Jessica Oudin, nineteen, is a sophomore Viola Performance major at The Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio. Jessica, originally from Houston, Texas, is the daughter of Chip and Julie Oudin and the sister of Jean Oudin.
I do not know if I can describe the feeling that engulfs me as soon as I step inside a synagogue. It is as if all of the tension that has been building up inside me during the past week suddenly melts away into instant warmth and comfort. Everything inside the synagogue--from the faded upholstery on the velvety blue chairs, to the familiar musty smell of the care-worn siddur (prayer book), Gates of Prayer, fills me with an overwhelming sense of inner peace. After a week filled with all of the work and stress that is typical for a nineteen-year-old college student, stepping into synagogue for the traditional Shabbat (Sabbath), service enables me to retreat into a sacred place that is free from all of my everyday concerns and worries. When I step inside a synagogue, I am truly "coming home": I am reconnecting with my people's history, with my people's heritage, and ultimately with myself.
I have always felt an unusually strong connection to my Judaism. Even as a young girl enrolled in a Jewish elementary school, I always looked forward to the time when the entire school would congregate in our chapel to celebrate the coming of Shabbat. I loved the harmony and beauty that I found in our cantor's Hebrew chanting. I loved the stories and the lessons that our sage rabbis shared with us each week. Yet most of all, I loved when, as a fifth-grade student, I was given the chance to lead my fellow students in prayer; leading the services meant that I was at last able to read from the Torah.
Very few moments in my short lifetime have yet to compare with the moment when I lifted the beautiful and ornate Torah scroll from the ark for the first time. It was as if I was granted an instant sense of connection with and love for both my Jewish community and my Jewish heritage.
I can remember feeling the same sense of belonging and comfort when I held the Torah in my arms in front of my congregation during my Bat Mitzvah, and once again as I stood for the Amidah with my peers and friends during my Confirmation. I find these moments of contentment and beauty through the sense of community, tradition, and love that is inherent in Judaism, and these emotions are what fuel my sense of connection and commitment to my Jewish roots.
Now that I am attending a college thousands of miles away from my hometown, now that I have left the comfort and safety of my own home for the uncertainty of the "real world"--I am relying on my connection to my Judaism more than ever before. I will never forget the fear and insecurity that plagued me when I walked alone towards my campus's Hillel Center--the Jewish organization and synagogue at school--for my first Shabbat service away from home. As I walked through the freezing snow, I thought about turning back towards my dorm countless times. There was safety in the familiarity of the dorm, despite the fact that I did not have a single Jewish friend with whom to share the Sabbath. However, some hidden strength and personal drive enabled me to walk on towards Hillel.
Just as I will never forget the trepidation with which I started towards the building, I know I will never forget the warmth that entered my mind and body as soon as I arrived at Hillel. It is a humble structure--not nearly as grand nor as familiar as my synagogue back home--yet the same sense of peace and comfort prevailed upon me as soon as we lit the Sabbath candles. I soon realized that it didn't matter where I was or whom I was with; my sense of Judaism is an integral part of my soul that can never be taken away from me.
I will carry my sense of Judaism with me no matter where the uncertainty of life takes me in the future. My Jewish roots and my connection to my Jewish heritage are what sustain me and give me the strength to carry on, even in the midst of what seem to be life's most insurmountable obstacles. Even if my fate leads me to start an interfaith family of my own, I hope and pray that I will have the chance to share my sense of commitment and passion for my Judaism with my own children, just as my mother was able to share hers with me. For me, it doesn't matter whether there is a menorah, a Christmas tree, or both symbols within my house. It is the sense of belonging, comfort, and love that Judaism provides for me that enables me to truly "come home."
Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.