I identify as Jewish, both culturally and spiritually. Judaism is inherently difficult to define, but that’s the point. We’re meant to interpret and reinterpret, define and redefine, everything about it; as a religion it values study and practicing equally, considering studying and discussing the Torah as necessary and holy as praying. As I build my personal definition of Judaism, I increasingly see it coming down to the simple but profound concept of love. Judaism to me means loving each other, loving the world, and loving ourselves, and living our lives out of love as much as possible. It means recognizing that deep down we are all the same and that we are all connected, and through that recognition living our lives in love, acceptance, and forgiveness for ourselves and others as we navigate the complex learning experiences we’re given throughout life.
My time in Vienna has radically changed my understandings and experience of my Judaism. Raised secularly Jewish and having had nothing to do with Judaism besides Chanukah each year since a brief stint in personal exploration in elementary school, it was a significant shock when I found myself attending a Shabbat service at Austria’s only progressive synagogue, within my first few weeks of coming to Vienna last fall. Little did I know, that just over a year later, I would be on the path to becoming a rabbi, immersing myself with spiritual exploration and study, with my time in Vienna to thank for this change!
Growing up Jewish, the Holocaust was certainly always a theme in my life, but when I first moved to Vienna I suddenly felt much more confronted by the reality of this history. There are memorials and plaques on virtually every street—what before occupied a much more distant part of my mind was now on my mind every time I went outside. This is no doubt what brought me to synagogue originally; it felt overwhelmingly meaningful—political, even—to be practicing Judaism and singing the same prayers in a place with such history. Over the course of the year, I found myself drawn more and more to Jewish activities, joining a Jewish philosophy group with other USTAs as well as a youth group for organizing events among younger Jews living in Vienna.
My experience of Judaism began very culturally here in Vienna, as I sought and found community among people with this shared and difficult-to-define identity of being ‘Jewish.’ Yet when I experienced an unexpected and shocking loss back home in the States at the end of April, it started to fulfill a newly realized need for spirituality in my life. As things continued to fall apart in many ways in my life, Judaism increasingly became an anchor in my life, providing me with clarity and keeping me grounded in the parts of my life I could control. Over the past eight months, this has only continued to strengthen and deepen, and I can’t describe it any differently than to say that I’ve fallen in love with Judaism in an entirely new way. After many months of spiritual discovery and awakening, I realized in September that I’d like to become a rabbi in the future. Working as a USTA in Vienna, I discovered that teaching is something I both love and am good at, and I see being a rabbi as a lifetime of learning and teaching, of growing spiritually and helping others to do the same. Nothing has felt more right than this path, and I know I was meant to come to Vienna to discover it!
Now, I not only attend the synagogue regularly for Shabbat services, holidays, and events, but I also helped found a chavurah, an egalitarian fellowship that meets monthly for communal Shabbat services as an alternative to the traditional institutionalized Judaism. Helping to plan, organize, and lead these services has been an incredible opportunity to develop my relationship with Judaism and gain tangible experience with spiritual leadership, which is invaluable for my future as a rabbi!
Since I didn’t grow up around really any other Jews, I’m quite used to being seen as the sole spokesperson and treated as such by the people around me. So I haven’t found that to be too much of a challenge in Austria, though I can imagine that being difficult for some people. Something that was a bit harder for me to come to terms with at first was realizing that friends and colleagues may have relatives who played a role in the Holocaust, but I think it’s been a really important opportunity for growth in empathy and understanding, opening my mind and heart to recognize that people don’t choose who they’re related to, and I can’t judge somebody for such things outside of their control. Then there are sometimes instances of antisemitism that can be disorienting and make me especially hyperaware of living in Austria, but that sadly happens all over the world, including the US and Colorado—where I’m from—so I don’t necessarily associate those incidents with Austria specifically.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to start wearing a Kippah all the time, propelling myself into visual Judaism in a way I’ve never before experienced (though my decision to start wearing a Star of David necklace a year ago did feel similarly significant, albeit much more subtle). I get questions pretty much daily about it; as a woman wearing a Kippah, I stand out among both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. I knew that I would get a lot of questions, or at least double-takes, when I decided to start wearing it, and I personally accept each question as an opportunity for me to learn about myself in how I handle the situation and answer. I actually also really treasure being able to talk about Judaism with people who haven’t been exposed to it much and appreciate putting myself forward to answer questions for colleagues and students who might otherwise have nobody to ask.