Choosing Faith Anew: A Yom Kippur and Ashura Reflection

About the Author: Julie Sherbill is currently a Peace Corps Volunteer serving near Marrakech, who hails from Washington, DC. Having lived in Turkey and worked for an international fellowship program, she believes well-designed cultural exchanges are crucial for a more peaceful and just world. Read more about her service on her blog: In the End, We’re All Shoes

There are similarities in the Jewish and Muslim calendars—to start with, they are both lunar. The Jewish and Muslim new years overlapped as well.  And like last year, Yom Kippur coincides with fasting for Ashura, which is the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar.

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Social versus Spiritual

So, what does this have to do with my time here inMorocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Well, like many PCVs, living in a village where Islam is a big part of life here has of course driven me to reflect on my own religious identity, faith, and resolve. As the New Year begins, celebrating Ashura and Yom Kippur simultaneously embodies this experience.

Back home, as bigoted groups take the center of national news, and activists have to take on identity-based hate speech, the social aspect of my Jewish identity in an American context seems to take a front seat. While I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege, anti-Semitism is still a nuanced, subtle reality especially as “hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.”

But in my day-to-day life in Morocco, religion is not a matter of identity, but rather, of faith and belief. Now I’m realizing that when I remove the social aspect of my Jewishness, there doesn’t seem to be much left. That’s especially as a lot of people I hang out with here pray on their own every day, read the Quran, and base many of their daily beliefs and actions on the teachings of the prophet. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to clarify my definition of God.


Collective History and Nationalism

There are 1.8 billion Muslims inthe world, so like in any religion, everyone interprets and practices their beliefs in vastly different ways. Specifically, for many of my friends in my Peace Corps site, faith is not something you observe when it’s convenient, but rather, a sacred code that dictates how to live and view your life. They live out their beliefs with friends and family, but also on their own in their daily routines and perceptions.

My closest friends here know that I am Jewish, but I’m not sure they understand what it means to me back home. Most have never heard of the Holocaust (although they do study the rise of the Nazis in school). While I was explaining to one of my friends what it was, she asked me, “but why did they do this?” and I grew emotional. This collective history of oppression has been a huge part of my Jewish education.

Looking back at my days of bat mitzvahs, Jewish youth groups, ties and trips to Israel, Hebrew school, Hillel, celebrations, commemorations, shivas, and brisses, it’s safe to say I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. For that, I have to thank my family, community, upbringing, and personal choices.

But when I’m alone, without my Jewish community, without people that know my collective history, without any personal sense of Jewish patriotism, I’m only left with my faith—the core belief, spiritual, stuff. Now that I’m looking at it closely, naked, under a microscope, in a sea of other people’s unwavering faiths, I realize just how wavering my own faith is.

Wavering Faith is Still Faith

What do I do with this realization? Clearly, I’m at a crossroads in my, to sound hokey, “spiritual journey.” I could realize that religion is indeed not a “biological reality” and be atheist or agnostic, which would certainly make things easier. I could start from scratch and research all religions, and see which ones I like best. After all, at 26, I’m certainly old enough to pick my own religion, instead of the one chosen for me at birth

Except—I never did feel pressured to be Jewish, anyway. My community and family, for as long as I can remember, always encouraged me to think critically and choose my own path.

Abandoning my religion would feel like I’m letting Judaism’s emphasis on questioning, doubting, and learning lead me away from Judaism itself. And, to not be Jewish would feel like turning my back on the community I grew up in and the self I’ve created. It’s when I’m critiquing my religion, and observing it alongside friends and family, that I feel most Jewish.

It may not seem like the most solid foundation, but for now, it’s enough to keep me here—and that’s what counts. Maybe that’s what faith is—that simple, unexplainable force that makes you keep going, even when there aren’t so many tangible reasons to do so.

Concealing and Atoning

While the word Kippur means atonement (hence Yom Kippur), the root K-P/F-R in Arabic and Hebrew scripts can actually mean to “conceal or deny,” as in, denying one’s religion. This possible connection between denying one’s religion and atoning seems perfect for what’s in my head this year.

This Yom Kippur, as I fast alongside many of my faithful Muslim brothers and sisters, I will aim to begin a more forgiving, yet closer, relationship with Judaism. I no longer want to let doubt lead me to denying or concealing my faith overall.

