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Henrietta is no stranger to chatting with, well, strangers! Coming to the DMV in August 2023 for a law program at Georgetown, she’s spent the past few months exploring all that Jewish life in the DMV has to offer. We meet at Seylou Bakery just before Hanukkah begins to chat about what makes Jewish DMV life so welcoming, the process of exploring and building a new community, and where she’s getting breakfast to start her perfect day!
Samuel: Thank you for joining me, Henrietta. First thing’s first: what brought you to the DMV?
Henrietta: I have been practicing law back home in Stockholm, Sweden for a few years, working for a public interest law firm doing human rights litigation. I had this feeling – which the pandemic exacerbated – that I wanted to live abroad again, change things up, and have an injection of new experiences. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, got that, then applied to a few different law schools for a specialized Master’s degree. Once I got my acceptance letters, Georgetown seemed like a really exciting option. [DC] is the center of everything in a way, in terms of politics and law.
Samuel: What does your ideal day in the DMV look like?
Henrietta: I’m a morning person, so I’d wake up quite early and go out for breakfast. There’s one place called Nina May that I really like. I’d go to the DuPont Farmers Market. I love walking around, even if I don’t buy anything. I love to browse at Kramer’s or Second Story Books. Then, I’d work out, rest, and maybe Facetime someone from back home before getting dinner and playing board games with friends and classmates.
Samuel: You’ve been here since August. What’s your experience been with Jewish community in the DMV?
Henrietta: It’s been really welcoming. Anytime I travel, or when I lived in Canada, I always seek out Jewish community very quickly. It’s such an easy way for me to feel at home in a place, even when I don’t know anyone. Because DC has people coming from all over the USA and world, I think it’s a pretty easy place to be a new person. I’d been here for maybe three weeks when I went to Sixth & I for Shabbat services and dinner. I didn’t know a single person, came by myself, and I was like: oh, I guess I’ll just start talking to people and see what happens! Which is a scary thing to do. But instantly, it was so easy to talk to people. It made me feel like I could do this; if these are the people who are here, it’s not going to be hard to get to know people and strike up conversation.
That’s not just true for Sixth & I, though. I’ve felt the same at other places I go. People are very welcoming. They’re used to people being new, or they have been new here at some point and know what it feels like.
Samuel: How do you feel like your Jewish practice has changed here, compared to being in Stockholm?
Henrietta: One big difference is that there are so many more options here. There are more Jews here; it makes sense! In Stockholm, there are three synagogues, so you just go to the one you’re most comfortable with. You don’t have many to choose from, whereas here there are so many denominations and mixes of things. That’s been really exciting to explore. There’s a lot more variety in the ways people express their Judaism here. I’ve gone to Sixth & I, DC Minyan, and Adas Israel. I joined a Shabbat Cluster at the EDCJCC. People are very open about exploring different things here. It’s not judgy…not that it would be in Stockholm, either! But there’s not as much exploring, because there is not as much to explore.
It’s really exciting to be new and trying everything out. It’s a positive that there are so many ways to be Jewish here, and they’re all encouraged, regardless of what you choose.
Samuel: How have you approached that exploration? It’s a leap of faith, to commit to constantly trying new things and enter unfamiliar spaces.
Henrietta: It is scary! But one of the main reasons that I came here was wanting to meet new people. Pretty much everyone in my program has come from outside the United States, so everyone is “new.” It’s very cool that there are people from 70 different countries [in the program] to get to know and exchange experiences with. For me, it was also important to find something outside of campus, outside my program. I live on campus, I have class on campus. It would be easy to stay in that bubble, but I wanted to see something different and meet different people who do different things. If I’m going to be in the United States for a year, I should get to know some Americans, and the Jewish community is an easy route to use to do that, at least for me. So that [exploration] has been purposeful for me, since the beginning.
Samuel: What’s resonating for you right now, Jewishly?
Henrietta: It’s always been something of a lifestyle thing for me. I try to follow some of the kosher rules, so those are very concrete things that come up in my everyday life. It’s one of the easiest things I can do to express Judaism on an everyday basis. I don’t have the opportunity to go to synagogue every day. But, whether I’m with people or it’s just me, it’s something I can do.
I [also] love the community aspect of Judaism; that’s what makes Judaism so fun. The Jewish relationships I have are very significant in my life. I have a group of friends I’ve known basically my whole life; we went to Jewish Day School together, our parents know each other…whenever I’m with them, talking to them, even if we’re not talking about Jewish things, there’s a level of understanding. There are things you don’t have to explain.
Especially this Fall, with everything that’s been going on, it’s so nice to have that community. I’ve found myself seeking out Jewish community here, maybe more than I would have otherwise, because I’ve felt a need to just be with other Jewish people who are having a hard time and want to be together. I don’t have my family here. I don’t have my group of friends here. So, the only thing I can do if I want to seek out Jewish community is to go to those places where I don’t know anyone, and try to make something happen.
Samuel: Where else do you feel the fun of Judaism?
Henrietta: I love the holidays in general. They’re so fun. Obviously, being here, I have to find new ways of doing them. If I were in Stockholm, I know exactly what I’d be doing. A lot of the holidays are so joyous, so that’s always a nice time to have a meal and be together.
Samuel: Okay, a few more to close. What are you feeling proud about right now?
Henrietta: I’m feeling proud that I ventured out and made it to DC. It’s been one and a half years of preparation to come here – the Fulbright application, the visa, the university application, all that.
Samuel: Lots of paperwork.
Henrietta: So I’m very proud that I had the stamina to see that through and stay focused, remembering that it would be worth it once I got here.
Samuel: Alright, the flip side of that question: what is something you’re bad at?
Henrietta: I’m very bad at getting to things that need to be done, but aren’t urgent. Like, I had a plane ticket to reschedule for the last two months. I kept postponing it – there are more fun things to do. But then I just did it two days ago, and…it was like the easiest thing. I could have done it much sooner.
Samuel: You can invite three people to Shabbat dinner. Who would they be?
Henrietta: I would have my grandmother; she’s just a great time. She’s very good in any group of people, so regardless of who the other people are, we’re going to have a good time. She would bring challah, and it would be great. I would have Miriam, one of the friends I’ve known my whole life. She knows all the Jewish songs, so she would lead us through the dinner. And then, who else? Probably my brother. Now it’s just friends and family. But he lives in a different city, and I don’t get to see him all that much. The four of us…that would be nice.
Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence. When Jews of the DMV gather…
Henrietta: It’s a good time!
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