I’ve always wanted to be an artist. So – in 2017, I left the familiarity and comfort of my childhood home in Southern California, and moved to New York City, where I enrolled at The New School, a prestigious Liberal Arts college.
Over the past two years, I’ve enjoyed many eye-opening experiences, as my mind – and my world – has expanded. But perhaps none has been more eye-opening or mind-expanding than my first real Shabbat experience.
Judaism is something that has always intrigued me, even though – or maybe because – I didn’t have much exposure to it as a child, or during my school years. One thing I resolved to do while at college was to discover more about my heritage – about Jewish history, Jewish beliefs, and especially Jewish practices.
Shabbat in particular held a fascination to me. And when I heard about the Shabbat Project, I knew it would be, at the very least, an interesting experience. This was how I landed up at an open Shabbaton for more than 1,000 people at a hotel in New Jersey.
I knew no one else there – but my allotted roommate was a girl the same age as me, and who, like me, I soon found out, had little exposure to Judaism growing up. We came from similar worlds, and we had a similar hunger to learn more about our heritage. We spent a lot of time together that weekend getting to know each other, connecting in a deep way. During the Friday night prayer service, we sat huddled together over the explanatory siddur trying to find our way through the service. Together, we performed the ritual washing of hands before the sacred act of eating bread, and my new friend explained that the blessing on washing had to be said outside the bathroom and not in it.
At the dinner, I sat with a group of girls who all had such different stories about how they arrived at that Shabbaton, each more interesting and inspiring than the last. By the end of the night I knew all their names and all their stories – and they knew mine. Right at the end of the meal, one of the girls grabbed my hand and pulled me out of my seat, as everyone danced around the room, weaving through the tables, clapping and singing. Taking in the scene – looking at all the joyous faces, all the people from different places and different backgrounds, united in song and dance – I couldn’t help but smile.
I met so many new people that Shabbat. Incredibly, I connected with them all, instantly. Everyone was so easy to talk to and so interested in my story. The fact that they were all open about their own journeys made me feel like I could talk freely about mine.
The guest speakers at the dinner were inclusive, interesting, inspiring. The atmosphere was so accepting, and so uplifting. The entire experience was surprisingly accessible, and in a strange way, almost familiar.
Havdalah was especially moving. In the gorgeous hotel ballroom, the lights were dimmed and a group of singing, dancing Chasidim took the stage, one of them holding a beautiful giant candle that bathed the whole room in a warm glow. Spices were passed around and all the girls had their arms around each other – singing and swaying with people who only a couple of hours earlier had been complete strangers. There was an overwhelming sense of calm over the room. This space between Shabbat and the new week was filled with so much beauty. I felt at peace with where I was and who I was, and still I knew my journey was only beginning. And then, the music boomed from the speakers as a new week began – and again, I was taken by the hand, to dance the night away...
That Shabbat, I experienced how the Jewish day of rest brings people together. How it brings us closer to ourselves. How it brings us closer to God. I’ve since started to learn more about Shabbat – about what it means, practically, to observe Shabbat, and also what Shabbat means philosophically, emotionally, spiritually. Through my learning and experiences, and especially from that Shabbaton, I’ve realised something – I want to keep Shabbat. I want that beauty and connection and spirituality to fill my soul.
Samantha Wolf is a senior at The New School, a prestigious Liberal Arts college in New York City.