I recently visited Beijing, a city completely foreign to me in language, history and culture. I wasn’t afraid of the unknown because I had books and I had curiosity. I headed to the airport with my backpack and my passport in my typical travel outfit: a cut off green Maccabi Haifa tee and a Birthright sweatshirt.
I only realized my own hypocrisy after the trip, when I saw a photo of myself at the airport in this outfit. As I set off for my trip- which was supposed to be a moment of anonymity and personal space amidst my daily life of accountability- here I was, dressed fully in garb that beckons recognition. I purposefully keep this outfit as my airplane gear because I want to meet traveling Israelis. I want to be cat-called in the airport food court for being a Haifa fan. In a land of unknown words and millions of strangers, I yearned for Hebrew. In my time of solitude, I needed Israelis to feel at home.
Throughout my travels, I now see, this search for Israelis has been a pattern. And there has only been one space to find them: Chabad.
Though I would never step foot in a Chabad House in the States, I have celebrated Pesach at Chabad Beijing, studied all night for Shavuot at Chabad Laos, ate a wonderful hummus meal at Chabad Bangkok, davened Shabbat Shacharit at Chabad Mumbai, and toured the grandiose building of Chabad Moscow. Chabad Houses in foreign lands (often with limited local Jewish populations) are a strange phenomenon: Ashkenaz bearded rabbis and local Jews who look nothing alike, secular Israeli travelers and devout religious families who believe in such different Judaisms. And me: the little girl in back, with fluid religious faith and a confused national identity, just looking for a little bit of home in a place that has nothing to do religiously or culturally with my actual home.
These strange moments of comfort that I’ve found at Chabad houses across the globe actually speak to the paradoxical essence of my Jewish identity. In its bizarre confluences of homelessness and rootedness, of Zionism and Judaism, of Israel and Diaspora, of belief and secularism, I have inexplicably found Chabad to be the one space where I feel most comfortable being Jewish. My Judaism reveals itself at Chabads around the world- I would even say that Chabad houses pull my Judaism out of hiding. Because Chabad houses in foreign countries are the one random space where non-believers (secular Israelis) are welcomed in to spiritual spaces (Chabad houses) and find a familiar comfort (hummus, Jews) in a place totally foreign to their memories (synagogues, American rabbis, Orthodox), I suddenly find myself feeling comfortable in my own confusion. I find myself at home in the foreign.
In our global Jewish community today, Chabad houses succeed to unite all of us searching for a piece of ourselves across the world from home, if only for a moment.email print