Friday. The day when most are basking in the laziness that’s made possible by a weekday without class. It’s when brunch, Netflix and later–than–noon wake–ups reign supreme. Sounds like the life, no?
Except for me, and many of my religiously–observant peers (and those cursed with the Friday 9 a.m.), that doesn’t exist. Let me walk you through the craziness that is every Friday. I wake up as early as my body can handle. Cram in as much work as possible. Shower mid–afternoon. Cook for Shabbat. Shut my phone and laptop down, wistful for the few hours of productivity I managed to get in. Set up my lights for the next 25 hours. Sprint to services as the sun goes down, because I’m never not running late—the sun goes down as early as 4 p.m. The day’s just too short. And while that might sound straight up stressful, it’s just the beginning of my weekly bliss: Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
Allow me to explain: I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. I attended Jewish primary school, a host of Jewish summer camps, Jewish high school in New York City and spent a gap year post–high school living and studying in Israel. I also came to Penn, which, statistically speaking, is a quarter Jewish. Here, I spend a not–so–normal amount of time in Hillel—the Jewish building on campus. I guess you could say I live in a Jewish bubble. And up until I got to Penn, I didn’t really have to give my Jewishness a second thought.
For me, being Jewish at Penn is mostly easy. My rocky transition to college? Nonexistent, thanks to a little enclave in Hillel called the Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP). In a nutshell, this community of some–200 Orthodox Jews spends loads of time in Hillel everyday—eating meals together, attending prayer services up to three times a day and hosting intimate potluck Shabbat meals in the spirit of the weekly day of rest. "Members" often get acquainted before even stepping foot on Locust—many of us met during our year in Israel. By the end of my first week at Penn, I didn’t just have a friend group of fellow "gap year kids"—I was also already waving to upperclassmen on Locust. Simply put, I instantly formed a family at Penn.
Beyond this oasis within Hillel, though, Penn was my rude awakening of sorts. It was essentially my first time in an environment with people who weren’t slight iterations of myself. They weren’t part of the "yeshiva league," the broader community of New York area Orthodox Jews, and many hadn’t met an Orthodox Jew before. It was the also first time I wasn’t spending upwards of four hours a day in front of Hebrew texts. Some more firsts: Having to explain why I was rushing to shower at 2 p.m. on a Friday. Having to explain why I’d be unreachable for 25 hours starting sundown on Friday. Having to explain why I was all dressed up on Friday night and Saturday morning—no, I wasn’t heading to a date night, but instead would be singing along with the entire OCP on Hillel’s second floor, Hebrew prayer book in hand. Having to apologize to new friends and group project partners for not responding to texts until three stars emerged on Saturday night. Having to explain to people why I only eat Hillel wraps, twice a day, every day—they’re definitively amazing, but it’s also because I keep kosher, which means no Wishbone, Allegro Pizza or Philly cheesesteaks for me. Having to explain what I’m mumbling before taking a sip of water—I’m saying a Bracha, or a thanks–to–God–for–hydrating–me. Catching myself saying Baruch Hashem (translation: thank God) after hearing good news, inevitably leading to some seriously confused looks. In other words, it was the first time I was doing things entirely different from my peers, and having to explain what was so second nature to me yet incredibly foreign to anyone else who’d ask. And I hated to admit that the answers to these questions weren’t necessarily clear to me—so how could I possibly go about explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it?
To say, "Because that’s what I’ve always done, and it’s what I’ve been taught” isn’t good enough. How about because my family has done so for generations? My paternal grandfather survived the Holocaust hiding out in the forest against all odds and still kept his faith, and my maternal grandfather escaped persecution in Baghdad and miraculously made it to Israel. Or maybe it’s because I believe in God. Tradition, continuity and faith are certainly sacred, but there had to be something more to why I maintain this all–encompassing lifestyle. Maybe it’s because I find it—and those who also practice it—truly inspirational. In order to sustain this lifestyle, I had to make difficult choices about how I’d define myself both in and out of Penn. I wanted to find a way to maintain and understand my Jewish practice when it isn’t the necessarily the norm—and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that it doesn’t come easy. What’s most impressive is that my peers dedicate countless hours amid the pressures of life at Penn to securing all aspects of a vibrant Jewish community: maintaining a kosher dining hall, planning social events, advocating for religious students, coordinating prayer services and organizing learning opportunities around the clock. My days at Penn depend on these things, all of which I’d taken for granted having grown up in my Jewish bubble.
Granted, at times, Judaism isn’t inspiring—it can be routine, ritualistic and disruptive. Take Shabbat, for example—I can’t use my phone, do work for a full 25 hours, use transportation, or go out on Friday nights. But even in its least inspiring moments, it's taught me perspective. I prefer to spin it like this: I get to turn off my phone. I get to take a 25–hour break from everything stressful Sunday to Friday. I get to reconnect with friends, my family, God and myself. Most of all, I get to be fully present. And when I’m doing it with over 200 passionate, dedicated Jews on a weekly basis, it’s all the more magical. I’ve never missed a Seuda Shlishit, a Shabbat afternoon singing session, aka my favorite time of the week. I pray once a day (well, I try to…). And when I noticed I hadn’t touched a Jewish text in what felt like too long, I thought others might feel the same, so I started the Scroll, a daily Jewish learning email for anyone who's looking for that daily dose.
I might still live in a bubble, but that bubble has expanded and helped me expand in ways I’d never anticipated. Here, I’ve found my best friends, family and security blanket in the OCP and broader Hillel, but I’ve also formed incredible relationships with people from all walks of life and had experiences that pushed me to critically think about what I’m doing, day in and day out. Penn’s taught me not to settle for the status quo and how to chase new opportunities, from Street to club field hockey to study abroad. All the while, my Judaism has been the one constant: my saving grace in this crazy phase of life we call college. While my practice is more or less identical to what I’ve always done, I’ve sought out more answers, gaining clarity as to what and why I’m doing all these things that may be so foreign to you, but are incredibly important to me. So next time you ask, I hope I’ll have some more answers for you. And while you’re at it, hit me up for Shabbat dinner sometime—you’re going to love it.