I expected to write these blogs this summer about all my simultaneously grounding and groundbreaking experiences connecting with the Jewish community in the Netherlands and other communities I visited. I would quote the “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” jingle, and I would share my delight in seeing so many of my traditions practiced in familiar yet unique ways so far from home. It wouldn’t be a particularly unique concept, but it would be meaningful and mine, and, if I did a good job, others would value reading it, as well.
My actual experiences holding my Jewish identity this summer turned out differently.
I have found great beauty in aspiring to fill my life with a mindful Jewish practice. Filtering my experiences through Jewish customs allows me to bring gratitude and intention to each moment. Especially this past year, where I experienced a big loss and was moving through a lot of grief, these practices gave me the courage to get up every morning and take each day one at a time. They also grounded me in a beautiful community of friends and teachers who love me and held me up.
And then I left for the summer, taking off to the Netherlands, a country in which I had exactly one friend. And where I had expected to focus my time outside work tapping into the Jewish community and continuing on my journey towards a committed and present Jewish practice, I instead found myself much more excited about discovering newness. I loved connecting with people from all kinds of backgrounds, sometimes sharing what makes us different but mostly simply enjoying experiences we created together. I delighted in trying on new ways of being, from switching up my routines to joining someone on an adventure that stretched my comfort zone. I filled my summer with these moments – spending an afternoon lounging by Lake Geneva with a physiotherapy student from a small farming village in Northern Sweden, watching the sun set over the Black Sea with a French dancer, climbing at the gym with an Ecuadorian diplomat.
I still had several meaningful experiences connecting with different Jewish communities in Amsterdam, The Hague, Geneva, Oslo, Munich, and Berlin. However, here too I valued attending these Shabbat services not for the slices of home they represented but for how the differences deepened my understanding of what it means to be one of the 14.5 million Jews sprinkled across the globe. Even my small handful of uncomfortable encounters resulting from sharing my Jewish identity – from people expressing surprise that I’m Jewish because I don’t look Jewish to a security guard asking my friend to take off his kippah. – gave me further insight into the unique realities of being Jewish today in Europe.
I’m writing this from the flight back home. I return to Cambridge feeling more happy and fulfilled than I have in a long time, both personally and professionally. Stepping out of my normal contexts and away from my comforts pushed me, allowed me, to see the world and my place in it with fresh eyes, and it turns out that was exactly what I needed. I am excited now to rejoin my friends and my Jewish community, to continue the grand adventure.
Carrie Watkins is pursuing her Master’s degree in City Planning. This summer, she is cross-pollinating ideas between two mediation organizations in the Netherlands, mapping their processes and facilitating the sharing of best practices.