And, largely, I was successful. While I didn’t run away from being Jewishly involved, I did “think outside the box” when it came to building relationships. During my first year, eating in the Hewitt dining hall, I got my first taste of many many conversations to come where I would try to explain Judaism to people who had never spoken to Jews before. It was what I am fond of calling a broadening experience, to say the least. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I needed broadening not only outside the Jewish community, but also within it.
When I met Elissa, I was, like so many other good Jewish kids from North America, studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Ok, so that wasn’t such a bold choice – but I had always wanted to spend a semester in Jerusalem.) As we got to know each other, having long talks on the lawns at Hebrew U or in her dorm room, a number of things became clear to me. First, Elissa was special – there were no two ways about it. She was smart and kind and incisive and funny. Second, it was clear that Elissa knew where she was going in life. Third, and finally, Elissa modeled a kind of Judaism I had never encountered before - she was a Reform Jew who was committed to her faith.
I’m sure this is a terrible thing to say out loud, but, until I encountered Elissa, I didn’t really know that there were committed Reform Jews. Ok, maybe I understood they existed in an intellectual way, but I had never seen any real-life evidence. In my mind, people became Reform Jews when they wanted to maintain some sort of Jewish identity but were no longer interested in regularly attending services or feeling beholden to Jewish law. Let’s just say Elissa showed me the error of my ways on that one. She described to me an entire subculture of Reform kids who sounded identical to the Conservative kids I grew up with – they went to camp, belonged to youth groups, got together for Shabbat. They believed in Judaism, were committed to Israel and social justice, and some of them grew up to be rabbis – as Elissa very much wanted to. As elemental as it might seem, Elissa helped me understand that mine was not the only valid form of Judaism to practice, nor were my methods of celebration and observance the only real or meaningful ones.
These lessons have been especially important to me in my life here in Okinawa. Yoni is the only rabbi on our tiny island (in the entire WestPac region, really), so Jews who are looking for connection and religion and counsel come to him. It has been something of a struggle for both of us to adapt our practices to meet the needs this community, and I think it always will be. But whenever we get it right, I think of Elissa, how she inspired me with her passion, and how she taught me to accept everyone’s opinions and feelings about Judaism as valid. More specifically: thanks to her, I was really able to enjoy our community Seder this past week. Sure – it was short, and crazy, and maybe not like any Seder I had ever been to before (although that’s not really a fair metric) – but it created a point of religious and social connection and provided the all-important Passover nostalgia factor. 85 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, got together to celebrate the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. So we didn’t use a lot of Hebrew, or sing all the songs I grew up singing – who cares?! We took a different path, but we arrived at the same place: positive religious feeling. Whether she knew it or not, Elissa helped me get to a place where I could happily embrace this feeling of “different as ok.”
Unfortunately, thinking of Elissa during our Seder was bittersweet. Last week, just before the beginning of Passover, Elissa’s family and friends lost her to a six-and-a-half year battle with Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 29. She never made it to Rabbinical School (though she had been accepted to HUC), but she certainly spent her life inspiring others with her passion for social justice and Democratic politics, her commitment to Judaism, and her love for her friends. I know that I was lucky to have been a part of her life, and I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that her memory will be for a blessing.