Potato latkes crackled in the pan as the sweet scent of brisket filled the air. My cramped college apartment resembled an outdoor bazaar with dishes, dreidels and decorations scattered around my living room, dining area and kitchen. Munching heartily, my friends of diverse backgrounds--Colombian, Indian, Italian, Filipino and Chinese--discussed the history of Hanukkah and compared religious philosophies. Before my party, most wouldn't have known the difference between a Macabee and a menorah, but by the end of the night, I had them dancing the hora and yelling l'chaim as they clinked their wine glasses.
My heart and stomach were full of warmth and joy knowing that we were sharing traditions because we wanted to learn from each other. To me, sharing my heritage with friends and family at home is much more fulfilling than sitting in a large hall with a few friends and more strangers. I would rather listen to many people's views than to one man (or woman) in the front of the room. This is why I haven't belonged to a temple for more than 15 years.
Don't get me wrong: I love meeting new people. In fact, one of my fondest memories is of a Passover seder held by my friends Liz and Seth--even though they and most of the 12 other friends I met that night are vegetarian. Without a rabbi dictating every move, we were able to take extra time to discuss customs that seemed strange to non-Jews, such as the dipping of our pinkies in red wine while calling out the ten plagues. Observing my faith outside of a temple eases my worry over tweaking traditions a bit to accommodate different sensibilities. For example, the seder plate that night boasted all the conventional accoutrements, except for the lamb shank, which Liz wittily represented instead with a shank-shaped carving from a Boca Burger! I thought it was hilarious and far from sacrilegious.
Although it sounds contradictory, praying is also a more meaningful experience for me outside of a temple. On September 11, I hugged my friends and family, so thankful that everyone I loved was safe. But the Yom Kippur right after that traumatic day, I sought out solitude to work through my grief and pray for others' safety. I went to a peaceful park in Marblehead, Mass., on a cliff looking out toward the ocean. Peering up at an old lighthouse, I pondered how something so brutal could happen to so many innocent people. I asked myself, “How could God let this happen?” Then I reconciled that we human beings were mostly to blame for our arrogance and ignorance. Watching the sunset while looking back over the last year, I reaffirmed my faith and desire to help others. When I broke the fast later that evening, my food tasted sweeter than it had in days, knowing that I had faced my fears and taken time to reconnect with my beliefs.
Celebrating my heritage outside of a temple also allows my family to come together despite their different beliefs. Although my fiancé Justin's father Jay decided as a young boy that he was an atheist after hearing the horror of the Holocaust played out daily on the evening news, he savored a lavish Hanukkah dinner with Justin (an agnostic who has become an “honorary Jew”) and my Reform Jewish mom and uncle and smiled as I lit the candles in my menorah. Jay may not have practiced Judaism for half a century, but he felt the warmth from the new family members around him.
Still, this past Yom Kippur, I briefly doubted the power of private religious practice. I spent the day reflecting over this hurricane season's devastation. I sat on my back porch, staring solemnly at the denuded tree that had been a vantage point for many blue jays and woodpeckers and walked by the street lamp that still glowed despite lying flat on the ground. Part of me thought that listening to a rabbi would help put things into perspective. But, ultimately, I decided that, more than anything, I needed time on my own to work through my anger and pray for others who had lost their homes. I followed the example of a dazed bird that I glimpsed hopping along a branch of a fallen tree: I slowly regained my hope and found courage to fly again.
Perhaps some people find solace in attending services, finding strength in common beliefs. Maybe others forget why they're religious and just go to temple out of habit or because their parents or spouses expect them to attend. I don't believe I have to attend services to prove my Jewish identity. And most importantly, I know that I'm Jewish inside my soul, whether inside or outside of a temple.