I Was Just Finding My Place in the Jewish Community. Then Came the Pandemic.

Since isolation interrupted my conversion process, I’ve found comfort in the small things that make me feel Jewish even when I'm alone.

My road to conversion started when I was in middle school. My teacher was teaching us about religion, and as she got into Judaism, I thought, “Why aren’t I Jewish? Shouldn’t I be?” I don’t know how to describe it; it was just a gut feeling.

I began to secretly devour Jewish literature, cinema, and history. The more I learned about the religion and culture, the more I sensed that I was learning about myself. Growing up in an affluent, predominantly white, secular Protestant part of Stockholm, I didn’t have anyone outside of my family to speak to about my sudden identity crisis. Being raised Muslim, it was out of the question to talk to my parents. And anyway, I was too young to even understand or put into words what I was feeling. I felt odd. And alone.

In my 20s, I found myself in the middle of the young Jewish community in Stockholm, with several of my best friends being secular but cultural Jews. I quickly became an “honorary Jew,” accepted and expected to attend Jewish parties and gatherings thrown by the Jewish youth coalition. The same thought that I had through middle school and high school started floating around my head once more. Being surrounded by Jewish traditions and culture felt like home.

After two years of living near the young Jewish community, I was sure that I wasn’t just interested in Jewish culture and religion — I wanted to be a part of it. But I was terrified of telling my Jewish friends that I wanted to convert, and of what the reactions would be as the news spread throughout the community. I had already experienced how hard it was to break into the circle. These were people who had all grown up together from, basically, infancy.

On top of that, in my experience, young Jews in Stockholm tend to lean secular while at the same time being fiercely cultural. In contrast to my secular friends, I felt a deep sense of connection to modern religious aspects of Judaism. After considering myself to be a secular Muslim for most of my life, when diving into the Jewish religion, I actually started to believe in God. Just as when I was a kid, it was a deep feeling of truth that I, at the time, couldn’t explain. It just felt right. But would anyone understand? Or would people think I wanted to convert just for the sake of a place in the community?

After two years of reflection, I confessed to a group of my Jewish friends. Their response was anticlimactic. Unsurprised, they said that to them I was already Jewish, just not on paper. As I had suspected, the news spread like wildfire. People started coming up to me and excitedly asking if I was the girl who was converting. They begged me to come work at the Jewish summer camp over the next summer, invited me to Shabbat dinners, and assured me that I could come to them if I ever had any questions. Everyone seemed thrilled that I had decided to convert, even people I had never met before. I got invited to parties outside of the youth coalition, and I had new friends to attend synagogue with during the High Holidays.

I truly felt like I was finally being fully accepted as one of them. I felt the 12-year-old me, who had yearned for this community for so long, beaming from within.

Fast forward to March 2020. As the pandemic entered our lives, Judaism seemingly exited mine. Synagogues closed down, conversion classes were put on hold, and the government introduced a ban on public gatherings with over 50 attendees. The parties and events thrown by the youth coalition abruptly stopped. The wildly popular Stockholm Moishe House stopped hosting their big, weekly Shabbat dinners and get-togethers. Most of my close, Jewish friends moved back to their hometowns for the spring, escaping the coronavirus hotbed that Stockholm had become.

As the pandemic raged on, I started to feel more and more alone in my Jewish life. I had slipped apart from most of the Jewish community during isolation. It felt like my years of hard work trying to break into the community had been for nothing. I had taken it all for granted.

My Jewish identity started to shake. From the very beginning of my conversion, my Judaism was singing psalms in shul, zemirot on Friday night, and hanging out with my friends in any Jewish context. As I started reflecting on my identity as a converting Jew, I felt ashamed. Was my identity so shallow that I couldn’t feel Jewish on my own? Did I have to rely on social gatherings and surrounding myself with Jewish friends and acquaintances?

But the more I thought about it, I realized that community and the physical spaces we share have always been an integral part of religious life, and especially, Jewish life. It is so intertwined that, when telling non-Jewish people that I’m converting, they all say the same thing: “I can understand why. Their sense of community is amazing.”

One of the things that is so extraordinary about Judaism is the strong sense of belonging, which often exceeds belief. You do not strictly belong to a religion; you belong to the Jewish people, Am Yisrael. And people express belonging by gathering. Shabbat and festivals like Hanukkah, Passover, and Sukkot are meant to be spent with friends and family. The synagogue is not only a place for worship but a place for connecting, celebrating, and helping those in need in the community. Even to recite certain public prayers, you need to have a group of 10 or more Jewish adults — only then is there sufficient sanctity to recite them.

When so much of Jewish life is connected to the feeling of community, it’s no wonder that I felt disconnected from my own once the pandemic struck. Like many converts, I do not have a Jewish family. I don’t have a Jewish partner. I didn’t grow up anywhere near the Jewish community in Stockholm. When Jewish practice and religion in many ways depend on gathering, it’s only natural that I, as someone who is in the middle of converting, base my Jewish identity on the social settings and physical spaces outside of the home.

At the same time, I feel grateful for realizing how much I’ve taken those spaces for granted. It’s forced me to look inwards and reflect on other parts of my Jewish identity. I’ve found comfort in the small things, like wearing my Magen David necklace, reciting the Modeh Ani when I wake up, and studying the Torah. Watching Transparent and Schitt’s Creek and being in on the jokes. Making challah and getting really annoyed when it just won’t braid right.

Sure, I still feel lonely at times. But it’s comforting to know that we are all pretty lonely right now, fighting for the same cause. Gathering may be essential to Jewish life, but by not gathering as virus cases surge, we’re all contributing to another core Jewish belief — tikkun olam. I believe that 12-year-old Soraya, who just wanted to be around people like her, would be proud to do her part.

Soraya Bay

Soraya Bay (she/her) is a PR consultant and journalist from Stockholm, Sweden. When she isn't binging costume dramas and Love Island UK, she enjoys pretentious literature, getting lost in jigsaw puzzles, and matchmaking her single friends.

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