The most significant aspect of my identity that has become apparent to me during my high school career is my relationship to religion. I have grown up in an observant home: we light Shabbat candles each Friday night, attend services every week and partake in rich Jewish traditions. I started learning Hebrew in Kindergarten, watched film clips about the heroic Maccabees and sang along to Modeh Ani each morning with my classmates and teachers. As I grew older, I was given the opportunity to study Talmud, the Prophets and explore diverse commentaries on the Torah.
Every necessary element to mold a Modern Orthodox Jewish identity was placed before me. But religious connection is not a science, nor does it coalesce on its own. I prayed, but didn’t internalize the words on the page. I studied, but only because it was a part of my course schedule. I took all that had been given to me for granted.
One night, as I was sitting in my room studying for my Freshman year finals, I heard a knock on my door. My parents peeked their heads in and told me to close my books; they had something important to talk to me about. I nervously shut my laptop, slipped a placeholder into my textbook and walked over to my bed. They glanced at each other with worried looks.
“We’re moving. Across the country.”
I didn’t answer. What can you say to that kind of declaration. “No” certainly wasn’t an option; they were the adults, after all. So, once the school year ended, I left for my photojournalism summer program only to come back to a New York apartment that looked like a shell of its former self. The furniture had made its way to our new home in California along with all of my books and everything that gave my (now former) home vibrancy. It was time for a new chapter in my adolescent life.
I started a new school, one that described itself as a “community school.” While still exposed to a Jewish education, I found that I no longer had morning prayers built into my schedule, nor was I surrounded by those who practiced the same level of observance as I did. I was given the chance to learn Torah, but in English and without in-depth commentaries in their original dialects. My new environment, though supportive and filled with Jewish culture, was vastly different than anything I had ever been exposed to.
Until my cross country move, I didn’t know an existence that started each morning without sha’charit prayers, that didn’t include Gemara study twice a day or in-depth Hebrew learning of the Chumash.
However, rather than distancing me from observance, this new existence made me realize how much I needed it in my life. I began to find solace in my davening and dove headfirst into Jewish learning.
I started going to the Rabbi’s 8 a.m. Torah study group with my dad every Shabbat morning before services and found it to be a meaningful forum for me to explore the application of the Torah to my own daily actions. Praying has become my outlet, perhaps the only space where all of my external pressures fade, and I am able to focus solely on my connection to God and on deep introspection and measured reflection.
When I left New York, I left my family, my childhood memories, and my closest confidants; I left behind my corner of the globe. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was also moving toward something.
I was moving towards a deep awareness of my values–an awareness that could only have come to me through distance.
Alexandra Orbuch is a junior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.