I always imagined my adult Jewish life as the same as my childhood Jewish life: membership at a Reform temple; celebrating holidays with family and friends; celebrating bar and bat mizvot with a big party; etc. But much to my surprise, I fell in love and married my college sweetheart, a kind-hearted, brilliant Naval Officer, and thus began a life that couldn’t be more different from the one I’d pictured.
A mere three days after breaking the glass under the chuppah in my hometown, my beloved and I moved to a small village on the west coast of Scotland, where we began our ever-redirecting journey to make a Jewish home wherever the government sends us. We were the only Jews in the village and had to drive well over an hour to get to a synagogue, which we did only once. We left, wounded, after the congregation not only made no effort to welcome us; they alienated my husband by gesturing dramatically at him for not wearing a yarmulke when he entered the building.
So, we kept to our little village and made our home Jewish. We celebrated Shabbat and all of the holidays as a couple. This was the foundation of my determination to create a Jewish life for our family, at home, doing what I should have known to do all along.
Since then, we have lived all over the US and in Asia. Twenty years, 11 moves, and four children later, I’m still figuring it out, but I think I’m doing a pretty decent job. Community isn’t always easy to find; sometimes it’s impossible because we are the only Jews in a town with no synagogue and no Chabad. When we lived in Kansas for one year, the nearest synagogue was more than an hour away from our home. My husband worked long hours, we had two small children, and we were expecting our third, and so traveling the long distance was not feasible. But family, tradition, Torah, and prayer are always present wherever we make our home.
We put up our mezuzot as soon as we move into our new homes and, if possible, I bake challah the first Friday after our arrival. Nothing makes our house feel more like a home than the smell of challah baking in the oven. The sooner we make our home Jewish, the sooner it feels like home.
We sent our boys to Jewish preschools in Hawaii, Missouri, Virginia, and even China! When I learned there was a Jewish preschool in Beijing a month before we moved there, I literally cried with relief. To me, Jewish preschool helps to build a strong Jewish foundation in kids. I feel extremely blessed to have lived close enough to one whenever we needed one for our boys. In Hawaii, I drove an hour each way to get our first born to the gan, but it was worth it.
We send the boys to Hebrew school wherever we could find one and teach them at home where we cannot. Our third son celebrated his upsherin (ritual first haircut) with our dear Chabad community and was the first 3-year-old to do so in Beijing.
Two of our sons have reached the age of 13 and became men in the eyes of Jewish law with the love and support of our beloved Chabad rabbi and his family in Virginia. Growing up as a Reform Jew in a large Jewish community, I pictured my own children leading the Saturday morning service and reading from the Torah in a large temple, the culmination of years of Hebrew school. My boys’ coming of age experience was quite different from what I’d imagined, but just as meaningful, if not more so. They learned at Hebrew school, but spent the year they turned 13 studying, one on one, with the rabbi every week and sometimes twice per week. The intimate learning sessions brought them a deeper understanding of Torah and gave them a real sense of Jewish identity.
Our sons are often the only Jews in their schools, and that isolation can be a challenge. They often deal with a lack of awareness and understanding from their peers and have even been targeted by anti-Semitism When one of my sons was in sixth grade, some other boys in his group of friends began to taunt and torment him for being Jewish. They used all the old stereotypes, threw pennies at him, spewed Jewish jokes at him in rapid fire, including some that mocked the Holocaust. He tried to deal with it on his own, playing it cool and telling them what they were doing wasn’t cool, but it went on for a long time.
Creating a strong Jewish identity at home is the way I work to combat any negativity they encounter in the outside world. They definitely deal with adversity by being the only Jews and among only a handful of westerners sometimes, but these trials are making them stronger and more accepting of others. At times, they have told me they don’t want people to know they are Jewish. I leave it up to them how much they want to share, but at home, being Jewish is who we are. It enters into every aspect of our lives: the way we set up our home; the way we eat; the way we treat each other; and the way we go to sleep and wake up every day.
Moving around the world every few years means our roots don’t get a chance to grow deep, but they are strong, and we take them with us to replant wherever we go. Without built-in community, growing Jewish roots takes more effort, but we are doing it and I hope our children do the same as they make their own lives in a few short years.