Finding My New Jewish Home


Everybody dance now! The author, third row on right wearing glasses and a gray sweatshirt, with her Israeli dance troupe. Courtesy of Jordie Priesman

I was born and raised in California, and it wasn’t until four years ago that I moved to the Washington, D.C., area. When I lived in California I knew I was Jewish, I went to a Jewish day school and went to shul semi-regularly, but looking back, I honestly didn’t feel a major connection. Sure, I was proud to be Jewish, and sure I knew some Hebrew, but I personally didn’t feel a connection between myself and Judaism.

That was before I turned 12.

Once I was 12, I began preparing for my bat mitzvah. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to be counted as a full member of the Jewish community, to be counted in a minyan and wear a tallit. To me, it was an honor, a coming of age. At my shul in California, the rabbis required upcoming b’nai mitzvot to go to shul every Saturday for what they called Dovenor’s Clinic. We would meet in the wee hours of the morning (8 a.m.) and discuss a different topic every week. Then we would go into the main service and, as a class, lead the Shacharit service. It was a way of getting us used to leading the services as well as learning the prayers. Then we would go into a separate room and work with our tutor on whatever she had assigned us the previous week.

Every week I went, and every week I loved it. (OK, maybe I loved the cookies our tutor brought practically every week, but still.) I did this for a few months until, long story short, my parents informed my brother and me that Abba had gotten a job in D.C., and we’d be moving.

In the middle of my bat mitzvah training.

I had already learned my haftorah and was working on my Torah readings. Now I may have to start all over, at a new shul, with new people, for a completely different parasha!? Sorry, that just wasn’t going to happen. However, we moved, and began our shul shopping. 

Every Shabbat morning, we would go to a different shul. We would discuss as a family the pros and cons of each (location, the rabbi and hazzan, the people, the color of the rugs, etc.). We would go back to a few that we thought were possibilities, and try those out again.

One snowy Shabbat morning, we went to yet another shul, Har Shalom, in Potomac, Md., just as we had been doing for the past month or so. When we walked in, we were shocked. The sanctuary was beautiful and wooden, and very open. The windows allowed in a lot of natural light, and it was beautiful to watch the snow fall as I recited the Amidah prayer. The scenery, however, is not what sticks with me to this day. What does, however, is what happened after — at kiddush.

I got my plate of bagel, cream cheese and lox, and sat down with my family. We didn’t know anyone, so just chose a random table. We talked with a few people who were nice and welcoming. Suddenly, someone walked up behind us, and was talking to us. He recognized that we were new, and wanted to come and introduce himself.

It was the rabbi. He had come over with his oldest daughter, who was about my age, and introduced us, so that I could have a friend. Then, the hazzan came and introduced himself and family, and soon we were laughing and talking as if we had been there since day one. It was really nice. My family and I were welcomed there, right away, and it is no doubt that we did end up joining the shul.

From the start, it was almost an immediate fit. I became very involved there, as well as in Har Shalom’s USY chapter. I volunteered on Sunday mornings as a madricha, and taught kids Hebrew. I frequently read Torah. I held several positions on various boards within USY. I even found an amazing Israeli dance troupe that I fell in love with.

Then one day, it hit me. I had found it. I had found my connection. I don’t know how long I had actually felt it before I realized it, but once I did, I knew it for sure. I felt the connection I had for so long been lacking to Judaism. I loved it. It felt so good, I practically smiled for days. The move to Maryland, and Har Shalom specifically, had allowed me to find that connection. For the first time, I would look forward to go going to shul to see my friends and shmooze. Joining Har Shalom, for me, was more than merely just joining a synagogue, it was an entirely new and wonderful community for me to be in.

Today, I am just as in love with Har Shalom as I was that first snowy morning we walked in. It has been a great change, and I can’t think of what my life would be had we not joined.

I am still reading Torah. I am still teaching Hebrew. I am still very involved in USY. I am still a member of that same Israeli dance troupe.

Most of all, however, I am still proud to be a Jew.

Jordie Priesman is a junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md.