti-swastika button adorning my jacket. This is me as I take my place as Gabbai during the Torah reading, and no one even blinks an eye. Today I have a very noticeable and unique place in the Jewish community, people seeing my emunah and not just my wrapping. But it took me putting myself out there, so that people could appreciate me and call me up to be the leader I am today.

    It’s interesting that this story of this anusi (converso) young man I met. As you know, at the time I was just getting over being terribly ill and was venturing out into the public again. I was starting to visit the local shuls too, after moving to a new side of town it seems like a good time to look around. At about the same time I met met this young man, who also came from the same barrio I was born in.

    Now this young man had told me of all the difficult he had fitting in the local synagogues. But I also noticed right away that he was quite wishy-washy about making a full conversion too. He somehow wanted to just be accepted as Jewish, and didn’t want to do the word to make a conversion to Judaism,

    Now, when this young man noticed how well I handled myself within the Jewish community as you noted, and fitting in with the different array of Jews. And when I started talking with the merchant about my life experiences and my Torah studies, which was met with delight and more stories. When we walked out that young man said: “You know so much, if I were you, I would just have pretend to be one of them or related to some important rabbi… instead of converting. You could totally pass yourself off.”

    I was stunned, at how tragic that was for him. That he felt at best what he could achieve in the Jewish community was to “pass.” Over time I came to also realize that he was like many others; people who were not sincerely dedicated to actually integrating into the community and that is why they stayed at the edge.

    A few months after that encounter, the same young man called me. And we had attended a local Jewish festival and had seen some used Jewish sacred items on sale there. Among them a parochet – a beautiful covering which once adorned a Aron haKodesh – the ark of the Torah scrolls. He didn’t know what it was at first, but he wanted to buy it and I kind of turned him away from it. It was sacred and many laws applied to the handling of it, I said it was a bad idea.

    But later on a few weeks later he found the shop site which had it, and he wanted to buy it still. He messages me and says, “I want to buy it and bring it home and put it up, you should come with me. It would be nice to set up a basement synagogue in my house, like the anusim did in the old days. It could be cool, you could be the rabbi.” As sweet as it sounded to him, the idea sounded really offensive to me.

    I told him no, I wouldn’t help him because that wasn’t healthy. I strongly made the case that today we lived in a world where we are free to practice Judaism in the open, I would not practice my faith in hiding. We don’t hide our faith, that is inappropriate. And that it is just not healthy to try to go at it alone. As Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) teaches us, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” If we do that we are not practicing Judaism.

    But above all I stressed to him, Judaism is about doing. It’s not about feeling Jewish, or securing papers saying your Jewish. Judaism is about doing Jewish, because Jewish people do Jewish things. Judaism is also about engaging in fellowship with the Jewish community. Judaism is about being with other Jewish people, and doing Jewish things. Because the most natural way to learn is through practice and people sharing their personal experience.

    For the young man of the story, what became of him? Not a lot. He is still on the edge of Jewish society, too shy to shop at most Jewish stores and not tied into any congregation. Feeling awkward and bitter that his is no closer to Judaism today than he was years before when he started taking interest. Still in lament over the fact he doesn’t know where he fits.

    I feel sad for him. As for me, in that same amount of time I have had a different journey. Since then, in this very neighborhood and community I have since become a celebrated as a hometown Latino Jewish boy. Not just involved in the community, but also building bridges across these distinct communities. And now also teaching my Jewish faith and leading prayers in the local synagogues in Spanish, to reach other like myself. The larger Jewish community embracing me as I am, and giving me so much respect in light of my own unique expression of dedication to Judaism.

    My experience of finding acceptance and fullness in the Jewish community, it is a reality that would have been if I had not taken my step-out into the community and embraced them, so they could embrace me in return. And I wish the same for our other unique souls out there.

    Hardcore Mesorah


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