The Struggle is Real

Listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being, I was inspired by the interviewee Rabbi AmichaiLau-Lavie, who said:

Part of the reason why I’m not an Orthodox Jew but a flexidox or polydox and otherwise-Jew, and not just “Jew,” is that I do believe in evolution, not just of our species and the world, but of concepts. And if the Bible and the Jewish values that have sustained my people for thousands of years believe that women were subservient and that sexuality was of a specific type and that types of worship included slaughtering animals, we’ve evolved. That’s not where we are. So we need to read some of those sacred words as metaphor, as bygone models, as invitations for creativity, and for sort of the second meaning and the second naïveté here that still retrieves this text as useful and these narratives as holy, not as literal.”

I believe in evolution and recognize that sexuality and gender are spectrums. I might not be able to keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat every Friday, or attend Torah study. It may seem to you that I’m picking and choosing what I want, as if God’s commandments are just an open buffet.

But unlike my ancestors, I’m lucky in that, the only one who can prevent me from being Jewish is myself. It’s with this understanding that I will keep learning about religion, having belief be a part of my life, and connecting with my past and future. My own reality and the Jewish texts will never be mutually exclusive, because my own interpretation of religion gives me not dogma, but rather, a platform for freedom to further explore. 

So this year, it is with continued faith, forgiveness, and learning, that I choose Judaism anew. And for that, I have to thank a caring, inclusive, and humble Muslim community in Sidi Bouzid, Morocco for challenging me to do so and showing me what true faith looks like.

This above article is an excerpt. Read the complete article here.
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Making New Friends… or Really Awkward Metro Rides

17025_10153738756338709_8563020704545973706_nMy first thought when I was accepted into the Gather the Jews Open Doors Fellowship was ‘I don’t really know what I’ll be doing.’ My closing thought after I presented my capstone project at the culmination of the Fellowship was ‘I don’t know where I’d be in DC if I hadn’t become a fellow.’ And in between, I thought ‘I can’t wait for our Tuesday night meetings’, ‘which Shabbat should I go to this week’, and ‘I’ve never peeled so many potatoes before!’

In the past six months, I feel like I’ve found my place in the District, met some of my best friends, hosted a Passover Seder (hence the potatoes), and got more in tune with my own Jewish identity. Who would have thought that simple conversations, group meetings with the other fellows, cheesy team bonding exercises, and, of course, inspiration from our two leaders Rachel and Jackie, could have done all that?

The goals of the Fellowship were clear: make the DC Jewish community smaller and act as a resource for people wanting to get more involved and connected. Our personal goal and capstone project – address a need or something missing in the Jewish community – was an evolutionary process that took a lot of thought and reflection. We had direct guidance and all the resources at our fingertips, but were free to explore and research on our own terms, through our individual relationships and meaningful conversations we had with other members of the Jewish community.

What I found: gaps within our community among those with different levels of observance, especially between those who identify as orthodox and those who identify as non-orthodox. My capstone project: a conversation event between those two groups facilitated by meaningful and contentious questions about Judaism. My hope was for people to gain perspective on why someone with a different level of observance thinks the way they do and practices the way they do. I worried that the participants would get frustrated or offended because, well, let’s be honest, no one likes being told that what he/she does is wrong or, on the other side, extreme. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Most of the participants became a bit more educated on different aspects of Judaism and left a bit more open minded. There were even requests for a follow-up event to gain more perspectives and talk about even more heated topics. Success!

So what’s next for me? I will be participating in much more discussion about Jewish thought and identity that seems to be erupting in our community right now. As a newly initiated Moishe House Without Walls host, I want to create more educational events like my capstone project. So keep an eye out for them, DC!

Most importantly, being an Open Doors Fellow, I learned to be that “awkward person” who talks to everyone without being awkward. I’ll sit next to a stranger at a bar and introduce myself, I’ll ask the person in line behind me in Starbucks what song they’re listening to on their iPhone, and I’ll run up to a person on the street wearing a kippah to invite them to an event I’m planning. Nine times out of 10, that encounter will turn into a new friend, a coffee date, or just a great conversation. That one time can turn into, well, a really awkward metro ride…

It may sound small, but I’ve developed a worthy skill that I will carry with me the rest of my life. Put me in front of my friends and family and I’ll be flustered. But put me in a room filled with random Jewish strangers, and I’ll never feel more comfortable.


Learn More about Applying to be a 2015 Open Doors Fellow HERE!