When I first landed in Germany, as an American 17-year-old observant Jew, I had so many hopeful expectations. I knew that as a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange fellow, I was selected to help build U.S.-German connections, and I aspired to have an amazing connection with my secular Christian host family. As a Jew living in Germany, I hoped to explain aspects of my faith and history as well as convey my sense of peoplehood to those I would meet throughout this experience. However, little by little, I have come to appreciate the difference between discussion, explanation, and action.
I arrived in Germany on a Tuesday before Rosh Hashanah, giving me time to explain Shabbat and the High Holidays to my hosts. During family dinner on the second night, I learned I was the first Jewish person they had ever met. I began to talk about Shabbat and various practices and concepts around the day. I talked for a while, my host brother asking question after question, unable to quite wrap his mind around a day without internet or electronics. However, it was not until that first Friday night when I cleaned my room, spent time making challah, helped with dinner, lit candles, and then spent the entire next day around the home, not checking my phone or doing work, that they began to realize what Shabbat is and why I love it.
During that first week, I also spent time brainstorming about the High Holidays and how I would find meaning. I reached out to the local Jewish community. The synagogue, while not allowing visitors due to the pandemic, nonetheless approved my application to attend services.
One of the most challenging decisions I had to make was whether to use transportation on the holiday. The synagogue was too far away to walk, and I had to decide if it would be more meaningful to spend the holiday alone or travel to the synagogue. I decided to take a prepaid bus to the synagogue. On the day before Yom Kippur, I cooked dinner for the whole family and made the night different. I tried to explain to my host family the Jewish concepts of judgment and teshuvah – repentance. Still, no matter how many times I attempted to describe it, the idea of fasting or deprivation of any kind was so foreign to them. It was not until Yom Kippur morning, when I woke up early, put on a white dress, and spent five hours in the synagogue, that my host family started to understand the seriousness of the day. When I arrived home at 3 p.m., my host mother saw the hunger and fatigue on my face. She was shocked to see that despite my apparent exhaustion, I rose from my slumber two hours later and went back to the synagogue. Overall, Yom Kippur day was incredibly meaningful, and by living with them, my host family was able to understand the importance of the day and gain a deep respect for it.
Still, the best example of this came when my host parents accompanied me to synagogue during a vacation. After a month of living with them, I had talked about Hebrew, prayer, Jewish community, and synagogue, trying to explain the meaning behind communal language and observance. However, it was not until sitting together, during Kabbalat Shabbat services in a synagogue in Stockholm, Sweden, that they finally understood. We were sitting in the seventh row when the chazan began to daven, or pray. I started to chant without even opening my siddur, the Hebrew verses just seeping out of me. About 10 minutes into the services, my host mom looked over at me with a big smile on her face.
“You can sing, ” she whispered.
“No, I have a horrible voice,” I laughed.
Immediately after the service, they expressed amazement at my full participation despite the difference in country and community. My host mother sings in her church choir. She could not get over how by knowing Hebrew, I could take part in most Jewish services worldwide, while in her experience, every church service is conducted in the vernacular language. That night I was also invited to dinner with the rabbi of The Great Synagogue of Stockholm, Ute Steyer. She had once belonged to my minyan in New York. Again, my host family could not believe that someone I did not know well in a foreign country would invite me to her home for Shabbat. I explained that this was not unusual for me as this is what the Jewish community looks like. This was yet another moment I could show them, through action, what living Judaism looks like.
Today, as I continue living with my host family, these experiences continue to happen, and I am so grateful for them. There is so much power in connecting with the unfamiliar and strength in understanding and appreciating differences. Moreover, the exchange goes both ways; in the same way that I have joined their family and thrust myself into German culture, they have gained insight into being Jewish by living with me. My host family can understand my practice, tradition, and religious life because we spend time together on an intimate and familial level.
My time in Germany has been full of both highlights and challenges, but the relationship and powerful learning between my host family have certainly been some of the most rewarding aspects of it all.
Adina Gerwin is 17 years old and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. She is currently spending her junior year studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany.